When Nodirbek Abdusattorov was just nine years old, he was invited to play Grandmasters at the Tashkent Open with a child prodigy reputation. The tournament was considered nothing more than an exposure opportunity for Abdusattorov, who started playing chess watching his elder brother and sister who played recreationally in a suburb of Tashkent.
Little then the organizers knew they were about to behold the launch of a new world-beating prodigy. He went on to clinically beat two seasoned Grandmasters, Andrey Zhigalko of Belarus and Rustam Khusnutdinov of Kazakhstan. The victories had caught the attention of the legendary Uzbekistan coach Dmitry Kayumov, who died last year.
He began to closely follow the youngster, first with a touch of suspicion and then with eyes of admiration. Convinced of his potential, he took him under his wings, played games with him and made him play against the seniors. He was smitten by his talent from him. “During 40 years of coaching in different countries, I brought up many international Grandmasters, but I must admit that I have never met such a talent as Nodirbek. The boy is very athletic, hardworking, has an excellent memory, memorises game positions well and, what is most important and a rare quality, is not afraid of an opponent,” he had told ut.uz, an Uzbekistan news website.
17-year-old Nodirbek Abdusattorov, the World Rapid Champion, defeats world #5 Fabiano Caruana and ensures Uzbekistan ties the match against the top seeds, USA. #ChessOlympiad pic.twitter.com/9Hf9ZYfKJm
— International Chess Federation (@FIDE_chess) August 1, 2022
It was not like a chess starved nation suddenly stumbled onto a chess sensation. The country has a rich history in the game—having churned out 22 grandmasters after it tore off from the Soviet Union.
Kayumov was convinced that he would break the then world record of Sergei Karjakin as the youngest Grandmaster. Abdusattorov missed it for six months, more due to the sloppiness of his home federation. he bizarrely diverted to the world schools under-13 at Sochi. But Kayumov said prophetically: “He will be a future world champion, the youngest one. Mark my words,” He, though, did not say which format.
Four years later, riding a sensational streak, he defeated a string of established names such as Fabiano Caruana, Ian Nepomniachtchi, and the biggest of them all, Magnus Carlsen in the title decider to claim the World Rapid Championship. And he was the youngest to do so, in any format, at 17 years and three months, surpassing Ruslan Ponomariov at 18 in the Fide version of the then disputed classical crown in 2001 and Carlsen, also at 18, in the 2009 World Blitz.
Nodirbek Abdusattorov is suddenly beating Fabiano Caruana and Uzbekistan have a great chance of taking down huge favorites USA today! https://t.co/yK6AoIlNqU #ChessOlympiad #c24live pic.twitter.com/dLvV2JKJGx
— chess24.com (@chess24com) August 1, 2022
His game had the world rolling their eyes in disbelief, not at his speed but at the strength of his moves. “One of the hallmarks of Abdusattorov’s game is his playing style, as he’s not the sort of tactical beast you come to expect from a young player. Instead, he has a more mature playing style, specializing in slowly squeezing his opponents, which is reminiscent of the legendary Anatoly Karpov,” wrote American chess author John B Henderson.
Nepomniachtchi praised his singular ability to punish the slightest of mistakes. As he did when beating Caruana in the Chess Olympiad. Caruana, playing with the white pieces made an awry move and the Uzbek latched onto the chance to create an impregnable position. It was not quite a David-slays-Goliath story, as Abdusattorov has a rating of 2677. Fueled by him, Uzbekistan could be the tournament dark horse.
Back to his world championship triumph, he did not know the scale of his achievement until he returned home to a hero’s welcome. A multitude of masses awaited him at the airport. After he got out, he was taken for a table-top bus ride, before the president honored him with a cash prize of around €20,300, and the Mard Uglon (“Brave Son”) medal, besides the keys to a two-bedroom apartment at the heart of the city. “Of course it was great to beat the big stars, but I never thought it was a big achievement until I stepped out of the airport,” he had then said.
But he is not someone to be too carried by early success, as he told chess.com: “It’s just the start of my career, there is a long way to go before I myself become a great player, or something close to that. But that’s where I want to be, among the elites.” There was a fierce streak of ambition in voice, and the hammering of Caruana was another example that he could be punishing in the classical format as well.