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Hikaru Nakamura -- chess master who would be king

January 19, 2010 |  5:04 pm

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The U.S. chess champion needs a shave.

When he is playing well, Hikaru Nakamura doesn't like to shake up his routine. Maybe it's superstition. So when Hikaru opened strong at the prestigious Corus Chess tournament here, he put away the razor.
Wednesday is a rest day at the 13-round event -- a good time to lose the beard, Hikaru decided.

"I just try to keep a certain routine, and this (shaving) is one of the things I've avoided doing,'' he said after his game Tuesday. "Tomorrow, I probably will (shave) and reset everything for the second point of the tournament.''

Round four was bittersweet for the 22-year-old New Yorker. Hikaru played the black pieces against the world champion, Vishy Anand of India. Hikaru has never played a reigning world champ in a formal game, and he was hungry to win. It wouldn't be easy.

White moves first in chess, giving Anand an advantage.

Anand opened by pushing a pawn two squares up the queen file. Hikaru answered by moving his pawn two squares up the king's bishop file -- the Dutch Defense. Hikaru said the opening is rarely played by strong grandmasters, and he hoped that Anand wouldn't be able to cope.

After 33 moves the game ended in a draw. Hikaru looked a bit dejected afterward. Drawing against the world champ is no disgrace. But a victory with black would have been a powerful statement.

"One of the big differences, at least recently, is when I play against anyone, regardless of the color, I feel I'm going to have chances to win,'' he told me.

Afterward, the players went backstage to analyze the game that just ended. Quite a spectacle. It was the first time I'd ever seen players of this caliber conduct a post-mortem. Anand is sort of paunchy and stoop-shouldered, but when his fingers dance over the board he reminds you of Baryshnikov. He rattled off variations he had considered during the game and discarded, exploring whether he missed a chance to win.

Or at least that's what it appeared he was doing.The pace was impossible to follow. At times I wondered if even Hikaru was keeping up.

If you want an idea of the caliber of the event, consider that Anand is only tied for fifth place. He has yet to win a game, drawing all four he has played. In a plaintive "Tweet,'' Anand wrote that he was "still searching for that elusive first win. Self doubts. Have I forgotten how to play chess?''

Not so much.

Hikaru has faced self doubt as well. No one seems certain of his potential. Assessing Hikaru's play, British grandmaster Nigel Short told me: "He blows hot and cold, doesn't he?''

In years past, Hikaru said, his commitment to the game has wavered.

He spoke about the period when he enrolled in Dickinson College, leaving, he said, after a semester. The stark reality is that an aspiring world champion may have no time for a degree. Bobby Fischer dropped out of high school. The world's top-rated player, Magnus Carlsen of Norway, is a full-time chess professional at 19.

Hikaru: "For a few years now I've been focused solely on chess. It was in ... 2007 that I started getting much more serious, and that's when the whole trend of my improvement started.''

Before that point, he said, "I needed a break from chess. I needed a break. That (college) was a way of escaping for the time being. It was definitely an experience that at the time I needed to have. Looking back, if I'd known then what I know now, I probably would not have done that.'' Continuing: "Chess is a great game. It's a lot of fun, but sometimes you wonder what else is out there. For me, that's kind of what I needed.''

I asked if his goal now was becoming world champion. "Absolutely,'' he said.

At this early stage, Hikaru is in a three-way tie for second place. Carlsen is also tied for second, and he and Hikaru face off Thursday, after the rest break.

That's sure to be a crowd-pleaser. The two are the game's most exciting personalities. Hikaru may be the more dynamic player, honing his tactical skill through countless informal games of speech chess. But Magnus is improving at an astounding rate, culminating in his appearance atop the January ratings list.
Anand may hold the title of world champion, but no one is playing better chess right now than Magnus, the ratings show.

One reason may be his coach: ex-world champion Garry Kasparov.

The family retained Kasparov nearly a year ago for a salary of more than $200,000, Magnus's father Henrik said. Magnus's sponsors are helping foot the bill.

When they don't meet in person, teacher and pupil often confer via Skype. Kasparov suggests strings of moves to play in the openings and tournament strategy.

It's Kasparov's openings that worry Hikaru.

"Kasparov revolutionized the game with his opening preparation,'' Hikaru said. "And so obviously, that gives Magnus a huge edge.''

So Hikaru wants to neutralize that advantage. When they sit down to play, Hikaru said he will try to avoid specific openings that Kasparov has perfected.

"If you can avoid walking into that, at the end of the day you're going to be playing a game of chess -- against Magnus, not against Garry,'' Hikaru said.

--Peter Nicholas in Wijk Aan Zee, Netherlands

Photo: U.S. champion Hikaru Nakamua, right, analyzes his game Tuesday with world champion Vishy Anand.

Credit: Peter Nicholas / Los Angeles Times

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