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On Chess: Seven Questions With Hikaru Nakamura

Hikaru Nakamura is currently ranked No. 1 in the U.S. and No. 7 in the world.
Provided by Chess Club and Scholastic Center of St. Louis

You’re back in town for the Showdown in St. Louis, a five-round match for $100,000 against the World No. 4 player, Levon Aronian. The Showdown is not a world-circuit event in which you normally play -- is an event like this still important to you, even though it’s just an exhibition?

Hikaru Nakamura: To start with, if you ask me or Levon, I don’t think either of us will say this is just an exhibition. This certainly isn’t a match that is as long as, say, the World Championship match, but nevertheless, the main purpose of this Showdown is to get more match experience. It’s still very important -- nothing less than a very serious match for very serious prizes.

So we shouldn’t consider the Showdown in St. Louis a “friendly?”

Hikaru Nakamura: We’re certainly not friends. At this level, you just can’t be very friendly with most of your opponents -- it’s not like we’re sharing tips or discussing chess or even having general conversations. Now, I’d say we’re definitely on friendly terms, it’s not like we hate each other. Though there are certainly other players that I definitely don’t like

Of most of the top players, Levon is probably one of the most friendly people in general -- we certainly don’t have any animosity. So while I think we’ll be on good terms, and probably more friendly than a match featuring me and (Magnus) Carlsen, this is still going to be very combative.

Levon Aronian 2011
Credit Wikipedia
Levon Aronian in 2011

What kind of player is Aronian?

Hikaru Nakamura: I’ve known Levon for many years, the first time we played was way back in 2005 in Gibraltar, and I’ve seen him play in many tournaments over the years. He’s a very strong player, very talented, consistently the No. 2 player in the world for the last two or three years. Any time someone gets to the top-10 in chess, you have to respect their game no matter what.

Every player has individual strengths, but I think Levon is a very creative player, slightly different than most of the others. I tend to think our styles are very similar, Levon may be a bit more positional, but we’re both very creative players.

The final round of the Showdown will feature 16 games of Blitz chess (3-minute games, with a 2-second increment per move), which is a rapidly growing variant of the game. How do you feel about your Blitz chess?

Hikaru Nakamura: I grew up playing a lot of Blitz chess on the internet -- it’s probably what I feel most at home with, in general. That being said, up until recently with the addition of the World Blitz Championship, it was generally not considered important: Blitz just wasn’t what counted. For that, classical chess has always remained more important and has my focus now 100-percent -- because my primary goal is to become World Champion. So while it’s still nice to play Blitz chess, I have a more important goal in mind. Now I just play Blitz when I have the down time.

You seem to have ramped up your intensity on the global chess scene in the past couple years. When did the World Champion title become a goal you felt was seriously attainable?

Hiraku Nakamura moved to St. Louis in 2010.
Credit Provided by the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of St. Louis | File Photo
Nakamura moved to St. Louis in 2010.

Hikaru Nakamura: I think about five years ago, 2009 when I was right on the edge of the world’s top-10. That’s when it first became truly serious, beyond just playing in tournaments. At first, of course, it was very exciting and very different to play in all these top-level tournaments. And when you first become a Grandmaster, getting into those top-level tournaments is what becomes the next step. The focus isn’t “getting into the Candidate’s Tournament” or “Becoming World Champion” -- all that stuff is still a pipe dream. The key is just getting to play in those elite tournaments for the top 10-15 players in the world, and then finding a way to stay motivated.

Now, the World title has certainly become a major goal. You only have so many quality years as a chess player, and you never know just how much time you have left. I think, more so than in the past, I’m feeling that sense of urgency. I think I’m taking things a bit more seriously. So when I have those opportunities, I’m more focused on taking advantage of them.

The 2014 World Championship match between Magnus Carlsen and Viswanathan Anand is going on right now. Do you pay attention? Does watching that match make you jealous?

Hikaru Nakamura: I do pay attention -- I would say pretty much every serious chess player is following the match, and to not be would be completely insane. It is, however, difficult to go too deep into those games when you’re trying to prepare for your own match. I have done some commentary on the games, but in general I’m just following -- not studying.

And there’s not much jealousy involved. The only time I have felt jealousy was perhaps the last Candidates Tournament, where I didn’t get in despite having a very high rating. But as far as the World Championship, there is certainly not any jealousy. Maybe there is some shock seeing certain openings, or a blunder that makes me wonder why some people don’t make those same mistakes against me.

You are a three-time U.S. Champion -- but not since 2012, and you weren’t even a participant in the past two years. It’s hard for some to understand why the top U.S. player doesn’t even contest for the U.S. Championship. Is that title not important to you?

Hikaru Nakamura: My goal is to become World Champion. And chess, unlike a lot of other activities or spots, is very much about playing to the best level of competition, if you want to improve. Therefore, to become World Champion, I need to be constantly competing against the best players in the world to play at that highest level. The U.S. Championships are the best players in America, but in general they are of slightly lesser quality and that doesn’t fit in with a goal of trying to become World Champion.

At this point, I’m truly only concerned with one title and not much else. I consider rating to be a far-more accurate measure than being champion of a single tournament. Your rating, and how you consistently perform in every single event you play, is a much better description of a player.