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Nakamura Watch

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The New York Times has a good profile and interview with 17-year-old US Champion GM Hikaru Nakamura. (He also holds the even higher title of ChessNinja.com Black Belt newsletter contributor. So much for the Times research staff.)

As predicted, Hikaru is #43 on the latest rating list. (The 20 points he just gained in Foxwoods would raise him another 16 spots.) The article selects the brashest and boldest of his comments, and I'll do the same.

"If I am able to get up there and play for the actual title of the world championship, then once again, everyone will be excited," Mr. Nakamura said, noting how chess gained wide appeal when Mr. Fischer toppled Boris Spassky, the Soviet world champion, in 1972. "There have been plenty of great players since Fischer but none have been American players."
"The way I play is very unique," Mr. Nakamura said. "It's more or less that fearlessness. I'll play some of these really crazy moves that people are not going to be expecting. The way I play is not like most people. The moves are more computeresque. They're not the moves that most humans are going to play."

Of course Gata Kamsky is American, hit #3 on the list, and played Karpov for the FIDE world championship in 1996, but the point of his perhaps not being "American enough" for the American media and chess public is not invalid. (Not to mention that Karpov wasn't "world champion enough" in 1996.) Even Nakamura's Japanese name will probably cost him PR points in the lowest-common-denominator-seeking US media.

As for his style, few computers would take the risks Nakamura takes to win. He is the embodiment of the cliches "fortune favors the brave" and "good players make their own luck." It's well known that this generation of players (going back 10 years) are computer-trained to a large degree. They take material more readily and play without dogma. John Watson's acclaimed Modern Chess Strategy books elucidate this impression.


It's great to see Nakamura get this kind of press attention from the NYT, but what a bland bread-and-butter interview. Outside of a passing mention of Star Wars posters on his bedroom walls, the whole piece was as ho-hum as a superficial rewrite of a stale, day-old press release. Did the reporter ask him any questions -- likes, dislikes, etc. -- at all ? It's like the idea was to draw a contrast with Fischer's "quirkiness" by making Nakamura seem as bland as possible.

Yo Mig, did you ever get to do anything with that footage of Nakamura playing bullet against all comers?

Funny you should mention that. This was complicated by my recently breaking up with the person who took that video, and who still has it. I just talked to her two days ago about it. We're going to do a 2005 US Ch DVD, inside or outside the AF4C. But at least a few clips will be distributed freely and I'll make sure some of that bullet session goes online here or elsewhere. I also promised it to Gata and Hikaru, so it's been frustrating not to be able to give it to them.

Describing Fischer as just quirky: Now that is generous.
Of course the NYT's piece had the requisite chess inaccuracy that Naka was the youngest GM ever, leaving out that important qualifier...American.

Sorry for re-opening old wounds Mig. I look forward to it surfacing at some point. Championship DVDs - that could be a real step forward...

The old World Championship Cycle was a huge help to Fischer's popularization. At any given time Fischer was looking forward to a U.S. Championship, Interzonal, or Candidates event with the potential to bring him closer to the World title.

HN seems like a wonderfully upbeat, enthusiastic soul who will catch fire with the public no matter what you call him...but "Hank" Nakamura might sound more like the kid next door.

A few hijacks moved or deleted, Godwin's Law invoked.


"Hank" Nakamura? Certainly, that doesn't sound like any kid next door to me here in the South Bronx! All of America is not represented by one ethnicity. Also, why should Hikaru alter his name and disguise its Japanese flavor in order to seem more "American"? He was here since he was two! I think that the name Hikaru is a unique enough one that it would certainly go a hell of a lot further than some "Hank" monicker. He already is called on a first-name basis in many chess circles around the country, and nobody is questioning whom anybody is talking about when they say "Did you see how Hikaru smashed Smirin?" The kid has a bright future if he wants to pursue it, and he can make the name Hikaru Nakamura as feared in elite circles as any of the young stars of today, if not greater.



I wonder how much attention Americans would have paid had Kamsky won the "right" candidates match against Anand and played Kasparov in NYC instead of Karpov in Elista. I was living in Argentina during the 90's, so I don't know if the Karpov-Kamsky match got any play here at all.

All well and good in chess circles, Maliq, and I certainly wouldn't endorse a name change anyway. But it's well documented that the media prefers cute "American" names just like they prefer little blonde kidnap victims over minorities. I talked to several producers after Hikaru won the US Ch and they ALL immediately asked if he was American (Doh, he just won the US Championship, idiot) and if he had a nickname. No joke. Quite pathetic, really.

I put a comment here. Why was it deleted?

Because it was off-topic. I moved it to a relevant item. I also sent you an email about it. Thanks.


I am aware of the tendency, Mig, but thanks for highlighting it. Personally, I don't feel that it is proper to cater to the ideals of people who are so delusional as to think that the only true type of American is a Euro-American or somebody who tries to become more associated with being Euro-American. We are a nation of immigrants, and people need to come to terms with this. I have contested this go-with-the-flow mentality on the previous Jen Shahade thread, and I continue to do so now. Hikaru is a hell of a talent, and he is in every way an American. If an individual or collective has a hard time recognizing this, then that is their problem and not his to address.



I was under the impression that USA was a multietnic sociaty where etnicity did not play the same role as f.eks in Europe where I come from. I am surprised to learn that it is an issue in case of H-bomb, who strikes me as being very american considering his statements in the interviews:-)
What does a real american look like anyway!?

A "real American" looks kind of like the ideal Nazi, you know, a blonde, blue-eyed, square-jawed mesomorph.

Sigh. Our media. So hard to be proud of.

Among the developed nations of the world, demographics equals destiny. A powerful nation needs an every-increasing supply of bodies to serve as producers, consumers, and soliders.

In many developed nations the population has been aging (especially in Russia, France, etc.) and the birthrate dropping. For a developed country to sustain and increase its demographic powerbase it is therefore necessary for it to successfully assimilate immigrants.

In last week's New York Times Saturday Profile is set forth the story of a 55-year-old woman, born in Japan of a Korean father and Japanese mother who could not get a health supervisor job in Japan because she's a "foreigner." Deep ethnic and religious divisions in countries all over the world make immigration and assimilation difficult or impossible.

One of America's greatest strengths remains its ability to assimilate its immigrants. HN's taking on an American nickname might or might not make him easier to "market". But every Muhammad Ali and Hiraku Nakamura who comes along reminds us that Americans come in all shapes, sizes, colors and names.


For once i am in a total agreement with greg (i never thouht i would write this:-)). I belive Canada has a big programme to absorb welleducated workforce from africa and europe....
I was just very surprised by the reception mig got when he talked to editors...
Back to chess: i am looking forward to see the big H when he comes to scandinavia. And so a lot of my chessfriends! But still i hope my old hero C. Hansen will win:-)

I've thought a lot about that "American enough" issue. What put me on it originally was Yasser Seirawan...wondering, back in the day, if he would be viewed as an "American" world champion if he ever pulled it off. Given his engaging personality he probably would have, but someone like Kamski (slightly, um, less engaging) would probably have been viewed as only nominally American (if that).

Irina Krush also comes to mind. She moved here when she was what - 3? - but outside chess circles the name might suggest an Eastern European interloper. I'm not saying it's right (it's not right!), but I think that's what happens here.

I really don't think H should mind. Let media handle its ridiculous "aspirational" images (they call it like that). The fact that H focuses only on his game and diminishes the importance of thing like this is, in my opinion, the mark of a champ.

One more thought, but I don't know if I'm right in this. Bold, risky guys, upon approaching the top-10 plateau, are at first bashed mercilessly for some time, while they adapt themselves to the talent of the Super 2700 GM's, right?

By the way, how do you think computer preparation has affected young player's chess style? It has, indeed, accelerated the youngsters' ability to prepare for strong opponents. But is it, as Mig says, only making them more materialistic and less dogmatic?

Of course, there's no easy way to know it, I don't even think the youngsters themselves know it. But maybe going through the main new generation's style, in terms of how positional/tactical/sacrificial chess rates into their personal styles, we could reach some nice conclusions. Or maybe computers don't affect the new chess players style at all?

Interesting viewpoints.

I believe that anyone who would Americanize Hikaru's name knows little about marketing. You can do all kinds of wonderful things with his persona from a marketing standpoint without changing his name.

I'm sure "Hikaru" has a magestic meaning that a marketing professional would have a field day with. His name also leads to a wonderful story. I have a master's in marketing and when Hikaru won the U.S. Championship, my mind was buzzing with tons of possibilities.

Marketers would be foolish if they didn't sign him up. Hikaru will need some coaching to build his public image. He could definitely use his name as a strength. I must say that the recent US-Japan-Fischer imbroglio may have destroyed some of the possibilities I had in mind.

"Hank" Nakamura? That doesn't even sound good.

And you are to suggest that it is somehow positive if he would agree to letting someone help build a public image for him?
Thank God for people like Bobby Fischer. You just touched the very base of reasons why americans are so touchy and afraid of a genius like Fischer who is his self regardless of consequences. Thankfully, your remark doesn't really have anything to do with Nakamura himself.
i for one hope he will be quirky...that he has some personality instead of being a posterboy.

You seem to turn every post into some anti-American rant. Yeah, not being a psychopath really hurt Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods... Americans aren't afraid of quirky, or even of nasty and scandalous. There are plenty of "bad guys" who are popular, or at least not shunned. Americans love winners, period. Fischer just went way over even those lines. Plus, he disappeared and didn't play. Not much interesting about that. Quitters aren't high on the popularity list. Being yourself is one thing, but when that self is a psycho and a quitter, don't expect too much fan mail.

please tell us about your meeting with editors
that Thomas Morkore mentioned on his last post on this thread

Not sure what he's referring to. Nothing about editors. Above I mentioned I had spoken on the phone to several TV producers (assistants, whatever) about Hikaru right after he won the US championship. I thought it notable that all three asked if he were American. At least one asked about a nickname, although that is probably a harmless question.

The Tonight Show (Leno) people also asked for a video clip of him talking to the camera, apparently to see how TV-friendly he was, whatever that really means. We made a nice little clip with a few jokes ("some of my competitors were old guys, in their 30's and 40's) and sent it to LA. I don't watch the show, but when you look at their guest list it's ridiculous that a 16-year-old who wins the chess championship can't make it on. He's too good for them, honestly.

"I don't watch the show, but when you look at their guest list it's ridiculous that a 16-year-old who wins the chess championship can't make it on. He's too good for them, honestly."

It's not that easy to plop someone like Hikaru down in front of an audience. I still remember (way back when) being lucky enough to win the HS championship of the city I lived in. My principal called me in to congratulate me, and after about 10 seconds the conversation deteriorated to idiotic dialogue like "boy, you must be smart!"

Similarly, Jay Leno doesn't know how to identify with someone like Hikaru, and unlike Charlie Rose it's not actually Jay's job to make that happen...he's there to let entertainers make their plugs and do their schticks. So unless HN (god forbid we start calling him "Hank") is a natural entertainer - which Bobby was - then what are they going to do with him?

I think the point is how would they know unless they give it a shot? It's not as if he's been appearing everywhere. They have spelling-bee champions and the sort on. It's a reflection of chess in the US as well. Maybe winning the world championship would be enough. Pity we don't have one!


Hikaru's public image is already evolving. If you haven't noticed, he has already been in a number of media sources. However, they are still trying to figure him out. Fischer, on the other hand, had a public image in 1972 that set off a chess revolution of sorts.

You're right sacateca, Fischer was his own man, but created a media bonanza. Just about everything he touched was gold. He worked very hard on his public image through his dress, style and uncompromising play. He even did a little bit of promotional work and gave simuls for a pittance.

Of course, I'm just giving my opinion. What I'm saying is it would behoove him to consider his public image. From interviews I've read, he has already done that. I'm sure his father is helping in that area.

I do believe however that he should steer far from all Fischer "sanity" questions. He'll eventually be forced to make political statements and disatrous mistakes are bound to be made.

it was tv-producers mig spoke to not editors. my mistake, sorry...

When Fischer was a kid he was on the TV show "I've Got a Secret." His secret was that he was a champion chessplayer.

Isaac Kashdan was on Groucho Marx's "You Bet Your Life". Unfortunately, Kashdan was on with Tony Curtis's mother. Her celebrity status outweighed that of a grandmaster, so she stole the show: Groucho had far more to say to her than to Kashdan.

Do you think Nakamura has a discernible style? (I mean chess, not media, style!) Like Topalov and Moro and Adams do (though admittedly they are older and more "mature" as players). I'm not sure how "computeresque" (to use his term) Naka's play is. He seems to have the human touch! His play seems eminently practical and flexible, like he'll play a wide variety of positions and see what they have in store. For instance, though obviously he's a brutal attacker who revels in tactics, he's also not afraid to defend. Maybe it does all come down to being "undogmatic".

Here is a question for all you chess adicts out there: Why is it that Kasparov and others only mention the super young Naka, Karjak, and Carlsen when they discuss the next generation? Bacrot is only 22 and is rated 9th in the world. Grischuk is 21 and 11th in the world. And, of course, Ponomariov is only 21 as well. Are they over the hill?

Not over the hill, but established players who have already participated in the political chess world of today. I think the "fresh start" theory is that the next batch might have new, and supposedly healthier, ideas.

Consider that Kasparov was world champion at the smae age as these guys while these guys all play at a level a bit below the strongest 4. That may put it into perspective. Of the current elite, even Topalov has acknowledged that they are not on the same level of talent and never will be. To me they follow in Kasparov and Karpov's footsteps(you can go player by player and understand how they are a mix of these two players each with a unique twist) but I guess players of such talent do not come along often. Has there ever been another period of similar lag where the suceeding players are considerably inferior to the outgoing player at his peak? To my understanding, not since Morphy. What has gone wrong?

Also to me I am not sure about how risky Hikaru is(I haven't really watched enough of his games)i.e. how much is calculated and how much is just risky. He is quite bold as far as I can tell. However, what I admire him for is his will to win. I mean shunning repetitions or drawish lines. But perhaps most impressive is his playing out of almost any endgame position to the end. I am thinking of his game against Zhu Chen in Wijk and Serper at the US championships lately Beccera at Foxwoods to name a few. I think this will drive the 2700's nuts. They will simply be unprepared for this kind of stamina test.

Yah, Kamsky drove them nuts with it too. Combined with strong moves, of course! But that "refuse to lose" attitude is a big factor. Not getting down on yourself, defending inferior positions forever, grinding slight advantages... You get the occasional half-point from it, but you also learn a lot. And once you have that reputation it changes the psychological battle as well.

Of course you aren't on all the other players' Christmas card lists, but that's part of the culture that needs to change anyway. It's nice for the top players to be buddies, but if that leads to lots of short, friendly draws, a little antagonism is welcome.

It's also a way to take advantage of your youthful energy.

Wander over to Chessbase and look up Kasparov's head-to-head results for the past three or four years in classical games against the "considerably inferior" Kramnik, Anand, Leko and Topalov.

And don't stop looking until you've found a way to make 20 years at the top of the rating list irrelevant! And don't count tournament wins either.

Kasparov reliably places the bullseye beneath whatever spot the arrow chances to hit. When he lost the world championship that title lost its importance. When Anand's current results exceeded Kasparov's then it became the rating (though sagging with inactivity and a string of lame results) that determined excellence. I wondered how he'd continue claiming supremacy after he'd lost both the world championship AND the top rating spot. Answer: retire, and claim he could have stayed "on top" for a few more years had he continued playing.

It's not as if nobody knows he lost the match to Kramnik in 2000. And in 2004 Kasparov said that Anand was having better results than anyone over the past two years.

So after the Russian Ch. and Linares, both 2850 performances, you really don't think Kasparov would remain as #1 for the next 3-4 years? On what do you base this assertion? Anand, perhaps the most likely contender to reach 2800, hasn't had a 2850 performance during his fine two-year stretch, if ever. I think his best career performance was at Corus 1999, where he finished second. His highest rating was four years ago.

It's still hard to crack 2800. Kramnik did it by a few points by virtue of almost never losing and then fell back dramatically. Anand might make it, but reaching #1 would probably mean Kasparov dropping to meet him. A 27-point gap is no joke, as you can see from looking at the rest of the list. I think the next-largest gap on the list is 14 points.

Greg, it may well be that Kasparov is only slightly better than all of those guys at this point(if you are trying to say he is an equal player or outclassed even you are wrong). However, if you take the whole of their careers and the whole of Kasparov's careers, they are all considerably worse on the whole. And of course their impact on the history of the game is simply neglible compared to that of Kasparov.

Also I do have to note that the sharper Kramnik has really messed him up. If opened up his own Khalifman books he went back to 1.Nf3 he'd be back in business.

Send him an e-mail or something, DP. He'd be glad to hear it's that easy ;-)

But yes, those Khalifman books are great.

In my honest opinion I think he will go back hoping that his experience with 1.e4 will make him a more rounded player. Probably, he will even play both. Of course I am not Kramnik, but my rating has gone up a good 300 points since I brought d4 lines into my repetoire( with the assistance of the Khalifman books!) and then after about 2 years I have now began to play both 1st moves. I think it is actually a wonderful way to improve and broaden your horizon of possibilities for a medium level player( 2000-2400) and may work for a strong player as well.

DP, 2000-2400 is medium level? Only if you're in that range. Something like 90% of tournament players never get to 2000, or is it 95%? And 2400 players are perhaps 1 in 10,000.

2400 players...more like one in a thousand. But who cares.

Probably medium level for those that are truly serious about the game. The way I envisioned the statement is 1600-2000 is lower level 2000-2400 is medium level and 2400-2800 is an advanced level. But, nevertheless, point taken. Of course there are also huge differences among these rating classes but also some similarities as well and I think if you just drop the medium level my point is valid enough.

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    This page contains a single entry by Mig published on April 3, 2005 6:02 PM.

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