Hikaru Nakamura: “These days I've been much happier”

Hikaru Nakamura: “These days I've been much happier”

| 24 | Chess Players

Just a few hours after he won the Gibraltar Masters, GM Hikaru Nakamura sat down with for an interview.

The U.S. grandmaster, who is back to being America's number-one player in the live ratings, looks back at his tournament. At the same time Nakamura looks ahead, as he will participate in lots of great events in 2015.

First, there is the Zurich Chess Classic which starts this Friday with an opening ceremony and a blitz tournament to determine the lot numbers. Then Nakamura will play the U.S. Championship and the final Grand Prix in Khanty-Mansiysk.

Below is the video interview followed by the transcript.

Peter Doggers: Hikaru, thanks for doing this interview. First, congratulations with winning your second title in Gibraltar.

Hikaru Nakamura: Thanks.

How does it feel?

It certainly feels good. I felt that from start to finish I was certainly in the hunt. I think I was on board two or board one the entire event. It was pretty smooth for the most part. There was one game yesterday where I was in some trouble but otherwise I never really in any danger. So overall it felt quite good and I felt that I played a pretty high level throughout.

Actually I was wondering... when was the previous time you played an open tournament?

A strong open tournament? I am not even sure. Something like the World Open maybe in 2010 or 2011, if I had to guess. But for the most part I haven't been playing opens since then. It certainly was a bit of a change, but it was also kind of nice. You get to play some new people, there are new faces... Just in general it's not the same people over and over again so therefore there's more variety, more openings so in general it's much more interesting on a certain level.

And it seems to be a bit of a trend these days!

Yeah. I think nowadays actually what you're having is, you have some many people over 2700, there aren't enough invitations to go around. I think because of that now there's some overflow, where people start to play in the opens more. I think that applies for all the top players for that matter. I think Kramnik and Giri played in Qatar and So won the Millionaire Chess of course, so... I think it's just the case that there's so many people over 2700 and there aren't enough invitations to tournaments so that's why people play in the opens now. Which is good, it's very good.

And there's even a 2800 here.

Oh yeah, right, Topalov, I forgot. No, I think any time you have top players it's good for everyone.

People were wondering of course... you were not in Wijk, but you did play this one. Was this a personal choice or...what was behind that?

I wasn't officially invited to Wijk, so it's not as though I officially declined. But I think the organizers were well aware that I had intentions to play here some months ago in fact. In general it's just a personal choice. I think I have played in Wijk four, five years ago. I kind of wanted to change the scenery. And also, I did win here in 2008, I believe it was 2008 that I won the tournament here in Gibraltar. So it's kind of that I wanted to come back and play again. And everything worked out. But I'm sure I'll be back in Wijk in the future again, so we'll see.

This is a very social event and many players actually joined this tournament bringing their partner, including you. Did this help you in any way to stay positive, to keep the vibe going?

I am not sure actually! Because I obviously had a great tournament but my significant other had a pretty bad tournament. But I think in general though, certainly when you're in a place like Gibraltar, there's much more to do, the weather is much nicer... In Wijk aan Zee the weather tends to be gloomy, to say the least, and so for the most part it's all about chess. You play your game and then you go to one of the three or four nice restaurants, the fixtures, in Wijk aan Zee and then you go to sleep and you just do that over and over again for pretty much three weeks. Here of course you have the opportunities to go down to the water, to go into Gibraltar, into the city... you just have a lot more options here. And when you add in the good weather, in many ways it feels like a vacation. I think that's probably why a lot of people myself included didn't come here on their own.

As far as the tournament itself... I think these days I've been much happier. I've been much happier in the past few months than the past couple of years. I think it's just an overall trend for me.

Great to hear that. In fact this is your second year in Gib; the first time was in 2008. I was here too in that year by the way. What do you think is the biggest difference in your play in those seven years?

There are a few things. I think. When I won in 2008 I had a pretty remarkable streak; I think I lost just two games earlier, or was it one and a draw... anyway, I dropped one and a half or two points in the first five rounds and then I won five in a row to make it into the playoff. I think I lost two, actually.

I think at that time I was kind of...I was much more carefree. When I played a tournament I didn't worry about rating. It was kind of you play your openings, you play what you know, you go from there. I think nowadays... That was seven years ago. Now everyone is much better prepared now and in general I approach it with the mentality that in some cases you really have to take risks to try and beat the lower-rated players whereas when I was just a 2650 or whatever I was at the time, you just go and you play. None of these thoughts creep into your head, it's like an opening might be equal, but if it's equal it's equal whereas now when you play some opening and it might be equal, but if it's equal it's equal, whereas now when you play some of these openings, sometimes I think like: OK but maybe that's not enough to get an advantage, to try and win. So I think kind of the whole mindset is different, certainly with where I am at now.

As far as overall play, I think I am a much more rounded player. I think back then I was pretty much "win at all cost." That doesn't necessarily mean that I don't take risks anymore, but it's kind of without the objectivity, so it's kind of whatever you do to get the result, but the quality didn't matter so much. Now I think...obviously I took some risks to win some of the games, but I felt that it was controlled, it wasn't completely insane and crazy where anything was gonna happen.

Nakamura before his last-round game in Gibraltar. | Photo Sophie Triay.

How disappointed were you that you didn't win that Vancura rook ending?

I am not so upset that I didn't win the actual ending there, because it had been going on for a long time and I was quite tired. But you have to look at the bigger picture. Certainly I think there were other games in this tournament that I won...I think the critical one that I won was the one against Topalov, which objectively I never should have won. So in many ways it all balances out.

It would have been nice to win against Howell, but luck is going to even out somewhere along the line. You know, if I win against Howell maybe I don't beat the Chinese guy next round, and suddenly it's very similar to what happened in fact in the tournament. So, I was disappointed because I felt missed a few quite easy wins in that endgame, but nevertheless, it happens...It's hard to be greedy when you're on plus six at that point.

Do you think such a positive result at the very start of the year can sort of catapult you a little bit to having a good year overall?

Yeah. I think that's actually one of the biggest problems of 2014. I started off really badly. Actually I started off well; I think I won my very first game last year against Naiditsch in Wijk. I think I was probably right around where I am now, and the wheels kind of came off in the rest of that tournament. And Zurich of course... we all know what happened in Zurich! I don't even need to mention that. So it was difficult, because I was already off to a bad start. I was kind of trying to play catch up and get back rating points and just play well, and I had already lost about two and a half months of the year.

I think certainly it's a good start, but I think Zurich is going to be quite a big test. All the top players will be back, it will be a round robin, so it will be back to the usual kind of event. But certainly I'm optimistic and I think I really couldn't have expected more from this event. So obviously I'm happy.

Let's look ahead a little bit more. I think after Zurich your next event will be the U.S. Championship. The players were announced I think two days ago. You AND Wesley AND Gata and basically everybody is playing this year, which is great. I guess you're also looking forward to that?

Yeah. It's kind of like this tournament, I don't think I've played the U.S. Championship for three or four years, I'm losing track of time. It will be nice obviously to play with so many strong players in the field it should certainly be a good event. I always like playing in St. Louis and I'm sure it will be a great event.

Nakamura in the penultimate round in Gibraltar. | Photo John Saunders.

I guess it will also be a little bit about your rivalry with Wesley So; you passed him again on the rating list during this tournament so now you're back to being "U.S. number one." So how does it balance out; I guess it has a very positive effect; you will have an even stronger Olympic team for example. There is also more competition for you now. How do you feel about how things are going?

First of all I wouldn't say it's a rivalry. We haven't really played that many times. People like to talk about my results with Magnus and I don't think you can call it a rivalry because I've lost so many games to him. And I would say the same thing; we played that match and I beat him quite soundly. I would say: look at the result before calling it a rivalry.

At any rate, it's obviously good for the Olympiad. But I have my own personal reservations in that I think on the one hand it's not so good. It's good for competition, it's bad for some of the rising players in America who aren't going to have a chance to get invitations. Some of the players, like the Shanklands or the Robsons, they aren't really going to have opportunities unless they pick up a lot of points. So it's good and bad. Nevertheless, certainly as far as playing in the U.S. Championship it gives me more competition and a reason to compete, so yeah, there's good and bad, that is my take.

After that there is basically your event of the year I guess. You're going to Khanty-Mansiysk, Siberia, your last Grand Prix. This is going to be a big one. Any idea how you're going to prepare? Will you take a lot of rest, or...?

I guess I'll have some time, because I think the U.S. Championship will end some time mid-April and I think Khanty-Mansiysk is in the middle of May, so I should have about a month. Certainly it's by far the most important tournament of the year. You know, I could do horribly in the U.S. Championship but I would be fine with that if I can qualify for the Candidates. I guess I would say I would put in more effort for that event than some of the others possibly, although obviously I'll study for all the events. But nevertheless I just have to get a result there, so I'll just do whatever I can.

Then there's also the news that you have signed up for Millionaire Chess in October. That's going to be interesting as well...another open tournament. What made you decide to play this event this year?

I think I made a comment earlier when there was the commentary... I think was Simon Williams said I had a nice payday, I won quite a bit of money and I said something like: you don't play for the money, you just play for the quality. In the case of Millionaire Chess it's the exact opposite reason! I'm playing because there's big prize money there and there's really no good reason not to. I think there are, what, three or four 2700 players registered, so I didn't see a reason not to play. I mean, why not. Especially, I think I registered maybe after the sixth or seventh round here and playing an open and doing well, I felt a bit inspired to play some more opens.

Nakamura giving a speech at the closing ceremony in Gibraltar. | Photo John Saunders.

Very good. Any other events this year? Maybe some non-chess things?

As far as chess goes... Topalov kind of made this big comment about this Grand Prix thing...

Right. Norway, St. Louis and London.

Yeah. I assume I'll probably qualify for that, so I probably have a few tournaments to play there as well. My year is pretty clear cut. I just have to do what I can and I think good things will happen.

Another Reddit AMA perhaps?

We'll see, we'll see! Probably.

And what about Of course you're a frequent guest at our site, we're a silent sponsor... Any plans this year to do things on the site? Maybe play a Titled Tuesday...?

I think you can guarantee that I'll play a Titled Tuesday! I've seen my picture on that little banner enough times. One of these months I'll definitely play. Can't let Jobava win all the time! I'll definitely be playing in that and we'll see, I'm sure there will be other events as well. It's a great site.

OK! Thanks a lot!

Sure, anytime.

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