Sergey Karjakin will play Magnus Carlsen for the World Championship this November, and, if he wins, chess fans will remember his best games from that match and from the Candidates tournament –notably his victory in the last round over Fabiano Caruana. Those successes will go down in history, but there are some earlier games that were also important in his march to the championship.
To even reach the Candidates tournament, Karjakin had to reach the finals of the World Cup. (He did more than that, he won an unbelievable final match against Peter Svidler.) To get to the final, he had to cross a harrowing road. Twice – against Pavel Eljanov of Ukraine in the semi-finals and against Alexander Onischuk of the United States in the second round – he was on the verge of elimination. In both cases he lost the first game of a two-game mini-match and needed to win to stay alive.
Karjakin’s resilience reminded me of Alexander Khalifman’s performance in the 1999 FIDE World Championship tournament in Las Vegas. All the world’s strongest players, with the exception of Garry Kasparov (who held a competing world championship title) and Viswanathan Anand (who was rumored to be Kasparov’s challenger for the other title) participated.
Khalifman was a very strong Russian grandmaster who had not lived up to his considerable talent, and by that point he was starting to transition from being an active player to a trainer and writer. Despite being only the 32nd seed, he won the tournament, defeating Dibyendu Barua of India; Gata Kamsky of the United States; Karen Asrian of Armenia; Boris Gelfand of Israel; Judit Polgar of Hungary; Liviu-Dieter Nisipeanu of Romania; and Vladimir Akopian of Armenia.
The format was similar to that of the World Cup won by Karjakin, with the first five rounds consisting of two-game mini-matches (with rapid and blitz playoffs as needed). In each of the first two rounds, Khalifman lost the first game. Indeed, against Barua, Khalifman was in constant trouble, only getting through in six games. In all, Khalifman lost five games over the course of the event, but in every case but one, he came back to win the very next game. (In the sixth case, he drew Game 5 against Barua after the latter had tied the match in Game 4 to force a new set of tiebreak games. Khalifman then won Game 6.)
It was a remarkable performance by Khalifman, whose rating soon shot up to 2700 – which at that time was even more of a sign of elite status. Khalifman’s ability to fight back was exceptional, just as it is with Karjakin, and that ability has two benefits. First, there’s the concrete value on the score table in the form of the extra half and full points the player accrues. There’s also the benefit that comes from believing in one’s self: confident players are more likely to play better, which reinforces their confidence, which makes them play better, etc. In Khalifman’s case, there was likely a third benefit: the extra games helped him play himself into form and made him psychologically stronger when it was time to face the top seeds. (By contrast, there are the examples of Veselin Topalov in the championship played in Libya in 2004, or Eljanov in last year’s World Cup. Both started with incredible winning streaks, but lost their first tough match.)
Khalifman’s first game against Barua illustrates how out of shape he was, whereas several rounds later he had impressive victories over Polgar and Gelfand.
Karjakin’s resilency may not be enough to beat Carlsen this fall, but he’ll definitely need it if he has any chance to succeed.
Dennis Monokroussos is a FIDE master who has written about chess on his blog “The Chess Mind,” since 2005. He has been teaching chess for almost 20 years and for the last 10 years has been making instructional chess videos, which can be found at ChessLecture.com. Between 1995 and 2006, he taught philosophy, including a four-year stint at the University of Notre Dame.
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