The best US chess player is taking a big risk by competing in his national championship

Hikaru Nakamura
The best player in the US. US Chess Championship

The 2015 US Chess Championship is underway in St. Louis, the capital of chess in America. The fields for both the men’s and women’s championship are very strong.

On the men’s side, there’s a pretty clear sign that the US Chess Championship is regaining its attraction for some of the top players in the world. In big-time chess, the truly elite players travel the world, competing in a series of important tournaments, with the best of the best aiming to shoot for the World Championship, currently held by Magnus Carlsen of Norway.

The national championships are far less significant. In the US, not exactly a chess-mad country, the US Chess Championship is a great tournament, but it hasn’t attracted the best US player since 2012, when Hikaru Nakamura notched his third victory. Nakamura has been working since 2013 to more decisively establish himself at the top of the world rankings.

Of late, he’s been playing very well. He won a tournament in Gibraltar in January, then another in Zurich, and is now ranked number 3 in the world, behind Carlsen and Fabiano Caruana (an American who now plays for Italy). Going into the US Championship, he was ranked 2798, just two rating points outside the exclusive 2800 club, occupied only by Carlsen and Caruana.

After two rounds in St. Louis, Nakamura has crossed the 2800 barrier. He could go to number 2, passing Caruana, who is rated 2802.

Nakamura is the favourite, but there’s a wrinkle. Also playing the tournament this year is Wesley So, ranked number 8 in the world, with a rating of 2788. So used to play for the Philippines, but he switched to the US recently and won a flashy event — and $US100,000 — at the first “Millionaire Chess” competition in Las Vegas last October.

Wesley So
Wesley So, the second-best player in the US. US Chess Championship

We haven’t had two US players in the world top 10 in forever. And if Caruana switches back to the US (it’s been discussed), we’d have three! Like Nakamura, So has started in St. Louis with a 2 wins.

The rest of the men’s field is in the 2500-2600 range, ranking-wise. They’re all Grandmasters, but only Nakamura and So are at the Super-GM level. The age range is also quite broad. The defending champ, Gata Kamsky, is in his 40s. But Sam Sevian is only 14. Yes, 14.

Nakamura lives in St. Louis and is the face of US Chess, which has been on the ascent for several years, due to the financial support of Rex Sinquefield, a wealthy benefactor of the game who has turned St. Louis into an American chess Mecca. Nakamura has played in an elite invitation event there, the Sinquefield Cup, which he hasn’t won. But after three US Championship titles, he looked as if he might retire from competing for that trophy.

That was before So came along. With both men in the field, the tournament is much bigger deal than usual. But of course, chess is still chess, and there’s no guarantee that Nakamura and So will play for the title. There’s also no guarantee that either guy won’t lose to a lesser GM.

So is more of more of a hard-charger on the international chess scene. Nakamura is no wimp, but he’s 27 to So’s 21. The older player has also been battling against the best in the world for years now, with mixed results. He has yet to qualify for the Candidates Tournament that determines who will play for the World Championship (although plenty of people in chess think that the Candidates unfairly selects a challenger because it overlooks the world rankings), and his record against Carlsen is an abysmal 0-11.

Magnus Carlsen Game 4
Magnus Carlsen, the world number one and reigning World Champion. FIDE

So is the on way up, and Nakamura is enjoying a resurgence. Nakamura still symbolises Chess in the USA, but he could easily have given the US Championship another pass, although having him in the field does lend tremendous support to the Chess Club & Scholastic Center of St. Louis. Having both Nakamura and So in the tournament makes it almost a sort of Super-GM-lite event.

So really has nothing to lose — he’s on a roll and, with his new US affiliation, it makes sense to add the title of US Champ to his resume. Nakamura, meanwhile, has all the pressure on him to win the event. It would be tough for him to avoid the event this year, but he could also argue that he needs to keep his focus on competing with the Carlsens and Carauanas of the world, rather than mixing it up in a round-robin with some newly minted, teenage GMs.

Regardless, the US Championship this year should be one to remember, if it comes down the Nakamura and So on the final board. And maybe even if it doesn’t.

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