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Russia's Patriotic Chess Star From Crimea Sets His Sights On World Title

Chess grandmaster Sergey Karjakin qualified to challenge for the world chess title when he won the FIDE World Chess Candidates Tournament in Moscow earlier this week.
Chess grandmaster Sergey Karjakin qualified to challenge for the world chess title when he won the FIDE World Chess Candidates Tournament in Moscow earlier this week.

MOSCOW -- There's a new patriotic Russian chess star on the block -- and he's from Crimea.

Chess grandmaster Sergey Karjakin, 26, won the FIDE World Chess Candidates Tournament in Moscow on March 28, giving him the opportunity to play Norway's Magnus Carlsen for the title of world chess champion in New York in November.

Karjakin beat Italian-American Fabiano Caruana with the white pieces to clinch the candidates tournament in the 14th round, becoming the first Russian to mount a challenge for the world championship since Vladimir Kramnik in 2008.

Speaking to RFE/RL on March 29, Karjakin said he was proud to have won for Russia, the country he has represented since 2009, having earlier competed for Ukraine. Born in Crimea's capital, Simferopol, in 1990, Karjakin represented Ukraine until he was poached to play for Russia. In July 2009, President Dmitry Medvedev made Karjakin a Russian citizen by decree.

Karjakin said that he decided to play for Russia in 2009 because he had been unable to get the sponsorship and coaching he needed in Ukraine, while the Russian chess federation offered him "an opportunity to work with good trainers."

"After that I moved to Moscow. That was 2009. Since then, I have been in Moscow."

From his adopted home, Karjakin has been a staunch supporter of the Kremlin and Russian policy in Ukraine which has seen Moscow forcibly annex the Crimean Peninsula following the ouster of former Russia-backed president Viktor Yanukovych and then support a separatist conflict in the east that has claimed more than 9,100 lives.

Following the Russian operation in Crimea in 2014, Karjakin posted a photograph of himself on Instagram wearing a T-shirt bearing an image Russian President Vladimir Putin and the caption: "We don't leave our guys behind."

"I ally myself entirely with Russia because Crimea, as we know, has transferred to Russia," he explained to RFE/RL. "I am actually extremely happy about this because I always considered myself Russian. I speak Russian, think in Russian, so I'm entirely a Russian person, and entirely support Russia as a state."

Of Putin, Karjakin said: "I absolutely support him in everything he does."

The chessmaster said he was saddened by the difficulties former countrymen in Ukraine have endured, however.

"There has never been a revolution that led to a good life," he said. "Since the revolution, everything has gotten worse. I am very sorry to see all the misery that has resulted. They really did support this revolution, but the people who didn't support it became hostages in the sense that those who supported it used force to make it happen."

Karjakin's views have chimed with the Kremlin on other issues, too.

He backed the Kremlin's preferred candidate in the 2014 election for president of FIDE, the World Chess Federation. The poll pitted Soviet chess legend and Kremlin critic Garry Kasparov against Kremlin-backed Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, a Russian politician who had held the post since 1995.

In comments to the TASS news agency, Karjakin praised Ilyumzhinov for popularizing chess, and criticized Kasparov for being a bad manager and having "ultraradical views," a possible reference to the latter's opposition activity.

Youngest Ever Grandmaster

Karjakin was just 12 years and seven months old when, in August 2002, he became the youngest-ever chess player to acquire the rank of grandmaster.

At the beginning of that year, he was the official "second" -- a type of training partner -- of Ukrainian grandmaster Ruslan Ponomariov, who was the FIDE chess champion from 2002 to 2004.

Despite this shared history, Karjakin admitted that his staunch support for Russia amid the Ukraine crisis has spoiled his friendship with Ponomariov, now 32, who he said was once "almost a best friend."

"At some point, after this crisis, to my great dismay, he took precisely the opposite position that I took," Karjakin said. "Unfortunately, speaking plainly, and objectively, our paths at this point have gone in different directions in terms of political relations. But, of course, if he shows good sense, I am always prepared to speak to him. I have nothing personal against him. I really respect him as a chess player. Unfortunately, we have a very big disagreement when it comes to politics."

Following his victory in Moscow, Karjakin is now turning his attention to his match in November against Carlsen, who has the highest rating ever and has been the reigning chess champion since 2013.

Karjakin did not appear cowed, however, rating his chance of victory as "excellent."

"Of course, for this I need to work and to really push for it," he concluded.

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