Can Russia regain its place at the top of world chess?

Chess players Magnus Carlsen (L) of Norway, the reigning world chess champion, and Sergey Karjakin of Russia contemplate their moves during round 1 of the World Chess Championship in New York. The players will face off in 12 games between today and Nov. 30 2016.

Chess players Magnus Carlsen (L) of Norway, the reigning world chess champion, and Sergey Karjakin of Russia contemplate their moves during round 1 of the World Chess Championship in New York. The players will face off in 12 games between today and Nov. 30 2016.

EPA
Twenty-six-year-old Sergey Karjakin may become Russia’s first world chess champion since 2007. Yet, in the match for the world chess crown that kicked off on Nov. 11, the Russian grandmaster has so far been viewed by most as an underdog.

For the first time in nearly 10 years, Russia has a chance to reclaim its world supremacy in chess. Since Vladimir Kramnik ceded the world champion title to India’s Viswanathan Anand in 2008, FIDE championship finals have not featured any Russian players.

This year, this unfortunate trend was broken by 26-year-old grandmaster Sergey Karjakin. In March, he unexpectedly won the Candidates Tournament. At the time, he was only No. 13 in the world ranking.

Karjakin is now taking on Norway’s prodigy Magnus Carlsen in a World Chess Championship match that started in New York on Nov. 11 and will continue until the end of the month. Carlsen, who has held the title since 2013, is the bookies’ favorite.

The first two games in the series ended in a draw.

Era of Russian champions

Karjakin is seen by many as a successor to the great traditions of the famous Soviet chess school, which began with the 1927 world championship that went to Alexander Alekhine (although he had emigrated from Russia after the revolution and won all his titles as a French national).

Alekhine ceded the chess crown to the Netherlands’ Max Euwe for two years, but later reclaimed it and remained the reigning champion till his death in 1946. After that the chess crown for many years belonged to Mikhail Botvinnik (1948-1957, 1958-1960, 1961-1963).

From that moment on and till 2007, all chess world champions – with the exception of the United States’ Bobby Fischer (1972-1975) – represented either the USSR or Russia. Mikhail Tal, Tigran Petrosian, Boris Spassky, Anatoly Karpov, Garry Kasparov – the Soviet conveyor produced new chess kings without fail. The last in that line was Vladimir Kramnik, who held the world title between 2000 and 2007.

Karjakin-Carlsen 2.0?

Will Karjakin manage to secure a place for himself in that great pantheon? It is hard to say yet. One thing is clear: Sergey Karjakin, just like Magnus Carlsen, could be described as a prodigy. He became the world’s youngest grandmaster at 12, entering the book of Guinness World Records.

Karjakin was born in Crimea and until 2009 represented Ukraine, when he decided to play under the Russian flag. He was granted Russian citizenship on July 25, 2009. He explained his decision by the lack of prospects in his home region, adding that he had always considered himself to be Russian.

Karjakin quickly made himself noticed beyond junior-level competitions too: He won Chess Olympiads, the FIDE World Cup and the World Rapid Chess Championship. That said, his progress does not look as dizzying as that of Carlsen, who – also having been born in 1990 – became world champion at the age of 23.

Nevertheless, his supporters in Russia are pinning a lot of hopes on Karjakin. For example, the 1975-1985 world champion, Anatoly Karpov, told RBTH that irrespective of the outcome of the current match, Karjakin will be part of the chess elite for a long time to come.

Carlsen is favorite but Karjakin has a chance

In the New York match, Karjakin does not have much of a chance, at least from a statistical point of view. Carlsen and Karjakin have earlier met in 21 classic time-control games, of which the Norwegian won four and lost only one.

Nevertheless, the competition is expected to be very fierce, says Soviet grandmaster Yevgeny Vasyukov, who took part in world championship matches as a coach and a second.

“The maxim ‘came, saw, conquered’ does not apply here. Matches like these may have a multitude of nuances that it is hard to foresee in advance. I think Karjakin’s team have also thought of which problems to set and how to seize opportunities,” Vasyukov told RBTH.

“Carlsen has achieved outstanding results in recent years. Some make their careers faster, some slower, but the latter gain no worse results [in the end],” he said.

No room for risk in New York

Anatoly Karpov says that in the current match a lot will depend on the condition in which the two rivals reach the tournament.

“There are no tests that can measure the form a chess player is in. When I was playing, I needed to get down to the chess board to understand how my head was working on the day. I know that Karjakin has been preparing for a long time and I hope he has been preparing well,” he said.

The grandmaster explains that in a match of 12 games the competitors will have practically no chance to test unconventional moves.

“When I was competing for the title of world champion, we had 24 games. This may seem too long by today’s standards,” said Karpov.

“Although, of course, that was a real match, in some respects exhausting, but there was an opportunity to take risks and to catch up. Whereas in a short match, there is no scope for that: You need to give a very solid performance in order not to lose.”

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