Most eleven year olds would have been taking their elementary steps into the world of algebra to build their calculative powers needed to solve combinatorial situations. But then again, Sergey Karjakin was not just another eleven year old. The Ukrainian-born prodigy was busy getting the title of International Master aged just eleven as he dished out moves with calculations that amazed even the best grandmasters. One such grandmaster, Russian Ruslan Ponamariov chose a twelve year old Karjakin in his team of seconds for the world championship. The shy kid strutting about the hotel in the world championship attracted quite a lot of attention…the chess world was being warned of a super grandmaster in the making. His list of achievements turned even more incredible as the prodigy completed his GM norms aged twelve years and seven months to become the youngest ever Grandmaster in history. He does indeed match the prodigious levels of Lionel Messi (who he resembles in looks) and his is a tale that needs quite some telling.
Karjakin beat the then world champion Vladimir Kramnik aged just fourteen breaking down the famed Berlin wall of Kramnik. Earlier, the great Garry Kasparov had been unable to beat Kramnik’s Berlin defence in their world championship encounter and here was a fourteen year old who was doing it with ease. And so, when Karjakin gatecrashed the world’s top 100 as a 16 year old, it was just shrugged off as an expected event . Due to his incredible early success, Karjakin’s achievements (which are similar to the much hailed world champion GM Magnus Carlsen) are perhaps a bit under-rated.
As far as Karjakin the chess player goes, he is an incredible tactical genius over the board. He switched federations from Ukraine to Russia to take his game to the next level and learned from the famed Soviet schools of chess and his theoretical knowledge runs very deep. Karjakin favours solid positions which are well known and relies on a lot of “principled” play. This means moving with respect to old school principles. For example in a dry middle game with no apparent attack, you just do simple things like putting knights on good central squares, bishops in open diagonals and so on to seek out an advantage.
An other thing that Karjakin is good at is his defense by building fortresses in endgames. Karjakin links his pieces very well in defense and it is very hard to break through in an endgame against Karjakin. Carlsen, perhaps the best ever in converting dry endgames to wins, seldom beats Karjakin due to this very fact. Often, their games are quick theoretical draws and Carlsen is wary of the threat that Karjakin’s rock solid defence and theoretical powers posses.
In terms of tournament play, Karjakin is a slow creeper. He is the guy who starts off the tournament very quietly with several draws and the odd win. The tournament leader usually focuses on other second placed challengers only to find Karjakin suddenly breathing down his neck in the last round. This happened in the last Candidates Tournament when Anand was the leader and was focusing on the results of Aronian only to find that he had a game against Karjakin in the last round and if the Russian could manage a win, he would be the one facing Carlsen. This resulted in a tense game where Karjakin could not break through a resilient Anand and a draw saw the Indian set up a rematch with Carlsen. In Norway Chess 2014, Carlsen was leading for majority of the tournament while Karjakin ‘did a job’ on him in the final two rounds and pipped the World Champion to win the super tournament. This particular aspect of Karjakin, a quiet guy who saves his best to the end, is what makes him such a dangerous player.
However, the past year hasn’t been too kind to Karjakin. His ELO rating has plateued and is now ‘just’ 2759. He is ranked 12th in the world and while that is no mean feat, his talent matches that of Carlsen and it almost feels like he is wasting his potential. Lately, his play has been rather dry and lacking in innovation and tournament results haven’t been quite encouraging. His FIDE grand prix performances are typical Karjakin – mid-table after two laps. He might just have an amazing last lap and finish the winner but his form has been rather poor. While he may not be the name on everyone’s lips like Carlsen, as iconic as Anand or as controversial as Topalov, Karjakin and his quiet brand of chess is a threat to be looked out for. If asked for his toughest opponents, Carlsen would surely rank Karjakin in the top 3 as the Russian’s endgame stamina is better than even Carlsen’s.
Lest we forget, he may not be the best in the world as he was expected to be but GM Sergey Karjakin is still lurking in the shadows…waiting to land the punch that everyone wants to – the punch to bring Magnus Carlsen crashing back to earth.