Hikaru Nakamura’s ‘don’t care’ world of chess - Hindustan Times
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Hikaru Nakamura’s ‘don’t care’ world of chess

Mar 31, 2024 11:06 PM IST

The world No 3 is a favourite at the Candidates tournament, but being a professional chess player is hardly his only job

Profess chess player, streamer, disruptor — Hikaru Nakamura is all of them. Only one happens to be his ‘real’ job. The world No.3 chess player with over two million subscribers on YouTube and nearly two million followers on Twitch, is one of the top two favourites for the Candidates tournament that will be played in Toronto between April 3-22. At 36, he’s the oldest player in the field. He’s also its most famous and distinctive personality.

Hikaru Nakamura(X)
Hikaru Nakamura(X)

Born in Japan and raised in New York, Hikaru broke Bobby Fischer’s record to become America’s youngest Grandmaster at 15 (it’s since been bettered). He was seen as the country’s most dazzling chess prospect as he rose through the ranks. For someone who touched a peak classical rating of 2816 Elo and later dropped, Hikaru is seen as having underplayed his potential. He’s a monster in the blitz format and is currently ranked No. 2 in the world, behind Magnus Carlsen.

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His rise as a hugely popular chess streamer coincided with the pandemic and he continues to stream regularly from his Florida home – playing blitz, analysing, commentating and chatting with fans.

Following a two-year break from over-the-board chess, he returned to compete as a Fide wildcard in the Grand Prix in June 2022. He finished as the champion. How did he react? “There’s no bonus prize, so it doesn’t mean anything!... Who cares!”

WEALTHIEST CHESS PLAYER

In 2022, El Pais reported that Hikaru was the wealthiest chess player in the world with an estimated fortune of $50 million, only a tiny part of it from chess earnings. The rest was largely from streaming.

Former world champion Garry Kasparov, who briefly trained Hikaru in 2011, put the American’s recent resurgence in classical chess succinctly. He believed that the nature of the modern game – with opening work becoming less important – is perfect for a player like Hikaru who’s blessed with phenomenal instincts and practical strengths. “Now, you can skip the part that requires encyclopaedic knowledge and a lot of hard work into openings. It was not so much Hikaru catching up with the game. It was the game that moved toward him.”

Former world champions Viswanathan Anand and Carlsen recently named Hikaru, along with compatriot Fabiano Caruana, as their favourite to win the Candidates. Four months ago, when he was asked about the Candidates on his YouTube stream, Hikaru replied he wasn’t even thinking about it. “I’ll start worrying about it probably in January-February. Right now, I’m focused on my real job, streaming.”

In a podcast with Lex Fridman in October 2022, Hikaru spoke of little things from his childhood – following baseball on the radio since he didn’t have cable, playing blitz on the Internet Chess Club and being impressed by the oratorial and sartorial skills of a professor whose DVDs he watched while being homeschooled – that he believed led him to a career in streaming.

“On the Internet Chess Club, you could write comments about your game. So, it’s similar to streaming, only that instead of talking I was writing and chatting during some of the games I was playing. Without it, I don’t think I’d have the kind of success I’ve had in streaming. It would have taken me much longer to get comfortable without this built-in advantage. Also, I followed a lot of baseball games, specifically the New York Yankees, on the radio and heard a lot of announcers. You sort of learn from it all.”

'DON'T CARE' T-SHIRT

For all his fame, Hikaru might not exactly be the most liked guy in chess. He can be seen as arrogant and brash and his ‘I literally don’t care’ (yes, they have it on t-shirts now) rant after a fluke online loss is now immortal. He wore an ‘I literally don’t care’ T-shirt for an online game against Carlsen last year and fist-pumped in celebration after the five-time world champion suffered a dramatic mouse slip and lost. Recently former world champion Vladimir Kramnik (he has lately turned into a self-appointed vigilante against cheating) suggested statistical anomalies in Hikaru’s online play. The latter dismissed the accusations as ‘garbage’.

There’s something to be said though about the prospect of a massive merging of worlds – of chess and his legions of followers across online platforms – should he win the Candidates and go on to become world champion. Now with Carlsen weaning himself off classical chess, there lies the opportunity and room for a new star to step in. Whether Hikaru is the right guy to take chess forward is another question.

In 2022, after he was certain of a place in the Candidates, Hikaru put out a video titled ‘Not caring my way to the Candidates’. Here’s what he did at the tournament: played out 6–7-hour classical grinders, did the post-game official interviews, went online and did Twitch interviews and then recorded YouTube recaps of his game along with analysis. Pretty mind boggling from an elite player at a major tournament.

He was in the reckoning for second place until Ding Liren won on demand in the final round. In hindsight an unfortunate game for Hikaru to lose since Ding ended up playing the World Championship (and won) after Carlsen decided not to defend his title. In a few days from now, Hikaru will find himself locked in battle with seven others for a crack at the World Championship. Will he 'not care' his way to the finish?

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