Sports Now

Sports news from Los Angeles and beyond

« Previous Post | Sports Now Home | Next Post »

Corus Chess -- showdown in the Netherlands

January 18, 2010 |  7:34 am

Where do you go when you get a week off?

Newchess One option is to escape the cold weather sweeping the U.S. and head for a sunny beach. My wife and I are trying something different. Both fans of tournament chess, we decided to spend the week in the Netherlands to see the strongest players in the world compete in one of the most prestigious annual events, Corus Chess.

I told my editors what we were doing, and for reasons I still can’t quite fathom, they asked if I’d wanted to blog the action for “The Fabulous Forum.” 

As chess commentators go, I’m an unorthodox choice. My day job is covering the Obama presidency for the Tribune Washington Bureau. Obama plays chess, we’re told, but with a couple of wars and a recession occupying his time, chess hasn’t been a fixture of our White House coverage.

My chess credentials are pretty slim. Like a lot of kids, I was hooked on the game when Bobby Fischer toppled the Soviet chess machine and beat Boris Spassky to win the world championship in 1972. Later I entered a few tournaments, with mixed results. A reckoning came against a strong player. Confused in the middle-game, I blundered away a rook. “Well, I’ll be interested to see what you have planned,’’ my opponent said, snatching the piece. Sadly, I had nothing.

But I never lost interest in the game, or for that matter, in Fischer. Clea is also a journalist and a hobby of ours is Fischer’s family. By mining archives and filing requests for public records, we pieced together that Bobby’s real father was not Gerhardt Fischer, as was commonly believed, but an obscure Hungarian scientist named Paul F. Nemenyi.

So, here’s what to expect. This won’t be the place to find deep analysis of how a player botched the Semi-Slav defense. Expert commentators at Corus and various websites are filling that niche. What I’ll assume is that readers know next to nothing about the game, but might be curious about the absorbing subculture of professional chess.

While I’m a fan, I don’t want to idealize the game. Chess has its problems. Too often players agree to easy draws rather than fight it out. Computers have robbed chess of some of its mystique. A game might be 30 moves deep before players deviate from a string of moves conceived by a home computer and begin thinking on their own.

Cheating is a worry.

In some tournaments, players have been accused of throwing games and secretly consulting computers to get an edge.

Still, at the highest levels, players routinely produce games that amount to artistic compositions.

The cast at Corus is a formidable one. A total of 14 players are competing in the “A’’ section. The reigning world champion is here: 40-year-old Vishy Anand of India. Anything short of first place for Anand would be a disappointment. A defeat would signal that while Anand holds the title, he may no longer be the world’s best.

Two who hope to supplant Anand are part of a rising youth movement: Magnus Carlsen, 19, of Norway, and Hikaru Nakamura, 22, of the United States.

We’ll start with Nakamura.

Since Fischer forfeited his title 35 years ago, American chess has been in hiatus. Every prodigy who comes along is instantly compared to Fischer, but none has gone on to match his achievements.

Nakamura, nicknamed “H-Bomb,’’ is the latest hope. He came to the U.S. from Japan as a toddler. Early on, his progress was more dramatic than Fischer’s. Fischer was 13 when he became a master; Nakamura only 10. Like Fischer, he has a fierce competitive streak. Nakamura excels at informal games of “bullet’’ chess, relishing the Adrenalin rush of playing all one’s moves within a one-minute span.

At the board, he is fearless. In grandmaster play Nakamura has shocked the chess world by pushing his queen into his opponent’s territory on the second move. That’s early. So early it’s a blatant violation of one of the oldest and most basic principles: Hold back the queen until you complete development of the minor pieces.

A few years back, I interviewed Nakamura’s stepfather, Sunil Weeramantry --  himself a fine player and author of the book “Best Lessons of a Chess Coach.’’ He mentioned something about the game that his son must have internalized.

“You need to be willing to put your neck on the line, even if you end up without a head.’’

In important ways, though, Nakamura deviates from the Fischer model. Fischer was monomaniacal. He dropped out of high school and devoted himself to chess. Girls were a distraction.

Nakamura has interests outside chess. He went to Dickinson College, turning down a scholarship to a school with an elite chess program, the University of Texas at Dallas.

On his blog last fall, Nakamura talked excitedly about attending a USC-Washington football game (won by the Huskies 16-13). After winning the U.S. championship last year, he was asked how he had prepared for the event. His answer?

“I was kicking back and enjoying the hockey playoffs.’’

Whether he does his homework or not, Nakamura will send a message that he’s in the hunt for the world title if he wins the tournament.

At this early stage, he’s in good shape. Round two finished Sunday with Nakamura and Carlsen tied for second place. They’re a half-point behind the leader, Alexei Shirov of Spain.

I’ll be talking more about Carlsen in subsequent posts. But here are a couple of upcoming games to keep in mind.

On Tuesday, Nakamura will play the black pieces against the world champ, Anand. Two days later, he'll face off against Carlsen in what could be the most anticipated game of the tournament. “H-Bomb’’ will play the white pieces, meaning he’ll have the advantage of moving first.

And I’ll be there to cover every minute of the action – unless Clea insists we see the Van Gogh museum.

--Peter Nicholas in Amsterdam

Photo: Perhaps a future chess champion?

Credit: Paramount Television