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U.S. player Hikaru Nakamura, Magnus Carlsen win at Corus Chess

January 18, 2010 | 12:44 pm


At baseball games, there’s nothing quite like a beer and a hot dog to complete the fan experience.

At the Corus Chess tournament in the small Dutch town of Wijk aan Zee, the fan favorite is pea soup.

Chess fans slurped bowlfuls of the stuff today as they crowded in to watch the world’s best players compete in one of the most prestigious annual contests.

Pea soup is a tradition at the tournament. During the World War II era, when food was scarce, area residents would dish out pea soup to the players as a courtesy. Food became more plentiful in later years, but the soup stayed. Now, it’s served at a special banquet for the players. Spectators can get it all day, which created an entertaining split screen Monday. On a small stage sat more than a dozen grandmasters -- including the reigning world champion -- calculating long variations in their heads. Twenty feet away stood the fans, spooning up pea soup from paper bowls.

For those of you waiting for the arrival of the next Bobby Fischer, Round 3 at Corus was a heartening affair. 

The two young aces, Hikaru Nakamura of the U.S. and Magnus Carlsen of Norway, both won their games, keeping them tied for second place. Alexei Shirov of Spain is in the lead, having won all three of his games.

Nakamura, 22, is perhaps America’s best hope to recapture the world title that Fischer forfeited in 1975.

An aggressive player, Nakamura dispatched Britain’s Nigel Short, 44, in a sharp game in which he gave away a bishop so that he could promote a pawn to the eighth rank and convert it into a queen. Realizing he couldn’t stop the pawn’s advance, Short resigned. The two conferred afterward at the board; Short did most of the talking.

Speaking to reporters later, Hikaru gave a brief appraisal.

“Nigel surprised me in the opening, and I played maybe a little bit inaccurately,’’ he said. “But he then came up with a plan which was completely wrong and I got an advantage quickly. It was a straightforward, easy win for me.’’

For Nakamura, the tournament is a chance to show that he belongs in elite company.  His rating is 2,708 -- 28th best in the world. Discount a bit for ratings inflation, but for purposes of comparison, Fischer’s rating was 2,780 after he beat Boris Spassky to win the world championship in 1972.

A product of the American chess culture, Nakamura hasn’t had ready access to the strong chess competition in Europe and Russia. But he’s enormously talented, and he’ll have a chance to demonstrate that anew with a strong showing here.

Macauley Peterson, a chess journalist covering the event, told me: “Carlsen has been playing in elite tournaments for years now.’’ Nakamura, by contrast, “hasn’t really had a crack at the world’s elite. That’s another reason why this tournament is important to Hikaru.’’

When he was done with his game, I asked Nakamura about the importance of Corus.

“For some time now, I’ve had the potential to play against the top players in the world,’’ he said. “Obviously, whether it’s my laziness -- not studying as much as I should -- or simply not having the invites [to the best tournaments], it comes down to opportunities. And I think right now this is my chance to shine, and hopefully a good result here will definitely make a very big statement for the chess world.’’

On Tuesday, Nakamura plays the world champion, Vishy Anand of India. Anand has the white pieces, meaning he’ll have the advantage of moving first. On Thursday, he faces off against Carlsen, who holds the world’s highest rating, 2,810. Nakamura doesn’t seem nervous.

“I’m just looking forward to playing the way that I’m playing now, and if I do, I think I can beat anyone, really,’’ he said.

The Carlsen-Nakamura rivalry is shaping up to be one of the most interesting duels in chess. In earlier decades, the defining rivalries were Garry Kasparov vs. Anatoly Karpov; Fischer and Spassky; Alekhine and Capablanca.

The two have followed different paths in chess. Carlsen is thriving in ways that elude the typical American grandmaster. For one thing, he has found sponsors, which in turn has enabled him to hire the best coaches. On the playing stage, he looks a bit like a pro race-car driver, with the names of his sponsors -- a Norwegian law firm and an investment bank -- emblazoned on his sport coat and dress shirt. No one else at the tournament appears to be wearing sponsorship logos. Another Carlsen sponsor is the maker of a fish-oil supplement. Carlsen says his sponsorships enabled him to retain the coaching services of one of the best chess players in history: Kasparov.

Kasparov, a former world championship, is sharing his immense database of openings with Carlsen, along with the experience that comes with reaching the pinnacle of chess and holding that coveted spot for years.

Before the Corus event, student and teacher decamped for a training session at a luxury hotel in Marrakech.

What sort of competitive edge does Kasparov offer? I put the question to the tournament leader, Shirov, at a post-game news conference. He allowed that Kasparov would surely elevate Magnus’ game. But then he offered a caveat, suggesting that Kasparov had been more preoccupied with Russian politics than chess.

“He also was busy with politics for some years so now he has to come up with all the new things that happened in chess in those years,’’ Shirov said.

--Peter Nicholas in Wijk aan Zee, Netherlands