Is Nakamura the ‘Real Deal’?

GM Hikaru Nakamura at the 2004 World Open. Copyright © 2004, Daaim Shabazz.
GM Hikaru Nakamura at the 2004 World Open
Photo by Daaim Shabazz

Hikaru Nakamura has quite a story to tell. Born in Osaka, Japan and arriving in the U.S. at the age of two, Nakamura has been gracing the pages of chess magazines since he began breaking many of Bobby Fischer’s records. One of the first indicators of chess talent is the age record for National Master.

There have been many talented players to come through the scholastic ranks, but many either quit playing after high school or shortly after reaching National Master. When Nakamura entered Dickinson College, there were fears that America would lose yet another promising talent along the likes of Grandmasters Michael Wilder and Patrick Wolff.

Under the early tutelage of his stepfather FM Sunil Weeramantry and the mentorship of older brother Asuka Nakamura, young Hikaru shattered the record for National Master reaching the mark in 10 years, 79 days. In 2008, his record was later lowered to 9 years, 11 months by Nicholas Nip, a player who is no longer active. Five years later, he broke Bobby Fischer’s long-standing record by earning Grandmaster status in 15 years, 79 days.

Media comparisons to Fischer immediately heightened when he won the U.S. Championship at age 16. However, Nakamura reminded everyone, “I’m not Bobby Fischer.” He was intimating the point that Fischer was an unbalanced individual who only thought of chess. Of course, this was only half the story with mercurial legend, but certainly, he was one who could not operate comfortably outside of the chess realm.

When you talk to Nakamura, he is comfortable talking about a wide range of topics including his beloved Vancouver Canucks hockey team. He also has a variety of interests including music, finance, sports and politics. Many of the existing stereotypes of Nakamura are based on history from his teen years and commentary from online chess servers.

Chief Organizer Erik Anderson (left) stands next to GM Hikaru Nakamura and WGM Rusudan Goletiani after both were crowned the 2004 U.S. Champions.
Chief Organizer Erik Anderson (left) stands next to GM Hikaru Nakamura and
WGM Rusudan Goletiani after both were crowned the 2004 U.S. Champions.

While Nakamura had a reputation of being obnoxious as a young teen, his talent was hardly questioned. On the U.S. scene, he put together an impressive résumé of wins. At the closing ceremonies of the 2003 U.S. Championship, winner Alexander Shabalov singled out a young Nakamura and stated that he had a bright future in chess.

In American tournaments, Nakamura’s exciting style has become a breath of fresh air in a sport that had become stagnant with the same players competing every year in the U.S. Championships and the open tournaments. His championship victory the next year was definitely good for chess.

Once Nakamura joined the elite class in the U.S., he carried a reputation as being an isolationist and distrustful of his colleagues. He rankled many when he made comments about collusion among the U.S. elite. “That’s actually why I still work alone. It’s very hard to trust anybody.” However, as Nakamura begin to ascend to a world-class level, he enlisted some help. After the 2009 U.S. Championship, he mentioned that he had been working with National Master Kris Littlejohn. This choice of a second puzzled many but has paid dividends.

Mikalevski ponders Kamsky's next move while Nakamura-Najer reaches the climatic stage of the 2009 World Open.
Viktor Mikalevski ponders Gata Kamsky’s next move while Nakamura-Najer reaches the climatic stage of the 2009 World Open. Photo by Daaim Shabazz

In U.S. chess, there had been too many “friendships” between top players which resulted in many quick draws and dispirited play. Nakamura was dismissive of these tactics and forced the issue with his ‘play-to-win’ attitude. His determination affords him psychological capital when an opponent understands that they have to fight when they are already content with drawing. This fighting spirit came into great effect when he won his first U.S. Championship at age 16. However, in an important interview in Salon magazine, there were still had doubters.

“The finish is very good but few purists will rank his play in the same league as Fischer’s — it lacks elegance,” wrote chess scribe Alan Goldsmith. Another chess writer, Bobby Ang, wondered, “When Nakamura reaches the higher echelons of the chess elite, will his style work?” Citing a benchmark of great contemporary players, Ang asked Nakamura, “Can his brilliance overcome the tactical mastery of Alexei Shirov? Will his will-to-win be sufficient to breach the solid fortifications of Vladimir Kramnik, or Peter Leko? Is his much-touted resourcefulness of a high enough standard to battle with Rustam Kasimdzhanov? I doubt it very much.” (see link)

Nakamura’s sales pitch to Europe was more difficult, but he was beginning to pick up momentum. Tournament organizers were attracted to his brash, no-nonsense style. He has since broken through in a number of strong tournaments and is now comfortably ensconced in the top 20. Many detractors scoff at the notion that Nakamura has not gotten the opportunities to face the elite level. They cite his skipping Corus “B” in 2008 for the Gibraltar Masters as a snub. Nakamura cited inadequate conditions, but made good on his trip by winning Gibraltar.

He added a few more accolades including the 2009 U.S. Championship, 960 World Championship and the Cap d’Agde Rapid Tournament (over Anatoly Karpov and Vassily Ivanchuk). There were still doubters who stated that he couldn’t win in a strong classical tournament.

After playing poorly in the London Classic (while fighting an illness), Nakamura finally got his coveted invite to Corus “A” and made a strong showing with 7.5/13 (4th place). Magnus Carlsen, the winner of the tournament, identified Nakamura as a new rival. This could be good for both players and of course for more sponsorship.

On various chess blogs, the conversation of Nakamura’s ascendancy is a popular topic. Naysayers continue to claim Nakamura is not worthy of “elite” status for very specific reasons. After he refutes these reasons, another set will be created and standards increased. At this point, pundits state that Nakamura has to make the top 10 to be considered seriously as a World Championship. Last year, it was top 20.

Of course, the candidacy of players such as Magnus Carlsen, Sergey Karjakin or Teimour Radjabov was recognized almost immediately. What is the difference? The theory was that the European stars were “battle-tested” and Nakamura had not faced tough competition. Even his head-to-head blitz victory over Carlsen in Norway was trivialized.

So the question…”Is Nakamura the ‘Real Deal’?” Does he have World Championship potential? When Vladimir Kramnik was asked this question, he seems to believe that Nakamura is a legitimate talent. Most of the fans and journalists believe that Carlsen is the heir apparent to Viswanathan Anand or Veselin Topalov, but it is not certain if Carlsen will maintain his level. Anish Giri’s strong performance at Corus turned some heads and the Chinese and Indians deserve attention. If one looks at Nakamura, he has many things going for him.

  1. Killer Instinct – Nakamura is unparalleled in the intensity he brings to the board. While it should not be taken literally, Nakamura seems to have an assassin’s mentality when approaching his chess encounters. His play is relentless, hyper-energetic, provocative and aggressive. One of his greatest assets seems to be making opponents uncomfortable, both over the board and in his confident posture.
  2. Independence – Kris Littlejohn selection as Nakamura’s assistant was a bold step that bucks another trend… having a peer as a second. Nakamura theory seems to be based more on work chemistry than the talent of his second. In the 2008 U.S. Championship, he stated that Littlejohn helps him in many intangible ways and understands his style very well. What we now know is that Kris is a computer specialist and can use his understanding of Nakamura’s style with his chess knowledge to create powerful intelligence. “Team Nakamura” has been a rousing success thus far. This doesn’t preclude Nakamura from adding additional members to his camp.
  3. Flexibility – Chess pundits may now be convinced at Nakamura’s resilience and ability to adapt. There are still a lot of doubters who insist on viewing him based on his online persona of a “blitz god” with an arrogance far exceeding his accomplishments. One thing critics may overlook is Nakamura’s maturation over the past few years. He is willing to experiment at a high level and reignite debates on acceptable play. One of the difficulties at top level is preparing for an opponent like Vassily Ivanchuk or Nakamura. While Nakamura doesn’t have the depth in opening knowledge of Ivanchuk, he still poses difficult problems and is comfortable in a variety of positions.
  4. Self-Critical – Nakamura is openly critical of his play. On his silver-medal performance in the World Team Championship and his Corus “A” debut, he was quick to point out improvements… even in victory. This is a good sign and is contrary to the belief that he doesn’t work hard to improve his game. His ability to be self-critical will keep him alert and hungry enough to know that he can still improve. Approaching the 2750 mark, he will continue to vault over many of the veterans as he continues his march. The question is whether he will enlist a world-class trainer to help him in specific areas.

GM Hikaru Nakamura at 2010 Corus in Wijk aan Zee. Photo by Fred Lucas.
GM Hikaru Nakamura at 2010 Corus in Wijk aan Zee.
Photo by Fred Lucas.

Will these factors mean that he has enough to win a World Championship? Time will tell. One thing that is true is that if Nakamura has his goal set and if resources are not an issue, he will have more than an adequate shot at winning the World Championship. He is only 22 years old and he will continue to get better. The downside is that he does not have a sponsor and gets limited help from his federation which means that he does not have the luxury of focusing purely on chess development.

In a 2005 interview with the New York Times, Nakamura summed up his chances.

“If I am able to get up there and play for the actual title of the world championship, then once again, everyone will be excited,” Mr. Nakamura said, noting how chess gained wide appeal when Mr. Fischer toppled Boris Spassky, the Soviet world champion, in 1972. ”There have been plenty of great players since Fischer but none have been American players.” (see link)

Nakamura has the tenacity, the nerves and still has some areas of improvement in his game. Given Carlsen’s breach of 2800, there will be a new cadre of players to vie for the world crown. With the right combination of training, sponsorship and tournament invitations, Nakamura hopes to be one in that number.


  1. Hikaru needs sponsorship. It is surprising that the USCF had a fundraiser for Gata Kamsky in his match against Topalov, but it didn’t appear to get broad support. I’m not sure what they will do for Hikaru, but they’d better do something fast.

  2. Boris Gelfand:

    Nakamura is a player of a new generation. He does not hide, he shows off that he has not read a single book and does not know the endgame theory. Instead of studying the works of Tarrasch he prefers to be 24 hours on the ICC. However, he has convincing competitive results. This is a very interesting phenomenon.

    Other young talents – Karjakin, Harikrishna, Volokitin – are playing normal classical chess. And the play of Nakamura is another dimension. I cannot judge his prospects. As I understand, at some point such a player stops progressing and it is already late to learn again. On the other hand, if one can bring to perfection the concrete play, “move by move”, maybe such an approach to chess turns out to be more effective?


    I don’t agree with Gelfand totally, but these comments were made in 2005 when Nakamura spent considerly more time on chess servers. I think his point is interesting. The idea of playing thousands of games can give one a concrete understanding that one cannot get from studying a few games deeply. I’m not sure the three players he mentioned will ever contend for the world title. Gelfand may have learned something after being crushed by Nakamura in the 2010 World Team Championships.

  3. Very interesting article on Hikaru Nakamura that is very well written. Hope you continue to report on his chess career.

  4. I plan to increase my coverage of Hikaru. He has to have more advocates and that will become increasingly important as he seeks sponsorship for his championship quest. Oftimes, the coverage on him is a bit negative and based on stereotypes and preconceived notions by people who have never met him.

    I have had a chance to interview him (in person) on occasion and chat with him via Facebook many times. He certainly has strong views on many issues and you know where he stands. However, if you have a good case, he will listen. He is not an inveterately stubborn individual. Perhaps he has said some things people don’t like. So what?

    Out of the young players on the scene, only Nakamura seems to have the type of strong personality that will create attention and invoke interesting debates. When you have a player who played 1.e4 e5 2.Qh5 and plays bullet chess against common players, then you know you have someone who will buck the trends and create a media buzz. The Carlsen-Nakamura rivalry will be a good development.

  5. I am a 21 year-old Caucasian American chess player who primarily just plays blitz and bullet for fun. However, I recently attended my first 2 OTB tournaments, and have a current (yet provisional – 13 games) rating of just under 2150 uscf.

    I have recently taken an interest in Naka’s play, as he seems to be the immediate future of American chess (though young Robson shows great promise, and Lenderman has posted noteworthy results as of late).

    In my opinion, Naka’s pure talent and potential (mostly made obvious through his God-like blitz play) can only be limited by his own determination and dedication to the game. If he remains committed to his ascension toward the ‘throne,’ then I don’t see why he won’t become a serious threat for the title.

    I must, unfortunately, agree that his lack of sponsorship poses a serious threat to his potential ascension.

    I seriously wonder sometimes if the European ‘super-powers’ don’t try to sweep American chess under the rug. Seems as if they fear we may become a ‘super-power’ in our own right.

    On a side note: It’s good to see a website like this that gives some much-deserved love to the African-American (and American in general) chess demographic, as players with the skill of GM Ashley, and IM Tate, as well as many others, should not go unnoticed.

    It was a real treat to see some of their brilliant performances found in your archives.

  6. Hikaru is great. I’ve followed chess for more than 20 years, and he is the only American worthy of the hype he has received. Even the top American GMs of the 80s and 90s weren’t consistently beating Super-GMs and being ranked in the top 20 like Hikaru.

    He’s supposed to play a blitz tournament with Carlsen in Norway in November, in a rematch of their title match a year ago, when Carlsen — who had just won the World Blitz title — was defeated on his own soil 3-1 by Hikaru.

    As much as I like Hikaru, he still needs at least 3-4 more big performances in super-GM tournaments before we can start calling him a serious rival to Carlsen in non-blitz events. Hopefully in the next Candidates cycle, he will be able to make a push to compete for the 2014 world championship.

  7. Well… that may true, but I don’t believe Nakamura is any less talented. He has something that Carlsen may not show… intimidating presence, a killer instinct and the single-minded determination to win every game. Nakamura is not unlike Fischer in many respects and is still improving. We are watching a new paradigm for building a phenomenal player. He has done it without a trainer, without sponsorship, playing tens of thousands of bullet and blitz, unconventional style and a omni-versatile repertoire. I am not saying it is “correct,” but what is the correct way?

    As far as I’m concerned the “Soviet-style” is a dying paradigm. Yes… players the former Soviet-bloc nations are still producing strong players, but we will see players like Nakamura, Carlsen, Le Quang Liem and Wang Hao rise using different methods. It is no secret that the Carlsen-Kasparov alliance did not last. I think Nakamura’s “trial and error” method of playing so many test games helps him to refine all of his ideas quickly and play with such confidence. Combine that with an encyclopedia memory and you have a player with great upside. His playing ability will soon catch up to his mental edge he carries to the board. When that happens, look out!

  8. I disagree about the Soviet-style…it is still the backbone of top-level chess. Even non-Soviets have had to employ it in order to reach or stay at the top level — Anand is a great example, and Carlsen didn’t start winning super-GM tournaments until his work with Kasparov. I actually think that a small addition of the Soviet-style would perfectly complement Hikaru’s game and allow him the stability to stay in the super-elite (i.e. top 5 instead of “only” top 20), even during situations where he isn’t playing or feeling well (i.e. last year’s London Chess Classic), because he won’t always be able to wriggle out of worse positions against lower rated players (i.e. the 2010 US Championship playoff).

    The Carlsen-Kasparov alliance is still going on — they still talk on a regular basis; they just aren’t formally meeting for lessons anymore. However, Kasparov’s style (dynamic, emphasis on opening preparation, extensive knowledge of an opponent’s psychology) perfectly complemented Carlsen’s style (positional, lack of opening emphasis, well-versed at playing many different types of postions well).

    I don’t think Hikaru is a “new paradigm” — he is simply a phenomenal talent, whose talent is exceeded only by his courage and self-confidence. Hopefully he will be able to take the steps necessary to round out his game — I’d love to see him challenge for the 2014 world championship :).

    Regarding Carlsen, I believe you are mistaken — there is currently no one with a more intimidating presence than him — until this week he hadn’t lost with Black in more than a year, despite playing only super GMs! Carlsen definitely has a killer instinct and a single-minded determination to win every game that matches or even exceeds Hikaru’s — that’s why his games are so fun for me to watch — he usually never takes early draws, even when he isn’t feeling well — a great example of this is his win with black against Leko in the last round of the 2009 Tal Memorial despite being sick that entire tournament, he still finished with a plus score which allowed him to become #1 for the first time.

    In my view, Hikaru is a great player but not yet consistently in the league with Carlsen on a game-in, game-out basis; liking Hikaru doesn’t necessitate belittling what Carlsen has done, because it has been phenomenal, especially over the past year and a half (2826 rating, winner of 3 super-GM tournaments, etc.).

    On a less strong level, Hikaru reminds me of Tal Shaked, who put up strong results without any sponsorship at all, and then once he got the Samford, achieved his 3 GM norms and won the World Junior Championshp within 6 months! At the highest level, Hikaru is capable of a similar transformation, but I’d like to see him do that first. This Olympiad is a good start. The London Chess Classic and next year’s Netherlands tournaments will be further stepping stones, and then of course the Candidates cycle for 2014 will be the true test.

  9. Woody,

    What you said about Carlsen not winning until Kasparov is a total myth. Carlsen has had to dispel this in an interview. That is what Kasparov wants people to believe, but Carlsen was already winning top level tournaments. Kasparov has also taken credit for Carlsen reaching 2800. Perhaps he can take some credit, but the momentum was already there.

    The “Soviet-School” is dying. You may say it represents the top level and I have also said that… for now. However, the entire ideology is no longer so clear-cut… and there are different schools within the Soviet School. You have so many players coming up now who are cut from a different cloth and are not restricted in their approach to chess. I believe if you stick to a “school” you will be surely left behind.

    Russia still has talented players no doubt, but the rigidity of training methods used in the past have to give way to more dynamic approaches. Gelfand made some critical comments of Nakamura’s methods and extolled the Soviet tradition, but Nakamura is now on the verge of top ten and he is still improving!

    Regarding Carlsen, I believe you are mistaken — there is currently no one with a more intimidating presence than him — until this week he hadn’t lost with Black in more than a year, despite playing only super GMs!

    I’m not referring to results, but physical presence and demeanor. Fischer cut a dashing presence; Kasparov had his scowl; Topalov has a maniacal trance; Kramnik is imposing at 6’5″; Nakamura has his mannerisms and way of moving pieces quickly and with authority. The point is, who would strike fear into your heart when you sat across from them? Nakamura has that edge on opponents. Of course, his confident swagger comes at a price. I chat with him on a regular basis and he is ahead of himself in some ideas, but he is more open-minded than people give him credit for.

    I don’t think Hikaru is a “new paradigm” — he is simply a phenomenal talent, whose talent is exceeded only by his courage and self-confidence.

    What I mean by new paradigm is the fact that Hikaru has gotten to this level with totally unconventional methods and not restricted by any school of thought. Hikaru goes through thousands of games in databases and of course plays tens of thousands of games of blitz to test his ideas. He also has not had a trainer and is at 2750. No one else in history has reached the top ten in this fashion. Paradigm shift.

  10. Carlsen reached #4 in the world before Kasparov coached him…I’m well aware of how good he was before his partnership with Kasparov. However, Kasparov’s influence significantly augmented Carlsen’s results against other super-GMs, particularly in his opening preparation — a classic example was his win over Kramnik at the London Chess Classic last year…there are SEVERAL other examples I could give.

    Hikaru is a unique and highly gifted player, but he alone does not constitute a paradigm shift — unless he becomes world champion. BTW, Hikaru has always been confident; I’ve known him since he was 4 years old ;).

  11. Agreed. Kasparov gave him some advice on mental preparation, access to some opening theory and information about opponent psychology. Carlsen had given Kasparov his due credit; however, this notion that Kasparov had “discovered” him had gotten out of hand. Carlsen is a product of the “Norwegian School of Chess” with GM Simen Agdestein and company.

    Well… I’m not referring to just Nakamura as being the sole practitioner of unconventional methods. I’ve already said that many players are taking different approaches to chess and he is one. However, no one has done it this way and perhaps there are other ways to produce a strong player without having to go through a “school” with a trainer as in the traditional way.

  12. I honestly do not think Nakamura is in the class of Carlsen. The Norwegian is World Champioship material. Nakamura is not. But Nakamura’s games are spectator friendly.

  13. I don’t know about the intimidating presence thing…Karpov didn’t have an intimidating presence…neither does Anand. Yet both are world champions.

  14. Mehul,

    Carlsen now is the #1 player in the world and we will see how far he can go from 2826. What will be important is how he reacts to losing in high-pressure match situations. In my view, the Norwegian has World Championship traits, but he will have to work on his psychological readiness for match play. Even his match with Nakamura was revealing not because he lost the match, but because he unraveled and lost his temper and composure. That was never seen before.

    I’m not saying that having the physical presence is a prerequisite to being World Champion. I’m saying that it is a good trait to have to be a World Champion. BTW, Karpov had the steely-eyed stare… cold, penetrating. The Karpov-Korchnoi match made a big deal of this intimidation factor. Korchnoi even started wearing mirrored sunglasses to get away from that cold stare. Anand does not have any of these traits though but his edge is that he is unflappable. Interesting.

    It will be interesting to see what happens in the next cycle. Both of these players will be in contention.

  15. Nice article. I didn’t know that Carlsen had singled Nakamura out as a new rival, but it makes sense. I think that, in the coming years, we may see the Carlsen-Nakamura rivalry develop along the lines of the Karpov-Kasparov rivalry. Kasparov himself has said that Carlsen has more of a positional style of play, like Karpov, Capablanca and Smyslov as opposed to the tactical fireworks often found in the play of himself (Kasparov), Tal and Fischer. Nakamura, on the other hand, IS very tactical. Take a look at Nakamura – Van Wely from round two of this year’s Corus – an exciting game. Or for something even more note-worthy, Naka’s win against Shirov in round 7 of the same tournament with the White pieces in the ultra-sharp Sveshnikov. Both players (Carlsen and Nakamura) still have a bit of maturing and developing to do in chess and there’s no doubt that if a match took place now, Carlsen would be the favorite to win… But it would be very interesting if – somehow – Carlsen won the championship from Anand in 2012 and then Nakamura was Carlsen’s challenger in the next cycle. If I haven’t already made it clear, I do think that Nakamura is indeed “the real deal”. His play has matured in recent years, and although he still has work to do… I think he may soon be in the top 10. Maybe even the top 5. I just wonder if his critics will still try to argue against his abilities when that time comes.

    1. haha, good point Daaim i forgot about this one! lol i guess we all ran in the backroom with Kamksy!!! hehehe.

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