Hikaru Nakamura has a second attempt at the Candidates Tournament to face Chess Champion Magnus Carlsen
The chess world’s attention is set on one of its biggest tournaments, starting this week, with one man garnering plenty of attention for all the right reasons.
The Candidates Tournament is an eight-player double round robin to decide who will be the next challenger for the World Championship title.
Reigning world champion Magnus Carlsen dominated chess for a decade.
Since winning the title in 2013, the Norwegian has revolutionized the way chess is played and has become the game‘s most recognizable star.
But while Carlsen reigned supreme, there was another man who, through his genius and personality, developed a mark arguably as big as the champion – his name is Hikaru Nakamura.
Nakamura, a 34-year-old American, is perhaps the most recognizable and popular player among this year’s nominees.
The grandmaster has an impressive online presence and thousands of fans tune into his live stream to watch him beat the best in the world.
Chess personality and international master Levy Rozman, who forged a successful online career as GothamChess, says Nakamura is an ideal challenger for Carlsen as the sport battles for mainstream attention.
“I think of all the matches that could happen, Magnus-Hikaru could be the biggest,” he told ABC Sport.
“I think it would attract the most sponsors, I think it would attract the most marketing and I think it would be amazing for the chess world.
Chess has experienced a boom in popularity in recent years.
The COVID-19 pandemic and the popularity of Netflix show The Queen’s Gambit has prompted many people to get into the game for the first time.
Nakamura was at the forefront of the surge in popularity, with his online content becoming a hit with new converts.
His ability to play chess with an ease and grace that defies his difficulty, while being a likable and engaging character online, is what got many excited about his appearance in the Candidates.
“Of all the top 50 players in the world, he’s maybe one of three who has that ability,” Rozman said.
“[He is] able to play fast time checks, win 90% of the games he plays online, and just be a normal guy and talk about anything with a live audience and keep them interested and captivated.”
Standing in Nakamura’s way are seven of the world’s best in the toughest tournament to win.
Nakamura is a legend when it comes to short, timed chess games.
When players only have three minutes to play all their moves, Nakamura has always proven to be one of the greats.
But to be world champion and win the Candidates, you must master classical chess; each player has two hours to complete 40 moves before more time is added if needed.
Classical chess requires expert preparation and the ability to calculate several moves in advance.
Nakamura was not expected to qualify for the Candidates as the American seemed focused on his other chess projects.
But a wildcard for this year’s Grand Prix, a Candidates qualifier, changed everything.
“Coming into the Grand Prix, nobody knew what to expect, and some people complained that he even got a wildcard,” Rozman said.
“And he just won the Grand Prix. You can’t make more of a statement than that.”
Nakamura played in the Candidates Tournament in 2016 but struggled.
After losing matches early in the tournament, the American never gave himself a chance to win.
With experience now on his side, he says he feels relaxed and doesn’t put any pressure on himself.
In an interview with chess.com in April, Nakamura said he wanted to savor the opportunity to play in the toughest chess tournament, which he didn’t think he would do a second time.
“Even if I don’t win the tournament this time, I think just having this chance to play chess well and do better than me, just at this level, is probably the most important thing for me” , did he declare.
“I really didn’t think I would ever have this chance after 2016.”
It is this carefree attitude that makes Nakamura even more dangerous to play and makes many dream of a successful World Championship match.