General May 29, 2020 | 10:12 AMby chess24 staff

Nakamura, Caruana, So and American Chess Heritage

From unofficial World Chess Champion Paul Morphy, to 11th World Champion Bobby Fischer, to the triumvirate of Hikaru Nakamura, Fabiano Caruana and Wesley So who won the 2016 Chess Olympiad, the United States has a rich chess history. Sean Robinson takes us on a tour, paying particular attention to the role of immigrants, from Wilhelm Steinitz and Samuel Reshevsky to current leading figures such as Yasser Seirawan and Wesley So. This is the 10th installment of the #HeritageChess campaign, supported by the Lindores Abbey Preservation Society.


Paul Morphy in 1859 | photo: Wikipedia

The rules of America’s first national chess tournament in 1857 didn’t include time controls or clocks. Players could take as much time as they wished for each move. That was somewhat frustrating for Paul Morphy (1837-1884), the eventual tournament winner, later deemed the first unofficial World Chess Champion. Morphy, a prodigy born in New Orleans, liked to play fast, rarely taking more than a few minutes to reel off dazzling moves.

His chief rival, Louis Paulsen (1833-1891), who finished second in the tournament, was another story. Paulsen was a strong but painfully slow player, even by the standards of the time. Records from one of his games with Morphy indicate he consumed more than four hours deliberating over six moves.

Cut to the present day: Theoretically, reigning (and five-time) U.S. Champion Hikaru “H-Bomb” Nakamura could play 125 bullet games on the side while waiting for Paulsen to move. He might even be continuing a great American tradition. Chess historian Edward Winter highlights a stuffy reference to America’s fascination with fast chess in the February 1898 edition of the British Chess Magazine:

Continuous tournaments, and rapid games of one minute per move, have been lately in great favour in America. They have not yet caught on much in Europe, and we hope the latter kind never will do so, for though they may be very amusing, and may promote a quick sight of the board, they are more of the nature of skittles than of solid and thoughtful chess, and we should think would be a very poor preparation for contests of any real importance.

Whether America deserves to be called the cradle of bullet chess is open to speculation. It's more certain that Nakamura is the high priest of bullet. On good days, especially when Magnus Carlsen isn’t playing, Nakamura is the best blitz player in the world. In bullet, forget it. GM Yasser Seirawan, a four-time U.S. champion and world title contender, summed up the spectacle of Nakamura’s lightning play in 2009:

(Nakamura’s) bullet skills are simply extraordinary, and watching him play is a marvellous and at times jaw-dropping, experience. He is that good.

Nakamura and fellow American super-GM Wesley So, along with 2018 World Championship challenger Fabiano Caruana, represent the vanguard of modern American chess, a rich tradition marked by the twin peaks of Morphy and, of course, Bobby Fischer, still the only American player to gain the official world title, in 1972. 

Bobby Fischer at the 1960 Olympiad | photo: Wikipedia

Fischer’s remarkable run included a string of 20 straight victories, including unprecedented 6-0 scores in preliminary matches against GMs Mark Taimanov and Bent Larsen. The meteoric stretch concluded with Fischer’s decisive defeat of World Champion Boris Spassky.

The story of Fischer’s rise to the championship, which ended a quarter century of dominance by players from the former Soviet Union, has been told many times, but many more stories woven into the tapestry of American chess offer parallels to the careers of Nakamura and So. Both are immigrants (Nakamura was born in Japan, So in the Philippines). Their stories, along with those of great U.S. players of the past, underline the theme of #HeritageChess, the hashtag chosen for the second leg of the Magnus Carlsen Chess Tour, the Lindores Abbey Rapid Challenge.

It’s counterintuitive to think of Wilhelm Steinitz (1836-1900), the first official world titleholder, as an American — he was a Bohemian, born in Prague, and first sharpened his chess skills in Vienna, playing in a swashbuckling style that led to a nickname: “The Austrian Morphy.”

Yet Steinitz won the world title in 1886, three years after moving to America, where he eventually changed his nationality and the spelling of his first name to William. He held the title until the age of 58, when he was finally conquered by the great Emanuel Lasker.

In the 1870s, Steinitz dramatically altered his playing style. Gone were the daring attacks and romantic gambits, replaced by deeply studied theories that established the principles of positional play and defense. His contemporaries were no match for him. It took Lasker’s youth and intellect to topple the aging champion.

Harry Pillsbury died at the age of just 33 | photo: Wikipedia

During Lasker’s subsequent 27-year reign as champion, two more U.S. players emerged to challenge him, but failed to reach the summit for different reasons. Harry Nelson Pillsbury (1872-1906) briefly ranked among the best players in the world. He became an international chess star at the age of 22, winning what experts regard as the strongest international tournament of the 19th century: Hastings 1895.

Pillsbury, a late-blooming prodigy and blindfold chess expert blessed with a fantastic memory, had learned the moves only six years earlier. At the tournament, he would face the best players of the day, including Lasker, Steinitz, Siegbert Tarrasch and Mikhail Chigorin. He was an unknown quantity with no international record. Normally a sociable pleasure-seeker, Pillsbury declined an offer to stay at the same hotel as the other masters when he arrived. He was focused, and famously said, “I want to be quiet; I mean to win this tournament.”

He won. Pillsbury finished in clear first, with a final score of +15 =3 -3. In 1896, he played a match tournament in St. Petersburg, outpointing Lasker and Chigorin, and faltering against Steinitz. He finished third. 

His hopes were high. America had a new contender to challenge Lasker. Pillsbury made no secret of his ambitions, and showed limited interest in lesser titles such as the U.S. Championship. He reluctantly accepted a challenge from reigning champion Jackson Whipps Showalter in 1897, and said he wouldn’t accept the title even if he won — but he did, and defeated Showalter in a second match a year later.

Frank Marshall | photo: World Chess Hall of Fame

Sadly, the hoped-for title match with Lasker never came. Pillsbury succumbed to illness and dissipation, and died in 1906, too young. His dead-even score with Lasker over 12 games (+4 =4 -4) is a monument to what might have been, but his death opened the door for a new American star: Frank James Marshall, the patron saint of chess swindlers.

Marshall, born in 1877, was an attacking player with a gambler’s heart. His immortal game, played in 1912, features a brazen queen sacrifice that makes all the anthologies. Some of his opening experiments are still around: If you’re forced to play anti-Marshall plans in the Ruy Lopez, you know who to thank. 

In 1904, Marshall scored his biggest victory, winning at Cambridge Springs, the first great international tournament held in America during the 20th century. He finished ahead of Lasker, Chigorin, David Janowski, Karl Schlechter, and the now-ailing Pillsbury, among others. That same year, Marshall won the Seventh American Chess Congress, held in St. Louis, a century before the city’s emergence as America’s chess capital.


Marshall's 23...Qg3!! against Stefan Levitsky in 1912 is the move said to have seen the board showered with gold coins
Officially speaking, the Congress didn’t confer the title of U.S. Champion. Unofficially, it was clear that Marshall was the strongest player in America. He claimed the title officially in 1909, winning a match with Showalter.

That didn’t make him the strongest player in the world. Lasker destroyed Marshall in a 1907 match for the world title. In 1909, future World Champion Jose Raul Capablanca disposed of Marshall in similar fashion.

Later in life, he became the dean of American chess: a dashing figure with the profile of a classical actor, a penchant for cigars, and a lifelong chess addiction. In 1915, he co-founded The Marshall Chess Club in New York, an essential stop on any American chess tour.

Marshall wrote:

The object was to establish in New York a central meeting place for lovers of chess, much on the same lines as such famous resorts as Simpson’s Divan in London and the Café de la Regence in Paris. It was my idea to make the Divan a place of instruction where young players would be encouraged and where all chess players could feel free to gather. 

The club's historical membership list reads like a league of legends: For starters, try Nakamura, Caruana, five-time U.S. Champion Larry Evans, and seven-time U.S. Open Champion Reuben Fine. Add filmmaker Stanley Kubrick and artist Marcel Duchamp. 

Then add Fischer. In 1965, the future World Champion famously played in the 1965 Capablanca Memorial tournament, sending moves to Havana by teletype from a sequestered space at the Marshall Chess Club. It was slo-mo remote chess: Each move took five minutes to transmit. 

Cold War politics meant Fischer couldn’t play in person; the U.S. had banned travel to Cuba. Fischer agreed to play under the weird conditions anyway (a hefty appearance fee probably helped.)

Marshall’s peak came before World War I. Almost 30 years would pass before American chess players would rank among the world’s elite again. Once more, an immigrant would lead the way.

Born in Poland in 1911, Samuel Reshevsky ranks high on the list of the greatest players who never attained the world title. A child prodigy, he learned the game at the age of four, and began giving simultaneous exhibitions two years later. These tours continued in Europe and America; Reshevsky’s family moved to the U.S. in 1920.

8-year-old Samuel Reshevsky giving a simultaneous display in France | photo: Wikipedia

Images of the little boy, clad in a sailor suit and peering over the table at older players, introduced him to the world in the Roaring Twenties — but Reshevsky stopped playing chess for a time to further his education. He returned to competition in 1934, swiftly rising to the top of American chess. His first big international splash came at Margate 1935, where he finished first, punctuating his triumph with a win over the great Capablanca. 

Reshevsky’s American dominance continued for another 20 years. He won seven U.S. Championships. Only Fischer won more. For a time in the 1940s and 1950s, he ranked among the world’s best. He fell just short of the title despite several chances. The growing strength of players from the USSR, particularly Mikhail Botvinnik and Vasily Smyslov, proved too much to overcome. At Zurich 1953, Reshevsky finished in a three-way tie for second, along with David Bronstein and Paul Keres. First place went to Smyslov, the future World Champion.

Reshevsky was an accountant by trade, never a true chess professional or theoretician. Over the board, he was a natural, tough as a boot. He wrote in 1976:

I am essentially a positional player, though I can conduct an assault with precision and vigor when the opportunity arises. My style lies between that of Tal and Petrosian. It is neither over-aggressive nor too passive. My strength consists of a fighting spirit, a great desire to win, and a stubborn defense whenever in trouble. I rarely become discouraged in an inferior situation, and I fear no one.

Reshevsky made a habit of time trouble, often burning most of his clock in the opening before shifting into rapid gear. He knew it:

My main problem is the time element. Because of a lack of sufficient study, I used to spend too much time in the openings, leaving myself insufficient time in the middlegame.

Reuben Fine | photo: Wikipedia

It’s a mistake to assume great players of the past couldn’t handle fast chess. The format predates the digital age. Lasker was good at it. Capablanca, who started out as a blitz beast, was better. The Marshall Chess Club was holding weekly rapid tournaments in the 1920s. Reshevsky was a great blitz player, but his chief rival, Reuben Fine, might have been greater.

Fine, a psychologist born in 1914, reached his chess peak at AVRO 1938, sharing first with Paul Keres, ahead of Alexander Alekhine, Botvinnik, Reshevsky, Max Euwe and Capablanca. Fine never reached such heights again. He later retired from competitive chess, and became a prolific author. His most famous book, “Basic Chess Endings,” (1941) was a pioneering effort.

The end of Reshevsky’s American reign coincides with the rise of Fischer, who dominated U.S. chess from the late 1950s through his 1972 championship run — but Bobby did not play again after the fabled match with Spassky. Like Morphy, to whom he was often compared, he became a recluse, returning briefly in 1992 to play and win a second match with the aging Spassky.

His withdrawal ended the so-called Fischer Boom, but U.S. players such as Walter Browne, Joel Benjamin and Larry Christiansen gradually filled the gap in the 1970s. Others came from elsewhere, following in the footsteps of Steinitz and Reshevsky. In the 1970s and 1980s, former Soviet Union players such as Lev Alburt, Boris Gulko and Roman Dzindzichashvili emigrated to the U.S., stirring the pot at national events and often winning them.


Along with them came Yasser Seirawan, born in Syria, raised in Seattle. Seirawan’s positional talents, hardened in a coffeehouse called Last Exit to Brooklyn, eventually brought him four U.S. Championships and multiple runs at the World Championship. He fell short of the summit, but he notched victories against Karpov and Kasparov along the way. Seirawan, one of the great annotators, recounts his duels with the champions in what might be his best book among many memorable volumes.

The 1990s saw the emergence of another immigrant and world title contender. Gata Kamsky, born in the Soviet Union, reached the FIDE World Championship final in 1996, falling to Anatoly Karpov. Still active today and playing at a high level, Kamsky is a five-time U.S. Champion, including back-to-back wins in 2013 and 2014.

At present, the future of U.S. chess is bright. America’s strongest players collectively rank second in the world to Russian players, based on average FIDE ratings. The growing popularity of online and rapid chess, Nakamura’s forte, has raised him to new heights. Wesley So, his teammate in the Lindores Abbey Rapid Challenge, remains a potential world title contender, while Caruana became in 2018 the first American to wage a world title match since Fischer. He fought champion Carlsen to a draw at classical time controls, succumbing in a rapid-chess tiebreak that riveted the chess world.

Who will take up the U.S. chess mantle after America’s current big three finish their careers? Time will tell. Perhaps it will be Jeffery Xiong, 19, and currently climbing the world rankings. Perhaps another child playing chess, still unknown, will emerge to seize the crown.

Sean Robinson

Sean Robinson (@seanrobinson1e4) is a journalist, teacher and chess aficionado based in Tacoma, Washington.


How did you get into chess? Share your experiences in the comments or using the hashtag #HeritageChess!

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