Hikaru Nakamura is the next Bobby Fischer -- and the reason St. Louis is suddenly the epicenter of American chess

Hikaru Nakamura is the next Bobby Fischer -- and the reason St. Louis is suddenly the epicenter of American chess

Bobby Fischer's shadow is 40 years long. For decades, when people have talked about American chess, they have talked about Fischer. He's a tough legend to live up to and a mildly terrifying one to be compared to, and the events that accompany his name are the hallmarks of the American chess scene: the Game of the Century he played at thirteen, his Cold War matches against Boris Spassky, the rematch in Yugoslavia that made him a stranger to his country, a mind that deteriorated into delusions. At the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of St. Louis, Bobby Fischer comes up in debates, during analysis and in the friendly banter between players.

Today, however, they're not talking about Fischer.

The chess club is quiet this Thursday, but there are exceptions. On the top floor of the three-story building, a seven-year-old boy is giving his chess instructor a hard time. Although his teacher is winning the game, it's unclear who's winning the argument, a back-and-forth debate about the French defense. It is 3 p.m.

Earlier this month, SportsIllustrated.com named Nakamura's Twitter handle (@GMHikaru) one of the top 100 sports accounts to follow.
Betsy Dynako
Earlier this month, SportsIllustrated.com named Nakamura's Twitter handle (@GMHikaru) one of the top 100 sports accounts to follow.
Hikaru Nakamura (right) takes on Russian grandmaster Peter Svidler in a November 2009 match in Norway.
AFP Photo / Scanpix / Erlend Aas
Hikaru Nakamura (right) takes on Russian grandmaster Peter Svidler in a November 2009 match in Norway.

"Why the French?"

"Because they came up with it."

"What's it called again?"

"The French defense."

"What?"

"French. Defense."

As the boy grows progressively sassier, his mother smiles, nods and taps his sister, who is focused on what looks like math homework.

"Your brother will be the next Hikaru," she says. She nods a second time, as if to cement this fact.


As recently as four years ago, the chess mom would probably have compared her child to Bobby Fischer — a tired paradigm to be sure, but one that has dominated the nation's consciousness since the American chess giant won the 1972 world championship. Fischer was a lot of things, and not all of them were good. In the years since, chess's fallen king has faced considerable scrutiny of his sanity (he was both Jewish and an anti-Semite) but few rivals to his legacy (see: Searching for Bobby Fischer). Hikaru Nakamura, then, is somewhat of a game changer.

"His chess talent is insane," says Ben Finegold, the club's grandmaster in residence. "When he was young, it was always like, 'How is this possible?' Before you meet him and see him play, you have no idea. There's no one else like this.

"I mean it. No one."

Since clinching his No. 1 spot in the United States in 2005 and again in 2009, the 23-year-old St. Louis resident has secured a post on the list of the world's top ten players. The order of that list changes, but the names on it rarely do; FIDE, the World Chess Federation, currently ranks Nakamura sixth in the world.

Whether he wants to or not (it depends on the day), Nakamura has tied his name to Fischer's for the foreseeable future. And he has tied it in a knot.

At age ten (and 79 days), he was granted the title of "chess master" by the United States Chess Federation. At the time, he was the youngest in the world to hit that mark — breaking Fischer's record by three years. At age fifteen (and 79 days), Nakamura became the youngest American "grandmaster" in history, beating Fischer by a narrow three months. His greatest recent victory came at this year's Wijk aan Zee international super-tournament in the Netherlands, at which he placed first, ahead of the four highest-ranked players in the world. Former world champion Garry Kasparov told the New York Times that Nakamura's results were perhaps stronger than any of Fischer's tournaments and the best performance from an American player in more than 100 years.

That bond with Fischer's legacy, one no other American can claim, creates a great deal of both public and personal pressure. It also requires sacrifice.

Nakamura's moods can be as black and white as the board that captivates him. He was homeschooled from grade five, and the schedule that finds him away from home more than half the year tempers his ability to form lasting relationships. At 23, he has seen more of the world than most of those his age ever will, and, in return, he has missed a heavy handful of the fundamental experiences they had instead. He has never owned a pet or attended a high school prom. He never graduated college.

In the United States he is unchallenged, a fact that reinforces St. Louis' status as the chess capital of North America and the chess club's role as its heart and symbol. But it also means less than it should.

"Hikaru has talent," says retired Russian chess phenom Kasparov, who holds the highest rating in history. "The problem is that he suffers from the same problem as Bobby Fischer: The most important tournaments are still in Europe."

The chess world is dominated by Russian heroes and currently topped by a Norwegian prodigy, world No. 1 Magnus Carlsen, the largest threat to those, like Nakamura, who wish to ascend the game's throne. The tournaments that matter most occur far outside North American borders, making for a grueling travel schedule for those inside them.

It doesn't help that, aside from Fischer, Nakamura and a few less prominent others, the United States is not known for its chess prowess — or for its passionate appreciation of the game. That's something Nakamura is determined to change.

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