The best chess player in the world right now is Hikaru Nakamura. Forget the household names – Carlsen, Anand, Caruana, and Kramnik, chess is changing, and so are the best players.
But why isn’t the American capturing any real attention when it comes to discussions of the next World Champion? Nakamura has been called the “Player of the Year” by many, claiming either 1st or 2nd in each event he’s played in this year (excluding the World Cup). While top performances in the FIDE Grand Prix, Gibraltar, Millionaire Chess, and the Grand Chess Tour have propelled Nakamura to the top, his success has yet to lend itself to the one result he wants most: a win over Magnus Carlsen.
While this one fact separates players like Fabiano Caruana and Vaseline Topalov from Nakamura, it doesn’t detract from his quality and consistency. Let’s look at some games.
Nakamura – Sevian (Millionaire Chess, 2015)
1.c4 e5 2.g3 Nf6 3.Bg2 d5 4.cxd5 Nxd5 5.Nc3 Nb6 6.Nf3 Nc6 7.O-O Be7 8.Rb1
8…O-O 9.b4 e4
10.Nxe4 Bf5 11.Qc2 Bxb4 12.a3 Bd6 13.e3
13…h6 14.Nh4 Bh7 15.f4
18…Nec4 19.Bd4 a5
20.Nc5 Bxc5 21.Bxc5 Rf7 22.Bxb6
22…Nxb6 23.Bxb7 Rb8 24.Bc6 Qd6 25.Rf4 +-
25…Kh8 26.Rd4 Qa3 27.Qc3
27…Qxc3 28.dxc3 Re7 29.Rbd1!
29…Rf7 30.c4 Rff8 31.c5 Nc8
32.Rd7 Na7 33.Bg2 Rbc8 34.Ng6+ Bxg6 35.fxg6 1-0
A truly inspiring performance from Nakamura, as he took a slight advantage over the world’s youngest grandmaster and made the conversion seem effortless. Hikaru’s energetic play covers all openings, 1. e4, 1. d4, and the English, making him impossible to prepare for. For the second game today, I was tempted to put in Nakamura’s win over Anand from the recent Sinquefield Cup, as he left a powerful impression on me during his interview about older players, specifically Vishy:
Vishy is of course a quite bit older than most other players so unfortunately for him he made a mistake at the critical moment…
–Hikaru Nakamura after Round 1 of the 2015 Sinquefield Cup
This is something which I think Kramnik is struggling through too – its just harder to compete on the highest levels as an older player. If this alone is a reason for why they make mistakes, then younger players do have some sort of stamina advantage. While that game was interesting, it was mostly equal until Anand played f7-f5 too early and fell apart in the endgame, so it wasn’t the most exciting.
With Wesley So’s recent switch to the United States, its not too hard to imagine seeing So v. Nakamura becoming a regular rivalry to determine the best American player. That being said, the most exciting game between them may have already happened at this summer’s Sinqufield Cup. Where Nakamura beat So in a dynamic King’s Indian. With So’s incredible victory against Ding Liren at the Bilbao Chess Masters earlier this week in the same line of the King’s Indian, I thought that gave this game the nod.
So – Nakamura (Sinquefield Cup, 2015)
1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 g6 3.Nc3 Bg7 4.e4 d6 5.Nf3 O-O 6.Be2 e5 7.O-O Nc6 8.d5 Ne7 9.Ne1 Nd7 10.f3 f5 11.Be3 f4 12.Bf2 g5 13.Nd3
13…Ng6 14.c5 Nf6 15.Rc1 Rf7 16.Kh1 h5 17.cxd6 cxd6 18.Nb5 a6 19.Na3 b5
20.Rc6 g4 21.Qc2 Qf8
22.Rc1 Bd7 23.Rc7 Bh6
28.Rxd7 Rf1+ 29.Kg2 Be3
31.Rxf1 Nh4+ 32.Kh3 Qh6
33…Nxg5+ 34.Kg4 Nhf3 35.Nf2
35…Qh4+ 36.Kf5 Rf8+ 37.Kg6 Rf6+ 38.Kxf6 Ne4+ 39.Kg6 Qg5# 0-1
I’ve been really inspired by Hikaru’s play as of late, and even though he’s had some disappointing games, he has been the most consistent players this calendar year. Only one hurdle remains for the American – the Word Championship. He’ll have to beat Magnus, not just in one sitting, but an entire match. With the way he’s been playing as of late, I would put my bet on him to get the job done.