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On The Board Early Only 14, Hikaru Nakamura is the best young U.S. player since Bobby Fischer

Dec. 17, 2001
Dec. 17, 2001

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Dec. 17, 2001

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On The Board Early Only 14, Hikaru Nakamura is the best young U.S. player since Bobby Fischer

Before this whole inevitable comparison thing goes too far (and
it is inevitable), let one important point be made: Hikaru
Nakamura is essentially normal. Sure, he and his older brother,
Asuka, own the John Tesh CD Live at Red Rocks. O.K., they listen
to it too. However, to hear Hikaru talk New York Yankees and
Tennessee Titans and Harry Potter is to hear your average
American 14-year-old.

This is an article from the Dec. 17, 2001 issue Original Layout

So even as Hikaru is increasingly perceived as the next Bobby
Fischer, keep in mind that--personalitywise--he is as
Fischeresque as, say, Chris Tucker. In the family's White
Plains, N.Y., apartment, the brothers' bedroom is, like the
bedrooms of millions of other teenagers, a sty. Clothes here,
clothes there. Guitar picks scattered like ants on a watermelon.
An American flag next to a couple of yellowed magazines next to
a worn BILL BRADLEY FOR PRESIDENT sign next to a pile of creased
books next to a Wayne Gretzky Rangers jersey.

"Bobby Fischer was one of the greatest chess players ever, but
he was totally crazy," Asuka, 15, says of the eccentric Chicago
native who dominated the game during the 1960s and early '70s
and is indeed widely regarded as the greatest player ever. "I
mean, he was Jewish and anti-Semitic. He made no sense. To
succeed at chess, you almost always need balance in your life.
Many players don't have that. Hikaru does."

In a short time Hikaru has emerged as the prince of U.S. chess
and (shhh!) a possible heir to Fischer. Three years after taking
up the game seriously, Hikaru, at 10, became the youngest U.S.
player to earn a master rating and the youngest to defeat an
international master in a tournament game. Last February he
became the youngest U.S. player to attain the title of
international master. In July, when he won the U.S. Junior
Invitational in Tulsa (open to the top 10 players under 21), he
was only three months older than Fischer's record age of 13
years, four months.

Yet despite victories over six grandmasters, Hikaru's most
daunting--and, inevitably, rewarding--challenge came not from
Russia or Hungary or any of the other elite chess nations but
from five dirty-laundry-laced steps across his bedroom, where
for several years Asuka played Venus to Hikaru's Serena.

The older brother first excelled at chess, picking up the game
from a friend when he was five years old. To Carolyn
Weeramantry, Asuka and Hikaru's mother, her sons' devotion to
chess was, and still is, a mystery. Before 1989, when she
separated from Shuichi Nakamura, the boys' father, and moved
with them from Osaka, Japan, to her native Ridgecrest, Calif.,
neither she nor her former husband was interested in the game.
"The only reason I can guess is that their father liked games,"
says Carolyn, a classically trained violinist who first went to
Osaka as an exchange student 20 years ago. "Otherwise, their
success is very surprising."

Asuka quickly emerged as America's top young player, winning a
record-tying 12 National Scholastic titles. From 1993 to 2000 he
won 47 consecutive matches in the National Grade School
Championships. At one of Asuka's tournaments in '93 Carolyn met
Sunil Weeramantry, a renowned youth chess instructor and founder
of the National Scholastic Chess Foundation. The two have been
married for almost seven years.

Hikaru, meanwhile, tagged along to many of his big brother's
events, but he watched little and cared less. Then, in 1995, at
the 12-day U.S. Open in Concord, Calif., something clicked.
Hikaru began messing around with the pieces. He liked the way
they felt, the ways they could be moved. "I enjoyed the
tactics," Hikaru says. "I like the feeling when you don't have
much time and you have to think fast." He and his stepfather
played several games of Blitz. To Sunil it was obvious: The kid
was a natural.

In three years Hikaru advanced to master, at which point, in
February 1998, Asuka received a jolt of reality: his younger
brother was superior. "I was in denial for a long time," Asuka
says. "I tried to think of reasons I was better--my opening is
better, I'm a smarter player, I'm older--but I had to accept it.
He's better, and it'll be hard to catch him."

At July's championships Asuka and Hikaru met in the fifth round.
It was the first time they had played head-to-head in a formal
setting. Hikaru won handily. "It was just like another game,"
Hikaru says, "but sometimes I'd think, That's my brother."

It is funny, watching the brothers sitting side by side on a
sofa in the family's living room. From Asuka, tall and
confident, the words flow. He is a sophomore at White Plains
High, an A student and trombonist in the school's marching and
jazz bands. He speaks of the beauty of chess, for which he has
gained a greater appreciation as he has eased away from the
game. In contrast Hikaru is slouched and shy. He is homeschooled
by Carolyn, which allows him to travel to tournaments. In the
past year he has visited Spain (twice), Hungary and Slovenia, as
well as Kansas City, Philadelphia, Tulsa and Milwaukee. He, too,
cherishes the game, but, he says, "I get tired of the traveling."

Soon enough we will learn whether the next Bobby Fischer is
truly the next Bobby Fischer or, more happily, the first Hikaru
Nakamura.

COLOR PHOTO: MICHAEL J. LEBRECHT II
At 13 Hikaru became the youngest U.S. player ever to rank as an
international master.
"I like the feeling when you have to think fast," says Hikaru of
chess.