[CHESS] Hikaru Nakamura - Controversial Boy King of Chess (I'm Not Bobby Fisher)
- "I'm not Bobby Fischer"
Don't call the 18-year-old boy king of chess -- defending his title
this weekend -- a geek. He rules a new generation of champs raised
on hip-hop and video games.
By David Kushner
This week in San Diego, 64 hunched and pensive brainiacs have been
competing for the coveted title of United States Chess Champion. The
winner, to be decided Sunday, will take home $25,000. That's chump
change compared to the millions that young stars like Daniel
Negreanus are making in poker. But there's plenty at stake for 18-
year-old Hikaru Nakamura, the controversial boy king defending the
This stocky Asian-American teen from White Plains, N.Y., is
shattering the history books to become America's winningest chess
prodigy ever. By 10, he achieved the rarefied title of master. At
15, he was the country's youngest grandmaster. In December 2004, he
sealed his coronation by taking home the 2005 U.S. championship. As
of Friday morning, after seven long and brutal days of play, he's in
the top three of his group, and gunning for a repeat.
Hikaru Nakamura makes master at 10 years, 2 months
The Marshall Chess Club was once again host to another record-
breaking event. At the club's weekly Thursday Night Action
Tournament of February 26th, Hikaru Nakamura, who already set the
record for becoming the youngest player to defeat an International
Master in a tournament game when he defeated IM Jay Bonin at the
Club's "Last Blunder of 1997" action tournament on December 31st
(see previous posting), made chess history once again. Hikaru, who
is only ten years and two months old but has already become a
veteran Marshall Chess Club tournament competitor, achieved an
official USCF rating of 2203 at the end of the February 26th
tournament, making him the youngest player ever to earn a Master
Hikaru Nakamura and his similarly strong (and not much older)
brother Asuka have one tremendous advantage.
It so happens that their step-father, Sunil Weeramantry, has, for
more than 20 years, been America's leading scholastic chess teacher
They will never have to spend money for grandmaster training. It all
By the way, they are Japanese citizens. I keep wondering how this
might impact the chess Olympic team of non-chess playing Japan. They
are both easily strong enough to make the Japanese team right now.
GM Hikaru Nakamura
2005 US Chess Champion
Hikaru broke all American records when he became the youngest player
ever to reach master status at 10 years and 2 months old. Since then
it has been steady improvement for the young phenom and let's not
forget that he is still just 14 years old.
He received his first GM norm a half a year ago in Bermuda and you
can be assured the rest are soon to come. In the NY Master Action
expect big things from Hikaru as he is an extremely skilled speed
player. Not many players in the country would have an easy time of
it against Hikaru in 2 minute chess as in this form of chess I
literally have never seen him flag.
In his first ever NY Masters he tore through the event with a 4-0
score, beating GM Stripunsky and IM Ippolito along the way. His
extreme competitiveness and fierce desire to win makes him very
difficult to beat and he will do whatever it takes to bring home the
point. On the Internet Chess Club he is one of the best, if not the
best, 1 minute players around.
As for his openings he seems to be shifting his openings towards d4
these days and has been favoring the Grunfeld and the Najdorf
Defense recently. Hikaru won the US Championship in 2005. As of
October 2004, Hikaru is ranked number 8 in the USA, and 83 in the
Nine year old chess player Hikaru Nakamura has acquired the habit of
winning. He is already a national champion, having won the 1996
National Third Grade Championship in Terra Haute, Indiana, but he
will not rest. His latest feat is unprecedented - in the Greater New
York Elementary School Championships, he won the Primary
Championship and the Elementary Championship on two successive days,
with a perfect score in both events! This amazing accomplishment won
special "stop the press" notice from Empire Chess magazine editor
Carrie Goldstein. Hikaru is the younger brother of another chess
star, eleven year old Asuka, and the stepson of chess coach (and
author) Sunil Weeramantry.
Hikaru started playing tournament chess in January 1995, at the
Junior Chess Congress East in Stamford. He learned the game on his
own, picking up the moves from having been around chess players. In
October 1995, with his rating in the 700s, he competed in NSCF
tournaments in Greenburgh, White Plains, Greenwich, and Hunter and
won five tournaments in a row, with a 20-0 score!
By the end of the national tournaments the following spring, his
rating had risen to the mid-1300s - a tremendous jump. In the 1996
National Elementary Championships, while listed as 1195, he defeated
three players rated over 1500. A sixth round win would have forced a
pairing against Asuka, even though they played for the same school,
Ridgeway Elementary in White Plains. But the brothers were spared
such a dramatic confrontation when Hikaru lost to third-seeded Cindy
Tsai of Florida.
How does Hikaru take losing? He used to take it badly, but learned
to adjust to it as his tournament experience increased. It is quite
a trick to adjust to an experience you are not used to bearing! He
avoids losing by working very hard at the board and keeping his
focus and concentration on the game. He has his brother's successful
experiences to motivate him, and talks about bettering them. It
looks as if he is well on his way. He is rated 1846 on the February
1997 USCF ratings supplement, and he is just past 9 years of age. He
plays every chance he gets, and is rarely "off his game." While he
still enjoys competing in scholastic events, he prefers playing in
major adult tournaments like the World Open and U.S. Open. In recent
months, he has several wins against experts, and has drawn 3
masters, including IM Jay Bonin (see the game below).
How does Hikaru study chess? He practices a lot against the
computer, writing down the moves of each game, just as if it were a
serious tournament game. He knows his opening systems, and practices
them against the computer. He has a good memory, and this aids his
Is this the best way to learn? Sunil notes that different people
have different ways of learning, and that it is necessary to
experience various styles, which means playing against all sorts of
people as well as against inanimate objects. At the U.S. Open in
1995, Hikaru sat in the skittles room and challenged anyone who came
in - he played hundreds of games this way. Then in the Fall, as
noted earlier, he won 20 games in a row. Practice is a very
important way to get better.
What is his style? "Aggressive, definitely aggressive." says Sunil.
But he has a much better feel for the endgame than most kids his
age. An important attribute of his style is his intensely
competitive attitude - he refuses to accept a bad position and will
fight to the end. He has saved many games this way.
How much does it help to be living with a famous chess teacher?
Sunil says he does not spend much time working with Hikaru. Perhaps
it is a matter of osmosis, or just breathing the chess-rich
atmosphere in the family!
How does he balance chess and school? Hikaru is strong in his
schoolwork as well. He is not obsessed entirely with chess, but
balances it with other activities. He likes music, and he is a
Yankee and Ranger fan - he even memorized the Ranger's official 1995
How does the mother of two chess playing brothers handle the tension
of competitive chess life? Carolyn says she has gotten used to it.
She doesn't get nervous as often as she did with Asuka, and doesn't
worry about the games. She figures whatever happens, happens. So
far, he's happy with all his progress.
What is Sunil's perspective from the parent's chair? "If a kid
really enjoys something, just go along with it. It's a journey -
continue on it without predetermined plans. Anything can happen
along the way - just try to enjoy it as it's happening. Some parents
can't enjoy the present - they are always looking for the next step."
Hikaru Nakamura, 16, will be the focus of attention for the next
couple of weeks as he competes in the 2005 U.S. Chess Championship.
The intriguing young man has continued to improve and has started as
a 788-rated U.S. player to one soon to be rated over 2700. He also
stands at the #3 position on the FIDE list for U.S. players at 2620.
Howard Goldowsky has recently conducted a very interesting interview
with the teenage phenom on ChessCafé.com detailing a number of
issues. The line of questioning was interesting and stands as
perhaps the most candid interview of Nakamura. Certain topics are
covered such as his interests, chess beginnings, his ascent to
masterdom, his literary influences and the role his father (FM Sunil
Weeramantry) has had in his development.
Other interesting issues were his performance in the FIDE Knockout
tournament, his Olympiad exclusion as well as why he prefers to
study alone. After the U.S. Championship, he will play a match with
Sergey Karjakin in Mexico which will be highly anticipated.
Goldowsky asked the question everyone wants to know "Will you
continue to play chess professionally, or do you want to focus more
on your studies, like Kamsky did, and come back to chess later?"
A Conversation with Hikaru Nakamura and
his Stepfather, Sunil Weeramantry
by Howard Goldowsky
In April 1998, Hikaru Nakamura, at the age of ten years and four
months, just three short years after taking up organized chess,
became the youngest national master in the history of the United
States. At that time, it was possible to rationalize this incredible
feat, because Nakamura's stepfather is Sunil Weeramantry, one of the
best scholastic chess coaches in the country. An accomplishment like
this by one of Weeramantry's children seemed reasonable, even almost
Six and a half years later the truth is beginning to present itself
differently. Now nearly seventeen years old, Nakamura is the number
three ranked player in the United States, and among juniors born
after December 1987, the number one ranked player in the world. In
the time since he has surpassed his stepfather's ability, he has
studied chess Fischer-like, mainly on his own, and his recent
success can now only be attributed to magnificent individual talent.
Nakamura's accomplishments have occurred despite his stepfather's
coaching ability, not because of it, and Weeramantry could not be
more proud. In July, Nakamura made it through to the sweet-sixteen
of the FIDE World Championships, and in one week he will be one of
the favorites at the 2005 US Championships in San Diego. It is
difficult to say how far this young man will progress during the
next few years, during the critical development period of his late
teens, but a few things are certain: Nakamura has the overwhelming
support of his parents, and a competitive drive second to none. He
is prepared to enter the middlegame of his chess career poised to
become the homegrown world-class player the U.S. has been waiting
Recently, I spent some time with Nakamura and Weeramantry at their
home in White Plains, NY, where we discussed Nakamura's upbringing,
his approach to chess psychology, and other general topics relating
to his young career. What follows is an edited version of that
The Skittles Room
Howard Goldowsky: Did your parents expose you to a lot of different
activities and you picked chess, or did you always know you wanted
to be a chessplayer right from the beginning?
Hikaru Nakamura: I did some other things before chess. Of course,
both my stepfather and my brother, they both played. So when I was
seven, maybe younger, we went to the `94 US Open in Concord, CA.
This was the first tournament I was around. When I was there, I went
to the Skittles room and I played. That's basically how I picked it
Sunil Weeramantry: He'd hang around the Skittles room, and people
would come in and play. You know, he really wasn't playing seriously
at all. His first tournament was in February `95, after that. He
played in the `95 National Elementary in Little Rock, AK. Hikaru had
a pretty low initial rating, somewhere in the 700's. [According to
the USCF MSA site, Nakamura's first published rating came in at 788,
on the April 1995 list.] They needed a fourth player for his school
team, and they couldn't find a fourth player. Hikaru offered to play
(in the Championship section). That's how it got started. I think he
managed two out of seven or something like that.
HG: What's your relationship like with your brother, from a
HN: Before I was a "real chessplayer, he was the best chessplayer
for his age and younger. When I started out he was better, and once
I got to the age of around eight or nine, I started playing
seriously. Then, of course, when I was ten I broke the record for
the youngest master. That's been well documented. Nowadays, he
doesn't really play chess that much. He's off at college right now.
[He's studying at the University of Pennsylvania, Wharton School of
Business.] If he wants my help with chess I'll help him, but usually
HG: During those years between the ages of seven and ten, when you
developed to the strength of your stepfather, was there any sort of
specific guidance from him? Was it more life skills or was it
specific things, like getting help on rook and pawn endgames?
HN: It was more general advice... mostly on openings. When I went
from 1800 to 2200 or so, he was helping me. I actually wasn't doing
stuff on my own back then. Once I broke 2300, from there to where I
am right now, I've basically studied on my own.
SW: Hikaru, you can correct me if I'm wrong - I think one of the
things I tried to do was to let him play whatever it was he wanted
to play. Now, if you look at Hikaru's games, he's a pretty versatile
player in terms of what he can play, either as white or as black.
And I've tried to encourage him to explore on his own, and to play
what he wants to play when he feels like playing it. I mean, I used
to say, "Don't worry if you play a bad game and you look stupid. You
know, this is the only way you can really progress. It's bad if you
get set into a particular mode or format early on, and you don't
want to break out of it.
HG: You have progressed very quickly. How much of an importance do
you put on rating, and if you don't put a lot of importance on
rating, how do you generate a metric to determine your progress?
HN: That's very difficult. If you don't look at the rating at all,
it's hard to set goals. Otherwise, you're just playing a game and
there's really no purpose. So there is definitely some emphasis on
the rating. But usually, I just try to play better, keep improving.
If your rating goes up, great. If it stays the same, that's just
what happens. Basically, it just comes down to trying out your
stuff, playing everything, and just trying to improve.
HG: So I take it that you don't have a big fixation on your rating?
HN: No, not really.
SW: [laughing] And I suppose when you don't fixate on it you tend to
do well. I was just joking with Hikaru before you came, and it looks
like the MSA site right now has him at 2698 (USCF), and there are a
number of tournaments that he has won lately that have not been
rated. [Most notably, Nakamura won the Reno Western States Open in
late October, where he defeated Wojtkiewicz, Kudrin, and
Yermolinsky, in succession.] So he's easily over 2730. He seems to
have very quietly done that. He has certainly won his share of
tournaments very quietly.
HG: As your Dad says, you've snuck up on a lot of people on the
rating list. Do you feel any pressure at all, getting so good, so
fast? Do you feel people are out to get you now, now that you're on
the radar screen?
HN: Not really. I haven't felt pressure. Why should I feel pressure?
You know, I'm not the top player so I've slowly climbed up. I
haven't won any big tournaments.
HG: Do you feel any rivalry with other top juniors throughout the
world, like Radjabov?
HN: Most of them I haven't played, actually. So no, not really.
SW: Radjabov is what, nine months older, right? Right now on the
rating list, if you look at Hikaru's age, it is pretty clear that he
is number one at his age and below.
HG: The FIDE World Championship was somewhat of a breakout for you.
Did you prepare in any special way before going there?
HN: I did prepare, of course. I think I knew about a month before
who I was going to play in the first round. So I studied quite a bit
for my first round opponent, who was Volkov.
HG: And how did it feel to be the underdog in four straight matches?
HN: Well, probably in the third match I wasn't. The first two and
obviously the last one, I was the underdog. But basically you just
have to try and win. This format of the FIDE World Championship
definitely favors the underdog because it gives you a better chance
in the shorter match. It's funny, because the first round match was
probably my most difficult match, which was pretty interesting. I
lost the forth match, but if you look at the other two matches, they
were two games each, and pretty easy. Before the tournament, I was
hoping to make it to the third round. That was my original goal.
SW: [laughs] I had to keep changing the airline reservations!
HG: Are you preparing in any special way for the US Championships?
I'm sure these opponents are much more familiar to you.
HN: Yea. More or less I'm studying my openings, just trying to
prepare my openings, middlegames, endgames, as opposed to specific
opponents. I'll probably end up playing them, but right now I'm just
focusing on openings.
HG: What does your schedule look like after the US Championships?
HN: Right now it's pretty open. [Sunil reminded Hikaru that a few
days after the US Championship he'll be going down to Mexico.] Oh,
yea, that's right. I'll be playing a match with Karjakin in Mexico.
The details haven't been quite worked out, but it's going to happen.
HG: How do you feel about not being selected for the US Olympiad
HN: The formula [they use for selection] is just not good. I believe
there is an article on the ChessDrum site
[http://www.thechessdrum.net] about this. The formula is not good
because it basically prohibits juniors from making the Olympiad team
once they reach the highest level they've ever been. Take me for
example. I was 2500 or 2550 (USCF) a year ago when they took the
rating, but now of course, I'm right around 2700 (USCF). So what
they should probably do is take ratings right around the same time
when the Olympiad is. For example, take the June list or something
like that. They should take that, and not take the peak ratings,
because if you take peak ratings someone could have had a rating of
2650 and now they have a rating of, oh, 2580, or something like
that. Basically it only helps the older players. It's just a way of
stopping the juniors from playing.
SW: Yea, it definitely favors the established player. It's very
difficult to break in to that inner circle. Hikaru came awfully
close. The other thing, looking at it from a parent's point of view,
is it seemed a little unfair. In the months of January and February,
Hikaru played a lot over-seas, so he wasn't able to play in the
states. He played in Pamplona, he played Corus, he was over in
Europe. The cut for the April supplement is usually February 28th.
He wasn't here in February. They caught him without any USCF rated
games in that period, so they caught him at a real low. You know,
his peak rating was something like 2650, and yet if the games he had
played in Europe at that time had been rated, (and he was quite
successful at Corus), his [USCF] rating would have been 20, 30
points higher. So it was almost as though he was penalized for being
out of the country and playing out of the country in stronger
tournaments. He didn't get any credit for it. Of course, a formula
is a formula.
HN: They should probably just take current ratings instead of taking
peak ratings. And also, it seems there really should be a rule where
you have to play a certain amount of games.
HG: According to the USCF MSA site, Boris Gulko hasn't played a
single regular rated USCF game since July 2003. A rating is only
accurate if you have a large sample set to go by. That's just the
nature of probability theory.
HN: [nodding] Yes.
HG: On to some different topics. What has been your most enjoyable
experience as a chessplayer?
HN: My most enjoyable experiences have not been after I've won a
tournament. They are usually the ones when I'm socializing with
people, when it's just fun. I'll characterize it as that.
HG: What drives you to play chess? Why do you enjoy the game?
HN: Well, I'm very gifted, as my rating shows, and of course [I have
the GM] title. [What drives me] is just trying to get better. I
think that's the way it is with anything. You just try and get
better. Like in baseball: A pitcher can win ten or fifteen games his
first year, and then the purpose is to win twenty games the next
year. It's just trying to get better. It's that way with all sports.
SW: One of the things that I'd like to mention is that when you
break the 2600 (FIDE) level, I think that's a significant
achievement. Most people consider 2600 to be the rating of a
distinguished GM. I still have a tendency to look at a list of GMs
and say, "Wow, look at him, he's 2580, he's 2590, and then there is
my son. [laughs] It's surreal, because I have known many of these
high rated players, and it is hard to believe that Hikaru has passed
them I have known Hikaru since he was five. It really was before
[he started playing] chess.
HG: Is there something about chess that has made the game natural
HN: Of course my talent has helped me, otherwise I don't know if I
would find chess quite as enjoyable. Probably not. This is a
SW: Strong players throughout history have had different reasons for
playing. They've had different reasons that have turned them on
about the game. Hikaru is still very young, so it is hard to say.
But I think from my perspective what was interesting was that
everything just seemed to click all of a sudden at a certain point.
I was not convinced that chess was necessarily something that he
would pursue or that he liked, and then one day, I don't know, he
seemed to see the board differently. And then it was just straight
up from there. There was no looking back Once you're a chessplayer,
and you enjoy it and you like it, it does have that pull. I don't
have any illusions of getting up to Hikaru's strength, but I think
most chessplayers feel that they can get better. I know that a
really good game can sustain you emotionally for a really long time.
HG: Please tell me a little about your style. Would you play a risky
move that you know your opponent will find difficult even though it
might not objectively be the best move on the board?
HN: At the level I'm at, usually when you go in, you already know
what you're going to get in the openings. You're pretty certain what
you're going to play. But during the game, it usually depends on
several factors. Usually it depends on what the time [situation] is
like in the game, what the overall picture is, how you're doing in
the tournament. If it's late in the tournament and you have to win a
game then it's much more likely that I'll play something like this
risky move, as opposed to just playing the normal move, which is
just equal. It really just depends on the situation.
SW: In general it would be fair to say that Hikaru is a fighter at
the board. He works hard to try to convert. You know, he'll play
even positions, sometimes even slightly worse positions. He drew the
last round of the World Open and if he won he would have tied for
first. It was a very tough game, and he was nearly a little worse,
objectively, at one point. When the opponent offered a draw, when
Hikaru was worse in the position, Hikaru refused. The game was on
the ICC, and spectators were going nuts.
HG: In general, do you think that being a nice guy, having too much
empathy, is a handicap for being a good chessplayer?
HN: That's a difficult question. If you look at Anand, he's the
nicest guy around as far as grandmasters go. You probably won't find
someone nicer. But it has hurt him. It seems that the nice guy is
never really the top player. [laughs] You look at any sport, and it
always seems to be that way. It probably is a handicap because if
you have all this empathy towards people you probably aren't as
aggressive in the way you play.
HG: When you sit down at the board, do you change your personality
to allow that aggression to come out if it needs to?
HN: Sometimes. Not always.
HG: What affects you more: The positive feeling of a good win, or
the negative feeling of a bad loss?
HN: Depends. Wins feel really good but usually from losses you learn
more. With wins, basically you just outplayed the other person, or
they made the blunders, and you didn't make the blunders. You
definitely learn more from losses, that's clear.
SW: I think you have to be willing to learn from a loss, right? A
lot of people, they don't even want to look at a loss. I think
that's the truth. I agree with you, Hikaru, that you can learn a
lot from a loss, as long as you're willing to look at it.
HG [For Sunil]: Do you still help Hikaru at all, in terms of general
SW: Only if he asks me, and it depends. Every once in a while, you
know, he'll ask me to do something specific for him, or he might ask
my opinion on something. Just watching his progress, one of the
areas he has really grown a lot in is he's making really good
decisions about [his approach to the game and what openings] he
should play against whom. And I don't feel as though I need to
change that. He's really not made any decisions that I've
HG: Your stepdad talked about how it was OK to look stupid when you
were young. But how do you cope with setbacks today? For instance,
at the Isle of Man tournament you were tied for first place going
into the second to last round and then you lost your last two games.
How did you deal with that?
HN: It's worth mentioning that I probably was not losing my last two
games. I was winning my last round game but unfortunately I
blundered. To answer your question, it's probably the fact of just
playing whatever, basically learning to be fearless. You know,
trying your best.
HG: Do you have any favorite chess books that you've read over the
HN: I think when I was younger, around 2000 (USCF), I looked at
Fischer's 60 Memorable Games. I've looked at some other ones, but
not many. I think I read a Tarrasch book once, but I can't remember.
Lately, I really have not looked at chess books at all. Now I just
use my computer.
HG: The fact that you can't remember any chess books you've read is
HN: [laughs] Yes, it is!
HG: You're a player who prefers to work alone. Do you find working
by yourself to be the most enjoyable way to study?
HN: The main problem is that at the level I'm at, almost all of the
top players [in the US] are foreign born. That makes it very
difficult, because if you want to study with them, there is a
possibility that they'll go on and show everything to their friends.
There aren't really any "American grandmasters that are really
higher rated than me right now. That's actually why I still work
alone. It's very hard to trust anybody.
SW: I think in time Hikaru will find who he wants to work with. You
know, you just have to establish some kind of connection with
somebody. It doesn't necessarily have to be the strongest player out
there, but it is somebody that you can get along with, to go to
tournaments with I think the chemistry is really important. The
fact of the matter is if you do somehow get up to the level where
you're playing for the World Championship or something like that,
obviously you need a team. The composition of that team is something
Hikaru will be able to decide in time.
HG: You don't think having any help at this point would get you to a
higher level more quickly?
HN: I don't know. I just keep improving right now, so I don't see a
real reason to do that.
SW: If it's not broke, why fix it. I've periodically asked Hikaru,
and basically his answer is that he's improving. When he gets stuck
or something then maybe he'll look for a little help.
HG: You're well known for your blitz prowess. Do you use blitz as a
HN: I treat it mostly as a completely different type of game. It's
not the same as normal chess.
HG: Do you practice openings online?
HN: Not really. Usually I just play online for fun. Wherever I play
of course, I'm very popular, therefore everyone sees my games, so
it's not really wise to go play certain things and just give them
away. It does keep me sharp, though. I use blitz [online] for two
reasons: To [practice] moving faster, and to keep sharp.
HG: How do you balance computer training with non-computer training?
HN: For the studying I do, I actually use a computer. That's all I
use. Occasionally I'll find a book here or there which is useful,
but nowadays of course technology has advanced so much that everyone
uses computers. You have to use a computer to keep up. I admire
these former champions because back when they played they didn't
have computers. They had to play and study with a chessboard, write
everything down. Now you just go work at your computer for an hour
and just save it. This is so much more than you could do if you
didn't have computers.
HG: In your interview at the FIDE Championships you said that you
used to practice three to four hours a day, and that now you only
practice two hours a day.
HN: That's being pretty nice. I usually don't even study that much
HG: What takes up your time now instead of chess?
HN: You know, there are other things I'm interested in. I'm home
schooled, but I still have to do a fair amount of work. I also play
tennis and spend time studying the financial markets and how they
HG: What subjects interest to you at this point?
HN: Right now, probably math and history.
HG: Will you continue to play chess professionally, or do you want
to focus more on your studies, like Kamsky did, and come back to
HN: I don't know. It just really depends on the next year or so.
I'll try to keep improving and unless I get above the 2650 to 2700
(FIDE) range, I probably will focus more on studies as opposed to
chess. But add a year, and we'll see what happens.
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