Checkmate! 40 questions with America’s chess champion Hikaru Nakamura

Story highlights

Japanese-born American Hikaru Nakamura is the country's No. 1 chess player

He's ranked No.3 in the world and was awarded the title of grandmaster aged 15

CNN  — 

Hikaru Nakamura was always the smartest kid in the room.

By the time the Japanese-born American reached the ripe old age of 10, he was anointed the title of chess master. Five years later, he became the youngest grandmaster since the legendary Bobby Fischer.

Now 27, Nakamura is the world No. 3 gearing up to face the rest of the top 10 in the $1 million purse Sinquefield Cup in St. Louis, Missouri.

CNN caught up with the speed-chess expert on his mind-set leading into the tournament’s opening move on Saturday, where he expanded on everything from Garry Kasparov to the stock market to sake:

How old were you when you won your first tournament?

I was seven years old.

Did you play high school chess?

No I didn’t play high school chess, because by that time I was already being home schooled. So I was competing in individual tournaments all over the world.

At what age were you pulled from the traditional classroom?

At nine years old, after fourth grade. Primarily it was to give me the opportunity to compete abroad because if I stayed in regular school I would not have been able to get the excused absences to compete in enough events to progress my career.

For example one tournament is roughly nine rounds, and most of them were serious enough that it was one round per day, so if you average that out, that’s nine days potentially. You can do that once or twice during the school year, but beyond that it’s just not going to work.

Any idea you’d go on to be a chess champion at that point?

I think (my parents) had some inclination that I might become a top chess player – I was already one of the top junior players in America – but to go from a strong junior player to world champion caliber, you really can’t know that ahead of time.

They perhaps had some dreams or thoughts, but I don’t think they really thought it was likely. I think they just wanted to see how far it could go.

At what age did the corner start to turn?

I think when I was 15-years-old, when I broke the record for the youngest American grandmaster. Bobby Fischer previously held the record (Nakamura was three months younger; it has been broken twice since.) Once I broke the record, I knew I would have some chances to go quite far.

Was there any fear you’d follow Fischer to become an anti-American recluse?

I don’t think there was, but that’s probably because the media attention for chess is not quite what it once was. There was definitely some coverage but I don’t think at the time that (comparisons to Fischer’s eccentricity) came into the equation.

Have you ever played in Washington Square Park (the home of street chess in New York)?

I used to when I was younger, but nowadays most people who hustle there all know who I am, so I really don’t have the opportunity to play against them anymore.

I’d have to put on a wig or makeup, something to really alter my appearance, otherwise they would recognize me right away.

How is the level of competition there?

Quite strong. Most of the players are master level, which is about a 2,200 rating. So basically they are better than 99% of anyone who is ever going to play chess – but they are not better than 99.99%, like I am. So it’s a very high level, just not at the elite level.

Have you ever had a job, other than being a chess player?

No, I’ve never had a job other than being a chess player. It’s kind of what I grew up with, so it’s what I spent most of my time on.

If you had the opportunity to have any other career, what would it be?

Probably somewhere in finance or Wall Street; probably in trading if I had to take a guess. I do have quite an interest in the markets as well.

Do you invest your prize money in stocks?

Yes, usually I invest my prize money in the market. Right now I think markets are a bit high so I wouldn’t be investing, I’d just be keeping it in the bank earning zero interest.

Any similarities between chess and the stock market?

In chess it’s very much about planning ahead and thinking things through logically, and if you’re actually investing – not day trading – then you try to understand the situation, the economics and the financial numbers, (to) make logical decisions. In chess you also try and control your risk- reward ratio.

How long were you at Dickinson College?

One semester from August to December, 2006. Originally, the plan was to get away from chess and do something different. I was a little bit burnt out at the time.

I had been playing a lot of chess and I wasn’t really enjoying it, so I decided to go to college to see what else is out there for me. But after about six or seven months away from the game, I just decided that the whole college life wasn’t for me and that’s why I decided to come back.

I went about five months without playing chess in college. And to not do that is extremely rare; it’s quite crazy if you’re a serious player.

How do you prepare for a big tournament? Is there an equivalent to a boxer’s sparring partner in chess?

I’m not going to play against someone seriously, but there are people that I work with to study the game of my opponents. (We) try to come up with a few ideas for when I actually play them in the competition. So it’s not a traditional sparring partner, but you are in a way sparring and training with other people.

Are you good in math?

No, I’m not a natural mathematician. I would say out of all the things I studied growing up, math was probably one of the things that I liked the least. I’m much more a history and languages type of person.

Do you know the quadratic equation by heart?

(Laughs), No I don’t.

What about the Pythagorean Theorum?

A long time ago when I much younger I did. But I haven’t studied any serious math in 10 years at least. No, I don’t know it by heart, but I do know what it is. (Ed: A² + B²= C²)

If you get the opening move, how do you decide what it is?

Usually at the start of the game you play with one of two moves: You move the pawn in front of the king two squares, or the pawn in front of the queen two squares. And normally I just look at my opponents’ results and where they have been having difficulties in recent events and recent games.

There are databases with millions of games, so we’re all very much aware of what we’ve been doing.

So no secrets at all?

Not really, no. Chess is very much a game of complete information.

You play online a lot under aliases (mainly on Have you ever lost?

Yeah, absolutely, I’ve lost many games on the internet. In chess you try to do your best, but there are instances where you make mistakes or you try and take risks that you shouldn’t.

And I think losing games is a good thing, because you learn more from when you lose than when you win.

And the people that you lose to have absolutely no idea that they’ve just beaten the No. 1 chess player in the U.S.?

Most of the time they don’t. Sometimes I play on accounts with public aliases, so they are aware, but for the most part I’m just playing randomly and they don’t know who I am.

Do people ever rub it in your face when they know who they’ve beaten?

You know I’m not treating it like a serious tournament, per se. I’m obviously very competitive, so I don’t like losing, but usually they are pretty relaxed about it.

How was working with Garry Kasparov (Nakamura trained under the Russian former world champion for most of 2011)?

It was definitely interesting. Working with anyone who has such a great breadth of knowledge, it’s definitely a very good learning a lot. Our personalities weren’t the best fit, but perhaps that made it a bit difficult (Nakamura has said that Kasparov was too critical in his coaching.) But still, the things that I learned working with him were invaluable.

Do you ever beat him?

We didn’t actually play, but I probably would have done quite well against him since he had been retired for some time already.

What was your longest ever game?

About eight and a half hours at a tournament in Germany a couple of years ago.

Did you start cramping up, or getting numbed legs or arms?

If you’re opponent goes into a deep think, say 20 to 30 minutes, you can get up and walk around to get some water or use the rest room, so fortunately that doesn’t happen. But still, mentally it’s very tiring when you play a game that long.

Did you win?

The game ended in a draw.

What attracts you to poker (Nakamura has been known to play competitively)?

I used to play poker a lot more, I haven’t played seriously in some time. What attracts me to poker is the element of game theory and just trying to make the right decision as much as possible.

But the big difference – and this is why I much prefer chess to poker – is that in chess if you play close to perfect you aren’t going to lose, you control your own destiny –and in poker, you don’t control your own destiny. You can make the right play all the time, but in any given situation you can also lose.

Is bluffing a part of chess too?

The way you can bluff in chess is you can play certain unorthodox moves in the opening phase (the first 10 to 15 moves) which are perhaps not well known or your opponent. He will either think you have made a mistake or you have prepared something before the game. So if they haven’t prepared for what you are doing, they can go wrong. That’s when bluffing can come into play, whereas later on in the game it’s much harder to bluff.

Do tell signs and body language play a role in chess?

I think you can sense if your opponent is a little bit uncomfortable, perhaps. But unlike poker, all the information is on the board. So even if I’m nervous, if I am able to focus I should be able to find the right moves.

Is this why you sometimes wear sunglasses during a game?

It’s just something I did (once) which I thought would be a way to rattle my opponent. It was a psychological ploy. It seemed to work out pretty well.

What about blackjack? Seems that would be more of a natural sport for a chess player, since it’s all about odds.

It’s all about odds, but the odds are all stacked against you. I’m not a big fan.

You’re half Japanese from your dad’s side (although Nakamura was raised by his step-dad, a former chess master from Sri Lanka), do you feel like you’re representing Japan as well as the U.S. in these big tournaments?

I don’t feel that I am representing Japan, but I do feel that my makeup is very much Japanese, in that the way that I approach chess, the motivation and the drive very much comes from the Japanese side.

Best sushi you’ve had?

Probably in San Francisco and Vancouver.

Do you ever play chess on sake?

I’ve found for playing, that it’s generally not a good thing to be drinking. I will say there have been occasional times – not when I’m playing, but when I’m studying – that I have found a little bit of alcohol has been good for the creative process.

Is there an age when a chess player peaks, like in, say, golf or tennis?

I think the jury is still out on that. Chess is changing a lot. In the old days, your peak was considered in your late 30s or when you were 40. And slowly that age keeps coming down. Right now, the peak age is considered somewhere between 25 to 35, depending on who you are.

I think I’m still on the way up.

Was (former world champion) Anatoly Karpov past his peak when you beat him in 2009?

Yeah absolutely. He’s an example of the older generation. He was peaking in his late 30s, around 1990.

One thing that I really respect about Karpov is that even now he still plays a few tournaments of competitive chess every year. He doesn’t care that he isn’t the best anymore, whereas some of the other former champions would never be able to compete anymore because he had to be the best, and if he wasn’t the best his ego couldn’t handle it.

Biggest rival?

Right now it has to be Magnus Carlsen (the 24-year-old World Champion from Norway).

Ever get tired of the lifestyle?

I’ll play about 110 or 120 games of competitive chess (per year). When you add in all the traveling, the wear and tear is quite substantial.

If I don’t like the place – whether it’s the hotel or the city itself – it can play a role (in performance). Usually it doesn’t affect me, but it can play a role.

Any hobbies outside of chess and poker?

I love playing tennis.

Being a chess champion must be a useful thing to write on a Tinder profile. Have you found that?

I’m actually engaged so I’ve never used Tinder (laughs).

I think the most important thing – whether it’s women, or just making a general impression on people – is to show there is a lot more to chess than meets the eye.

It’s a very interesting game; you get to travel a lot and meet many different people from many different backgrounds. Most people think of chess as this nerdy game where you just stay in your room all day and play…but most of the top chess players, we do have a life and there are other things going on.