"There are so many people in our old, rural community who never leave the perimeter," says Smith, a mother of five whose necklace bears a chess queen pendant. "If it wasn't for chess, we might not have gotten out."

The fact that James' favorite player, Nakamura, gave him pointers over dinner last month quickly validated that move. "Where else can you have dinner with the No. 6 in the world?" Smith says. "That makes chess more real to my children, when they can see someone who is so successful and does this for a living and interact with him."


In conversation, Nakamura is blunt in the equally refreshing and disturbing way that gets trained out of most of us during high school. "Hikaru is either artfully frank or artlessly frank," Sinquefield says with a laugh. "I'm not sure which."

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.

Yesterday was an artless day. Today, it's the opposite.

Today's Nakamura is charming and outgoing in a fitted black polo and dark jeans. This Nakamura is seated at Brennan's, the stylish bar immediately next to the chess club and only a few blocks from his apartment. He's holding a vodka gimlet and smiling, an event that's not as much out of character as it is simply somewhat rare. Right now, Nakamura is opening up — though he already seems to regret it.

Today, Nakamura says, has been his best in recent memory. Today, he did yoga. Cracking a joke about the Requiem for a Dream song coming from the bar's speakers, he is visibly more relaxed than he has been in weeks.

Nakamura is graceful and compact with a frame that lends itself well to the tennis he still plays. His short hair is somewhere between stages, and its part falls awkwardly toward the center of his scalp. He can look either approachable or severe, depending on what shows on his face. Known publicly for his friendly interactions with fans, he is equal parts outgoing and introverted: With Nakamura, as his friends will tell you, what you see is what you get.

"I know the general idea is that I can be an arrogant asshole," Nakamura says. "But that's not all I can be."

Nakamura's level of hubris is the kind that comes with youth, talent and the pressure of being both the symbol and the future of one the country's most dedicated microcosms. He uses this to his advantage: No one reinforces that pressure more than he does, and he channels arrogance to turn the hope that he can win into the knowledge that he, in fact, will. Nakamura never enters a game thinking he is the underdog, an aggressive philosophy that usually guarantees he is not. It also leads to dramatic changes in mood and behavior. "Bobby was crazy," says Rich, making that ubiquitous Fischer comparison. "Hikaru's just arrogant."

Particularly in his teenage years, Nakamura established a reputation of misbehavior, of emotional reactions and rude exchanges with other players. It has been hard for him to leave this behind.

"When I play chess, it's a competition," Nakamura says. He pauses. "I'm trying to think of how I want to put this: When I was a bit younger, I was a bit of a bad boy. I didn't exactly have the greatest manners, which has improved greatly, but a lot of people still remember when I was a jerk." The result is that today, people don't know what to expect from him. "I rather enjoy that."

Although he is always confident, he is not the same person away from the board as he is at it — or thinking about it. If he is angry, disappointed or depressed — as he can be often, depending upon his performance in a tournament — that fact is pronounced.

"When you're competing at such a high level, you have to wear a mask to some extent," says Sunil Weeramantry. His stepson, he says, isn't as aware of how he comes across as he should be: "He pretty much wears his feelings on his sleeves. He can be moody, and in the next instant, he can be absolutely charming."

Nakamura's childhood hobbies have translated fluidly to his later life. Earlier this month, he played in the opening round of the World Series of Poker under his first name, Chris. Because of a year spent in Vancouver, he is an aggressive fan of the Canucks. He also hopes to climb Mount McKinley, though he's considering Kilimanjaro first. "He can make chess cool again because he's well-rounded and not some Russian person who studies chess twelve hours a day and then goes to sleep," says Finegold.

At the pinnacle of the chess world, a sphere in which the top ten players rotate through game after game with the same nine people, draws are frequent. Nakamura does not like to draw. At the Bazna Kings tournament in Romania in June, he took on several of the other nine in a tough series that included frequent draws and began and ended with a loss. He finished the twelve-day competition drained and ranked third, but he ended the month two spots higher on FIDE's ratings list.

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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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