'Sergey' Documentary Chronicles Karjakin's World Championship Quest

'Sergey' Documentary Chronicles Karjakin's World Championship Quest

| 33 | Chess Players

Will a boy's singular goal in life be fulfilled at the end of November? While we await the outcome of the 2016 World Championship Match, one documentarian sought to get behind the scenes of the challenger's upbringing to see what brought him to this moment in history.

What better way could there be to balance all of the movies about champion Magnus Carlsen than to see some rare footage of Sergey Karjakin on this day off from the match?

Filmmaker Alexander Turpin's 22-minute vignette "Sergey" chronicles the odyssey of the Karjakin family, Sergey's relationship with Ruslan Ponomariov, and the Crimean conflict. Filming wrapped only one month ago, and the movie is now available here for rent ($1.99) or purchase ($3.79). 

"The big focus on Carlsen is exactly why we wanted to make this film," the filmmakers told

Here's the trailer:

The opening scene of the trailer was taken just after Ponomariov defeated Vassily Ivanchuk in the finals of the 2002 FIDE World Championship Knockout Tournament. The diminutive 12-year-old in the red sweater was of course Karjakin. He seconded Ponomariov, serving as his "coach for tactics." The right hand on Karjakin's shoulder is that of future Prime Minister and President Viktor Yanukovych, who was removed from power on February 22nd by the Ukrainian parliament.

Sergey Karjakin at age 11. One year later, he became the world's youngest grandmaster, a mark he still holds after 14 years. | All photos courtesy filmmakers.

The issue of Crimea comes up later in the film. Karjakin is a perfect analogue to symbolize the divide. He was born in Simferopol, Crimea, left and returned, then left again permanently in 2009 when he obtained Russian citizenship and began to play for their national team. Peter Doggers, then of ChessVibes, was one of the first to get comments from Karjakin on the decision.

Karjakin's mother explained that the decision to move was a "personal decision" and not any sort of payback for Russia's generosity.

"We are Russians, not Ukrainians, Russians," she says in the film. Karjakin's father also explains that both of Sergey's parents and grandparents are Russian. Karjakin chose not to comment on Crimea before the match, but Turpin captures the moment well when Karjakin chose not to answer. The silence seems to suggest that he wants to comment, but cannot.

Long before that, Karjakin was just a terse seven-year-old on Ukrainian television. Turpin unearthed that rare footage and also filmed his first chess school in Simferopol, only 100 meters from where Karjakin was born.

Karjakin being interviewed after his then-countryman Ruslan Ponomariov won the world title.

A few years later, Karjakin's lack of sponsorship led to his family's decision to quit their jobs and move to Kramatorsk in Eastern Ukraine so that he could attend the same chess school where Pono cut his teeth.

"I have heard about this chess school, and it was basically my dream to get there," Karjakin said. The school didn't require regular studies. All of their time was devoted to chess. "I worked there for three years, and I barely saw daylight," coach IM Alexander Alexikov said of his time at the A.V. Momot Chess Club.

"We had to move so he could become world champion," his father explained. Indeed, upon Karjakin's achievement of the GM title in record time, the boy said he wanted to be world champion by age 16.

"I could have spent all my day in the chess club," Karjakin recalled fondly. "When I was nine years old, I could easily work nine hours."

Karjakin in the foreground. His father is second from left.

The head of the school died and when the chess school's structure folded, the Karjakins moved back to Crimea for Sergey's 13th through 19th years.

"Maybe at that age, I missed some opportunities," Karjakin said of his delayed mission to become world champion in his teens. "Maybe if I had moved to Russia earlier, it would have been even easier for me to develop faster than I did."

Fast forward to the 2010 Olympiad, after Karjakin had switched to Russia. He defeated Pavel Eljanov in the head-to-head matchup with Ukraine, but he still celebrated with his former national team when Ukraine won the team gold. Ponomariov, speaking at his home in Bilbao, Spain, recalled this moment fondly.

Sergey's mother, Tatyana Karjakina.

His former grandmaster coach in Kramatorsk, Vladislav Borovikov, never had a student before or after Karjakin. He has no contact at all with Karjakin because of the political tension, but "I'm still his big fan."

For Ponomariov and Karjakin, despite residing in opposite places in Europe, they have both evolved in one way. "Sergey" shows them both lazily pushing strollers with their wives and newborn children.

"Maybe [family] is even more important than the chess title," Karjakin says of his evolving viewpoint.

Karjakin is getting his chance at the title this month against Magnus Carlsen. He said in the film that if he doesn't win it this year, he will still win it later in his career. | Photo:

No matter what happens in a few weeks time, it seems certain than many people on both sides of the Ukrainian-Russian border will be elated if their favorite son captures his long-sought title. 

Alexikov will be one of them. "It will mean that my life circle is concluded," he said. "If he becomes world champion, I will be able to rest in peace."

Note: An earlier version of this article said that Viktor Yanukovych was removed from power after the 2014 Russian takeover of Crimea. He was removed from power prior to the takeover.

FM Mike Klein

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Mike Klein began playing chess at the age of four in Charlotte, NC. In 1986, he lost to Josh Waitzkin at the National Championship featured in the movie "Searching for Bobby Fischer." A year later, Mike became the youngest member of the very first All-America Chess Team, and was on the team a total of eight times. In 1988, he won the K-3 National Championship, and eventually became North Carolina's youngest-ever master. In 1996, he won clear first for under-2250 players in the top section of the World Open. Mike has taught chess full-time for a dozen years in New York City and Charlotte, with his students and teams winning many national championships. He now works at as a Senior Journalist and at as the Chief Chess Officer. In 2012, 2015, and 2018, he was awarded Chess Journalist of the Year by the Chess Journalists of America. He has also previously won other awards from the CJA such as Best Tournament Report, and also several writing awards for mainstream newspapers. His chess writing and personal travels have now brought him to more than 85 countries.

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