Norway’s world champion in chess, Magnus Carlsen, was quick to issue the message on Monday that he’s ready to take on Sergey Karjakin as his challenger for the title this fall. Carlsen gave a “thumbs up” to Karjakin’s selection, and indicated he was already flexing his muscles for a showdown.
It will be a meeting of two young men, both born in 1990, when they face off at the Chess World Championships in New York in November. Carlsen will be defending his title for the second time, after first winning in India in 2013 and then securing it against the same rival, Vishy Anand, in Sochi in 2014.
Now he’ll be up against Karjakin, a Russian national originally from Ukraine. Karjakin, like Carlsen, was a child chess prodigy who became the youngest grand master ever at the age of 12 years and seven months. He just turned 26 in January, while Carlsen will turn 26 at the end of the world championships, on November 30. Karjakin ranked eighth in the world as of Tuesday afternoon, with Carlsen still in first place and counting on crowning his next birthday with another championship victory.
“Regardless of who I meet, I’ll be the favourite,” Carlsen told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) before the candidates’ tournament that just determined his challenger began. Carlsen’s manager Espen Agdestein also thinks Carlsen remains the favourite but he was bracing for “an incredibly tough match” after Karjakin emerged as Carlsen’s world championship rival. Agdestein told NRK that Karjakin has “strong nerves” and will be “a tough man to beat.”
Carlsen has also lost to Karjakin before, not least on home turf in Norway at the annual Norway Chess tournament in both 2013, just before his first World Championship victory, and 2014. Carlsen, who’s about to launch into serious training for the upcoming Norway Chess after taking a bit of a break in recent weeks, hasn’t always done well at the Norwegian tournament that gets underway again in Stavanger in just a few weeks.
The championship match in November will be a pairing that many chess fans have wanted for years, since both were child stars at the same time. “They’re the same age (Karjakin is 10 months older) and Magnus looked up to Karjakin at the start of his career,” Agdestein told news bureau NTB. “He was a star early, but then Magnus began to go beyond him.” He told NRK that “this was earlier seen as a dream match, but Karjakin declined while Magnus became world champion. Now they’ll get the match many were uncertain would be held.”
Norwegian chess commentator Torsetin Bae called Karjakin one of the “strongest chess players in the world” and “a dangerous opponent” for Carlsen. “Karjakin is very good in the opening phase and that’s not Magnus’ strongest suit,” Bae told NRK. “He (Karjakin) is also very good on the defense, and fights hard when in tough positions. It will be a challenge for Magnus to crack the Russian when he has the advantage.”
‘Not best friends’
Karjakin himself wouldn’t say who’s favoured right after his candidates’ victory over Fariano Caruana of the US on Monday. “Everyone asks who is the favourite, but I must concentrate on myself and not think about that,” Karjakin told NRK. He noted that he and Carlsen “are not best friends,” but claimed they have “a good relationship” and occasionally speak with one another. He said he was looking forward to the world championships, saying it will be “an incredible experience for me.”
Agdestein made it clear that Norway’s “Team Carlsen” wasn’t taking anything for granted. “Karjakin will come incredibly well-prepared (to the championships),” Agdestein said. “He’s Russia’s best hope and will have a huge apparatus behind him.” He quickly added that Carlsen will be well-prepared, too.
“Magnus should have his own self-confidence in place,” Agdestein told NTB. “He has done better than Karjakin for a long time, but a World Championship is something totally special.” The action gets underway in New York City on November 11.