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A future Fischer? Hikaru Nakamura at a tournament in Italy earlier this year (photo: Giordano Macellari CC BY-SA 4.0)

The launch of the Hollywood biopic Pawn Sacrifice, with Tobey Maguire as Bobby Fischer, has given rise to the obvious question: will the US produce another chess  world champion?

Actually, there is a chance — but no more than a chance — that it could happen as soon as next year. In late 2016 the world champion Magnus Carlsen, of Norway, will defend his title against the winner of an eight-man Candidates tournament next March: and on recent form, the favourite to win that event would be the 27-year-old American Hikaru Nakamura, whose current ranking is below only Carlsen’s.

Nakamura has for some time believed this is his destiny. When Carlsen trounced the former world champion Vishy Anand in 2013, the American tweeted: “Starting to realize that I am the only person who is going to stop Sauron in the context of chess history.” This duly provoked the Norwegian, who when told that Nakamura had compared him to J.R.R. Tolkien’s evil ruler Sauron, retorted: “I have never actually watched Lord of the Rings. If I had, and Nakamura had been a better chessplayer, I might have been more insulted.”

In turn, Nakamura tweeted back that he was ranked world number one in blitz and rapid chess, “and if that is being bad at chess, so be it!” Carlsen has since taken over the top ranking at rapid chess; but Nakamura is a phenomenally gifted player — and the world champion knows it.

As his name suggests, Hikaru was born in Japan, but when he was just two his American mother Carolyn left for New York with his elder brother Asuka and married the Sri Lankan-born chess coach Sunil Weeramantry. Under his tutelage both boys showed great aptitude at the game from an early age — but Hikaru’s progress was astonishing. He was granted the US title of “chess master” at the age of 10 and became a grandmaster at 15 years and 79 days, beating by three months the record set in 1958 by Bobby Fischer.

The US grandmaster Ben Finegold commented of Hikaru: “His chess talent is insane. When he was young it was like ‘how is this possible?’ Before you meet him and see him play, you have no idea. There’s no one else like this. I mean it. No one.”

Nakamura’s special gift is for speed of calculation. He enjoys displaying it in the crazy variant known as “bullet chess”, in which a player must make all his moves in 60 seconds. In that sense, his play can be compared to an immensely powerful computer; indeed, Nakamura has said that about 90 per cent of his preparation involves the use of computers. In this respect he is completely different from Carlsen, who despite being three years younger, is more of a traditional player, relying less on computers in his work — and whose particular genius lies in the intuitive strategic aspects of chess.

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