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Hikaru gains on leader at Corus Chess Tournament

January 23, 2010 | 11:23 pm


Let's start with an update to the Corus Chess Tournament, which is getting more exciting by the day.

It had seemed that U.S. champion Hikaru Nakamura's bid to win the event might be slipping away. Coming into the seventh round Saturday, Hikaru had made three straight draws.

He was tied for second place, 1.5 points behind the leader, Alexei Shirov of Spain. Not a bad showing, but the 22-year-old New Yorker has ambitions of winning the tournament and clearly establishing himself as one of the world's elite players.

So for Hikaru, Saturday was crucial. He was paired against Shirov and had the advantage of playing the white pieces. Here was a chance to cut into Shirov's lead. He opened with pawn-to-king-four. Shirov answered with the Sicilian Defense, an aggressive choice.

Speaking to reporters at the postgame news conference, Hikaru said his opponent erred at move one. Had Shirov chosen a quieter defense, he would have been better positioned to draw and preserve his lead, Hikaru said.

"I kind of wondered if this was something of a mistake for him,'' Hikaru said. "For Alexei, a draw would have been a great result.''

In his analysis of the game on the Internet Chess Club website, American grandmaster Joel Benjamin said that during the middle game, Hikaru spurned a "cautious'' variation that many grandmasters would have favored.

Hikaru instead built a strong position by posting his white bishop on the commanding queen-five square, Benjamin said. From that central location, the bishop exerted powerful pressure on the white diagonals up and down the board.

Shirov grew short on time and blundered on his 36th move, resigning five moves later. With his victory, Hikaru moved to half a point behind Shirov with six rounds left to play. He's in the hunt, tied for second place.

Players are taking notice. The knock on Hikaru had been that; while enormously talented, he wasn't consistent in his results or serious enough in his preparation.

Critics said he spent too much time playing informal games of speed chess over the Internet. For traditionalists, speed chess is like fast food -- fun, but not nourishing. Yet Corus could be the breakout moment for Hikaru, vaulting him into the world's top 10. In the January rating list, he was ranked 28th.

Vladimir Kramnik is a former world champion who defeated Garry Kasparov a decade ago (that gives Kramnik something in common with IBM's "Deep Blue.'' Both have beaten Kasparov in a match.) I spoke to Kramnik the other day and asked him to evaluate Hikaru as a player.

"He has the potential to be at least in the top 10,'' Kramnik said. "He's already almost there by strength. He's becoming a very dangerous opponent.''

The two will face off Sunday.


A few closing thoughts about my week-long visit to Corus, one of the marquee events on the annual chess calendar.

First and foremost: Why doesn't the United States host a top-level tournament of this quality?

The reason, I'm sorry to say, is we're not a country that sufficiently values chess. A tournament of this caliber takes money. Money to pay the players' travel expenses; money for appearance fees; and money for prizes. In past years, Corus has paid top players appearance fees of up to 50,000 Euros.

Money requires corporate sponsorship. And American chess has never attracted a sustained commitment from the private sector.

In Wijk aan Zee, the sponsor is the Corus steel company. Tournament organizers told me that funds were tight this year and for a time it appeared they might have to cancel the 14-person "C'' section -- a venue for up-and-coming players. But they pulled it off.

And for fans of U.S. chess, it's a good thing they did. The player winning the "C'' section at this point is a 15-year-old grandmaster from Florida, Ray Robson.

He is playing overseas more and more, he told me, because "There are not that many strong tournaments in the U.S. I could compete in.''

That's a shame.

A top-level tournament is one of the best ways to promote chess in the host country. Here's what it means for the Netherlands. When they decide on whom to invite, Corus directors give special preference to Dutch players. So at least once a year, a certain number of players from Holland can expect to compete against the world's best in optimal playing conditions. Chess requires native intelligence and study, but one also needs to face strong players. That's how you improve.

There is another advantage to hosting a world-class chess tournament. The way it works, the game's governing body awards the coveted Grandmaster and International Master titles to players who earn qualifying "norms'' in tournament play. If there are few such events in the U.S., players who've yet to establish themselves must go abroad to earn titles.

In earlier blog posts, I talked about the U.S. chess tournament scene. The model is the weekend tournament featuring multiple rounds per day. It's grueling. The prize fund, based on entrance fees, is split so that amateurs competing among themselves stand a chance of taking home thousands of dollars. That's fine for the winners. But shouldn't the prize money be weighted in favor of the grandmaster struggling to earn a living in a country that doesn't value chess? Couldn't some of that prize money be set aside for appearance fees to attract top talent? Alternatively, isn't there a Silicon Valley entrepreneur out there willing to sponsor a major chess event so that prizes aren't so dependent on entrance fees?

For America to nourish its homegrown chess talent, it needs to host top tournaments. It needs its own version of Corus.

I'll give the last word to Kramnik.

He said chess is clearly popular in the U.S., as evidenced by all the Americans logging onto websites that cover the major European events. But Kramnik said he hasn't competed in the U.S. since the mid-1990s. There's no place for him to play, he said.

"To me, it's a mystery why you don't have a top chess tournament,'' Kramnik said. "It's pretty strange. Because in practically every big European country there's a big tournament, but in the United States it's not so. To me, it's a pity. I hope it will change in the future. I would love to come if there is a good tournament, but there are no tournaments. It's something to think about for the lovers of chess in the United States. Everybody would be very happy to play in a tournament like this in New York or Los Angeles. It would be great.''

--Peter Nicholas in Wijk aan Zee, Netherlands

Photo: Corus Chess Tournament director Jeroen van den Berg.

Credit: Peter Nicholas / Los Angeles Times