The best way for him to do so might be to beat the next Fischer milestone, the biggest one he has left, by earning the world-champion title Fischer took at 29. He has a little less than six years left.

"Even when I don't know how I feel about that step, it feels like it's the inevitable goal," Nakamura says. "At the top, you just get to this point where that's the only thing left."


Somewhere inside the collection of accolades that make up Nakamura's public life is a particularly strange entry: Kathie Lee Gifford once called him a "little showoff" on national television.

Rex Sinquefield honors Hikaru Nakamura after his second national win at the 2009 U.S. Chess Championship.
Bill Greenblatt/UPI
Rex Sinquefield honors Hikaru Nakamura after his second national win at the 2009 U.S. Chess Championship.
The Chess Club and Scholastic Center of St. Louis, led by executive director Tony Rich, is home to the awards of its players and staff, Rich included — and more than 80 chessboards and 700 active members.
Todd Owyoung
The Chess Club and Scholastic Center of St. Louis, led by executive director Tony Rich, is home to the awards of its players and staff, Rich included — and more than 80 chessboards and 700 active members.

Nakamura's earliest important interview was an April 1998 appearance on Live with Regis and Kathie Lee. He spends the entirety of the show taking on adult challengers from the audience and responding to the awkward one-liners of his hosts, neither of whom seems capable of correctly pronouncing the ten-year-old's last name (Nah-ka-mu-ra). Nakamura had recently become the youngest United States Chess Federation master in the organization's history, a record unbroken until 2008, and this feat made him a talking point between banter about Seinfeld and the Spice Girls.

At one point in the hourlong show, a small but strict Hikaru corrects Regis, who mistakenly assumed the adult opponent had the advantage, to tell him that he's winning. Later, he corrects an opponent who placed his king and queen in the wrong positions. (The queen always belongs on its own color.) The impish fourth grader spends the majority of the show alternating between shy and proud, particularly in the misguided moment when Reg decides to quiz him on his love life.

"You got a girlfriend, Hikaru?"

The answer is a look of horror and a rushed, "No!"

"You getting married?"

"Noooooooo." (The second negative is paired with a raised eyebrow and a sideways glance.)

Although it's almost frightening how little Philbin has changed since this episode, the same could be said of Nakamura. At 23, he's rougher around some edges and softer around others, and both his personality and skill have sharpened. Other than those developments and a relatively meteoric rise to the upper echelons of the chess world, nothing much has changed. Both the eyebrow and that glance still make appearances.

Nakamura is a brave, occasionally brash player. The word his peers use most often is "aggressive." ("He thinks he's the John McEnroe of chess," Finegold says. "And he is.") He plays attractive, creative games, and he intentionally seeks out challenging positions.

"He's one of the few players who is less concerned with the results than with having a real fight," Kasparov says. His fans — and there are many — love him for this quality. "That's what chess needs."

As he neared the top of the chess spectrum, Hikaru's playing matured to include less forceful openings and tactics, but in most regards he has maintained the same core technique since his childhood. "It struck me that he was never afraid," says his stepfather, Sunil Weeramantry. He adds with a laugh, "I don't think he has changed very much, actually."

Nakamura was born in Osaka, Japan, but lived there only two years before his parents divorced in 1990 and he moved with his American mom, Carolyn Weeramantry, and his older brother, Asuka, to New York. It was his stepfather, FIDE master Sunil, who taught the young Hikaru to play.

At the time, Asuka, who had earned both kindergarten and national youth titles for the game, was the family's chess star.

"I didn't think it was a good idea for Hikaru to start playing because I thought it would be hard for him to keep up with his brother," his stepfather says. "I tried to encourage him to try other things, but I guess it had the opposite effect."

Nakamura's beginnings were hardly indicative of a future champion, and early games often ended in tears. "I definitely questioned the wisdom of entering him into any sort of competitive activity," Sunil Weeramantry says.

Then he started winning. And winning. When Nakamura became a master at ten, he simultaneously established himself as a chess prodigy and became a better player than both his brother and stepfather. In the years since, Asuka, who is now 25 and works for Chase bank, has not returned to chess at that level.

"Asuka stopped playing seriously when Hikaru passed him," Sunil Weeramantry says. "He never really talked about it. Then a couple years later, the kids were doing an interview for Sports Illustrated, and the flood gates opened. Everything came out. He was like, 'I don't understand. I'm older than him. I'm stronger than him. I can do so many things better than him. Why can't I beat him at chess?'" (Nakamura bluntly describes the two as "different people." He has not spoken to his brother in a year and a half.)

For academic reasons, and because of his quickly established success in chess, Nakamura's parents began homeschooling him in their White Plains, New York, home in the fifth grade, about a year after his appearance on Regis and Kathie Lee. "I never really had the normal social life," Nakamura says. "I didn't go to middle school or high school and have a group of friends like people normally do." Carolyn Weeramantry focused on keeping him well-rounded — however begrudgingly he tackled lessons in tennis, violin and trumpet — while his stepfather shepherded his early chess career.

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9 comments
Guest
Guest

As a former high school expert-level player who largely put away chess after entering college almost a decade ago, I really appreciated this in-depth profile of Hikaru and the state of US chess. Thanks.

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Xraylibra Crew
Xraylibra Crew

Great article! For me it is fascinating to read about the Chess Community and I cannot believe they are local #STL. @GMHikaru is the best!

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Sthinelk7
Sthinelk7

Sorry for the typos... 'Naka" (Smallville to those of us on ICC) and 'elite".

Sthinelk7
Sthinelk7

Naku is elit for sure, def top 10, and I don't mind his abrasive atitude because he plays such exciting chess. However, Magnus is the present and future of chess. My children are huge football (US) and MMA fans, but they know who Magnus Carlsen is and follow his games on their own like their favorite player/fighter. Again, Hikaru is awesome, a rare talent... but like he notes, in chess everyone should be considered equal. And that means nationality as well. With that in mind, please recognize that Magnus is the best player and the best hope for chess. Just watch his current games in Biel 2011.

 
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