Meet Red Bull's Chess Grandmaster

Hikaru Nakamura hails from New York City and is one of the best chess players in the world.
Hikaru Nakamura, Chess Grandmaster
Hikaru Nakamura, Chess Grandmaster © Brian Nevins/Red Bull Content Pool
By Roel Concepcion

Hikaru Nakamura is a chess grandmaster, and yes, that’s an official title. GM for short, it’s the highest title a chess player can achieve and it’s held for life.

He earned GM status in 2003 at 15 years and 79 days old – the youngest to ever do it at that time. Since then, he became the No. 1 chess player in the U.S. and consistently holds a spot as one of the top 10 players in the world.

Experts love his aggressive style of play, other GMs consider him to be one of the best American chess players ever and his fans feel that he’s barely scratching the surface of greatness.

During matches, he’s cool, calm and confident – a byproduct of his New York City upbringing and being surrounded by a family of proficient chess heads – his stepfather is a chess master and his older brother was a 13-time national chess champion.

He’s also universally regarded and ranked No. 1 as the best blitz (speed chess) player in the world.

I sat down with Hikaru to talk about his approach to the game and his style of play – a proper introduction since he’s now a part of Red Bull’s roster of athletes.

On Malcolm Gladwell's 10,000-Hour Rule

The biggest reason I got to where I am is because I spent so many hours playing games of chess on the Internet when I was younger. I can’t put an actual value on the number of hours, but I think more than anything, both online and actual over-the-board chess as well, is how I got to where I am.

I certainly think that the hours spent is true; I don’t know if it’s 10,000. Maybe it’s more, maybe it’s less, but I think there is definitely something to that statement, as far as getting very good at anything, for that matter.

You definitely have to have a certain level of talent, but I think especially in chess, there’s much more than that, because there are many people I knew growing up who were extremely talented. They got much stronger than I did in a much quicker amount of time; however, at a certain point, they hit the proverbial wall, where it was hard to improve.

And so at some point when they hit this wall, they didn’t have these skills to study, to have a determination to keep on improving; whereas with me, for example, the best story I can think of is that first tournament I ever played, I lost every single game that I played, the very first chess tournament ever.

And obviously, well, I improved quite quickly, but I think that relative to some other people, where they could always just go play and were just more naturally talented – I didn’t have that ability, so because of that, I had to work harder.

I had to try and understand the game more.

On Game Time Preparation

A lot of the games which count towards the world rankings, they’re slow games and they can go a very long time – some can go about six hours and it’s every single day for about two weeks in a normal tournament.

You have to be in good shape, because otherwise, at some point, between the games going so long, between all the pressure that builds up during the individual games and everything, you really have to be in shape.

So that’s why I like to play tennis whenever I can. I also do a little bit of running, a lot of treadmills. So that’s more or less what I do at the moment in the way of exercise.

If you look at chess players maybe, let’s say 15 to 20 years ago, there were plenty of chess players who were, I’m not trying to give chess a bad image here, but they were like chain smokers and there were some guys who were like 250 pounds. And they were still really good players.

But now, if you look at all the top players in the world, you’ll be lucky if you find someone who smokes and no one is overweight. I think the whole physical aspect of the game has become much more important than it was in the past.

On Studying the Opponent

Studying the opponent is looking at the style, how they’re playing, what they’re trying to do, and most importantly, what are they doing to be successful. How are they winning games of chess? And when they don’t win, why aren’t they winning?

And it’s just trying to understand the general mindset and how they go about in their approach towards the game. But very rarely will you just go in and kind of wing it. Sometimes you will, but most of the time players are very well prepared for what they think their opponent is going to do.

On Your Approach to the Game

There are two general approaches towards the game. In the opening phase, for example, there are a lot of people who try and look at it from more a mathematical formula of precision.

They’re going to prepare something. They’re going to keep it very limited in terms of what someone will do against them. They’ll try and be very precise, not allow any holes or any of that. From like move one to 15, someone will know exactly what they’re going to be doing and they’ll know everything. They’ll have it all memorized, and that’s just how they approach it.

And then there are players like me, where I’m not going to be as much of this mathematical precision. I just want to get to a certain point in the game, and then whoever plays better wins.

So that’s where the creativity aspect, I think, very much comes into play, where we try and get this position where both players are going to have a general idea of what’s going on, but you think that you’re either going to know it better or you’re going to calculate a little bit better, or understand the position and all the intricacies of it better.

On Your Favorite Chess Piece

Right now it’s the bishop.

No, it doesn’t change often, but in the past, it was a different piece. I used to really like the knight a lot because I’m a big fan of blitz chess.

And in blitz chess, the knight is a very tricky piece because it can move all over the board and you can win a lot of pieces with the knight. But you have to be a lot more careful, especially with these blitz games because knights can move to all these different squares, and you can make one wrong move, and suddenly you lose a queen.

So yeah, it used to be the knight, but nowadays it’s the bishop.

On Winning and Losing

In chess, most tournaments are not knockouts, so therefore, very often when you lose a game, you just have to play the next day. And it’s not like you get a break in who you play. You still play the absolute best players.

So I think that, the ability to forget very quickly, or to move on and just forget about it in a very short period of time, is extremely important in terms of recovering from a loss because it’s very difficult.

It’s about being mentally strong to overcome that, and to not become very disappointed or upset over a loss and coming back the next day.

As far as during an actual game, in general, it’s more really having to keep the noise away, where you’re just focusing on the game and trying to find some opportunity or some glimmer of hope in a series of moves, because very often, when you’re in trouble or losing a game of chess, it’s very easy to let your mind wander and have a lot of very negative thoughts and just not care.

The most important key to being a great chess player is the ability to kind of forget, or to compartmentalize a very bad game or a very bad loss, and to come back the next day and just play as though nothing happened.

On eSports

I think the biggest difference with chess is that it’s proven to have very big educational benefits. In many ways, it’s imitating life; with chess, you’re trying to find the best move and you have to understand what the consequences are of making bad moves.

Chess is very much about the approach being logical and thinking about things a few steps forward, instead of simply, “I’m going to do this and not thinking about what comes next.”

Chess teaches you a lot about the real world from this educational standpoint.

And it’s also competitive. It’s great for learning how to be competitive – especially over the board. You’re playing someone on the board; you want to crush them.

And there are also parallels eSports especially when you compare it to blitz chess because it’s about the speed, both on the Internet and in person. Who’s the quickest player? Who’s fastest with the math?

I think from the speed component and the visual aspect, blitz chess is very similar to eSports.

On Crushing the Opponent

I wouldn’t say I have that approach where it’s just “F that guy,” but there are quite a few players who, when I play them, I just want to crush them. There are people who when I sit down across from them, I just want to destroy them.

I don’t want to use names, but let’s just say, there are two players on the top 10 in the world who every time I sit down across from them, I just want to destroy them.

On the Evolution of Chess

Chess, just like every other sport, is built on the people in the past. We’re building on the foundation that exists over the past few hundred years, and now I think the biggest difference is that there’s so much more information.

And because of this, the access to information, the access to games, is so much deeper than it was, say, when Bobby Fischer was playing.

For example, when Fischer played the World Championship match 42 years ago in Iceland, I think his preparation was he took, literally, one notebook with maybe 50 of Boris Spassky’s games.

Now with chess programs today, I could look at 50 games in a few hours on my computer. And because of that, the level of information that exists is so much greater, and therefore, consequently, the game is much harder. People don’t make silly mistakes the way they used to, because now you can study.

You can learn things so much quicker, which also ties in with the physical aspect, because when you don’t get advantages early on in the game and you have to play long games, you really have to put a lot more energy into getting that advantage, and then converting it.

On Being on Red Bull’s Roster of Athletes

It’s good for chess, first of all, because it’s good for raising the awareness of the sport. I really like drinking Red Bull, and when you’re playing long games, you need to stay sharp. You need to stay focused. And Red Bull is very good at that.

I think it’s great that Red Bull is involved. I think it’s good for everyone.

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