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Calm, self-assured: Sergey Karjakin (Galiya Kamalova CC BY-SA 3.0)

The two greatest chess prodigies of the modern age are Magnus Carlsen and Sergey Karjakin. These two men — both born in 1990 — will now contest a match for the world championship. By winning a final eliminating tournament in Moscow at the end of March, Karjakin has earned the right to challenge the Norwegian in New York in November.

At least, New York is where FIDE, world chess’s governing body, has long said the match will be held. But late last year the US government put FIDE’s Moscow-backed president, Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, on a sanctions list for alleged business ties with Syria’s Bashar al-Assad. Even assuming FIDE’s president can get a visa to the US, he could find opening the match in New York difficult if he is simultaneously grabbed by the Feds.

Karjakin, of course, is an innocent chess player, though even this likeable man has become slightly controversial in the fraught context of President Putin’s military adventurism. Born in the Crimean capital Simferopol, Karjakin revoked his Ukrainian citizenship for a Russian passport in 2009 and left for Moscow. This was not itself a political decision but a careerist one: Karjakin had become infuriated by the absence of any sponsorship from the Ukrainian chess federation and the Russians made it clear they could do much more for him.

When five years later Putin sent troops into Crimea, Karjakin expressed delight. He posted a picture of himself on Instagram wearing a T-shirt with Putin’s image and the legend “We don’t leave our guys behind.” And Karjakin said of Putin: “I absolutely support him in everything he does.”

This caused a breach in his formerly very close relationship with Ruslan Ponomariov, the Ukrainian who won the FIDE world title in January 2002. That year, at the extraordinary age of 12, Karjakin had become the youngest person ever to achieve the grandmaster title. But he was just 11 when Ponomariov, stunned by the boy’s calculating abilities, had invited him to be his training partner for the world championship match — “in charge of tactics”.

Now Ponomariov has called for Russian chess players who supported the annexation of Crimea to be sanctioned, while Karjakin says of his mentor: “To my great dismay, he took precisely the opposite decision I took. But of course, if he shows good sense, I am always prepared to speak to him.”

All this will be of no concern to Magnus Carlsen, as he seeks to defend his title successfully for the second time. On performance ratings, he is the clear favourite: he is still number one by a large margin, while Karjakin is world-ranked eighth. But Carlsen actually tipped Karjakin to win through to this match rather than the more highly-ranked Americans, Hikaru Nakamura and Fabiano Caruana; he said he had the greatest respect for the Russian’s “defensive abilities and resilience”. Those particular skills will stand Karjakin in excellent stead in a world championship match.

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