What a Candidate!

Following his victory in the Chess World Cup, nobody is going to take Sergey Karjakin lightly at the Candidates tournament next year.

Karjakin... in the big league   -  Sportstar

On the morning of October 1, at his hotel in Baku, Azerbaijan, shortly before he took on fellow-Russian Peter Svidler in the first game of the Chess World Cup final, Sergey Karjakin was wished luck by a waiter. He was surprised to learn that the waiter was a chess player himself, with a decent rating of 2221.

Karjakin, himself, had surprised quite a few to reach the final of the 128-player, knock-out tournament. There were several men ranked ahead of him in Baku, including Hikaru Nakamura, Veselin Topalov, Fabiano Caruana, Anish Giri and Levon Aronian, all placed above him in world ranking.

But, none of those big names, barring Giri, could even reach the semifinals. The knock-out format in chess — a sport where most major tournaments are played on a league basis — is such, where reputation rarely matters, but what does is, nerves.

Karjakin showed he had plenty of that during the four-week long tournament in Baku. He had opened with a comfortable victory over Ernes Veloz of Cuba and survived many anxious moments before he set up the title clash with the cricket-loving Svidler.

The final went the full distance. The scores were level the end of the four classical games, as they were after the rapid games, too. Karjakin won both the blitz games to win the World Cup as well as $120,000.

Shortly after the match — Karjakin won 6-4 — he said it was probably the best result of his career. “Anything could have happened in the final,” he said. “Now I am looking forward to the Candidates tournament.”

He qualified for the Candidates, to be held next March, by reaching the World Cup final. It is the winner of that event who will become eligible to challenge Magnus Carlsen for the next World championship. Viswanathan Anand, Nakamura and Caruana, besides Svidler, of course, have already qualified for the eight-player Candidates tournament.

The victory in Baku would certainly make Karjakin more confident in the Candidates. He had done well in last year’s Candidates; he had finished runner-up to Anand, who had surprised everyone by winning the tournament quite comfortably, ahead of his much younger rivals.

Like Anand, Karjakin was a prodigy. The Ukraine-born player still retains the record for becoming the world’s youngest Grandmaster; he had achieved the feat when he was just 12. He had also made news when he was chosen as an official second — a kind of sparring partner — by Ruslan Ponomariov for his successful campaign in the 2002 World championship; 12-year-olds, normally, are not picked for such roles.

Karjakin has not yet fulfilled the potential he showed as a boy, though, notwithstanding the World rapid championship he won in 2012, beating Carlsen, another prodigy, who had risen on the chess horizon around the same time, in the final. While the Norwegian has achieved even bigger success than what was expected of him, Karjakin has belied the expectations of many.

Back in 2005, when he was involved in a major road accident while travelling in former World championship challenger Nigel Short’s car, the Englishman had written in a newspaper column that he had almost changed the path of chess history by allowing the future World champion to be killed, while in his care.

Short could argue that he was right, after all, as Karjakin went on to win the World rapid championship, but the crown that really matters in world chess is the one for the classical format.

He may be a long way from that, but nobody is going to take him lightly at the Candidates tournament next year.