Grandmaster checkmates them all

| Executive Editor

The nation’s top chess player needed just two and a half hours to win 42 concurrent games against the top players from the Washington University community.

Grandmaster Hikaru Nakamura, ranked first in the United States and 10th in the world according to the World Chess Federation’s ranking system, came to College Hall on Saturday to help the Washington University Chess Club expand its outreach into the community.

The event, organized with the help of the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Saint Louis, featured a question-and-answer session with Nakamura as well as the opportunity to challenge the grandmaster to a game of bullet chess or to participate in the 42-game simul.

“He’s given people the chance to play him, and he is really one of the best in the world. It’s a really cool experience for people in St. Louis to get to play against one of the world’s best,” said Mike Wilmering, communications specialist for the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Saint Louis.

Nakamura, regarded as one of the best bullet chess players in the world, allowed opponents to challenge him to games where they set the time constraints. In the first challenge of the evening, Nakamura needed just 48.8 seconds to defeat sophomore Nick Karlow, who co-founded the University’s chess club last year and is one of its strongest players. Karlow had five minutes in which to play the game while Nakamura was given just one.

The grandmaster hesitated just once before moving, and his pause stemmed from a quick glance at his opponent, not a moment of indecision.

“I smiled, and he smiled.…We both realized I was screwed,” Karlow said. “Honestly, I didn’t really have a chance, but I thought I kind of lost my focus because I was playing a legend.”

Nakamura, just 23 years old, became a chess master at the age of 10 before becoming the youngest U.S. grandmaster in history at just 15 years and 79 days, a record that has since been broken. When Nakamura became grandmaster in 2002, he narrowly broke the U.S. record set by Grandmaster Bobby Fischer, the only American to win a world championship.

While Nakamura has not captured a world title, he won the 2005 and 2009 United States Championships and recently defeated the top four players in the world to win the 2011 Tata Steel Chess Tournament, a victory described by Grandmaster Gary Kasparov, a former world champion, as the greatest victory for American chess.

“It’s a great honor. Obviously hearing that from anyone, but especially from Kasparov, means a lot,” Nakamura said. “To actually win a major tournament like that and hear such complimentary words from someone like Kasparov is something I’ll never forget.”

The 42-game simul challenge drew a crowd of more than 100 people, with students, professors and other members of the University community taking part in the challenge.

Julian Weaver, 6, plays chess every day and attended the event with his father, Washington University mathematics professor Nik Weaver. The younger Weaver followed Nakamura’s every move and offered a terse summary of the event.

“[It’s] really cool,” Weaver said.

A longtime resident of White Plains, N.Y., Nakamura moved to St. Louis in 2010 to work with the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Saint Louis, which Nakamura called the best in the nation, if not the world. The club has more than 700 active members and has hosted the past two U.S. Championships.

Nakamura hopes that outreach activities, like the event at College Hall on Saturday, will help popularize the game with younger children while also keeping more experienced players motivated to continue advancing their chess ability.

“It’s just to enjoy chess for what it is, [and] to try to improve,” Nakamura said of the lessons he tries to teach. “But also, just to see everything that it can give, especially to kids. One of the things that I really want to see in the future much more is chess getting out there so that kids can see what it can do for them.…I look at what the Chess Club [of Saint Louis] is doing with a lot of their scholastic programs out there, and they show that chess can improve critical thinking skills as well as reading and writing.”

Both the Chess Club of Saint Louis and the club at the University offer chess programs at local schools, with the former offering chess as an after-school program at more than 30 schools around the city and county.

Nakamura hopes that chess continues to grow in popularity so that others can enjoy the game to which he dedicates all of his time.

“When you play chess, it doesn’t matter [who you are] because it’s a game where you sit down, and you play the game, and the person who is able to think better and calculate better is going to win,” Nakamura said. “I think chess is a game that brings everyone together.”

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