General May 26, 2020 | 10:12 AMby FM Andrey Terekhov

Sergey Karjakin: The Ultimate Prodigy

In 2002 Sergey Karjakin became a grandmaster at the age of 12 years and 7 months, a record that has never been beaten despite an explosion of young prodigies in recent years. In 2016 he took the lead with four games of the New York World Championship match against Magnus Carlsen to go, but eventually lost out in rapid tiebreaks, a blow he has perhaps yet fully to recover from. FM Andrey Terekhov profiles Karjakin, who played in last year's Lindores Abbey Chess Stars, in the 8th installment of the #HeritageChess campaign, supported by the Lindores Abbey Preservation Society.

Early Life and Career

Sergey Karjakin was born on 12 January 1990 in Simferopol, a city on the Crimean Peninsula.

For some unknown reason, 1990 was a great birth year for chess. Magnus Carlsen was born in Norway, Sergey Karjakin in Ukraine, Ian Nepomniachtchi in Russia, Maxim Vachier-Lagrave in France, David Howell in England, and so on. These incredibly talented players started to battle each other in junior World Championships from the age of only 10. It was not easy to stand out among this crowd, and yet that is exactly what Karjakin did.

Karjakin was the ultimate prodigy. At an early age he joined a chess school in another Ukrainian city, Kramatorsk, which was already famous as a kind of “Star Academy” for young talents. In a 2009 interview for the Russian chess site Crestbook, Karjakin shared some memories of that period:

I studied a lot with coaches, and I was also helped by my parents. If not for their support, I would have never become a pro. I remember that when I was 7-8 years old, I studied with my father for six hours a day, and after that went to the chess club!

The next phase of my career was my move to Kramatorsk, which created all the conditions for my growth. You have to appreciate how difficult that step was, as no-one knew whether I would become any good at chess. However, my parents went for it.

By the way, if not for the death of the school’s founder, Mikhail Ponomariov, I am sure that the school would still exist today. The way it turned out, the school started to fall apart and so I left immediately after becoming a grandmaster.

With the coaching of GM Vladislav Borovikov, Karjakin made quick progress. In 1999 he won the European U-10 Championship, and in 2001 – the World U-12 Championship.

In January 2002, even before he turned 12 years old, Karjakin seconded another graduate of the Kramatorsk Chess Club, 18-year-old Ruslan Ponomariov, at the FIDE World Championship, helping Ruslan to achieve the best result of his career. Ponomariov sensationally won the FIDE World Championship title by defeating Vasyl Ivanchuk in the final of a giant knockout competition.

Sergey Karjakin helped Ruslan become the youngest ever (FIDE) World Chess Champion | photo: The A.V. Momot Chess Club

By the end of the same year, Karjakin had become the youngest grandmaster in the history of chess. His record of becoming a GM at the age of exactly 12 years and 7 months has not been broken to this day.

In 2004 Karjakin played in his first Chess Olympiad, representing Ukraine on the second reserve board. He won two gold medals – one for team victory and one for the best performance on his board (6½ out of 7).

In 2005 Karjakin won the “Young Stars of the World” tournament, the annual competition of junior players in Kirishi (Russia). It marked the end of his junior competitions. By the end of 2005 he had entered the world Top 50 and his “chess youth” was over. Karjakin played only in adult competitions from age 15 onwards.

Top Player

Karjakin played in the main tournament of Wijk aan Zee for the first time in 2006. Three years later, he won it by scoring 8 points out of 13 and finishing ahead of Aronian, Radjabov and Carlsen, among others.

Later that same year Karjakin changed his citizenship and his chess federation from Ukraine to Russia. A few years later, in an interview for the Russian site, Karjakin explained the reasons for the switch:

It was a very simple choice. I could not develop any further. There were no grandmasters in Crimea, I had to travel to other cities for training sessions, and then I was offered a move to Russia. I agreed immediately. Before the move I was one of a hundred grandmasters, but after that I made it to the Top 10 in two years, thanks to the wonderful coaches Yuri Dokhoyan and Alexander Motylev.

I can say that I’d lived my whole life in Crimea before that and always considered myself Russian.

Karjakin entered the Top 10 in late 2010. Since then his rating has remained above 2750 and he has never dropped out of the Top 20.

In the first half of the 2010s Karjakin won many tournaments and titles:

  • 2012 – World Rapid Championship (ahead of Carlsen and Topalov)
  • 2013 and 2014 – Norway Chess (both times ahead of Carlsen)
  • 2015 – World Cup (thanks to a dramatic comeback from 0:2 in the final match vs. Svidler)
  • 2016 – Candidates Tournament
  • 2016 – World Blitz Championship (ahead of Carlsen and Dubov)

The World Championship match

The highlight of Karjakin’s career is undoubtedly the 2016 World Championship match, in which the score was tied after 12 classical games and the fate of the title decided only in tiebreaks.

After 7 draws Karjakin won Game 8 and then almost won Game 9

In that match it seemed as if Karjakin did not try to defeat Carlsen as much as he made sure not to lose. Karjakin’s play recalled that of a football team that wants to ensure the safety of its own goal and bet on sudden counterattacks. It certainly unnerved Carlsen. Karjakin opened the score in the match and only needed to last a few games to win the title, but it was not to be. The last games were very tense and nervous, but Carlsen managed to equalize the score and retain the title by winning the last two games of the tiebreak.

To make a loose parallel with the past history of chess, in 2016 Karjakin played the same role as David Bronstein did in 1951 (of course, not in terms of the style, but in terms of the result). Neither of them has won a World Championship match, but they have proved that it can be done.

Thanks to performances like the one in the World Championship match, Karjakin earned the moniker “Minister of Defense”. His main strength is his stability. Depending on the requirements of the position, Karjakin can attack or he can defend, but most importantly, he never loses objectivity. His style might not be sparkling, but with his refined technique and tenacity Karjakin is notoriously hard to beat.

The Grinder

Sergey Karjakin’s chess style is based on solid positional foundations and great technique, often enabling him to convert a small edge into a full point. Add to that a carefully crafted opening repertoire, tactical vision, and tenacity in defense, and you get the recipe for staying at the top of world chess for the last decade.

Karjakin’s style might not be flashy but it is very efficient. The following game is a great illustration of how he can grind down even the strongest opponents (the abridged annotations are by Karjakin):

Karjakin – Nepomniachtchi
Russian Superfinal, Moscow 2010

22.Bg5!? hxg5 23.hxg5 Rd8

Better was 23...Bxg5 24.Nxg5 f6 25.Ne6 Kf7 26.Qxd6 Qxd6 27.Rxd6 Nc8 28.Nd8+ Ke7 29.Rd2, keeping winning chances.

24.gxf6 gxf6

Now Black's structure is in ruins!

25.Nh2 d5 26.Ng4 d4 27.Qg3 Ng6 28.Qf3 Kg7 29.Ne3 Ne7 30.Qg4+ Kf8 31.Qh4 Kg7 32.Rd3

Bringing a rook to the fight...


Defending the rook and preparing dxe3. The computer suggests 32...b4 after which the only way to keep the initiative is 33.Rd1!! bxc3 34.bxc3 and White is slightly better!

33.cxd4 exd4 34.Qg4+ Kf8 35.Qd1

The key position! Till here Ian was defending well, but here he probably made the decisive mistake!


Threatening to take the knight. Black misses my reply.

After the game we thought that Black should have played 35...Rd6 with the threat dxe3 Rxd6 e2!, but after the simple 36.Nf1 followed by Ng3 White keeps the pressure. The most precise move was 35...Qc5 and White is slightly better, but the position is playable.

36.Qh5! Rd6

Black is losing after 36...dxe3 37.Qh8+ Ng8 38.Qxg8+ Ke7 39.Rxd8 (but not 39.Qxd8+?? Qxd8 40.Rxd8 e2–+) 39...exf2+ 40.Kf1 Qxd8 41.Qxd8+ Kxd8 42.Kxf2 Kd7 43.Ke3 Kd6 44.Kd4 Kc6 45.b4 Kd6 46.g4 Kc6 47.e5+–

37.Qh8+ Kd7 38.Ng4

Now White's attack plays itself.

38...Qc6 39.e5

The most direct, but also strong was 39.Ra3.


The last chance was 39...Qc1+ 40.Kh2 fxe5 41.Qxe5 but here White wins a pawn with an attack.

40.Nxf6+ Ke6 41.Qh3+ Kxe5 42.Ng4+ Kd5

42...Ke6 43.Nh6+ Kd5 44.Qe3!+– would not leave Black chances to survive.


The last difficult move in the game! Now Black's king is under attack from all fronts! And there is no defense anymore.


43...Re6 44.Ne3++–

44.Qf3+ Qe4 45.Qxf7+ Qe6 46.Ne3+ Ke5 47.Ng4+

Everything wins, but a nicer finish was 47.Nc4+ bxc4 48.Re1+ Kd5 49.Qb7+ Kc5 50.b4+ cxb3 51.Rc1+ Qc4 52.Qc7+ Rc6 53.Rxc4+ Kxc4 54.Qxc6+ +–

47...Kd5 48.Qb7+ Kc4 49.Rc1+ and because of 49...Kb4 50.Qa7 Black resigned.

After the World Championship

Sergey Karjakin | photo: Niki Riga

In the years since the 2016 World Championship, Karjakin's results went down a notch. He was a regular guest in super-tournaments, but did not score major victories for the next two years.

The chess slump coincided with Karjakin’s entry into politics. In 2017 he became a member of the Civic Chamber of the Russian Federation, a consultative government body. In 2018 Karjakin served as a Trusted Representative of the Russian President Vladimir Putin during the election campaign. In April 2020 Putin nominated Karjakin for the new convocation of the Civic Chamber, meaning that Karjakin’s political career has been extended at least until 2023.

Starting from 2019, Karjakin’s chess results went up again. He won the Moscow “Armageddon” tournament, which was specially designed for a sports channel “Match TV”, and shared first place at the Bucharest Superbet Rapid & Blitz (with Levon Aronian). It seems that Karjakin has re-discovered his motivation for chess!

FM Andrey Terekhov

Andrey Terekhov (@ddtru) grew up in Russia, lived in many countries and currently resides in Singapore. His best results at the board are victories at the Munich Open (2008), Nabokov Memorial in Kiev (2012) and shared 2nd place at the Washington Open (2018). He is the author of the Two Knights Defense course on Chessable. For the past few years Andrey has been writing a book about Vasily Smyslov, with publication planned for late 2020.

How did you get into chess? Share your experiences in the comments or using the hashtag #HeritageChess!   

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