Home Page arrow Chess Life Online arrow Hikaru Nakamura in Memphis: An Interview with the Man with a Key to the City
Hikaru Nakamura in Memphis: An Interview with the Man with a Key to the City Print E-mail
By Alan Kantor   
February 28, 2011
GM Hikaru Nakamura, with the key to the city of Memphis
GM Hikaru Nakamura could be seen wandering the streets of Memphis from February 16-22. What in the world was he doing in Memphis, you might ask? No, he didn’t get lost. He took a break from his role at the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Saint Louis to meet with friends, help promote chess and let people know about the super Mid-South Chess summer camp. This year’s camp at the Lausanne Collegiate School from June 5-10, 2011 will stand out among the nine others that they organized. The star-studded cast of instructors includes Grandmaster Alex Stripunsky, newly-elected Grandmaster Robert Hess, International Master Raja Panjwani, and Women’s International Master Alisa Melekhina. For more information, see www.chesscamp.us.

Nakamura has visited Memphis often as he loves spending time with friends. He could be seen relaxing and enjoying a few drinks on Beale Street (at places that he loves like Silky’s and BB King’s) and listening to jazz music or going to a show at the Orpheum.

Hikaru at the National Civil Rights Museum previously the Lorraine Motel, where Martin Luther King Jr was assasinated in 1968

Nakamura received the key to the city of Memphis at city hall. Being wined and dined at  the Peabody Hotel he then went to see the world famous Peabody Duck March. He even got a chance to witness the basketball game between the Memphis Grizzlies and the Philadelphia 76ers (and he must have helped the Grizzlies as they trounced the 76ers). It wouldn’t be the same if he didn’t play chess on his trip.  He gave a simultaneous exhibition at city hall, defeating all 16 challengers. See the full story on MyFoxMemphis. 
A young fan is eager to share in Hikaru Nakamura's celebratory cake!

He finished his trip on the Saturday morning news show and then a stopover at the brand new University of Memphis chess club.

We caught up with GM Nakamura to ask him a few questions.

Hikarucarlead.jpgAlan Kantor (AK): Tell me about your trip to Memphis. Was this a spur of the moment thing or did you plan to drive down?
GM Hikaru Nakamura (HN): Over the years, I have acquired some great contacts and friends in Memphis as well as some heartbreak! It has essentially become my home away from home when I am not in St. Louis. I did not take this trip on the spur of the moment as I was in Memphis only in December, and I enjoy the easy drive down I-55 and listening to 101.1 FM with the windows down!
AK: How did it feel to get a key to the city of Memphis?
HN: It was an absolute honor receiving the key to the city of Memphis; I have received many awards, but this certainly ranks up there as it occurred in a city which is not well known for its chess culture.

AK: Was winning Wijk aan Zee the highlight of your life?
HN: Winning Wijk aan Zee was certainly the biggest chess victory of my life and it will always have a special place in my heart regardless of whether I win another 20 super tournaments or none at all. However, I would not call it the highlight of my life as there are many other life experiences with my family which are of far greater importance.

AK: I know you went back to New York to see your parents after the tournament. I guess you told them all about the tournament. What was their reaction? How did you celebrate your victory?
HN: My parents have always supported my chess and I will always be grateful to them for that. Like many people in the U.S., my stepfather, Sunil [Weeramantry] was following the entire tournament, so my parents knew right away about the result. We did not particularly celebrate as both my mom (Guatemala) and myself had just returned from long grueling trips.

AK: What is it like to play these great chess players like GMs Magnus Carlsen, Viswanathan Anand, and Vladimir Kramnik to name a few?
HN: Playing against the elite of the world is certainly an experience. Whenever you grow up as a child and many of these players such as Anand, Kramnik, Kasparov, etc are the idols you look up to, it is a dream just to hope you will play them one day. However, as with many other prominent people, at some point you begin to realize they are only humans after all and you must go about playing your game against them.

AK: Before the tournament, if someone told you that you would come in first what would your reaction have been?
HN: Over the past few tournaments such as the Tal Memorial and the London Chess Classic, I had come very close to winning, so I certainly knew it was possible. Nevertheless, until I actually saw the final standings, I would not have believed it to be possible.

HikaruCCSCSL.jpgAK: The Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Saint Louis is really awesome. What is your role there?
HN: I am the spokesperson/grandmaster advisor for the Chess Club. I promote the club whenever I travel and compete in events nationally and internationally. I am also involved in a fair amount of meetings in regards to rules and logistics for major events.

AK: With your huge success in general you must get a lot of press and coverage in a lot of publications. How do you feel about that?
HN: I receive a fair amount of press coverage, but it is highly disappointing that this mainly occurs in Europe. I am hopeful that as I come closer to my ultimate goal of becoming world champion, the mainstream media here in the U.S. will start paying attention.

AK: It seems like you and many other strong grandmasters mainly play overseas? Why is that? What tournaments do you play in the United States?
HN: The reason that most of the top players in the U.S. play abroad is that the competition is much tougher and the conditions are more relaxing. This is not to say that the U.S. system with Swisses is not beneficial. In many ways, playing opens is extremely helpful as it teaches you how to play for a win at all costs without worrying about the risks. However, at a certain point all strong grandmasters graduate from this level and such risks will not work against a 2600+ grandmaster in Europe.

AK: I know you would like to be world champion someday. What are you doing to prepare yourself for that goal?
HN: I am not preparing myself for that goal specifically. With the current mess in the FIDE [world chess federation] world championship cycle, I am focusing on winning tournaments, and improving my rating. Hopefully everything will fall into place eventually. Even if it does not, it will still be quite a journey!

AK: I heard you won’t be playing in the U.S. Championship this year? Is this a reaction to GM Magnus Carlsen bowing out of the World Championship cycle <laugh>?
HN: Quite on the contrary, I felt that with my current rating and my consistent competition against elite players that it did not make sense to take a step backwards in my development.

AK: Who is your all-time favorite chess player?
HN: I cannot give one or the other, but Bobby Fischer and Garry Kasparov are my favorites. Fischer was great because of his absolute dedication to the game and immense ability to try and crush his opponents both on the board and psychologically. Kasparov redefined the game with hard work and the modernization of opening preparation.  

AK: How much time do you devote to studying chess?
HN: Quite often nowadays, I have four to five week breaks after major tournaments. Thankfully this allows me to usually take a week or two off completely before diving right back in and studying a little bit every day. This intensifies about a week before my next major event.

AK: Chess tournaments are like work. It can be stressful. What do you like to do to unwind?
HN: When I am not playing chess, I love to spend my free time reading or watching television shows like “Smallville” and “The Wire.”

hikarufans.jpgAK: Finally, what advice can you give to some young players following in your footsteps of greatness?
HN: The single greatest piece of advice I can give is to work hard and enjoy the game. I have seen many players who have become a bit too obsessed and spend all of their time studying chess. I think this is detrimental. It is clear that all of the current top players (Ivanchuk is the exception) are well balanced and are relatively normal.

AK: Thank you, Hikaru, and best of luck in your future endeavors and we will continue to watch your road to the world championship!

Stay up to date with Hikaru on his website blog and the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Saint Louis website (he will be giving a lecture at the club on March 3 @ 7 PM.) Hikaru also recently gave a simul at the Washington University in Saint Louis, scoring a perfect 42-0. See the full story here.