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 Negreanu are making in poker. But there's plenty at stake for 18-year-old Hikaru Nakamura, the controversial boy king defending the crown.
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, hes in the top three of his group, and gunning for a repeat.
But don't call him a geek. While chess gets written off as nerd play, Nakamura represents a brash new generation of champs reared on video games, hip-hop and the Internet. Known for his speed and aggression, he has been dubbed "the world's most impolite player" -- fighting words in one of the last sports that still prizes modesty and grace. While other players discuss the art and beauty of chess, Nakamura talks like a street fighter. After getting skipped over one year for the chess Olympiad team, he crushed a rival player and called it "payback." In one notorious interview, he cockily anointed himself the best player in America and deemed his peers conniving foreigners. "There aren't really any 'American' grandmasters that are higher rated than me," he said. "That's actually why I still work alone. It's very hard to trust anybody."
He's just as brash in play. While grandmaster etiquette calls for accepting a draw during a deadlocked game, Nakamura consistently breaks rank by refusing to concede. "I don't give up!" he snaps by way of explanation. Online, he's nicknamed "the King of Blitz" for his top-ranked mastery of high-speed smackdowns. Opponents have been known to strike back beyond the board. During one tournament, a kid got so angry he allegedly chucked a basketball at Nakamura's head. But Nakamura has only been emboldened by his bad-boy image. As Dirk Jan ten Geuzendam, editor of New in Chess magazine, puts it, "Nakamura likes being the fighter and the loner. He's the lone American taking on the world."
Nakamura's potent brew of balls and brains has earned him the obvious comparison: Bobby Fischer. But for Nakamura, Fischer, the wunderkind who became a wild-eyed, long-bearded paranoid, who vanished mysteriously during his prime, serves also as a cautionary tale. "He played too much chess and went crazy," says Nakamura. "I'm not a mad genius."
But his experience serves as a sort of modern parable about the game. Nakamura rode the fuel of new technologies to become a powerhouse player. But his hard, fast rise has left him feeling burned out and, unlike his coddled peers in Europe, ready to pull the plug. "When it's this hard to make a living," he says, "you're not going to keep the talent in the game. Eventually, they have to go into other things."
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Much of what mainstream America knows and thinks about chess prodigies comes from the 1993 movie "Searching for Bobby Fischer." The film follows Josh Waitzkin, a shy prodigy, as he enters chess's inner circle of bratty kids, domineering parents and narcissistic Obi-Wanlike trainers. Dads come to blows, Ben Kingsley chokes back tears, and when Josh loses a sure-win match, his father chews him out in the pouring rain -- without an umbrella, of course. In the end, everyone finds inner peace, no one's broke, and the Lilliputian underdog overcomes his nemesis. To today's real chess prodigies, says Magnus Carlsen, a baby-faced 14-year-old Norwegian grandmaster with a rack of corporate sponsors, "That is just film."
What's more, the search for the real Fischer is over. He turned up, he's nuts -- spewing anti-Semitic venom and claiming, among other things, that Jews planned 9/11. As a result, Americans, who made Fischer a Cold War hero in 1972 for defeating the Russian champion, Boris Spassky, have soured on the man and now mostly ignore the game. If there's a brainy young nerd with math and strategy skills, most Americans would rather watch him play cards.
This reality is not lost on Nakamura's generation. Junior World Champion Elisabeth "Lizzy" Paehtz, a sassy German 21-year-old who competes in miniskirts and heels, has watched numerous peers give up the game in lieu of the far more lucrative world of Texas hold 'em. Giving up chess for poker, she says, "is tempting for a player; you know you can make a lot of money." Compared to the $7.5 million prize at the World Series of Poker this year, chess tourney winners get a pittance.
Nakamura hit the relative jackpot when he won the last U.S. Championship and earned $25,000. But a five-figure prize is the exception rather than the rule. While invitation-only events cover the competitors' travel expenses, players have to pay their own way at less prestigious events. "It's almost impossible to make a living at the game," Paehtz says.
The degree of suffering varies according to a player's nationality. In Western Europe, where living costs are high, players survive by mastering a game far removed from the chessboard: sponsorships. Paehtz, for example, is a celebrity in Germany who chats up talk show hosts and poses on all fours in a slinky outfit for her Web page. She's now sponsored by a German electronics company.
Carlsen, with his boyish charm and the novelty of being the youngest grandmaster alive, has several sponsorships including one from Microsoft, which periodically flies him to its offices so that he can checkmate VIP geeks. The players from the former Soviet Union generally have it easier because their living expenses are low, and their social status is ensured. "If you're a successful young chess player there, you don't have to do anything else," says Geuzendam. "Everyone treats you like a star."
But America is another story. The cost of living is high, the respect is nil, and the sponsorships nonexistent. Nakamura explodes when he talks about the other players' sponsors because, despite being the U.S. champion, he has none. "Any other young person who devotes his life to becoming the best in the world at something is making millions of dollars!" he fumes. He's exaggerating, but the point is well taken. He's the best, and for this he has given up plenty. Before he goes onstage, he likes to slip on his iPod and crank up his theme song. "It's by Green Day," he says. "'Boulevard of Broken Dreams.'"
Nakamura's flair was on exhibit in October when he flew to Switzerland to compete in the prestigious Lausanne Young Masters Tournament, a high-stakes six-day battle to determine the best young chess genius on the planet. The tournament took place inside the palatial Casino de Montbenon in this hilly town on the shores of Lake Geneva.
After two days, the casino was thick with the smell of man dork. Enthusiasts road-tripped from around Europe to smoke, play and watch. Downstairs in the basement, a makeshift bookseller hawked paperbacks including "Genius in Chess," "Black Is Still OK!" and "Mastering the Najdorf." Upstairs in the main auditorium, Nakamura had his quarter-finals opponent, an 18-year-old Georgian woman named Nana Dzagnidze, right where he wanted her, backed against the wall. In this, and other chess tournaments, games are time-limited. For that reason, playing the clock is a big part of the game. And few masters play it better than Nakamura.
Schooled from several hours a week of high-speed Internet blitz play, Nakamura is renowned and feared for his ruthless and lightning-fast moves. Chess scribes wield words including "unconventional" and "aggressive" and "gutsy" when characterizing his style. "What did Nakamura have in mind?" they often ask while analyzing his games. Nakamura regularly confounds pundits by, for example, bringing out his queen to the edge of the board on his second move to attack his opponent's king.
After Nakamura claimed the 2005 U.S. Chess Championship, chess writers took him to task for risky play. "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 of 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."
But, as his opponents attest, Nakamura's skill is not just in his moves, it's his mind game. "He's an original thinker who's willing to take chances," says Daniel Lucas, editor of Chess Life magazine. "He's also a player who plays with extreme confidence in his own abilities. Some players are fidgety but he make moves with a sure hand."
His opponents agree. In Lausanne, the clock on the chessboard projected on the screen behind the players shows Nakamura with 1:06 remaining, while Dzagnidze is down to only 26 minutes and ticking. With her queen cornered, she made a feeble move with a knight, only to soon lose the fight. After the match, she sighed deeply when asked what it's like to play the American champ.
"Ah, Nakamura," she said, with a smile, speaking through a translator. "He made me lose myself. He waits for me to make mistake, which I do." But, despite his prowess, she saw the boy inside the nascent man. "He is like Winnie the Pooh," she said. "He is cute."
Nakamura models himself after a more formidable character: Steve McNair, the quarterback of his favorite football team, the Tennessee Titans. "He's always trying to get better," he says. "No matter how much he gets beaten up, he plays through the pain."
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As a lifelong outsider, Nakamura knows the feeling. At age 2, he left his birthplace of Japan in 1987, when his family moved to the U.S. His brother Asuka, two years older than Hikaru, made a name for himself by winning the national kindergarten chess championship in 1992. For the next six years, Asuka quickly climbed the tournament ladders and became the highest ranked young player in the country. Occasionally, he'd play Hikaru, but the younger brother couldn't keep up. "He was too good for me," Hikaru recalls, bitterly, "and I was too weak."
Before long, there was another chess wiz in the house: the boys' stepfather, Sunil Weeramantry. Their mother, Carolyn Nakamura, a professional violinist, met Weeramantry at a chess tournament after her divorce from Hikaru's father (whose details Nakamura won't discuss). A former New York state champion, Weeramantry ran an educational consulting business called the National Scholastic Chess Foundation and taught chess at Hunter Elementary School in Manhattan.
A fixture on the New York City chess scene, Weeramantry says he's the inspiration for a scene in "Searching for Bobby Fischer," in which a chess coach locks a herd of obnoxious parents out of their children's tournament. "I didn't really lock them behind a fence," recalls Weeramantry, a 48-year-old Sri Lankan with curly hair and beard. "I took them into a gym."
With Asuka in the spotlight, Weeramantry had no reason to suspect his youngest stepson's budding talent. But when Asuka's chess team, which Weeramantry coached, needed a fourth player for an important tournament, he drafted Hikaru. "He wasn't very good," Weeramantry says, "but I looked at his moves and thought, 'He's doing something interesting here.'"
Weeramantry, a philosophical sort who likes to slip off his shoes during long talks, didn't push himself on the boy, and Nakamura, born with a stubborn streak, didn't come begging. As a chess prodigy in the digital age, he had other options. For past generations, studying chess meant burying oneself in piles of books, magazines and scrawled game notes. By the time Nakamura came around, centuries' worth of data was just a mouse click away. "It's a constant challenge," he says. "There's always something new you can find out."
While other prodigies hire coaches or join chess clubs, Nakamura stuck to his autodidactic guns, taking a two-fisted approach to self-education. For hours on end, he scoured through Chessbase, his database program, to find Fischer, Spassky and Kasparov games. But he soon became bored by the rote course of study and, like a lot of pent-up teenage boys, began spending more and more time gaming. When he needed to blow off steam, he went online and participated in time-limited competitions of Bullet and Blitz; the loser either gets checkmated or, more often, runs out of time. "It's all about being fast," says Nakamura, who plays under the handle "Smallville," after his favorite TV show.
Soon, his own trophies began lining up alongside his brother's in the family's apartment in White Plains. When he wasn't at the board or on the computer, Nakamura was playing out moves in his head. Then in April 1998, he passed his brother to become the youngest chess master in the country. Asuka took it well. "We're not competitive with each other," Hikaru says. Not anymore. With bookers for Letterman and Leno having called Nakamura, and more tournament wins to follow, the torch was passed. And the heat followed.
Just as soon as he was anointed America's next boy king, he started reeling from the rampant Fischer comparisons. "It's nice to hear people say that," Nakamura says, "but it gets annoying. I'm not Bobby Fischer."
But does he think he's a genius, as some suggest?
"No," he says, but there's something in his reply that suggests otherwise.
Is he just being modest?
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The Cold War may be over and the famous FischerSpassky match a dim memory, but the EastWest rivalry is alive for Nakamura in more ways than one. Not only are players from the former Iron Curtain countries among his most formidable international competition, they are also his rivals in America. "Almost all of the top players in the U.S. are foreign-born," Nakamura has said. "That makes it very difficult because if you want to study with them, there's a possibility that they'll go on and show everything to their friends."
Nakamura is not just estranged from his fellow chess players, he's cut off from the world. Just as he began breaking records on the tournament scene, he began breaking away from his White Plains peers. Concerned with the quality of his education, Nakamura's parents pulled him from public elementary school after fifth grade and have been home-schooling him ever since.
While Nakamura tries to keep up with his old friends in tennis games and poker nights, he feels like he's missing out. "The social life [in public school] is better," he says, quietly, but it's a necessary sacrifice for his adolescent career. "There's no way I could travel to all these tournaments if I was in a regular school." There are perks to life on the road; he's seen Libya and London, and he's dated girls in the chess scene. But, like any young celebrity, the years of jet lag and strange hotels have worn thin and left him hardened. "I've had to grow up pretty fast," he says, dejectedly, "which is not a good thing."
Even winning doesn't carry the thrill it once did, particularly in light of his grim chances at making a living from his game. As the boy becomes a man, he's trying to keep his emotions from getting the better of him. "It's easy to become angry," he says, "but when you get better, you channel your energy into the game." But it's not as easy as it once was for him to do that. So he's filling out college applications and trading stocks on the Internet, just in case life draws him into a stalemate. "I don't know what's going to happen with me," he says. "It's too early to tell."
On Friday in San Diego, however, he has other things on his mind. It's Round 8 of the U.S. championships, with two days to go. And it's his move.