The Chess world has been rocked by a breaking story in the New York Times in which the Grandmaster Sergei Karjakin, who narrowly lost a match for the World Championship with the World Champion Magnus Carlsen
has been shown to be both a cheater and a pusillanimous traitor to his own country when Russia illegally invaded and annexed Crimea. In addition, the questions posed by this writer in the recent post, American Abhimanyu Mishra Wins Vezerkepzo GM Mix 2021 Tournament To Become The Youngest Chess Grandmaster In History (https://xpertchesslessons.wordpress.com/2021/06/30/american-abhimanyu-mishra-wins-vezerkepzo-gm-mix-2021-tournament-to-become-the-youngest-chess-grandmaster-in-history/) have been answered, and like a dead skunk it stinks to high heaven. Maybe now the rumors that have been around for many years about a certain International Master who gave up his quest to become a Grandmaster, before becoming an accomplished master of a little known form of the martial arts, after serious allegations were made about how he obtained the title by winning against a player who has subsequently changed his name. Let it all hang out.
The Dark Side of Chess: Payoffs, Points and 12-Year-Old Grandmasters
By Ivan Nechepurenko and Misha Friedman
This question is posed: When is a grandmaster’s title less than grand?
It is an open secret in chess that many players cut side deals with tournament organizers and other top competitors that help them achieve norms they might have struggled to get legitimately.
This culture touched the Momot club. Many of its members acquired their grandmaster credentials in Crimea, at tournaments in places like Sudak and Alushta that were known as “norm factories” — where, for as little as $1,000, organizers would make sure players accumulated enough points for a norm.
But there were other, more subtle, ways to succeed, too. Far from prying eyes, secret agreements and cash exchanges to arrange results were not uncommon, according to interviews with chess players and FIDE officials. In a sport so wholly obsessed with status, title and rank, even selling a game could be accomplished for the right price.
Mikhail Zaitsev, who achieved the rank of International Master and is now a chess coach, estimated that of the world’s roughly 1,900 living grandmasters, at least 10 percent have cheated one way or another to acquire the title. Shohreh Bayat, one of the leading arbiters in chess, describes such arrangements in the plainest terms. “Match fixing,” she said, “is cheating.” Some hopefuls didn’t even have to play a game of chess to get the points they needed: Some tournaments, she said, took place only on paper.
None of this is lost on the sport’s frustrated leaders.
“We have a dog called Pasquales,” said Nigel Short,
the vice president of FIDE. “I believe it is possible that if I went to the effort, I think I could get my dog a grandmaster’s title.”
The Great Silk Road tournament, where Karjakin became the world’s youngest grandmaster in 2002, was held in the picturesque town of Sudak on the Black Sea. It was a mess, according to interviews with five people who were there.T
The winner was Vasily Malinin. How he won was another matter. Aleksandr Areshchenko, a young player at the time, said Malinin paid Areshchenko’s mother in exchange for a victory in their match. Another player, Nazar Firman, said he was also paid.
Malinin, who died in November, always denied paying for results. But in a letter published in Russian on an obscure chess website, he acknowledged playing an unusual role in the Sudak tournament.
The most notable game, he said, was one he agreed to lose.
Malinin told the story this way in his letter:
With Karjakin’s title as the world’s youngest grandmaster slipping away after his unexpected draw with Semyonova, Karjakin’s father, Aleksandr, approached several players to whom his son had lost points and offered them money to replay their games. Firman said he was among those to receive an offer of cash for an arranged draw.
Malinin, who had points to spare, agreed to replay his game with Karjakin. He said he did so for free and therefore did not consider it cheating. The two replayed a game that normally would have taken up to six hours; in the replay, Malinin said, it was played “in a blitz” — a high-speed variant of chess. Karjakin won.
Minutes later, the newly crowned grandmaster ran into the tournament’s main hall, radiant and proud as “a peacock,” according to Areshchenko, who was present.
Asked about the episode in an interview with The New York Times, Karjakin said he would ask his father about it. He later said that he is not in touch with his father and had no further information about the tournament. Phone calls and text messages sent to Karjakin’s parents were not answered.
The fruits of Karjakin’s victory, though, came quickly. The next year, he played at the tournament in Wijk aan Zee in the Netherlands, a town known as the Wimbledon of chess. In Paris, he joined the prestigious NAO chess club. Only a few months earlier, Karjakin had traveled to tournaments in Europe by bus. Now, as the world’s youngest grandmaster, he was greeted by the president of Mexico.
“I was just swarmed with invitations,” Karjakin said in an interview, talking about the aftermath. “I became widely popular.”
Competing against the world’s best players, Karjakin progressed rapidly. By October 2005, when he was 15, he was already ranked among the top 50 players in the world. In 2016, at the World Chess Championship in New York, he was on the cusp of becoming world champion before losing to Norway’s Carlsen, considered the world’s best player then and now, in a tiebreaker. And for more than 18 years, Karjakin, now 31, held a title no one could match: the world’s youngest grandmaster.
The stain of what had happened in the Sudak tournament, however, has lingered. There were rumors about the event in the chess world, but no one seemed interested in pursuing them. Several participants in the tournament said that Karjakin had not achieved his grandmaster’s title by the book, but that, for them, it was just a fact of chess life.
Areshchenko, a stronger player than Karjakin at the time and his classmate in a chess club, said that his coaches had told him to play a draw with Karjakin to make sure he got the youngest-grandmaster title on time.
“He could not do it honestly,” Areshchenko said of Karjakin. “I played better than him at the time, and it was tough for me to become a grandmaster then.”
In an interview, Karjakin denied offering payoffs or making side deals. He said it was Malinin who had tried to extort money from his family for simply playing a game that they had agreed to postpone, not replay. After Karjakin’s father refused to pay, Malinin got mad and “made up all that mess,” he said.
“My father came to him and told him that he has to go and play with me,” Karjakin said of Malinin. “In any case, nobody would engage in negotiations with young children.”
Many chess players say making side deals in chess is essentially harmless. But to others, Karjakin’s career has demonstrated that is not the case.
Karjakin, however, has thrived. In 2009, President Dmitri A. Medvedev of Russia granted him citizenship. In 2014, Karjakin sided with Russia against his native Ukraine by openly supporting its annexation of Crimea. In Crimea, he posed in a T-shirt bearing the face of Vladimir V. Putin, of whom he was by then a prominent and vocal supporter.
On the last day of June, 18 years after he had claimed it, Karjakin surrendered the title that had launched his career.
His successor as the youngest grandmaster in history, a young boy from New Jersey named Abhimanyu Mishra, broke the record by two months, gaining the title at the age of 12 years 4 months 25 days. Mishra and his father are hoping the achievement will do for him what it did for Karjakin.
Like Karjakin’s parents more than two decades ago, Mishra’s father, Hemant, had a lot at stake in seeing his son claim the title. He said he spent more than $270,000 on making his son the world’s youngest grandmaster, and he had been collecting donations online to make their chess dream come true. The small advantages that the money could buy — in scheduling, in opposition, in timing — began to add up as he closed in on his final norm.
Mishra, who described Karjakin as his idol, played in five so-called norm tournaments in Charlotte, N.C., in the fall of 2020 and spring of 2021 but did not achieve a single norm. With the deadline to beat Karjakin’s record bearing down, he and his father next traveled to Budapest, where Abhimanyu Mishra played eight tournaments in a row.
At these tournaments, norm-seekers paid the organizers, who in turn paid grandmasters to show up, a legal and common arrangement in professional chess. But the quality was not the same; the average rating of Mishra’s opponents in the Budapest events was nearly 50 points lower than it had been in Charlotte.
In an interview, Arkady Dvorkovich, the president of FIDE, said that there is little sportsmanship at such tournaments. That is partly because the grandmasters, often aging players long past their prime, often lack the motivation to work hard to beat their opponents. “The motivation was quite low for me,” said Vojtech Plat, one of the grandmasters who played.
At the Budapest tournaments, Mishra had the added advantage of playing against the same group of grandmasters again and again, which allowed him to learn their tactics and styles.
Gabor Nagy, a Hungarian grandmaster, played against Mishra in six of the tournaments in Budapest. (In Charlotte, no grandmaster played in more than three tournaments.) In one match, they agreed on a draw after 13 moves, and in another, after only six. To chess experts, this was an indication that the matches were not seriously contested. But in playing them, Mishra accumulated a precious half-point toward his goal in a matter of minutes.
In another tournament, Mishra played three games in a day, his father said. FIDE rules, which seek to protect players from overexertion in the grueling sport, set a limit of two games a day. By the time Mishra had usurped Karjakin’s throne, he had played 70 games of chess in only 78 days.
“It begins to smell,” Bruce Pandolfini, an accomplished American coach, said of the effort to chase the youngest grandmaster title using those methods.