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Nakamura Exclusive Print E-mail
By Jerry Hanken   
January 8, 2007
Photo J.Shahade

by Jerry Hanken

In between victories in the North American Open and the same tournament's blitz, 19-year-old GM Hikaru Nakamura talked candidly with Jerry Hanken about the U.S. Championship, the promotion of chess, as well as the lack thereof.

Jerry Hanken:
Congratulations on becoming the 2006 North American Open Champion. Were you expecting a win?

GM Hikaru Nakamura: Prior to having played in [NEWS:7:201]Philadelphia at the National Chess Congress[/NEWS], I had not played a tournament since August. So, going into that tournament, I was not so sure how I'd do because that was my first tournament in several months and after winning that tournament very convincingly, with 5.5 out of 6, I came into this one with high expectations. I didn't necessarily expect to win it as easily as I did. Of course, I'm quite satisfied with the result.

JH-Well, it certainly was a clear, decisive win for you – two draws out of seven games and nobody else could even equal you after the last round draw. So, what's your next tournament?

HN-The next one I'm playing in is the 1st Annual ACP Rapid World Championship; it's a 16-player knockout, in Odessa, Ukraine, January 5th-8th. It's going to be difficult, because there are a lot of top players, like Leko,Morozevich, Radjabov, Bareev…

JH:You're starting to move right into that top-ten category.

HN: It's rapid, so it should give me better chances, but right now I'm taking a laid back attitude. I'll just play and we'll see what happens.

JH: Somebody told me that you had a rating of about 3700 on ICC, is that an exaggeration?

HN: I think actually the highest I ever got on ICC was 3675, pretty close to 3700, although it's been about a year since I got there.

JH: Do you like to play bullet chess? (one to two minutes per side.)

HN: In the past, I used to. I've actually found that since I've become a Grandmaster, it's helpful for keeping you sharp with tactics, but there's a limit as to how much of it you should play, because it could degrade your game.

JH: Let's cut to the chase. There are some things I want to ask you about that are controversial, and I want to get you opinions. Right now, there's great uncertainty about next year's U.S. Championship. There is now an understanding that the sponsor, who's sponsored the tournament for the last six years, is insisting that there be online play at four different sites in order to continue the sponsorship. How do you feel about that?

HN: I'm strongly opposed to it. First of all, when you have a tournament like any national championship for that matter, it's such a prestigious event that deciding to have people play on the Internet, in my opinion, is not the correct idea for several reasons. First of all, having played many different tournaments with money prizes online, there have been numerous different times when I've seen people who have cheated. The other problem is also when people don't cheat, there is always a certain suspicion about this, and I understand that the idea is to bring in a certain amount of tournament directors to make sure it doesn't happen, but nevertheless, I feel that even with these tournament directors being brought in, if say, some master-level player beats a Grandmaster, there will almost certainly be an accusation of cheating. I know that it's become the norm these days with people accusing others of cheating.

JH: It's very unfortunate that the recent World Championship had these kind of crazy accusations.

HN: That's primarily what I'm referring to. I just feel that it's not the right thing to do. It feels as if you really are degrading the whole event. When people play face to face, you eliminate many different problems. Also, what happens when someone gets disconnected, or if someone makes a 'mouse-slip' for instance? Now, you can't take back a move in a normal game. But there's going to have to be a rule change to allow players an opportunity to play a different move, if it's the result of 'mouse-slipping'. Once again, I feel like this too could be taken advantage of. If someone, let's say, 'accidentally' moves a piece to a square, they could perhaps just say that they had a 'mouse-slip'. Then they could go back and play a different move, which they saw afterwards. I think there are a lot of technical issues, which need to be resolved. (After completing this interview, I shared its contents with President Bill Goichberg. Although the final format for the championship is not yet set, Bill assured me that no one would be playing with a "mouse". The AF4C owns more than sixteen auto-response boards that have been used in previous championships. The players may not see their opponents in front of them, but they will be moving pieces, not mice!-JH)

JH:You are presumably the "best player in America" right now. Kamsky has not played recently. ( Ed Note-Onischuk and Kamsky fans feel free to post comments below.) This is what I think at this point. It's clear that you're not in favor of online play. However, there are a lot of players who don't have your opportunities now, and they would rather have a championship, even under conditions that are not ideal, than to have no championship at all, or to have no prize money.

HN: I feel like there has to be a way to reconcile the differences. For the main sponsor and organizer, Erik Anderson, it's possibly a way of cutting costs. You don't have to put the players up in a nice hotel, for one thing.

JH: People will not be playing in their underwear at home, that's clear. You knew that of course? There will be four centers.

HN: Of course, playing at home is out of the question. Every single player would object to that format.

JH: Let me just put it to you bluntly. If it turns out that there has to be some online play in order to keep the sponsorship, would you just boycott the tournament? I realize I'm putting you on the spot.

HN: Well, before I make any of those decisions, I would first like to see what they propose because they haven't actually come up something concrete yet. Once they do come up with the approach, I'll make a decision.

JH: The finals are going to be held in Las Vegas, at a venue such as Bellagio or another one of the really super hotels. It will be sponsored, I am told, and I can say this publicly, by a major corporate sponsor. Read details here.) Their idea is to have a really great competitive weekend, something akin to the Super Bowl, to which they could invite their major clients. The sponsor's interest is not so much in how we get the final two players, as it is to have this decisive, short format. However, it is the AF4C that wants at least some online play, in the preliminaries.

HN: I understand. The whole finals idea sounds great. It's a good way to get publicity. However, a 32-player U.S. Championship should be about promoting chess and the participants, and not just having the final two players. Anyone who qualifies for a national championship deserves to have a chance to get some publicity and recognition for what they're doing. Especially here, when you have people like 12-year-old Ray Robson who aren't as good as the top players yet but need encouragement. I'm not sure what purpose it serves to play online. Chess fans can see the game in real-time. Nevertheless, if people play at the board, it's still a relay. It's essentially the same; it's just a few seconds' delay.

JH: Yes, this is a forceful argument that many agree with.

HN: If I may be very blunt about this, I would say that I'm quite concerned about the state of chess in America right now. We have a federation, which, it seems, is not exactly being very successful in publicizing chess. You never see articles in the mainstream media; you just never see any publicity outside of the chess world.

JH: May I interject this?

HN: Sure.

JH: In the last year, there have been more articles than ever in the mainstream media. We have had major pieces in The New Yorker, Psychology Today (which won a prestigious CJA award), and even in Reader's Digest about Jennifer Shahade and National Geographic, which featured Mikhail Kornamin. I'm sure you're familiar with the bizarre New Yorker piece, which quotes the FIDE president on his "personal experiences" with alien abduction!

HN: I do know that there have been articles in The New York Times about specific players, and foreign chess. But when you look at it, to the best of my knowledge, it has never been in page 2 of The New York Times, or the major sections.

JH: Only when the cheating was going on.

HN: I understand that Susan Polgar, and certain other people, do a very good job of promoting chess. But still, I feel that the USCF can. and should. do more. The other thing is, I do want to try to become World Champion. With the state of everything the way it is, I don't see too many promising juniors coming up. Considering it's been thirty years since Fischer, I'm starting to feel that chess is not valued so highly, the way our society is these days.

JH: We do have some promising young players…

HN: Well, the truth is, I simply don't think any of them are going to be as good as I am.

JH: You may be right.

HN: Not at the level I'm at right now. There are norm tournaments, but most of them are only IM tournaments. In order to make money, you have to go to Europe, which requires a lot of money. I feel that the USCF should work hard to do something to help people who are trying to get better at chess.

JH: I think the readers understand what you mean by that. The National Federation does have an obligation to promote its very best players. If the Federation had not promoted Fischer, as Ed Edmondson did, when he was USCF president, then Bobby probably would have never been able to get through the maze to become World Champion. Last question real quick, are you seriously considering defecting to Japan?

HN: Not at this time.

JH: Well, I'm glad to hear that because we love you.

HN: I'm not sure where that rumor came from, but it's not true.

JH: It has been going around. The rumor is that you've been offered a million dollars to become a Japanese chessplayer.

HN: (GM Nakamura pauses and smiles.) We'll see about that.

JH: I really appreciate this kind of an interview. The chess public needs to hear that there is some dissatisfaction at the top, and that the Federation can do better. There is no question that some members of the current Executive Board are absolutely committed to promoting chess. Next year, we will have four new members on that seven-person board. Perhaps this is a harbinger of significant change.

HN: Ok, let's go play the Blitz!

Oddly enough, when the pairings in this double-round Blitz were set, I found myself seated next to Hikaru! I was paired against Vadim Milov, who's rating is over 2700, the second seed in the Blitz! I had the Black pieces, and, incredibly, the GM played into one of my favorite lines! When I got down to 30 seconds left on my clock, with Vadim having only 20, I was able to make a move which clearly won a piece. Glancing at the clock, I immediately offered my hand for a draw, which he took! Nakamura turned to me and said, in mock outrage, "How could you not win that game?!" I answered, "I do not wish to play bullet chess with a grandmaster when it is required to mate him in 30 seconds."

Hikaru smiled and shrugged his shoulders, and later was grateful when he finished in 1st place, a half-point ahead of Milov.

Jerry Hanken is the president of CJA, Chess Journalists of America. He played in 40 U.S. Opens and is a longtime and prolific contributor to Chess Life Magazine. He wishes to thank his student and protégé Jessica Lauser for assisting with this interview.