America’s Silver Bullet

Might the world's second-ranked player, Hikaru Nakamura, manage to emulate his countryman Bobby Fischer?

Dominic Lawson

The launch of the Hollywood biopic Pawn Sacrifice, with Tobey Maguire as Bobby Fischer, has given rise to the obvious question: will the US produce another chess  world champion?

Actually, there is a chance — but no more than a chance — that it could happen as soon as next year. In late 2016 the world champion Magnus Carlsen, of Norway, will defend his title against the winner of an eight-man Candidates tournament next March: and on recent form, the favourite to win that event would be the 27-year-old American Hikaru Nakamura, whose current ranking is below only Carlsen’s.

Nakamura has for some time believed this is his destiny. When Carlsen trounced the former world champion Vishy Anand in 2013, the American tweeted: “Starting to realize that I am the only person who is going to stop Sauron in the context of chess history.” This duly provoked the Norwegian, who when told that Nakamura had compared him to J.R.R. Tolkien’s evil ruler Sauron, retorted: “I have never actually watched Lord of the Rings. If I had, and Nakamura had been a better chessplayer, I might have been more insulted.”

In turn, Nakamura tweeted back that he was ranked world number one in blitz and rapid chess, “and if that is being bad at chess, so be it!” Carlsen has since taken over the top ranking at rapid chess; but Nakamura is a phenomenally gifted player — and the world champion knows it.

As his name suggests, Hikaru was born in Japan, but when he was just two his American mother Carolyn left for New York with his elder brother Asuka and married the Sri Lankan-born chess coach Sunil Weeramantry. Under his tutelage both boys showed great aptitude at the game from an early age — but Hikaru’s progress was astonishing. He was granted the US title of “chess master” at the age of 10 and became a grandmaster at 15 years and 79 days, beating by three months the record set in 1958 by Bobby Fischer.

The US grandmaster Ben Finegold commented of Hikaru: “His chess talent is insane. When he was young it was like ‘how is this possible?’ Before you meet him and see him play, you have no idea. There’s no one else like this. I mean it. No one.”

Nakamura’s special gift is for speed of calculation. He enjoys displaying it in the crazy variant known as “bullet chess”, in which a player must make all his moves in 60 seconds. In that sense, his play can be compared to an immensely powerful computer; indeed, Nakamura has said that about 90 per cent of his preparation involves the use of computers. In this respect he is completely different from Carlsen, who despite being three years younger, is more of a traditional player, relying less on computers in his work — and whose particular genius lies in the intuitive strategic aspects of chess.

They are also very different characters, perhaps a reflection of their two nations. Carlsen can be dour, with a predeliction for  somewhat bleak irony. Nakamura is emotional, with an extreme self-confidence which can come across as arrogance. Indeed, earlier this year I witnessed his fury at the board, when he messed up a winning ending against the British grandmaster David Howell. But, in general, he has become a lot calmer since his relationship with his partner Maria, an Italian who has given stability to the life of an itinerant full-time chessplayer since the age of nine, which could otherwise have resembled  Fischer’s.

Could he do to Carlsen what Fischer did to Spassky in 1972 and become champion? Fischer had never beaten the Russian before then. But they had played only five games against each other up to that point. Hikaru, however, has an appalling record against Magnus in classical games: he has lost 11 times, without a single win. His most devastating defeat was in the following game, played at the beginning of 2014: the American champion played superbly and was on the verge of a stunning first victory . . . and then it all fell apart.

1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 Bb4 4.f3!? (A characteristically uncompromising choice by Nakamura. This is the sharpest resonse to Carlsen’s Nimzo-Indian Defence.) d5 5.a3 Be7 6.e4 dxe4 7.fxe4 e5 8.d5 (8.dxe5? Qxd1+ 9.Kxd1 Ng4 is absolutely not what White wants) Bc5 9.Bg5 0-0 10.Nf3 Bg4 11.h3 Bxf3 12.Qxf3 Nbd7 13.0-0-0 Bd4 14.Ne2 c5 15.g4 a5 16.Kb1 Ra6 17.Ng3 g6 18.h4! (Nakamura’s plan is breathtakingly blunt: he intends to checkmate the world champion) a4 19.Rh2 Qa5 20.Bd2 Qc7 21.g5 Ne8 22.h5 Rb6 23.Bc1 b3 24.Qg4 Nb6 25.Be2 Nd6 26.Rdh1 Bxb2 (This sacrifice is not sound. But it is the only counterplay he has against Nakamura’s massive K-side attack) 27.Bxb2 Nbxc4 28.Bxc4 Nxc4 29.hxg6 Qb6 (29…fxg6 fails to 30.Qe6+) 30.g7 Rd8 31.Qh4 Rxb2+ 32.Ka1 Rxh2 33.Rxh2 Qg6 34.Nf5! (The net closes on Carlsen’s king — and this also threatens to win the champion’s Queen with Ne7+) Re8 35.Qg4 Qb6 36.Qh3 Qg6 37.d6?? (Here Nakamura could have crowned his attack with 37.Qf1! b5 38.Rxh7!! Qxh7 39.Nh6+ Kxg7 40.Qxf7+ Kh8 41.Qxe8+ Kg7 42.Qf7+ Kh8 43.Qf8+ and mate next move) Nxd6 38.Nxd6 Rd8! (Here Nakamura must have realised with horror that his planned 39.Nf5 is met by 39…Rd1+ 40.Ka2 Qe6+! 41.Kb2 Qb6+ 42.Kc2 Qb1+ 43.Kc3 Qb3 checkmate. It’s hard to know what this brilliant tactician had missed — possibly that 37.d6 opened up the square e6 for Carlsen’s Queen to check on the g8-a2 diagonal) 39.Nc4? (Nakamura’s normally flawless calculations desert him: 39.Nc8! heading for e7 was best after which he would still have a slight advantage) Qxe4 40.Qh5?? (Visibly upset, Nakamura loses the plot completely. 40.Ne3! was good enough to draw after 40…Qd3 41.Nf5! as White’s mating threat to h7 means Black must settle for the perpetual check after 41…Qd1+ 42.Ka2 Rd2+ 43.Rxd2 Qxd2+) Rd3! 41.Rh4 Qf5 42.Qe2 b5 43.Nd2 Qxg5 44.Qxd3 Qxh4 45.Ne4 Kxg7 46.Qf3 Qf4 47.Qg2+ Kf8 48.Kb2 h5! (Horrible irony for Nakamura. Carlsen’s h-pawn now imitates its opposite number’s earlier assault — but this one is going to touch down) 49.Nd2 h4 50.Kc2 b4 51.axb4 cxb4 52.Qa8+ Kg7 53.Qxa4 h3 54.Qb3 h2 55.Qd5 e4! 56.Qh5 e3 57.Nf3 e2 58.Kb3 f6 59.Ne1 Qg3+ 60.Ka4 Qg1 61.Qxe2 Qa7+! A final precise move by the champion, avoiding giving his opponent even the faintest chance after 61…h1=Q 62.Qe7+, so Nakamura resigned. If he does play Carlsen for the supreme title next year, you can expect the world champion to remind him of this game.

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