Nakamura On The Candidates: 'Am I The Oldest Player In The Field?!'
Hikaru Nakamura. Photo: Maria Emelianova/

Nakamura On The Candidates: 'Am I The Oldest Player In The Field?!'

| 35 | Chess Players

Last Sunday, GM Hikaru Nakamura joined commentators GM Yasser Seirawan and GM Daniel Naroditsky after winning the week nine Rapid Chess Championship knockout and explained his Candidates preparation, his mentality going into one of the biggest events of his career, and reflected on being one of the older players to have qualified.

Yasser Seirawan (YS): Hikaru, hearty congratulations on qualifying for the Candidates. Brilliant. You make us all so very proud, well done my friend, well done.

Thank you, appreciate it. I just do what I can.

YS: Well, you certainly did. To get to the Candidates, as everybody knows, is really, really hard, but now you got that next mountain. There’s one prize, right? You got to be a challenger. How are you preparing yourself?

At the moment, it’s first of all trying to assemble a team. Obviously, unlike it when I qualified in 2016, or frankly I think unlike in any cycle in recent memory, for obvious reasons, of course, the final two qualifiers, myself and GM Richard Rapport, we have very limited time. It’s only two months before the event starts and so first things first I’m basically trying to put together the team and then probably in a week or so I’ll start looking at ideas just in depth. I guess technically we don’t even know who the eighth player is, although of course it’s going to be GM Ding Liren. So, probably in about a week I’ll start looking at stuff, but it’s just great to qualify. I think, for me, more than qualifying even, it was the fact that I was able to put up a great run at the end of the event in Berlin, winning those three games in a row in the qualifying stage and obviously after that it's all kind of just gravy basically.

I think, for me, more than qualifying even, it was the fact that I was able to put up a great run at the end of the event in Berlin.

YS: Absolutely. Becoming the number-one ranked player in blitz and the number-one ranked player in rapid, it’s all very good. And, you say, that’s kind of an interesting thing, and I think a lot of people in the audience would like your insights. You’re saying you’re putting together a team. What does that mean? What does a candidate grandmaster like yourself [do]? What is a team?

I think first and foremost, well, you look at a game like I played against GM Levon Aronian, this sort of stuff where someone has an idea. I made it work in this rapid game; this is a classical game. I suspected after this whole 22...g5 thing I would have ended in trouble.

Aronian Nakamura Berlin 2022
In the first round in Berlin, Aronian beat Nakamura with an opening idea that he had prepared before the game. Photo: World Chess.

What you do is you try to pick one or two people to help you out with preparation in very specific openings, which is also why you generally don’t reveal whom you’re working with until after the event because people will know ahead of time. There are certain players who play certain openings and you just don’t want them having that information. So mainly it’s just looking at players who are specialists in certain openings—maybe they have some special skill, like, you can play training games against them. Maybe they play the Ruy Lopez very well, maybe they play something like the Queen’s Gambit Declined.

But generally, you’re just looking for those sorts of things and people who are experts in their fields. Although I do have to say, in all fairness, I kind of did that in 2016 where I worked with GM Peter Leko and I decided to play the Queen's Indian Defense, and two of my three losses in that event were in the Queen's Indian Defense, so it can be a double-edged sword.

Daniel Naroditsky (DN): Hikaru, I just have one very quick question about your sort of mental preparation for the event. Are you trying to treat it like the Grand Prix and telling yourself: this is just another tournament—I gotta play my best? Or is it for you sort of: this is a special tournament and your mental preparation is very specific? How are you coaching yourself mentally in preparation for the Candidates?

I think, for me, I treat it mostly as just another tournament, but one thing that I’ve said quite a bit recently is that perhaps my two biggest regrets both come from the Candidates in 2016, first of all, switching my openings, playing this Queen's Indian Defense instead of playing the Queen's Gambit Declined at the time, which I did play later in the event and won a game against GM Veselin Topalov with. That was one of them. The second thing with the Candidates in 2016 was that I felt that I just basically cracked under pressure. I think every night I was maybe sleeping four or five hours and I just let all that stress and pressure get to me. Even if I don’t win the tournament this time, I think just having that chance to play good chess and perform better than I did, just on that level, is probably for me the most important thing because I really didn’t think I would ever have the chance after 2016.

I really didn’t think I would ever have the chance after 2016.

YS: It sounds like you’ve already taken a lot of lessons from your very first Candidates experience and now you understand yourself just a lot better as a player. You’re a much more mature player now, Hikaru. How do you rate your chances?

Well, to be fair, I’m quite fortunate. I think that if this was in 2019, for example, I would probably have the same issues with stress and pressure. I think if you look at, say, Levon Aronian being the most prominent example, I think he played five or six Candidates, and every single time after the first half he was leading, and then towards the end, something went wrong. I think the fact that it’s not make-or-break for me the way that it will be for pretty much every other player definitely helps me. I think, you know, I would say this: if I get out of the openings and I’m not in a lot of trouble, I think I’m maybe even a favorite in the event. Or at least I feel very confident about my chances to just play chess.

I think the fact that it’s not make-or-break for me the way that it will be for pretty much every other player definitely helps me.

DN: Are you excited to play GM Alireza Firouzja in the Candidates? Are you excited to show that the older generation still has some miles left in the tank?

It’s funny, wait, as I am thinking about the Candidates … actually, am I the oldest player in the field?

YS [laughing]: It now dawns on Hikaru!

I actually am, right? I’ve never thought about that until now. Oh my gosh, it’s crazy. 

YS: You are the old man in the field!

DN: 34, yeah.

That’s insane.

YS: It’s a young man’s game.

[GM Teimour Radjabov, who was born earlier in 1987, is the slightly older player in the Candidates - ed.]

Hikaru Nakamura Candidates 2022 interview
Nakamura: "Actually, am I the oldest player in the field?"

I think what I will say is: for playing Alireza, he’s probably one player that I haven’t played a lot. Obviously, he’s been training for a long time for the Candidates. It’s gonna be exciting. I think, for Alireza, obviously there are a lot of people who have really high expectations, thinking he’s going to win the tournament and play GM Magnus Carlsen in the future. For me, I feel like I’ve always done well against him and it’s gonna be very exciting to play against someone who is so much younger than I am because, really, since maybe the time I played against Magnus, I haven’t felt—I mean with Magnus first person on the scene—I don’t think I’ve played someone where I felt that they’re really all that much younger than me. It’s just a couple of years, give or take. It’s gonna be exciting and we’ll see how it goes.

YS: Hikaru, what can I say, we wish you the absolute best of luck and we will be applauding and cheering you on in your campaign to become challenger.

Thank you so much, you guys.

Peter Doggers

Peter Doggers joined a chess club a month before turning 15 and still plays for it. He used to be an active tournament player and holds two IM norms.

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