A Friend Reflects on KK Karanja

KK Karanja was a chess sensation in the 1980s. The "boy genius" was born in New York to Kenyan parents. They gave him the classic nickname of "KK". At an early age he was pegged for greatness as his intellectual talents were discovered. He attended Hunter College, excelled in academics (math and physics) and was an All-American in three sports!

His chess abilities were noticed as his rating began to climb. He earned a 2100 USCF rating by the age of 10, and was pegged as a chess prodigy. KK won the prestigious Apis prize and competed in the
1987 Cadet Championship which groups the country's strongest players under 16. KK earned his National Master title at 15 years  seven months, and at the time, was one of the youngest players to achieve that feat. The second youngest Black to achieve the title.

For the 11th and 12 grades, Karanja transferred to Brooklyn's
Saint Ann's School, another school for the gifted. Geoff Gladstone, one of his classmates at Saint Ann's, fondly remembers KK from Hunter.  Although he doesn't describe himself as a chess aficionado, he shared his thoughts with The Chess Drum. Geoff vividly remembers KK at Hunter, but mentioned that the one-time chess phenom didn't play much. Geoff stated, "Occassionally he would "put the smack down on a Russian émigré who fancied himself as a chess master." KK later attended Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota. It is unknown whether he still plays, but it is possible that he still promotes chess in Kenya. Mr. Gladstone, reflects:

"My favorite chess memory of KK is "Special Pawn Day".  Every so often, he would decree a Special Pawn Day in the morning and the special pawn rule would be respected by players for the rest of the day. I'm sure you want to know what the rule was. I wish I could remember. (I think a pawn could move all the way down its column under some circumstance.) I seem to recall that it made a very different, but not unbalanced, game."

Above is K.K. Karanja (seated) playing GM Maya Chiburdanidze in a simultaneous exhibition at the Marshall Chess Club in 1987. At the time, Maya was the Women's World Champion.  Photograph by Nigel Eddis.

KK Karanja playing the Alehkine's Defense against Georgia's GM Maia Chiburdanidze in an 1987 simul at the Marshall CC. Chirburdanidze was the Women's World Champion at the time.

Posted by The Chess Drum: 26 June 2003