SALON, March 2006 (Note: This is the original version of the story that later appeared, modified and updated, in Salon.)
“Where is Nakamura?” says Rene Kesselring, a perspiring gray-haired man with tiny golden rooks stitched on his tie, as he checks his watch. “We need Nakamura!”
It’s a humid fall night in Lausanne, Switzerland, a hilly town on the Alp-lined shores of Lake Geneva, and Kesselring has reason to sweat. There’s a crowd rumbling inside the palatial Casino de Montbenon for the Lausanne Young Masters Tournament, a high stakes six day battle to determine the best young chess genius on the planet.
For the past year, Kesselring, the event’s organizer, scoured the globe for the eight most promising grandmasters under 20 – whiz kids including Magnus Carlsen, a baby-faced 14-year-old Norwegian killer with a rack of corporate sponsors; Elisabeth “Lizzy” Paehtz, a sassy German teen in a miniskirt and high heels; and Andrei Volokitin, a 20-year-old Ukrainian machine who’s considered his storied region’s rising star.
But there’s no player with a greater, or more controversial, reputation than the stocky Asian-American teenager who’s keeping the crowd and Kesselring waiting: Hikaru Nakamura. Though just 17, Nakamura has shattered the history books to become America’s winningest chess prodigy ever. By 10, he achieved the rarefied title of master; by 15, he was the country’s youngest grandmaster. Last December, he sealed his coronation by taking home the U.S. championship.
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 termed his crushing of a rival player, “pay-back.” 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 earned the nicknamed “the King of Blitz” for his top-ranked mastery of high-speed smack-downs. Opponents have been known to strike back beyond the board. During one tournament, a kid got so pissed he chucked a basketball at Nakamura’s head. But the bad boy image has only emboldened his enigma. As one chess scribe puts it, “Nakamura likes being the fighter and the loner. He’s the lone American taking on the world.”
If the characterization sounds familiar, it should. Nakamura’s potent brew of balls and brains have earned him the obvious comparison; as Kesselring puts it, “maybe he’s the next Bobby Fischer.”
We can only hope. With the chess world hemorrhaging nerds to dot-coms and poker, the game, particularly in America, is starved for a hero. Nakamura and the new generation of players find themselves torn between an ancient game and modern life. They are struggling to discover how they can unleash their killer instinct without letting it destroy them. The cautionary tale being, once again, Bobby Fischer, once the world’s most infamous chess wunderkind who became a wild-eyed, long-bearded paranoid and vanished mysteriously during his prime.
“He played too much chess and went crazy,” says Nakamura, after finally lumbering into the hall for his showdown. “I’m not a mad genius,” he adds.
But he is pissed.
Elizabeth Paehtz hunches over her bishop on a dark, draped stage, head in hands, legs crossed under her checkered miniskirt, a sleek white high heeled shoe swinging flirtatiously from her foot. Across from her sits Volokitin, the Ukrainian master, like some stiff upright Beavis in a drab gray suit swiped from Borat on Ali G. After swiftly losing her first match against Volokitin, she has to win this one to move on to the quarter-finals. But it’s not going well. This is the so-called “opening” section of the game, a sort of glacial dance in which players aggress and defend based on a memorized sequence of moves. Though Paehtz has trained under the legendary Garry Kasparov, she’s struggling even now to crack Volokitin icy resolve. And, no, she later says, she can’t use her sex appeal as a weapon, even if she wanted to. “I don’t think these guys are interested in women,” she later swipes.
Chess fanatics are indeed an obsessive breed. And with the first days of the tournament underway in Lausanne, the stylish Casino is thick with the smell of man dork.
Downstairs in the basement, a makeshift bookseller hawks paperbacks such as Genius in Chess, Black Is Still OK!, and Mastering the Najdorf. Pasty young men playing for fun fondle their queens’ stylized curves. Paehtz’ assessment later proves true. When, after losing against Volokitin, she and her friend Monika Seps, a striking 19-year-old Swiss chess champ from Zurich, sashay through the room on their way to the outside bar, there’s nary a leer. “I don’t have to worry about them raping me,” Paehtz deadpans.
For outside this insular world, the scene would seem to resemble the one portrayed in the schmaltzy 1993 movie, Searching for Bobby Fischer. The film follows Josh Waitzkin, a prodigy as he entered chess’s inner circle of bratty kids, domineering parents, and narcissistic Obi Wan–like 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. As Carlsen says dismissively, in halting English, “That is just film.”
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 entirely 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 the players in Lausanne. Paehtz, who has been a relatively glamorous star on the chess tournament scene since she was nine, has watched numerous peers give up the game in lieu of the far more lucrative world of Texas Hold ‘Em. “It’s tempting for a player,” she says, “you know you can make a lot of money.” Compared to, say, 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 U.S. Championship and earned $25,000. But a five-figure prize is the exception rather than the rule. The winner in Lausanne will get about $4,500. And while invitation-only events such as this one 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.
For the young grandmasters gathered this week, the degree of suffering varies according to their nationality. In western Europe, where living costs are high, players survive by mastering a game far removed from the chessboard: sponsorships. With her short skirts, nosebleed heels, and flapper-style red hair, Paehtz has become a celebrity in Germany. The winner of the world championship for women under 18, she chats up the talk shows hosts and poses on all fours in a slinky outfit for her webpage. As a result, Paehtz is 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 their 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 Dirk Jan ten Geuzendam, editor-in-chief of New in Chess magazine. “Everyone treats you like a star.”
But America is another story. The cost of living is high, the respect is nil, and the sponsorships non-existent. Nakamura explodes when he talks about the other players’ sponsors because, despite being the U.S. champion, he has none. One afternoon, over lunch, he fumes, “Any other young person who devotes his life to becoming the best in the world at something is making millions of dollars!” He’s exaggerating, but the point is well taken. He’s the best, and for this he has given up plenty. Before he goes on stage, he likes to slip on his iPod and crank up what he describes as his theme song. “It’s by Green Day,” he says. “‘Boulevard of Broken Dreams.’”
After two days and more than a dozen hours at the board, Nakamura has his quarter-finals opponent, a hefty 18-year-old Georgian women named Nana Dzagnidze, right where he wants 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.
Chiseled from several hours a week of high-speed Internet blitz play, Nakamura is feared for his ruthless and lightning fast moves. The clock on the chess board 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 makes a feeble move with a knight, only to soon lose the fight.
After the match, Dzagnidze sighs deeply when asked what it’s like to play the American champ. “Ah, Nakamura,” she says, 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 sees the boy inside the nascent man. “He is like Winnie the Pooh,” she says, causing her translator to giggle, “he is cute.” Nakamura, says he prefers to model 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.”
He knows the feeling. Nakamura is a born outsider. At the age of two, he left his birthplace of Japan in 1987s when his family moved to the states. 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. 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 was 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, with a devilish grin. “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 autodidact 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 alongside his brother’s in the family’s apartment in White Plains, New York. 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 calling to have him on, and more tournament wins to follow, the torch was passed. And the heat closed in.
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?
Unless you’re an aficionado, chess is excruciatingly dull to watch. What makes it surpass golf or the Iron Chef, on the boredom meter is that chess lacks almost any physical action. There are no little white balls arcing gracefully through the air or glistening pink toro slices flying from blade to wok. There are just two people, staring at a wooden board silently for hours. When a player rises from his chair and sprints for the bathroom, the crowd is rapt.
As the semi-finals unfold, Weeramantry, dressed in loose jeans and a gray hooded sweatshirt, chuckles quietly to himself when his son’s opponent, Shakhriyar Mamedyarov, abruptly darts offstage and into an empty seat in the front row. The young Azerbaijani isn’t hoping to get a better view of the giant chess board projected on a screen behind the players; he’s showing off. “It’s the mind game,” Weeramantry says. “He’s being macho.” Ironically, for all of Nakamura’s bravado, he seldom resorts to such obvious ploys. He prefers his moves to do his talking.
Mamedyarov, darkly handsome and swaggering, is the stud of the Lausanne Young Masters, seldom arms reach away from a cute teenage girl. He doesn’t mention computers or talk about strategy when he’s asked about chess; instead, he talks about art. “I play chess because it is most beautiful thing,” he tells me later, as a raven-haired girl, a friend, leans into his grasp.
The Cold War may be over and the famous Fischer–Spassky match a dim memory, but the East–West 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 as well. 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. When Nakamura beats Mamedyarov, and clinches a seat in the finals, he’s nonchalant. “I won,” he says, with a shrug, “but it’s just a game.”
“He has to take a draw! He has to take a draw!” Weeramantry rants as he paces up and down the steps leading to the tournament hall.
After five long days of competition, his son is finally in the finals, face-to-face with Andrei Volokitin, the Ukrainian grandmaster. The first player to win two games takes the tournament, the prize money, and the unofficial title of best young player in the world. With the first match in a dead heat, Weeramantry hopes that Volokitin takes a draw, allowing his son a little breathing room in the next game.
This doesn’t happen, but not because of Volokitin. Nakamura, even as the game turning against him, refuses to concede. And, as the boy becomes a man, he’s learned to keep his emotions get the better of him. “It’s easy to become angry,” he later explains, “ but when you get better, you channel your energy into the game.”
This game, however, was not meant to be. Hours into the match, he’s down to just his king, long after most players would have given up. But Nakamura keeps playing, moving the king from square to square as the packed crowd chuckles and the commentators bristle. It’s disrespectful to Volokitin and to the game, they say, to draw out the inevitable. Nakamura loses to his rival in the end, coming in a respectable second as the Lausanne tournament concludes. And, as he wont, he has not gone quietly.
Later, over a plate of beef tips and couscous, he says he may pull a Bobby Fischer and leave chess for good. “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.” 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, digging at his food, “it’s too early to tell.”
For the first time, he has no clue what his next move will be. And that’s just the way he wants it. He’s 17 and he’s ready to play.