The 2007 U.S. Championship starts this afternoon. The number 1 seed is Hikaru Nakamura, who, after a stab at college, has put aside academics and returned to the chessboard.
Below is a piece I did for The Wall Street Journal on Hikaru’s rise to the top echelons of American chess. Although the article is a few years old, Hikaru’s take-no-prisoners style of chess and life may be as true now as it was then. But first, a chess problem:
Here’s a position from a game Hikaru played as White against Sergei Karjakin, another talented junior. What move would you make for Hikaru? The answer can be found at Chess Life Online, the excellent Web site of the United States Chess Federation.
The Wall Street Journal, July 8, 2003
Meet Hikaru Nakamura, Boy Chess Wizard
By Paul Hoffman
Four Sundays ago, in the sixth and final round of the 2003 National Open Chess Festival in Las Vegas, Hikaru Nakamura, a 15-year-old prodigy from White Plains, was pacing around the tournament hall. His 24-year-old opponent, Kazakhstani grandmaster Darmen Sadvakasov, a former world junior champion, hadn’t moved for over an hour, and Mr. Nakamura, who had lost patience, went to look at the game of one of the other 898 competitors, Sunil Weeramantry, his stepfather. Mr. Weeramantry gave him the thumbs-up sign, and he returned to his own game in the front of the hall.
When Mr. Sadvahasov finally moved, he menacingly advanced a knight toward Mr. Nakamura’s king. But the younger player was not worried; the position was complicated and double-edged, and he had an attack of his own going against Mr. Sadvakasov’s monarch. The moves of the game were being reproduced on a large wallboard so that people across the room could follow the battle. A hundred woodpushers were watching, and they debated in hushed voices which king would be the first to fall. A mere six moves later, Mr. Sadvakasov resigned in disgust, and a smattering of applause broke out, in violation of the prohibition on noise in the tournament. With five wins and one loss, Mr. Nakamura was tied for first place.
The crowd was enthusiastic because Mr. Nakamura is arguably the country’s best hope for succeeding on the world chess stage. [2007 note: our most immediate hope now seems to be Gata Kamsky, who is sitting out the 2007 U.S. Championship because of a prior commitment to play in a tournament in Bulgaria.] This past February, at a tournament in Bermuda, he became the youngest American to earn the coveted title of international grandmaster, breaking a record that Bobby Fischer established 45 years ago. On September 10, 1958, at the age of 15 and a half, Mr. Fischer became a grandmaster at a world-championship qualifying tournament in Portoroz, Yugoslavia. On February 5, 2003, Mr. Nakamura did it four months younger.
“It’s a big accomplishment,” he told me, “but how far I go in chess will depend on how much I improve in the next couple years. I want to be ranked in the top 100 players. If I can achieve that, I’ll think about the world championship.” No American has won the world crown since Mr. Fischer defeated Borris Spassky in 1972. Mr. Nakamura’s mother, violinist Carolyn Weeramantry, is home-schooling him so that he has time to play in chess tournaments.
He learned the game at the age of seven by watching his older brother, Asuka, and stepfather play, and at 10 he set his first chess record by becoming the youngest American ever to earn the title of national master. Mr. Weeramantry, a legendary New York-area chess coach and former first board for the Sri Lankan national team, taught his stepson the finer points of the game, but Mr. Nakamura didn’t sound too grateful when I spoke to them in their chess-trophy-filled condominium in White Plains.
“I’m glad I don’t play like you,” he told his stepfather. “You’re a hacker. You take far too many risks and throw away won games by not leaving yourself enough time at the end and blundering in time pressure.”
“Sadly, you’re right,” Mr. Weeramantry responded. “I suffer from indecisiveness. I take too long to choose my moves. One of the things I admire about Hikara is that if he does lose, he quickly absorbs the loss and gets over it. Not like me—a defeat lingers with me sometimes for days and affects my subsequent play.” Mr. Weeramantry, an affable and jovial man away from the chessboard, has been known to pound the table and scream after losing a game.
“You have lots of very bad habits,” his son scolded.
In a classical chess tournament, each player is allotted two hours for the first 40 moves and an additional hour for the remainder of the game. Mr. Nakamura is renowned for the speed of his play, and at Vegas he also won the blitz competition (in which each side has five minutes for the entire game) that was held the evening before the main event. His forte is tactical situations, complex positions in which both sides are engaging in hand-to-hand combat like in his game against Mr. Sadvakasov. “Objectively,” Mr. Nakamura conceded, “Sadvakasov probably had an advantage after his hour-long think and knight move, but I was hopeful that I could see through the complications more clearly then he could.”
His fellow competitors marvel at his confidence. “He certainly knows current opening theory very well,” said Alexander Baburin, the editor of the Internet daily Chess Today. “His quick moves are very unpleasant to face. He is sending a psychological message that he knows your stuff and is ready for it.”
“He’s insane about winning,” said Greg Shahade, an international master in Brooklyn. “I’ve never faced anyone with a greater motivation to win. You can imagine that what’s the young Fischer was like.”
Most of his friends, Mr. Nakamura explained, are from the chess world, and he sees no need to suppress his killer instinct when he plays them. “I just beat them,” he said, “and laugh at them. My friends are patzers.”
Bobby Fischer apparently felt the same way. He famously dismissed his fellow chessplayers as “weakies.”