Karjakin loses but Russian chess is the winner

The nerve-wracking match for the world chess crown between Magnus Carlsen and Sergey Karjakin has revived interest in the game in Russia, which has had little to cheer since 2008.
Russian chess grandmaster Karjakin
Russia's grandmaster Sergey Karjakin (C) and Russian Chess Federation president Andrei Filatov (R) talk to journalists as Sergey Karjakin arrives in Moscow. Source: Artyom Korotayev / TASS

Even people who know little about chess in Russia were following the matches for the world chess crown that were held in New York between November 11 and 30, 2016.

The current world champion from Norway, Magnus Carlsen, eventually retained his title by defeating Russia’s Sergey Karjakin 3-1 in a series of one-hour tie-breaks after the match ended 6-6, making the final score 9-7 in favour of Carlsen.

The mass media gave the chess duel top priority, providing active commentary on the contest, while broadcasts of the matches could be watched even in sports bars. Just as in the days of the USSR, for almost a month the country was spellbound by the game.

Unprecedented commotion

For a long time the world’s chess crown had practically belonged to the Soviet Union. The sport was the nation's pride. But with time interest in chess faded and given the fact that since 2008 not one Russian has even been a contender for the title, many in Russia basically forgot about the sport.

Everything changed when 26-year-old Karjakin won the Candidates Tournament in the spring, which gave him the right to challenge Carlsen.

Specialists and bookmakers bet on the Norwegian, but the longer the Russian chess player resisted, the more commotion the matches provoked. All the Russian mass media gave the competition their best coverage.

When, after seven ties, Karjakin won the eighth game to take a lead over the seemingly invulnerable Norwegian, there was a real explosion in public interest in Russia. People who had absolutely no interest in the ancient game found themselves captivated by the clashes between the world’s two best chess minds.

Due to the time difference, in central Russia the matches would begin only at 10:00 p.m. and in many regions even later. But this did not prevent viewers from watching the games. Moreover, the transmissions from New York were shown on big screens in bars, something that obviously did not correspond to the intimate spirit of the sport.

The #CarlsenKarjakin hashtag became one of the most popular on Russian Twitter feeds:

"It's four thirty in the morning, the student constructors are discussing the Carlsen-Karjakin match on Skype," @samoschwalger.

"I never would have thought that chess is such an interesting game in terms of coverage. Really fantastic. #CarlsenKarjakin," @simon_bitw.

"01:20. I'm watching chess, which is more interesting than some football matches! #CarlsenKarjakin," @tima_ibragimov.

"I don't know why I'm sitting watching #CarlsenKarjakin. Don't understand sh…, but it's so damn interesting)))) #CarlsenKarjakin #chess," @FedorMk

In November many people in Russia suddenly realized that chess was more interesting than they had previously thought. "Karjakin and Carlsen staged a real fight. Even I, who didn’t like chess, followed the matches and didn’t sleep at night. I went to a store and bought a chess set," wrote user Mishka Kostrov on the sports.ru site.

Why the interest?

Unlike Carlsen, who is considered a superstar not only in Norway but also throughout the world, until the championship match most people did not know anything about Karjakin. So the match became even more captivating when the dark horse put up a stout resistance to the world champion. And judging by how Karjakin was met on his return to Moscow on Dec. 2, he has already become a national hero, despite the loss.

The commotion around the chess match is related to the confrontation between Russia and the West, according to Konstantin Kostenyuk, father and coach of world champion Alexandra Kostenyuk.

"This is not the first time when international interest in chess is growing,” Kostenyuk told RBTH, explaining that the Carlsen-Karjakin match can be compared to the match between Boris Spassky and the American Bobby Fischer in 1972.

“The same amount of buzz, just a bit less, took place during the 1978 match between defector Viktor Korchnoi, who by that time could have been considered a Western chess player [in 1976 Korchnoi asked the Netherlands for political asylum and in 1979 became a Swiss citizen – RBTH], and Anatoly Karpov. The same situation surrounds the Carlsen vs. Karjakin match. Plus, Magnus is a natural," he said.

The match was a good show thanks to the fact that Karjakin, an outsider, competed as an equal with the man recognized as the genius of modern chess, said Kostenyuk.

"This attracted many fans who know little about chess. But let's be honest, Magnus was on the attack throughout the match. Sergey played the defensive game. Applause and praise for Karjakin. That's how you fight. But Magnus's talent is phenomenal," he said.

Read more: Tokyo 2020: Which new sports offer Russia a chance of Olympic glory?

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