Hikaru Nakamura was just 14 years old when Sports Illustrated’s Jeff Pearlman called the White Plains native “the best young US [chess] player since Bobby Fischer,” but it wasn’t Nakamura’s skills on the board that impressed the writer the most.
“Before this whole inevitable comparison thing goes too far (and it is inevitable),” wrote Pearlman in 2001, “let one important point be made: Hikaru Nakamura is essentially normal.”
Homeschooled from fifth grade on so that he could focus on chess and travel to tournaments in Europe with his stepfather, FIDE (World Chess Federation) master and former New York State chess champion Sunil Weeramantry, Nakamura didn’t think much of the pressure that supposedly came with the “prodigy” label. In fact, even when he broke Fischer’s record as the youngest American ever to earn the grandmaster title (15 years, 79 days old), he doesn’t recall being labeled at all.
“It’s a bit strange when I hear people say that now, because I certainly don’t remember that,” Nakamura says. “It was certainly not a normal lifestyle, but I think in many ways I am better off because of it. I got to see what the world is like instead of just hearing about it on the news.”
The 26-year-old, who lives in Florida and White Plains, has since risen to No. 1 in the nation and ninth-ranked in the world (seventh if you count only active players), compiling an impressive résumé that includes victories over World No. 1 Magnus Carlsen of Norway. Noted for his aggressive style of play that forces his competitors to play outside their comfort zones, Nakamura says he plays “maybe” one game of chess per day, reserving most of his practice time for studying his opponents.
“I used to play endlessly on the Internet,” he says, “but at the elite level, it’s more important to look at your opponent. The opening phase [the first 20 moves or so] is critical. You need to get an advantage at the beginning to win.”
Nakamura’s success has made him an attractive ambassador for a game that has struggled to hit its stride in the US. He recently joined Red Bull’s stable of sponsored athletes, a first-of-its-kind deal in the States for the energy-drink producer turned adventure brand that Nakamura hopes will help make chess more popular in America by showing people that it’s “not just a board game.” But he has another reason to be optimistic about the future of chess outside of its hotbed in the former Soviet Union.
“Let’s say you’re in Kansas. You go to your local chess club and play the best player there, but you sort of hit a point where it’s impossible to improve. Now, you get on the Internet and, if you’re a strong enough player, you can play against grand masters. That’s invaluable.”