Archive for the ‘Hikaru Nakamura’ Category

Never Underestimate the Power of a Sleeping Knight

September 11, 2007

home-350.jpgJay Bonin napped during his game but still managed to win. In fact, the New York Knights seemed to be winning at one point on all four boards in their U.S. Chess League match last night against the San Francisco Mechanics, but choked on two of the boards and tied the match. The Knights at least got on the scoreboard, and jubilant New Yorkers were dancing in the street. (Perhaps a few New Yorkers were also celebrating because my book King’s Gambit was finally published.) For a team that looks almost invincible on paper, it is astonishing that, in the first three rounds this season, they have yet to win a match.

Manager Irina Krush fielded Hikaru Nakamura on Board One, in his debut performance in the U.S. Chess League. The nineteen-year-old resident of White Plains is one of the most exciting chess talents in the countryat the age of ten, he was the country’s youngest chess master ever and at 15, he became a grandmaster at an earlier age than Bobby Fischer.

His games are always real crowd pleasers. Although the time control for the game was 75 minutes per side plus a bonus 30 seconds for each move played, Hikaru acted like the game was bullet chess, an absurdly fast version of chess in which each side has only a minute for the whole game. Hikaru moved instantly much of the time, and at one point his opponent was down to only a couple of minutes on his clock while Hikaru still had 71 minutes. And yet Hikaru amazingly went down to defeat because he didn’t take any of his time to think: he blundered away a promising position and then had to give up too much material to fend off a mating attack. During the losing endgame, he shook his head in total disgust with himself and banged his temple with one of the Black pawns.

Matt Herman also lost, on Board 4. But Irina checkmated her adversary on Board Two, and Jay Bonin would have mated his opponent on Board Three except that his opponent wanted to avoid the ignominy of an actual mate and resigned just before.

Last week’s loss can be chalked up to gorgonzola; Nakamura’s loss this week can be ascribed to overconfidence gleaned from playing with a patzer just before the match.

When I arrived at the Marshall Chess Club for the match, I was greeted by a cute casting director who asked me if I wanted to audition for a television commercial that involved chess. She revealed nothing about the ad except that she needed to cast two people, an older man and a younger one, who’d play chess together. “Ah,” I joked, “I can solve half your problem. Now you have to find the older man.”

Before I had my screen test, she auditioned Hikaru. She decided to videotape him playing blitz and asked me to be his sparring partner. I quickly butchered the White side of a Sicilian Najdorf, but luckily she needed only 30 seconds of videotape and canceled the game in the middle before I could fully embarrass myself any further.

“The Yin of the Nerd in Lockstep with the Yang of the Jock”

September 7, 2007

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The secret is out. The New Jersey Knockouts have discovered why the New York Knights have had an incredibly dismal start in the U.S. Chess League. The Knockouts blog noted that there is something wrong with the photo (above) of 15-year-old Robert Hess (the Knight’s third board) that appeared in the laudatory profile of him in the New York Daily News. (I believe the News reporter was going for a Pulitzer, or the position of Poet Laureate, when he wrote of Hess: “the yin of the nerd in lockstep with the yang of the jock.”) What’s wrong, of course, is the position of the board: the White square does not belong in the left-hand corner.

OK, it’s a common mistake in movies and even public spaces. (In King’s Gambit, I describe how Au Bon Pain cemented chess tables into the ground in Harvard Square with the boards positioned incorrectly.) The difference here is that the prop master was an international chess master.

So this weekend, in preparation for Monday’s big match against San Francisco, Knights manager and task master Irina Krush is foregoing the Gorgonzola and putting her team through grinding, back-to-basic drills.

“Now, Hikaru, practice putting the queen on its own color… Very good, Hikaru. Now remember what Nimzowitsch said: ‘Keep the queen at home until at least the third move.’ I want to see nice classical development. No c3 on move two.  Yes, you got it, knights before bishops.”

“When you castle, Pascal, my dear, it’s always the king that moves two squares.”

“Now, Robert, a pawn can move two squares only on its first move. And can you lose the football helmet during the game? Remember we’re playing over the Internet. Your teammates, not the opponents, are the only ones who are going to be distracted by your headgear.”

“Brilliant, Elizabeth, you set up all eight pawns correctly!”

“Jay, the knight’s the only piece that can jump.”

“Matt, very good, you got itthe knights start next to the rooks.”

New York Knights Off Suicide Watch

September 5, 2007

Thankfully, the New York Knights are off suicide watch following their big choke against the Baltimore Kingfishers last week in the U.S. Chess League. Manager Irina Krush is still keeping superstar Hikaru Nakamura on the bench. She is putting forward the following lineup tonight against the Philadelphia Inventors:

New York Knights     Philadelphia Inventors
GM Pascal Charbonneau: 2532     GM Sergey Kudrin: 2599
IM Irina Krush: 2442     IM Bryan Smith: 2446
IM Robet Hess: 2457     NM Daniel Yeager: 2247
Matthew Herman: 2172     NM Elvin Wilson: 2240
Avg Rating: 2401
    Avg Rating: 2383

Game time is 7:30 PM, and the moves can be observed in real time at the Internet Chess Club or live at New York’s Marshall Chess Club and Philadelphia’s Franklin Mercantile Chess Club. I plan to go to the Marshall.

New York Knights Are Looking Bright

August 8, 2007

photo of the 2006 New York Knights by John Fernandez

U.S. Chess League Commissioner Greg Shahade has announced that Hikaru Nakamura is joining the New York Knights for the 2007 season. Hikaru has an uncompromising, go-for-broke playing style that makes his games a real treat for the crowd. He even trots out openings (like bringing his queen out on the second move of a double-king-pawn opening) that would get him laughed out of the local chess club if it weren’t for the fact that he is the second-highest rated player in the country.

The above photo is of the 2006 New York Knights; from left to right are two-time Canadian Champion Pascal Charbonneau, two-time U.S. Women’s Champion Irina Krush, two-time U.S. Women’s Champion Jennifer Shahade, Matthew Herman, and Robert Hess.

Fabiano Curuana Breaks Record to Become America’s Youngest Chess Grandmaster!

July 20, 2007

Six years ago I watched legendary chess teacher Bruce Pandolfini (who is played by Ben Kingsley in “Searching for Bobby Fischer”) give a lesson to Fabiano Caruana, eight. I was observing the lesson because I was writing a profile of Bruce for The New Yorker.

Now, at the age of 14 years and 350 days, Fabiano has reached the chess stratosphere. He has become the country’s youngest grandmaster ever, breaking Hikaru Nakamura’s 2003 record of 15 years and 58 days. (Nakamura, for his part, had broken Bobby’s Fischer’s 1958 record by three months; Fischer’s record had stood for 44 years!) Congratulations Fabiano! In Chess Life Online, Jennifer Shahade reports on how Fabiano achieved the GM title (which still must be formally granted by FIDE, the world chess federation).

Here’s what I wrote in The New Yorker (June 4, 2001):

Fabiano Caruana, the top-ranked player in the country under the age of eleven, was happy to see Pandolfini when we reached his parents’ Park Slope apartment. He folded up his scooter and plopped down at a chess table in the front room. He is small for his years—he is eight—and has curly brown hair and bright, alert eyes. Pandolfini was eager to show Fabiano some new rook and pawn endings, but Fabiano insisted on playing a game. Pandolfini chose a cramped formation called the French Defense, a favorite of Botvinnik’s. Fabiano, a tenacious attacker, couldn’t sit still while he played; he stood up or slung both legs up on the table, and stared off into space while Pandolfini was thinking. When Pandolfini moved, he responded instantly with a move of his own.

“The little machine is eating me alive,” Pandolfini said, “but that pawn move can’t be right. It weakens the dark squares.”

“No, it doesn’t,” Fabiano said.

“Of course it does,” Pandolfini said.

“No, it doesn’t,” Fabiano repeated.

“Fabiano’s greatest strength,” Pandolfini told me later, after Fabiano had lost the game, “is that he has the courage of his convictions. He is stubborn and sticks to his ideas, come hell or high water. That serves him well in tournament play-you need to believe in yourself-but it makes him harder to teach. When he has a misguided idea, it’s not easy to talk him out of it.”

Hikaru Nakamura

May 15, 2007

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:

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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.”