Sergey Karjakin will be playing for the World Championship next month. Part I of a series on his life looks back on his humble origins and how he first attracted the world’s attention.
This is Part I of a series on Sergey Karjakin’s life leading up to the World Championship in New York in two weeks.
There are many stories about how some of chess’s greatest prodigies were discovered.
Paul Morphy, the American champion of the 19th century, who grew up in New Orleans, learned to play by watching his father and uncle. When he was 12 years old, he defeated Johann Löwenthal, a strong Hungarian master, in a three-game match.
Samuel Reshevsky, who was born near Lodz, Poland, learned to play at age four and by age eight he was giving simultaneous exhibitions across Europe and beating strong players with ease.
And then there is the legend of José Raúl Capablanca, the suave Cuban who would become the third World Champion. Capablanca learned by watching his father play and, at age four, corrected a mistake in one of his father’s games. By the time he was 12, he was good enough to beat Cuba’s national champion, Juan Corzo, in a match.
So how did Sergey Karjakin, the youngest player ever to become a chess grandmaster, learn about the game? By watching TV one day when he was five-and-a-half years old.
“There was a small movie and it was something about a pawn that promotes to a queen,” Karjakin said in an interview. “And I asked my father, ‘What is a pawn? What is a queen?’ He explained to me that there is this game called chess and we started to play.”
Karjakin playing blindfold against his father after Karjakin had become a grandmaster.
Such small seeds sometimes bear great fruit. A bit more than two decades later, Karjakin will play for the World Championship when he faces Magnus Carlsen, the titleholder, in a match in New York City. The match, which will be held in the Fulton Market building in the South Street Seaport in New York City, begins Nov. 11.
That Karjakin has come so far is not entirely surprising. From that very first day, he recalled, he fell in love with the game.
“I liked it so much that I could have played many hours every day and when you are five or six, normally it is very difficult for a child to play several hours,” said Karjakin.
Karjakin was born on Jan. 12, 1990, in Simferopol, a city of more than 300,000 people on the Crimean Peninsula. According to Karjakin, though the territory was part of Ukraine, about 90 percent of the population was Russian, so he never learned to speak Ukrainian.
(In March 2014, a referendum was held in Crimea in which the residents voted to leave Ukraine and join Russia. The referendum was widely denounced by the international community and has not been recognized because, at the time, Russian troops had occupied Crimea without the consent of Ukraine’s government. Subsequently, however, the Russian government declared Crimea to be part of Russia.)
Growing up, Karjakin was an only child. (He now has a brother, but his brother is 17 years younger than him.) Karjakin’s father was a cook and he and Karjakin’s mother sold some things on the side. They lived in a three-room apartment with the parents of Karjakin’s father. It was quite cramped. “We were basically poor,” Karjakin said.
Though Karjakin’s father liked chess, he was not very good and he soon took his son to the local club. Karjakin said that he was not yet six when he began playing there. With his love for the game and a natural aptitude for it, it was not long before he was noticed and his talent was nurtured. He had a succession of coaches and he began to study it all the time.
“When I was seven or eight, at that age, I could easily work more than six hours a day,” Karjakin said.
Karjakin developed steadily and when he was nine, he won the Ukrainian Championship for players under 10 and the European Championship for the same age group.
Despite his successes, Karjakin’s opportunities to improve in Simferopol were limited, partly because of his family’s financial circumstances and partly because he and his family received no outside assistance. But his talent had been noticed and he received an invitation to study at a school in the Donetsk region of eastern Ukraine founded by a businessman named Alexander Momot.
The family would have to uproot and move. Karjakin said, “It was a very difficult decision to leave everything we had in Simferopol and to go to some unknown place.”
It turned out to be a good decision. The school had experienced masters who had been trained under the Soviet system and Karjakin said they really helped him. In particular, they taught him how to play endgames, which is usually the most difficult phase of the game for young players to understand.
Ruslan Ponomariov, left, and Karjakin, in an undated photograph.
It was during his time at the school that Karjakin met Ruslan Ponomariov. It would turn out to be an important meeting in building Karjakin’s reputation in the chess world.
Ponomariov was seven years older than Karjakin and was also a great prodigy. In 1997, when he was 14, he had become a grandmaster, at that time the youngest ever. Despite their age difference, Ponomariov and Karjakin became friends.
In November 2001, Ponomariov, now age 18, played in the knockout World Championship in Moscow that had been organized by the World Chess Federation, also known as FIDE. (The title was split at the time between FIDE, the game’s governing body, and Vladimir Kramnik, who had beaten Garry Kasparov, the last undisputed champion, in a match in 2000.) Ponomariov was ranked No. 19 at the start of the tournament, but he made it through to the final, where he would face a compatriot, Vassily Ivanchuk, the No. 4 seed.
Before the final, there was a break of a month and Ponomariov went back to Donetsk. One night, Ponomariov and Dmitri Komarov, a Ukrainian grandmaster with whom Ponomariov had worked, went to a local club to play. Karjakin was there and he and Komarov started playing blitz chess. “Somehow, I completely crushed him,” said Karjakin. “And he said, ‘Ruslan, you should take Sergey, not me, to help you.’ And Ruslan said, ‘Ok, I will take him.’”
It worked out well for both of them. Ponomariov beat Ivanchuk in the final to become the youngest World Champion in history, gaining notoriety.
As exceptional as that accomplishment was, many in the chess world were stunned to learn that a 12-year-old had been the one to help him prepare. Karjakin was pegged as someone to watch and that was confirmed over the next several months as he earned three grandmaster norms to become at 12 years, 7 months, the youngest grandmaster in history.
Karjakin had become a star on the world chess stage.
Dylan Loeb McClain is a journalist with more than 25 years of experience. He was a staff editor for The New York Times for 18 years and wrote the paper’s chess column from 2006 to 2014. He is now editor-in-chief of WorldChess.com.
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