Saturday, June 11, 2011




By Stephen Deere St. Louis Post-Dispatch

ST. LOUIS — He knows he's going to win — in 20 moves, maybe less.

His eyes blink, then dart across the checkered board. Synapses fire.

Countless variations of black and white flit through his mind, and as he ponders it all, he calmly sips a can of San Pellegrino.

It's not particularly exciting to watch, especially if you don't know chess. Perhaps that's why Hikaru Nakamura has climbed to the world's No. 6 spot relatively quietly. The silence surrounding the game magnifies the minutest sounds: the hum of an air conditioner, the velvet underside of a rook sliding across wood, even the players' breathing.

A rustle of paper is like a wave crashing, a single cough like thunder.

Nakamura takes his opponent's pawn, and with a precise flick of his wrist, removes it from the board.

It's the movement of someone who doesn't just want to win, but dominate.

At 23, Nakamura is eternally confident, an immensely brilliant tactician and still coming to grips with his own genius.

Lured to St. Louis by wealthy financier Rex Sinquefield's chess club last year, Nakamura's recent rise has caught the chess world off guard.

Chess commentators have crowned him America's first realistic hope of winning a world chess championship in 40 years — a feat last accomplished when Bobby Fischer defeated the Soviet Boris Spassky in a legendary match in 1972 in Reykjavik, Iceland.

"Fischer was our last star," said Jennifer Shahade, a chess commentator and author. "We are really hoping he (Nakamura) can cause a boom in chess by reaching the same heights."

It's not far-fetched. Nakamura's victories in the last six months have been dizzying. In January, he took the top spot in the Tata Steel tournament in the Netherlands — the chess equivalent to one of golf or tennis's four majors.

Two weeks ago, Nakamura defeated the 10th-ranked player and former world champion Ruslan Ponomariov at a match in St. Louis.

This weekend he's scheduled to compete in another major international tournament — the Bazna Kings in Romania.

Short of a massive collapse, he's considered a lock to play in the next Candidates Tournament — the event that will determine the challenger for the 2014 World Chess Championship.

"It's just happened very, very fast," Shahade said of Nakamura's ascent.

Nakamura was born in Hirakata, Japan, to an American mother and Japanese father.

His parents split when he was 2 years old, and his mom returned to the U.S. with Hikaru and his older brother, Asuka. She eventually remarried, to Sri Lankan Sunil Weeramantry, a well-known chess master and coach.

Early on, it was Nakamura's older brother, Asuka, who was the family's chess prodigy.

When Nakamura started playing competitively at age 7, his ratings were average for a beginner, Weeramantry said. Meanwhile, his brother was winning national competitions.

Weeramantry tried to dissuade Nakamura from taking up the game.

"I thought it would be a disservice for him to have to live up to his older brother," Weeramantry said.

It wasn't just that Nakamura didn't seem talented, he also hated losing.

"He cried," Weeramantry said. "He was inconsolable. I told my wife, 'I think this is a bad idea.'"

Weeramantry wishes he understood what happened next.

Nakamura suddenly saw the board differently. He isn't sure why.

"It just sort of all clicked very quickly," he said.

Nakamura won one event after another. His parents home-schooled him so he could travel and compete.

"He got good despite me," Weeramantry said.

When he was 10, he became the youngest chess master — a points-based ranking — ever at the time. At 15, he shattered a record set by Fischer when he became the youngest grandmaster.

Along the way, Nakamura earned a reputation for aggressive play and a refusal to accept draws — ties that give both players half a point.

Taking a draw is similar to a boxer who won't risk going for a knockout to preserve a victory on points — the difference between playing not to lose and playing to win.

For Nakamura, chess is the great equalizer. It erases distinctions like age, nationality and physical appearance. What remains is unseen: genius, determination, creativity and, in Nakamura's case, seeming contradictions.

"In chess," he said, "everyone's accepted. That's what's great about it. You can be a little bit different. You can be an oddball."

But he doesn't want to be an oddball, or at least be thought of as one.

"I don't consider myself a nerd," he said.

Mike Wilmering, spokesman for the chess club, said it bothers Nakamura that given his recent success, he has not been invited on national late night talk shows.

Nakamura didn't deny it.

He recalled that in 2009, after winning the U.S. Chess Championship, a national late night talk show invited him to appear. He refused, he said, because a producer asked him to recount anecdotes of chess players' bizarre behavior.

His point is that he won't disparage the game to further his own fame.

"The integrity of the game is much more important," he said.

It's as if he's searching for an elusive equilibrium. The very thing Nakamura cherishes about the game, he also resists. He loves chess for welcoming eccentrics but doesn't want it viewed as a game of nerds.

Nakamura moved to St. Louis from Seattle last year to help elevate the game's status. He wanted to play a part in Sinquefield's vision to make the city into the nation's chess capital and bring chess into schools.

At the million dollar Chess Club and Scholastic Center of St. Louis that Sinquefield built in the Central West End, Nakamura is a celebrity. Although Nakamura doesn't believe the move had an effect on his game, Weeramantry said it may have had an intangible impact.

"It's important to be in an environment where you are respected and looked up to," he said.

So much of chess today is played before a match begins. Computers have dramatically altered the game. Players use software to review thousands of their opponent's moves, searching for the smallest weakness to exploit.

One of Nakamura's strengths is being unpredictable. He chooses strategies many would consider dubious.

"When he won his second U.S. Championship, he took an opening that hadn't been used in a hundred years, and he won with it," Weeramantry said.

That sort of confidence has propelled him to near the top of his game. It's also what can make him sound brash at times.

"He wants to be the John McEnroe of chess," said Ben Finegold, a friend and another chess grandmaster at the chess club here. "He's more than cocky."

After attending a premier of a movie about Fischer recently, Nakamura was wasn't shy about the possibility of someday having a movie made about him.

Some find such statements honest, if not endearing.

"I think the confidence is great because it makes him more of a character," said Shahade. "It's more exciting when you are up front about the fact you are awesome."

Still, it bothers Nakamura that he's portrayed as self-absorbed.

"I love the game," he said. "I love everything that it can do for people. It's not all about me."

But he acknowledged: "There is a perspective out there that I'm very much all about myself. ... I just live with it."

It's another example of the equilibrium he's trying to find.

After Nakamura won the Tata Steel, former world champion Garry Kasparov — often considered the greatest chess player in history — described the performance as maybe better than any of Fischer's and possibly the best by an American in a century.

Recently Nakamura took a moment to reflect on the high praise. He chuckled and then, without a trace of apology, said, "I wouldn't disagree."

(c) 2011, St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

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