Hikaru Nakamura and the Significance of Playing Without Pressure
Hikaru Image credit of creozavr (

Hikaru Nakamura and the Significance of Playing Without Pressure

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The ideas within this blog I truthfully think could make a huge difference for a lot a people. As such it is quite a read with some of my own personal experiences/thoughts and other information that is important for you to understand so that you can understand why certain things made such an impression on me. As such the first few sections will be more of a mix of informational and personal experiences with the latter few being more personal thoughts and lessons. 



Many of you reading this, I imagine, are like me and follow chess news and chess events somewhat regularly. I assume that because you are on a chess website reading a blog post written by some random Grandmaster from Utah . Truth is though, that is one of the biggest things that makes chess so great right now. With technology and the increasing popularity of watching live streams, chess is expanding its mark in all directions and now there is so much out there to watch, read, and participate in. I just turned 24, but as young as I am I can still accurately use the statement “back in my day” followed by “they didn’t have this”. All this growth and increasing content has changed chess in many ways, most of which has been very positive. 

One of the changes I have particularly noticed is everyone’s awareness of different chess players. Not too long ago, unless I was talking to someone that I met because of chess, if the topic of chess came up then it was quite normal for Bobby Fischer to be the only player people were familiar with. On rare occasions, people knew of Garry Kasparov, and once in a great while people knew Magnus Carlsen. Nowadays, when I talk to people, not only is it much more common that they are familiar with all three of those players, but they even have their own favorite YouTuber or Streamer. The first time I was introduced to agadmator was years ago by someone that hadn’t even played in an over-the-board tournament. Of course with COVID-19 and Queen’s Gambit, there is so much more that could be talked about which has led to an increase in popularity for chess, but the point I am getting at with all of this is: Hikaru Nakamura. 


Hikaru Nakamura

Many of you already know, but for those that don’t: GM Hikaru has been a big contributor and leader for the increasing popularity of chess in the last few years. He is up to 1.4 million followers on his Twitch Channel, 1.28 million subscribers on his YouTube Channel, and shows no signs of slowing down. As a chess fan, it is hard to be upset about Hikaru’s focus shift to streaming and his contribution to growing chess, but still, I found myself a bit sad about it. It seemed the more Hikaru got involved with streaming the less he was playing in OTB tournaments and eight months ago, even though I never saw Hikaru ever say he was done with classical OTB tournaments, it had been so long since he had played in one it was starting to feel like he never would again, or at least not do so as seriously as he was previously. 

Truthfully, I can’t say I have ever felt like a major Hikaru fan. Mostly because “major” feels like a strong word to me. However, with my own timeline of learning, playing, and following chess he has in a lot of ways been the American Champion to me and he is one I have always followed because of that. So when it was announced in December of 2021 that Hikaru would be a wildcard for the FIDE Grand Prix 2022 my curiosity to see how he would do was fully peaked. How often are you told that blitz and bullet are bad for your chess? I have heard it so many times and here was Hikaru–a super strong player but one that had mostly played blitz and bullet and no serious classical tournaments for two years–going to play in the FIDE Grand Prix, a top-level tournament series. Going into it, I admit that I was seriously skeptical of him doing well. Even though, in that two-year period, Hikaru proved himself time and time again as one of the best players in games with a time control under 30-minutes, in my mind a step away from classical chess should have affected him more than the skills he had still clearly shown in faster time controls. 


FIDE Grand Prix 2022

That brings me to what actually happened and why I feel it was so significant. In the first tournament of the series not only did Hikaru do well, but he won the tournament. With a second-place finish in the third tournament of the series Hikaru placed 1st place overall in the Grand Prix and qualified for the Candidates Tournament--which starts tomorrow! I followed all three tournaments pretty closely and it wasn’t just that he won, it really felt like he played the best and most consistent chess overall and was deserving of the victory. Now the most interesting part of this to me wasn’t even that he had been absent from classical chess. As I said before that was interesting and definitely on my mind! However, the more fascinating part was how Hikaru constantly reiterated how he didn’t care. Currently, the video on his home page for his YouTube channel is even titled “Not Caring My Way To the Candidates”. For Hikaru, it makes a lot of sense that he wouldn’t care, I don’t know the exact number he makes, but it doesn’t really matter because he is clearly successful enough that you know he makes a great living. That success was never going to be hurt by him not doing well in the Grand Prix. However, that doesn’t change that for all of us it is something to think about. Hikaru not only won the Grand Prix but did it without having played a classical tournament in over 2 years. So how substantial is not caring about results? Or in other words “What is the significance of playing without pressure?”


The Significance of Playing Without Pressure

I would strongly encourage anyone reading this to take a moment to consider their own moments where the pressure got to them in their own chess games. I thought about this a lot when I wrote my blog on some of my worst moves ever because in almost every terrible tournament game I have played there was some aspect of psychology. I can hardly think of a game where I felt serious pressure/nerves and played well. I am sure many of you have seen similar effects of pressure in your own games. What makes it worse is that not only does pressure make you play worse, but it also makes your opponent play better. This is easy to imagine, I know I would much rather play against someone that is nervous compared to someone that is confident. I don’t think this is something I need to emphasize too much because there isn’t too much to debate or point out. The fact that you feel those nerves is good and shows that you are passionate about the game, but when it comes to actually playing, reducing that pressure and calming your nerves so you can go in confidently is ideal. 

So with that in mind, here are some thoughts that have hit me throughout my life and especially recently because of Hikaru’s performance that I would suggest to take away and apply for yourself to relieve that pressure:


  • Focus on playing well, not on how terrible it would be to lose.


I don’t know if I have ever reviewed a game of mine or reviewed a game with anyone else where from the beginning the stated reason for losing was “I thought too much about losing”, but I can say from experience that it has been the main reason for some of my losses and the main reason for many losses for others. Despite it being a somewhat common reason someone plays poorly it remains a bit of a taboo to admit because of the obvious: It sounds so stupid. It really is “I was so focused on the possibility of losing that I lost”. I believe in the danger of the psychology around this strongly. I actually got two of my Grandmaster Norms having only ever beaten GMs with the black pieces and I think a lot of this had to do with GMs being a lot more hesitant to draw a lower-rated player with the white pieces and thus playing more aggressively. Just that little bit of psychology from the extra pressure to win with white than with black made all the difference. Even though Hikaru says he didn’t care, the important distinction is that he didn’t care about the results. Hikaru definitely has a competitive spirit and is going to want to win any chess game he plays. He cared enough to still go in and put the effort to play some great games and he cared so little about the result that he was able to just focus on playing well. Anytime you find yourself obsessing about results, especially when it has to do with rating changes or achieving norms, then you need to be able to catch yourself, stop obsessing over it, and remind yourself that your life isn’t over if you lose that game. 


  • Learn from your mistakes, love your brilliancies. 


Over my years of playing chess I have had my own moments of dwelling on my mistakes. I think every chess player is familiar with that pit you get in your stomach when you realize all the thought and effort you put into a game is now ruined after that “one mistake”. Chess is one of the most brutal games out there. In many sports, games, and activities, one mistake isn’t too big of a deal, however, in chess one mistake often means game over. Of course, I am not talking about the many “mistakes” that the chess engines might point out, but the one mistake you played where you knew you had thrown it away. “Learn from your mistakes” is a great piece of advice, not just for chess, but for life. However, when talking about working on reducing the pressure you feel during games there can be a negative side to that “learn from your mistakes” mindset. The downside to learning from your mistakes is to do so you have to fully realize them. Is there a better way to demoralize someone than to point out every single one of their mistakes? Yet, finding all of those mistakes is often our goal as chess players. That is why I believe quite strongly in this point. Analyze your games and understand where your mistakes were and how to fix them, but also understand what you did well. To me, Hikaru was a great example of this. Building his success with streaming and growing that fan base, and all of the great results in many blitz and rapid tournaments left him with something he could be confident with going into the Grand Prix. Even if he had lost every game that still would never have undone all of that. You don’t need to be as good as Hikaru or have the following he has, but you do need a strong foundation like he has. Build up your base by understanding all the good moves and brilliant decisions you have made in games, then instead of going in only knowing how bad you can play, you can go in knowing that you are absolutely capable of beating your opponent.

As a side note. During tournaments, be very cautious of getting caught up in your mistakes. Too many people spend way too much time analyzing their mistakes during a tournament. Fix any opening problems just in case someone throws that opening at you again, but I would repeat the sentence I mentioned above. “Is there a better way to demoralize someone than to point out every single one of their mistakes?” If you spend a lot of time analyzing your mistakes during a tournament then all you are doing is emphasizing why you shouldn’t win your next game. You may think you are doing yourself a favor and that what you are doing is “correcting” your mistakes, but I have seen it too many times (with myself included) where all it does is lead to even worse mistakes in the next game. You can still analyze with your opponent or take a quick glance through just to get a feel for what you should have done differently, but you need confidence during a tournament. It is a fine line and you should at least be cautious of diving in too deep. 


  • Practice and play.


One of the biggest things I learned from teaching is that I could typically tell how much someone was practicing/playing after about 5-10 minutes of talking to them. A lot of people view "practice" as the hard work you do to improve your skills or stay sharp, which is absolutely true, but the much more forgotten benefit of practice is that it does wonders for your psychological state. That’s what I started to notice more and more as I was teaching. The way someone talked, the confidence, and even the passion they had for chess were all different when they were actively engaged in chess outside of the lessons. If you want to help your nerves then actually do the work beforehand to get rid of them. This is a really important point when talking about Hikaru’s classical chess inactivity. As I said before I really thought not playing in a classical tournament for over two years would really affect his play, but I feel like I really discredited how active he still is in chess. I’ve tuned into his stream a number of times and seen him solving puzzles or going back through one of the games he played. Many times chess players get overwhelmed but the sheer amount of things they could be doing for study and proceed to not do anything. Better is to start with something–anything–that you know is beneficial. It doesn’t have to be the most intense study schedule you have ever done, but a consistent minor effort is better than an inconsistent serious effort. Slow and steady wins the chess game .


  • Enjoy the game.


Hikaru is a strong enough chess player that he could make a living in chess in any one of the ways there is to do so. He has gone in the direction of streaming and I can’t imagine a more perfect career for him. He is legendary for his online play in bullet and blitz. He has played an astronomical amount of games over the years and is one of the best ever for those faster time-controls, even considered the best by many, particularly in bullet. Streaming is a perfect way for him to use that skill since faster time-controls are more enjoyable to watch for the everyday chess fan. Hikaru isn’t only a niche chess player, but he has found the niche that works best for him and makes chess the most enjoyable. The saying “time flies when you are having fun” applies to chess too. When chess is fun, studying is easier, playing is easier, and you reduce the pressure you feel significantly. I have mentioned this in blogs before because it is something I believe in strongly, and I would encourage you all to think about it. What parts of chess do you enjoy and how can you incorporate that into your everyday chess schedule? 


  • Other pieces of advice.


There are a few things that aren’t large enough to put into their own category and are not things I would relate to Hikaru, but still from my own experience really helped me. 

First, be careful of overloading yourself right before a game or tournament. The most moves I ever played from pure memorization was 35 moves. I was a bit of an opening prep freak and started to feel that I needed to be cautious of that. Some openings do tend to have more theory and if you are playing them at a top level you do need to be really well prepared, but right before a game if you are cramming lines like mad and trying to memorize every possibility... you can just as easily do more harm than good by tiring yourself out. I will never forget one tournament where in one day I played a 7-hour game and a 5 ½-hour game, 12 ½-hours total with about 30-minutes additionally where I was looking at lines beforehand for both games. That day it paid off and I got 1.5 points against two strong players, but the next day I got .5 out of two games and hallucinated in a line I could have just won a piece which caused me to not go for it. Most tournaments nowadays don’t have time-controls long enough to even play that long, but that experience and many others have emphasized to me that conserving your energy and going in with a clear head can be more beneficial than any last-minute line can be. For me, that also included not doing anything “chess” related the day before a tournament. It was something I was told by my coach at the time (GM Melik Khachiyan) and that stuck with me. Better to go into a tournament with full energy and hungry for chess than to go in tired and wanting a break from chess. 

Second, have something you can do to relax during a tournament. Tournaments can often be very intense and for that weekend or week your life feels like it is 100% chess. That is why I think it is important to have something where you can relax at least a little bit during a tournament, whether going for a walk or watching one episode of a TV show you really like. A little bit of relaxation can go a long way for the often pressure-filled event chess tournaments are.

Lastly, reduce secondary issues. When I would play at any tournament there were certain things that weren’t necessarily chess things that made life better while I was playing. This could be something as simple as bringing my own pillow from home. I hated the hotel pillows and it could make it difficult for me to sleep, so I started taking my own pillow from home. It may sound silly when talking about chess, but chess is such a mind game that every little thing that can put you in the right mindset goes a long way.


Final Thoughts

There is a lot more that could be said about this particular topic. These points I highlighted were the main ones that hit me after watching Hikaru through the Grand Prix. To finish this blog I am going to include games. My favorite of Hikaru’s from the Grand Prix and a few of my own where because I went in confidently it really affected the way I played. Since the focus of showing my games is how confidence affected my play there will be some key moments I will skip over. Feel free to look at those moments and analyze how you could have played better than me or my opponents happy




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