The chess world’s attention is focused on one of his biggest tournaments starting this week, with one man drawing a lot of attention for all the right reasons.
The Candidates Tournament is an eight-player, double-round-robin event to determine who will become the next contender for the world title.
Reigning world champion Magnus Carlsen has dominated chess for a decade.
Since winning the title in 2013, the Norwegian has revolutionized chess and has become the game’s most recognizable star.
But while Carlsen reigned at the top, there was another man who through brilliance and personality has built a brand arguably as big as the champion – his name is Hikaru Nakamura.
Nakamura, a 34-year-old American, is possibly the best-known and most popular player among this year’s contestants.
The grandmaster has an impressive online presence and thousands of fans tune in to his live stream to see him beat the best in the world.
Chess personality and international champion Levy Rozman, who has built a successful online career under the GothamChess moniker, says Nakamura is an ideal challenger for Carlsen as the sport struggles for mainstream attention.
“I think out of all the games that could happen, Magnus-Hikaru could be the biggest,” he told ABC Sport.
“I think it would attract the most sponsorship, I think it would attract the most marketing, and I think it would be great for the chess world.
Chess has experienced a boom in popularity in recent years.
The COVID-19 pandemic and the popularity of the Netflix show The Queen’s Gambit prompted many to take up the game for the first time.
Nakamura was at the forefront of the surge in popularity, and his online content became a hit with new converts.
His ability to play chess with ease and grace that defies his difficulties, while being a likable and engaging character online, has drawn many to his appearance in the contestants.
“Of all the top 50 players in the world, he’s maybe one in three who have that ability,” Rozman said.
“[He is] able to play fast time controls, win 90 percent of the games he plays online, and just be a regular guy and talk to a live audience about anything and keep them interested and intrigued.
Seven of the world’s best stand in Nakamura’s way in the most difficult tournament to win.
Nakamura is a legend when it comes to short, timed chess games.
When players are given just three minutes to play all their moves, Nakamura has consistently proven himself to be one of the greats.
But to become World Champion and win the Candidates Tournament, you need to master classical chess; Each player has two hours to make 40 moves before adding more time 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 Tournament as the American appeared to be focused on his other chess projects.
But a wild card for this year’s Grand Prix, a qualifying tournament for the candidates, changed everything.
“When he went into Grand Prix nobody had any idea what to expect and some people complained that he even got a wild card,” said Rozman.
“And he just won the Grand Prix. That’s all you can say.”
Nakamura played in the 2016 Candidates Tournament but struggled.
After losing games early in the tournament, the American never gave himself a chance to win.
With the experience on his side, he feels relaxed and not putting himself under pressure, he says.
In an interview with chess.com in April, Nakamura said he wanted the opportunity to play in the toughest chess tournament, something he didn’t think he would do a second time.
“Even if I don’t win the tournament this time, I think probably the most important thing for me is just to have the chance to play good chess and do better than me at this level,” he said.
“I really didn’t think I would ever get the chance after 2016.”
It’s this carefree attitude that makes Nakamura even more dangerous and has many dreaming of a blockbuster World Championship match.