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.
By Danny Wicentowski
By Lindsay Toler
By Ray Downs
By Lindsay Toler
By Village Voice Writers
By Lindsay Toler
By Lindsay Toler
By Danny Wicentowski
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.
"Why the French?"
"Because they came up with it."
"What's it called again?"
"The 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.
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.
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.
White Plains housed only a small number of home-schoolers at the time, which made it hard to form lasting friendships with other children or relate to other people. Today, most of Nakamura's friends are significantly older than he is. When asked what his son sacrificed to play chess, Nakamura's stepfather answers decisively: his childhood. Nakamura entered the adult sector of chess at age ten and has yet to successfully leave it.
He has, however, tried.
"Sometimes you question whether you did the right thing, but you can say that about anything," Sunil Weeramantry says. "Parents are funny because they like to have it both ways. They say, 'Yes, I'd like my child to excel and be the best of the best.' But at the same time they want him to be a perfectly balanced individual with varied interests. It's just not possible."
The framed faces of the game's historic giants and present hopefuls line the walls of the top floor of the Chess Club and Scholastic Center in the city's Central West End. Fischer, the heaviest presence, can be found in seven photos. Nakamura appears in one. His most threatening rival, twenty-year-old world No. 1 Magnus Carlsen, peers out of three.
The walls are full of arched brows, extended arms, hands on faces, chins on palms. They are full of black on white. And in the small span of roughly three years, they are somehow already full of history.
This club is the reason Nakamura moved to St. Louis. And today, it's where Rex Sinquefield is sitting while he explains the series of events that led to the club's almost accidental formation. Perched on a couch in the club's board room, Sinquefield, the club's 66-year-old founder, de facto president and ultimate financial sponsor, is without both shoes and inhibitions.
As he tells it, it started with a meeting. Sinquefield, a retired financier who has donated millions of dollars to both civic institutions and conservative causes, learned to play the game at thirteen, and he still studies it in his spare time. (Last night, he spoke to Kasparov on the phone.) But it wasn't until four years ago, during a business meeting, that the city's lack of a stable chess club struck him as fixable.
That thought didn't stay in the germ phase for long. Soon Sinquefield kicked in millions of dollars, purchased the three-story space in the Central West End and organized its staff. The current annual budget remains around $2 million.
"I didn't envision all the things that developed — I mean, only in an inchoate sort of way. I didn't realize how much it was going to cost," he jokes, "but I did say, 'Make it beautiful.'"
That idea — the sense of surprise at what actually resulted — is shared by almost all of the club's staff. Its executive director, Tony Rich, who took part in an earlier and much less glamorous St. Louis chess club called We're Just Pawns before agreeing to helm the start-up nonprofit, jokes that he expected the club's permanent venue to be in a strip mall. Space issues plagued past clubs in the city; they were forced to meet at places like St. Louis Bread Co., subject to availability. It's difficult to find a space where a large number of people and chessboards can meet on a regular basis, especially when you don't have much money.
Sinquefield changed that. Tucked to the right of Brennan's on Maryland Avenue, just off Euclid Avenue, the chess club appears from the street to occupy a surprisingly small space. Upon entering, though, the club's three floors, 6,000 square feet and proliferation of bay windows add both presence and pressure to the goings-on inside. It's an aggressively beautiful facility.
"We didn't have a good budgeting process, so it sort of got out of control, as you can tell by looking around you," Sinquefield says. With the hand not holding a Starbucks, he gestures to the luxury of the club. It's considerable. "Everybody was surprised by the speed at which everything took off."
Outside the room where Sinquefield sits is the open heart of the chess club. Draped, framed and decorated with the same black-and-white theme that separates the squares of a chess board, its elegant translation to the interior design takes both literal and figurative turns. The building holds around 80 chess sets with weighted pieces and graceful seating. The club's insignia appears everywhere not decorated by a chess piece of some sort: on the bottoms of the pieces, on the backs of chairs, on coasters and T-shirts.
It was important to the club's founders to create a large facility in an area easily accessible to public schools, the focus of the club's scholastic program. The club is predicated on the idea that everyone, not just snobs, should enter its embellished glass doorway.
After opening in 2008, the club quickly became the capital of the U.S. chess community. In less time than it took to create the club from scratch, it landed the 2009 U.S. Chess Championship and Women's Chess Championship, a task it has reprised in the two years since. Although it's tough to pinpoint how the club built its reputation so quickly, these championships were certainly a factor: In 2011, the two championships brought 60,000 unique visitors to the club's website from a total of 162 different countries.
"You think to yourself, that if I had all the opportunities in the world to run a club like I wanted to and focus on both the scholastics and treating the players well, what would I do?," says Aviv Friedman, a FIDE master who visited the club during the Junior Closed Championship in June. "Then you get here, and you're like, 'Oh, somebody has already done it.'"
In its three-year history, the club has expanded at an unprecedented rate, taken hold of the most important tournaments in North America, worked with more than 1,000 children in its scholastic programs and attracted more than 700 current members, making it the largest active club in the country. All of this was achieved with minimal advertisement: Sinquefield built it, and they came.
St. Louis had previously established itself as something of a chess city, though that history is in the distant past. Prior to 2009, St. Louis hadn't hosted a national championship since 1904. Sinquefield's goals include attracting a world-championship match to the city by 2016 — for the first time since 1886, when St. Louis hosted the first official world chess championship.
The city's status in the chess world will rise even higher with the September 9 opening of the World Chess Hall of Fame, which is moving from Miami, Florida, to the similarly stunning building across the street from the chess club. The 15,900-square-foot space plays host to many of the organization's chess relics, which number more than 2,000, among them pieces from Fischer and the game's most famous collectors.
Every aspect of American chess is now tied, somehow, to a single block in the Central West End.
"Think of it like two sisters," says Susan Barrett, the hall of fame's chief executive officer. Her curly hair rests on a T-shirt fronted by the slogan "Real Women Play Chess." "The older sister who's serious and studies a lot and plays lots of competitive chess is the chess club. The chess hall of fame is the younger sister, who's maybe pursuing an art degree and is sillier and has a broader experience of chess. They're going to work together and be complementary to make their parents proud."
Nakamura's decision to move to St. Louis was a quick one. In 2005, at age seventeen, Nakamura won the U.S. championship, making him the youngest to hold that title since Fischer. He repeated the win in 2009 at the competition's first trip to St. Louis. It was during that tournament that he decided to make St. Louis his home — as much as someone who travels more than half the year can call a place home.
In April 2010, he competed in the championship's second run in the city with moving boxes still in his car. St. Louis is his first permanent home since he moved away from his parents. "We were at Coffee Cartel at one in the morning one day, and [Hikaru] was like, 'Ben, I want to move here,'" Finegold says. "I thought when I moved here we'd try to get the top players, but Hikaru? He's the best."
The most immediately recognizable aspect of the chess club is the way it connects those who care about the game. To win at chess, you must ruthlessly exploit your opponents' weaknesses — but you only learn to win if someone is generous enough to share what they know.
Sinquefield learned from his uncle, whom he beat with their second game. When he was five, Finegold learned from his father, who once played Fischer. Finegold later taught his own son, Spencer, who gives chess lessons in St. Louis. Rich, who might have the best story, began playing only because his mother was unable to pick him up when school let out. While wandering the halls after class, he happened upon a room where people were playing. He never really left it.
Aside perhaps from Finegold, everyone at the club wishes they had started earlier, an opinion that has noticeably contributed to the club's focus on scholastic chess. The general idea, one shared by Nakamura, is that in order to make chess popular again in the United States, it must mean something to the country's youth. And in order to make them care about it, the club must make chess cool.
This is the era, its leaders vow, that the stereotype dies.
"Middle school is when they start to think it's not cool, so we teach them young so they don't develop that stereotype," Rich says.
The club's scholastic outreach programs focus on both public- and private-school students. Instructors visit campuses, and the staff organizes field trips and matches at the club to increase the students' comfort with competition. "We want to see a lot more of that," Sinquefield says.
The fact that the best player in the country can be found at the club on the days he's not playing internationally goes a long way in raising both the club's cool factor and its prestige. Nakamura's decision to ally himself with St. Louis has since created several similar offers for the club from other strong players. It's also drawn enthusiasts like Laura Smith, whose family moved to St. Louis from Lamar, Missouri, in April for better access to the club. Before that, the opportunity for Smith's son, James, to play here meant a six-hour drive.
"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."
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.
Nakamura commented on his loss to his fans, more than 4,000 of whom follow him on Twitter, with the bleak message, "Continuing to play like garbage these days," followed the next day by a grim, "Starting to wonder when I will remember how to play chess!" The next week, those sentiments were absent, replaced with a firm focus on the future, his next tournament, a trip to Dortmund, Germany, that begins this week.
If he does not meet the standards he's set for himself, he temporarily capsizes. His heightened public temperament constantly fluctuates somewhere between fervent and histrionic.
"If you don't really take the time to get to know him, he comes off..." his mother tapers off. It takes her more than ten minutes to describe her son's personality, a feat that's as much a testament to the dynamism of his character as to the difficulty of reading it. "That's who Hikaru has to be in order to succeed, and I think it's really hard. Some people probably think he doesn't care about anything."
Chess is a psychological game, one in which players struggle not only to make strong moves but to force their opponents to make weak ones. Nakamura's personality can be a benefit in that regard — even as it's made him a wild card.
"Some people asked me recently if I was worried about him coming to the club because of the way he behaves, and I said, 'No, he's the best,'" Finegold says. "Two years ago, I wouldn't have agreed, but he's going to be world champion. And that behavior is going away."
When it comes to Nakamura's future, the name that continues to appear is that of Bobby Fischer. Fischer won the world championship at age 29, which gives Nakamura roughly six years to do the same. Chess observers expect Nakamura to hit that mark, and depending on what day you speak to him, he usually expects himself to do so as well.
Here, he's helped by his overconfidence and hindered by his unpredictability. Within the next two years, the American chess community expects big results from its top player, and in the meantime, it expects guarantees.
"There are very few people out there who have the ability to, I don't want to say change the world, but make a very big impact, and with chess I feel like I really have that chance," Nakamura says. He admits he receives the most pressure from himself —though he also says he sleeps fine. "There are so many people out there who want to be in my situation."
Despite those words, Nakamura disparages the viability of chess as a profession, saying it's been dying for the past five years. He also insists it's less of a passion than a way to support his side endeavors, a mix that includes both gambling and business plans. (Even as he says this, his schedule for the next two years, already finite, revolves around a stacked succession of international tournaments.)
Although Nakamura has considered leaving chess at different points in his career, he acted on it only once. In 2006 Nakamura ostensibly quit the game to be a student at Dickinson College in Pennsylvania.
He lasted one semester.
"I quit chess, essentially, for six months," Nakamura says. In the end, he wasn't thrilled with college in general. "With chess, it doesn't matter what background you are, what age you are — everyone is equal. With college, I couldn't quite get used to the fact that, to paraphrase Animal Farm, it feels like some people are more equal than others."
With the decision that he would not escape chess, Nakamura tied himself to the game for his foreseeable future and the latest Fischer comparison for the next six years. It's a decision that continues to make relationships hard, one that finds him away from home a little more than half the year. And while his parents would not have wished it for him, it's one they support.
"Whatever he's doing, I'd like him to be really happy," Carolyn Weeramantry says. "I don't think he'll be playing chess forever. I also don't think he'll ever just quit chess."
For as long as anyone can remember, U.S. chess players have consistently focused on the person in the No. 1 spot, the next Fischer, the next world champion, the next great American chess player. If Nakamura definitively secures those titles, his status could revolutionize American chess. It could be officially and irrevocably cool for the second time in 40 years. But if the confidence that supports him gives way, that future is significantly less clear.
Is Nakamura the next Bobby Fischer? Most say yes. Few say no. Nakamura waivers.
"For the sake of Hikaru, I won't make that comparison," Kasparov says. "It's a lot of pressure. Let's hope we have more to discuss in two years. I will not do that to him — yet — but I can see that he has clearly chosen that path for himself.
"I wish him the best."
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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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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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.