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 In 2008, his record was later lowered to 9 years, 11 months by Nicholas Nip, a player who is no longer active.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.
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.
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.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.