Hikaru Nakamura is the reigning US Chess Champion and the blitz world no. 1, but in an exclusive interview with Jan Gustafsson he talks about “my worst year as a professional by far”. He explains what went wrong and how he’s been combining streaming, playing the market and even real estate with his chess career. Hikaru also talks about his role as the ambassador for the new game Choker, which combines elements of chess and poker.
Hikaru talked to Jan in the chess24 studios after getting knocked out of the Hamburg FIDE Grand Prix in Round 1 by Veselin Topalov. Watch the full interview below:
We’ve also transcribed the whole interview below for those who’d prefer to read it, though especially for the chess variations it’s recommended to watch them on screen!
Jan Gustafsson: How are you enjoying lovely Hamburg?
Hikaru Nakamura: It’s my first time being in Hamburg. I’ve been in Germany many times, but I was expecting it to be a little warmer and a little bit sunnier – just a little bit warmer! Of course I live in Florida, so coming straight from Florida to Hamburg is quite a difference in temperatures and the climate, but overall it’s been nice. I really like the city, it’s pleasant going out and taking some walks, when it isn’t raining, so overall that’s been good. The chess, of course, was not great here, but it’s very tricky playing an event where essentially there’s nothing on the line and you sort of come and have to play anyway, but overall it’s been a good experience.
So you played in the FIDE Grand Prix, where you went out in the first round against Topalov. I was wondering, is it tough, because I’m guessing the money is not such a big factor for you in these events to motivate you, because as you said, you’re not playing for much and in the second game you played the Queen’s Gambit Accepted. It looked like you wouldn’t mind too much if the game ended in a draw?
I think after the first game, where I tried to play something that I thought was interesting against the Berlin Defence and in fact instead of being interesting it was just bad, after that error, it’s kind of a situation where you have to take into account, what are you really playing for? And I think during the first game I got caught in that I was trying to play something interesting because in the back of my mind was that a couple of people had told me that if I found a way to win say two or three matches in classical, and then win the whole thing overall, there was perhaps an outside chance of qualifying for the Candidates. So for that reason in the middle of the game instead of just going Radjabov-style…
If we look at this position after b6, I could have been truly like Radjabov and just played 11.Qd2 Bb7 12.0-0-0 0-0 0 and played something like 13.Kb1 or maybe 13.d4, Rhe1 and just offered a draw, and I’m sure Veselin would have taken it. But then during the game I just thought, well, I want to try and play interesting: 11.0-0 Bb7 12.Nh4 g6 13.Qe1.
It doesn’t appear to lose right off, and I saw that I could stop this whole g5, h5, g4 idea, so that’s why I played like this, but in fact it turns out to just be bad, because the idea for Black is just very, very straightforward. For some reason I just forgot that he could play this Rhg8, Rdf8 and f5, and in fact probably just a few moves later I think there are many ways for Black to win.
Here Veselin played 23…fxe4 – I suspect 23…f4 and just playing it like a King’s Indian, with Qh5 and Rg3, practically speaking it should be winning. Maybe if I can somehow get this knight to d5 there is some counterplay, but realistically it should just be totally lost, so obviously Veselin, he didn’t play it precisely, he kept the game going much longer than it should have, but the result was never really in doubt.
So once I lost this game that spot where ok, now I can’t win the match in classical, so even if there was like a 5% chance of qualifying there is literally 0% chance, so I prepared for 1.e4, had something a little bit different, and then he played 1.d4.
Actually the night before I’d flipped a coin in my hotel room – am I going to play the Queen’s Gambit Accepted or am I going to play the Benko Gambit?
So I flipped a coin. Actually when I flipped the coin I decided I was going to play the Benko Gambit, and then I spent the whole morning looking at 1.e4 and all sorts of different things, and then Veselin played 1.d4, and I thought for maybe five minutes and I decided there’s no point being silly and playing something where I could very easily lose without getting anything at all. Whereas say in the World Cup, if you tie the match and win the match it’s basically just getting to the end, there’s always a chance of getting to the end and qualifying, whereas in something like this not only do I need to win, I need a lot of luck as well, and so I just decided it wasn’t worth it. But having said that, Veselin then decided to stay true to his style and he played a very interesting game.
I was very surprised. I was expecting 7.dxc5 and a handshake, but he went for something very sharp.
Yeah, that’s why I spent so much time in the opening. First I was thinking Queen’s Gambit Accepted, then I was thinking, do I want to play 6…c5 or play something dubious with b5? Then I was just like ok, play c5 and then he played a very sharp variation within this 8.e4 line, which was very surprising - I was just very surprised that Veselin played like that. Maybe for a move or two in that game I had a chance, but realistically there’s never anything conclusive, so for that reason the game ended in a peaceful draw. I think the Grand Prix for me was certainly not what I was hoping for, but again, as with most of the qualifiers this year, a lot of it is going to be some combination of playing well at the right time and getting a little bit lucky in who you play. It wasn’t meant to be, but still it is what it is and I was just trying to finish the year on a reasonably good note instead of losing my last game. I felt it was more important just to avoid losing.
Does losing a game bother you even if it doesn’t affect the tournament? I hate losing so much that even if a draw kicks me out I’ll still take it, which is stupid, but…
It’s funny, because
this year has easily been my worst year as a professional by far
but most of the losses that I’ve had this year have been one move or a slight mistake somewhere in the middle of the game where I’ve had chances, and this game against Veselin was one of the few games that I’ve lost where literally I played something dubious and I just got outplayed the whole game. So I wanted to be really upset about the loss, but when you do something stupid and your opponent just plays very well there’s nothing you can really be angry about. I want to be angry but because of the way Veselin played I wasn’t really that angry, and I think obviously it’s disappointing, but there’s nothing you can do, you just have to tip your cap and move on.
But of course many of the games I lose as a professional it comes down to split-second decisions or getting in time pressure, just making one or two choices and picking the wrong one, and obviously it’s very upsetting, because I expect myself to do better, but again, you just have to take it as it comes and move along.
You spoke about the other chances to qualify in the Isle of Man. You were also in the running for a long time, then you got Fabiano in the last round, which probably wasn’t the ideal pairing. No disrespect to Howell or anybody, but probably you weren’t thrilled about it?Again, I think with the Grand Swiss a lot of it is luck – it’s who you play, at what moment, and when you look at the breakdown of people who were in contention I think only Wang Hao was playing strong players from the start. Several of us were way down the tables. David, I don’t even know where he was, he was probably in the other room at some point early on. I know I got off to a slow start, Levon as well got off to a slow start, and that really hurt our tiebreaks, so for that reason it was always going to be very hard to qualify if we didn’t win at the end, because a big tie was never going to favour us with the tiebreak system.
But having said that, it was really nice to play a good tournament, because good tournaments this year have been very few and far between, and to win this game with Black against Kovalev was really, really nice. To get two Whites against Levon and Fabiano at the end, you really couldn’t ask for more, and actually the game against Fabiano I was very, very happy with the opening. I got something that even though it’s symmetrical all the pieces were on the board, and I think actually I had something. I had a chance in that game. In this Petroff game I was super-happy to get this, because Fabiano played this 8…Nb4, which essentially what he’s trying to do here is when I don’t play just normal like Bd3 and c3, I play this 7.h3 here, I want to play h3 and basically get everything I want – the bishop on the diagonal, but I also want h3 to stop Bg4, and Fabiano tried to punish the move-order by playing 8…Nb4, and we got this position which was really, really nice for me, right around here.
Fabiano did find this 14…Ne6, 15…Nf4 idea which was really, really nice. I assume of course preparing for the World Championship he had looked at various structures and was familiar with this idea, but nonetheless in the game I actually had some chances, so we reached this position after 20…Qd5:
The first thing was that here I thought about playing c4, playing Re1 first, and at the board in this moment when I was thinking it through I calculated 21.Re1 Bf5 and I thought 22.c4 and I was much better, the reason being that if Black plays 22…Qd4, I can play 23.Nxe4, if 23…Qxb2 I have 24.Nd6 Be6. Maybe 25.Rb1, maybe just 25.f4 and Qd3, and his queen is terrible, I’ve got Rb1 coming and this is just probably crushing.
So I thought that after 22.c4 if he plays even 22…Qd3 it’s the same thing, just 23.Re3 Qd4 24.Nxe4, and anything else I’m just much better. 22…Qa5 it’s still 23.Nxe4, if 23…Nxe5 just 24.Nd6, and I’m winning material here. So during the game when I was calculating for a long time here I saw 21.c4 and I thought after c4 I might still be better, 21…Qd4, play something like 22.Re1. Now the computer shows that Black is fine with this very nice 22…e3! move, but during the game I was optimistic, and then when I saw I could play it with this order 21.Re1 Bf5 22.c4 I thought I might just be winning here, so I was really, really happy about this. And then to my horror at the board after Fabiano played 21…Bf5 I saw that on 22.c4 he can go 22…Qe6 and the point being that after 23.Ne4 Bxe4 24.Rxe4 he’s got this annoying 24…f5! move, with f4 coming, and I completely missed this.
I think it’s still probably ok for White here, something like 24.Re1 f4 25.Bh2, but with this bishop on h2 it’s fine but you can also end up in a lot of trouble here, so when I saw this at the board I was just really upset and then I played 22.Nb3 Rfe8 and kind of here I’d already given up, because I felt I’d missed a chance, but it turns out that in this position after 23.Qxd5 cxd5 24.Rad1 Rad8 I still could have kept the game going with this move 25.Nc5!.
Black can’t go 25…b6? because then there’s 26.Nb7 Rd7 27.Nd6, just winning material, and if he plays 25…Bc8 I can play this move 26.e6, the point being that after 26…fxe6 I have 27.Bc7 and I’m going to win the rook here on d8, and after 26.e6 Bxe6 27.Nxb7 probably 27…Ra8 28.Nc5 I think Black is probably ok with correct play, but it’s still an isolated pawn, I’ve got these three queenside pawns, a lot of ideas potentially long-term, so while I think Black can hold this with correct play there still would have been some work left for Fabiano to do to hold this game, whereas I played 25.Nd4 and just made the draw because I was so disgusted by everything.
So I had some chances even here, but overall I was very happy because I felt that the choices I made were very good in terms of trying to keep the game alive in a must-win situation, and the game against Levon with White, he just happened to know the variations, a little bit too easy, but I felt I made the right choices, and when you make the right choices, especially in modern-day chess, where advantages do not exist without mistakes, to make the right choice even if you don’t win I think is extremely important.
So I was very pleased with my overall choices throughout that event. It was a very good event even though I didn’t qualify - I was quite happy. On the one hand, I was happy that not only did Wang Hao qualify but also he won the last round, because I think if he hadn’t won the last round game, let’s say he’d drawn against David like he should have, I might still be thinking about not playing Nc5 and keeping the game going the way that I should have. So the fact that he won the game at least just takes it all out of the equation, and
I think also it’s nice to see that in something like the Grand Swiss the best player did actually qualify, because I would say probably 90% of the time that’s not going to happen, it’s going to end up being something completely random
and so seeing a player who played the best and deserved it the most qualifying was nice.
Yeah, shout out to Wang Hao! I don’t think many people saw that one coming, but he just played amazingly. So what are your priorities these days? You’re still playing all these big events, but you’re also doing a lot of other stuff. You’re probably the biggest chess streamer out there. Does it take up more of your time than studying openings or whatever?
You know I think there are a few things. I don’t think that actually streaming has affected my overall level of play, but I think what it has done is that in a year like 2019, where there literally were so many tournaments in a row,
when you don’t get the downtime in the breaks because you’re streaming it sort of saps the enjoyment, it takes away the freshness of chess.
I think that actually, more so than the streaming itself, is what affected me, the fact that when I wasn’t playing I streamed, so I was doing chess all the time, on top of studying, and I think that when you’re not fresh and you’re not feeling inspired that plays a big role. So while streaming I don’t think overall was the reason – well, it was in the sense that I didn’t play well because I was doing it while I was playing all these tournaments – I don’t think streaming affects your overall level. It’s just that there were so many tournaments I didn’t necessarily make the wisest decisions with my time, and perhaps I should have cut back on that, but having said that, I enjoy streaming. Recently I’ve been doing it less, but I’ll keep doing it. I don’t think I’ll be doing it every day the way I was early in the year because
I do want to get back to focusing on playing well in classical chess.
The event here, the FIDE Grand Prix, was so short, it’s two games and then that’s it, so I don’t really feel like it means that I’ve gone back to playing badly, for example, right after the Isle of Man. So I still feel good. I don’t know what my next events are. I know that I’m playing the India event, the Grand Chess Tour event. After that I don’t know what my next event is, I’m not playing Wijk or Gibraltar, so unless FIDE and the Grand Chess Tour decide to get their act together and put something in this open period in February and March there’s a good chance I won’t play till the US Championship, so it could be quite a long time.
That’s March, April?
April or May. Again, I think a lot of the issues with the calendar this year were because FIDE and the Grand Chess Tour did not get together and figure out a way to put some events in February and March.
It was a weird year. We had these two months off and since then there’s chess every day, more or less?
That affected everyone, I think.
I think Ding played well overall this year, Fabiano’s had moments of very good play, but he’s also had moments when he’s played really badly. Magnus started off the year red hot. Lately he’s cooled off too, but outside of those three I’d be hard-pressed to say anybody’s played consistently well.
No, you can tell by the ratings qualifier. Giri’s going to get it, but I don’t think even himself he’d say he had a great year.
I think Anish would say he’s had a terrible year too, so I think pretty much everyone’s not had the greatest of years, which has made it into something which I would actually say is akin to the stock market in a way.
It’s not necessarily about what your rating is, it’s what have you done for me lately?
It’s like Wesley. He’s had probably one of his worst years too, but he beat Magnus in this 960, so it’s all about what you’ve done in the last tournament, or the last couple of events.
And so I’m looking forward to playing more next year, playing well again, obviously less tournaments overall, but
I think, as the saying goes, “form is temporary, class is permanent”, and I expect to get back to playing well in the coming years.
So you think it’s been a classical thing, because at least from the ratings your results in rapid and blitz are still pretty stable and strong, but it’s only been the classical that’s suffering. Is that a different game or it’s just coincidence?
I think it’s easier to just play rapid even when you’re tired than it is to play classical chess. When you go into a classical event it’s very long, and for me one thing that I’ve always enjoyed a lot is taking these long trips from the US to Europe, wherever it is, these 6-7 hour flights, and I felt that for me at the start of some of these events I just wasn’t quite able to get into the rhythm right away, and that really cost me. So in Zagreb I played Fabiano in the first round, I lost this game straight out of preparation. If I play somebody else, let’s say hypothetically I play Magnus with Black in the first round and lose to him, I think the whole tournament’s completely different than it turned out, but because of the way the pairings were then just getting off to a bad start I think that set the tone.
St. Louis, who did I lose to? Oh, I lost to Nepo there. I just feel like in general the rhythms were a little bit off for most of the events and again, classical chess, I think it’s much harder to recover if you don’t get off to a good start, especially when you’re playing all the time, whereas rapid, you play a bad game, you’re going to still have 2-3 games the same day as well, which really helps, so I think it’s just specific to classical chess. I think, for whatever reason, it didn’t click, but I don’t think that I’ve suddenly just become a worse player, where I’m suddenly playing 50 points lower than what I’m capable of.
So I have to work on it, figure it out, maybe plan trips better. Of course it should be a lot easier when you don’t have two days to get from one place to another place, but yeah, I just have to work on those sorts of things and I think eventually things will get back to normal. If they don’t, they don’t, but I feel like I’m still capable of playing very well.
How old are you, 31?
31, turning 32 in about a month.
But nowadays that’s…
That’s young, old? I don’t know what that is. It’s weird, I feel like somehow there’s Vishy, who’s miles older than everybody else, but beyond that I’m starting to feel like I’m one of the older guys along with Levon, which is kind of weird.
It’s true, actually, there’s this whole generation they’re all 28 or 26 or something.
Peter is in some events, obviously, but outside of Levon who else?
Levon, Vishy, Grischuk and then there’s you.
Yeah, but Grischuk wasn’t in the Grand Chess Tour this year which is why I didn’t think of him, but yeah, in general there’s Levon, there’s Grischuk but otherwise everyone’s younger than me, so it’s kind of becoming a little bit weird when I play these Grand Chess Tour events and you have Vishy and you have Levon, and that’s it. It’s weird when Levon is the only person within the age range who’s older than me, but of course that’s the way chess goes. It seems to get younger and younger.
You’re not getting sick of it? Because it’s not so much about the age I feel sometimes, but you’ve been good at a very early age. You’ve been playing professionally let’s say since age 13, so 20 years in, you don’t feel like the grind of preparing for a game and so on gets tougher?
I mean it’s a lot tougher now than it was. I remember even when I was first starting to play in elite events in 2010, I believe it was. I think I played the Tal Memorial and I had this very exciting Petroff game against Kramnik, it was a 5.Nc3, I castled queenside, he castled kingside and I got this attack.
The game ended in a draw, but I remember when I was prepping for games like that it was very interesting and very exciting and there usually always was play even if positions were equal, whereas now the goal is just to get play. Most of the time if your opponent has prepared well you don’t even get play, so I think having to work hard just to get play -
certainly it’s not as enjoyable as it once was, but I still think it’s a challenge, and I like playing chess! I don’t feel like stopping anytime soon, so I’ve just got to keep going and I think one of the biggest challenges is figuring it out - what has changed?
Again, I don’t think I’ve become a much worse player overall, but obviously I’m not doing something right, and I think trying to figure that out while the game is still changing and getting harder and harder is very motivating, and I’ll definitely try and keep on improving.
Do you struggle with this thing that I feel a lot of people have - I’ve certainly always had it - that if you do too much engine work, even though your openings might get better, you lose skills as a practical player because you get so used to just staring at the computer and everything is 0.00? Or it’s not a problem?
I think in general all top players, probably outside of Magnus, I feel, have become significantly worse at endgames
and I think a large part of that is because we do use computers so much that it’s just, you reach some endgame, it’s zeroes, it’s equal, time to go home, that’s all there is to it. And so I feel because of that it’s definitely affected the level of play. That’s not to say that overall we aren’t much better at endgames than players from the past, but I do feel we make errors that some of those old school Soviet guys would probably just roll their eyes at!
They also had a night to check it in an adjournment.
Yeah, that’s true, but I feel like there are certain things we do in some of these endgames that just are weird. So for example, even in Wang Hao’s game against Levon in the Isle of Man he reached this endgame, this 2 vs. 1.
I believe Wang Hao played 54…f4 and then Levon played 55.g4 and then Wang Hao thought forever and he couldn’t find the drawing line. Mind you, there was only one way to draw at that point, but in the position I think he could just have gone 54…Ra3, and I think it was a really routine draw, and instead he played f4 almost instantly, Levon played g4, an obvious only move, and then Wang Hao thought forever and couldn’t find a solution. Even something like that - it’s just inexplicable why that would happen when there’s only one move, so you see a lot of this, where people make these sorts of mistakes that just you would never expect them to make in the endgames, and so I think for that reason it’s changed a lot there.
I think it’s hard when you look at engines so much to see the positions and just try to find play, because again, we’ve gotten so used to it, when you see zeroes everywhere, or you see +5 from Leela, you lose the objectivity that you normally would have. So I think it’s affected us. It’s good in the sense that we know from a defensive standpoint that there are always resources, but in terms of trying to come up with ideas, or play the absolute best moves, I don’t think we’re great at that, and I think for me as well using a computer all the time has definitely not helped.
Do you do most of your clicking yourself or are you still working with Kris Littlejohn?
Yeah, I still work with Kris. There are a couple of other people that I work with from time to time as well. I think even now, more so than when we started, it actually makes more sense.
I know when we started working together a lot of people thought it was completely insane to have someone who more or less is only a computer expert.
When we started working together, I want to say in 2008 or 2009, it was very weird, because at that point obviously all the engines were better than we are, but it wasn’t to the point where you just have somebody who can understand the engine evals and that’s good enough, whereas now that’s very commonplace, it’s very normal. I feel like there are actually quite a few masters who are capable of doing a lot of good work, and so I still work with him.
Obviously when you’re working with someone who you’re so familiar with it makes it easier. Again, this year hasn’t been great, whether you can attribute that to working with the same person or something from the preparation standpoint not being right, who knows? But again, you try to correct it and there are other people I’ve worked with as well, and you try to get some new ideas as well, to sort of have a view of the bigger picture, which is another reason I’ve worked with some other people, but in general nothing really has changed with how I’ve prepared with the people that I’ve worked with in the last couple of years.
Well at least there’s Leela now who doesn’t give 0.00 in every position, so sometimes it will have an opinion. For some of the clickers who got sick of the zeroes actually you can recheck all your openings.
Yeah, it’s weird when you look at the engines. Leela – overall it’s right with the ideas for the most part, so if Leela says something like +2, which of course is very high, but it says +2 in some position let’s say 12 moves out of the opening, generally Leela’s going to be right when it says +2 and Stockfish says equal. But more often than not, let’s say you’re looking at a super-sharp Najdorf where there are attacks on both sides, it will miss the tactics. It’ll be like, ok, the position is equal, when in fact Black is just winning because there’s a 2-move tactic that Leela doesn’t see!
So there are some issues with that, but certainly it is fun to see the differential, because in the past I think really there was only Stockfish that people would use, or Rybka, and the evals would more or less be the exact same, there would be no major difference between the two, so now when you have Leela, which gives these big evaluations with Stockfish just giving zeroes, it’s nice. It’s refreshing that you have engines that have differing viewpoints, because again you think, two engines, 3100-3200, what real difference can there be between them? But it’s great to see that there is a difference.
Like you say, it feels like for the first time in 10 years there’s two guys who really have different opinions and Leela feels like an old guy with great understanding who just blunders pieces every now and then! You’ve mentioned the stock market - you have so many interests. Are you active in these fields, or are you just following?
I have periods when I’m very active and periods when I’m completely inactive. I try not to do any of that stuff during chess tournaments. I find that it tends to detract from my focus, and when you have other things like that on your mind it’s not good because you really need to focus on one thing, especially during the events.
I remember I think it was Dortmund actually in 2011, and I think every evening I was playing online poker, and at that time - I’m not saying that’s a good thing or it led to a bad result there, because I don’t think it did - I felt like you could sort of do multiple things at the time because you still had to prepare, but it wasn’t where everybody knew every last little line up to move 20, whereas now I feel that you really have to dedicate all your time towards the preparation.
Everybody is extremely well-prepared and you can’t just be doing random things at night during the evening, so I try not to focus on these things, but yes, there are periods when I’m very active. At the moment I am actually very active in the stock market. I’m also in real estate as well, but the thing that drives all these other interests, or the thing that gives me the capital to be in these different ventures, is of course playing chess, so chess still is my focus and it will be for the foreseeable future.
So stocks-wise, any advice, because I’ve finally decided I’m an idiot so I should just put any cents I have in ETFs and let it do the work?
Put it in the American ETFs, not European ETFs!
Yeah, MSCI World – I want a little Europe and Japan there.
Yeah, I think in general for the vast majority of people mutual funds or ETFs just following the broad market make the most sense. At the moment I’m very much involved in individual stocks or stock-picking, whether it’s through derivatives, through options or just owning stock. I do quite a bit of that, but I think the reason I do that is, first of all, I do have a lot of money in ETFs already, but secondly, I’m in a position where I feel like I should take some risk, I should try to go for outsized returns because of my financial situation. Now that’s not to say I’m always right - I’m not, of course - but
there are periods when I think, especially in this current market with the current US administration, that there have been really big swings, a lot of volatility and if you wait for the downswings especially you can just buy stocks very cheaply and you see huge returns.
There are plenty of stocks like that, especially some of the Chinese ones like Alibaba and Baidu.
So you wait for your president to say something funny about China and then you jump in?
I mean it’s not even China, it’s just in general I feel like I’ve been doing stuff in the market since about 2007 on a fairly moderate to serious level, and the swings that you see are not what you would see in the past. There was a period, I think it was August, when the Nasdaq went down about 4% or 4.5% in two days, and so all the chips, specifically, you had some of the chips and the semis, like Micron or Nvidia, going down 10% in that period, and if you have the money you just go buy them and then of course everything recovers. So I feel like there have been a lot of opportunities for stuff like that, but in general for most people, unless you’re going to spend a lot of time and more or less obsessively follow it when you’re active, just put money in ETFs and don’t look back.
I also started in 2007, so I had a fun 2008…
Luckily I didn’t start making real money in chess until about 2010, so I didn’t end up losing a lot of money in some of those things.
So what are your plans with streaming? I noticed you started covering tournaments. Let the rest of us eat! You did Norway Chess and are you doing any more big tournaments?
I was going to say I think doing Norway Chess was a huge mistake. Sure, I got a lot of subscriptions…
Glad to hear it!
I think it was a huge mistake.
It wasn’t a mistake from the standpoint of doing the coverage itself - I really enjoyed it - but the thing is what happened is the tournament that I played before Norway I believe was the Moscow FIDE Grand Prix, which ended about a week to a week and a half before Norway Chess began, maybe it was a little more than that. At any rate, it wasn’t a long period of time, and so when I went and covered Norway Chess, and you’re doing 6-7 hours of coverage every single day, it adds up, and it’s more chess on top of just trying to get away from it a little bit. So when I did that what happened is that it made me a little bit tired of chess, and also I just didn’t want to look at chess at all, and so when you need that break, and you don’t get it, and then maybe a week and a half or two weeks later there was Zagreb, I think that was a direct contributor in terms of why I played badly. Covering tournaments - I might do that in the future. Like I said, I enjoyed covering Norway Chess, but it’s not going to be a regular part of my life, streaming coverage of tournaments.
I hate life so much around Wijk Round no. 12 and you’re sitting there and someone’s playing a 70-move endgame and let me just go home… I do enjoy it, but it does get tiresome after a while.
Yeah, in some ways I feel like it’s more tiring than playing a game of chess. Like I said, I enjoyed covering Norway Chess, but I think it’s a real commitment, it takes a lot of time, and that’s why I don’t intend to make it a regular part - just playing online blitz for me is good enough.
Do you get upset when you lose an online blitz game?
I get upset when I feel like I’m playing badly.
It’s of course well-documented that I used to be a very, very bad loser when it came to online chess, I don’t think that’s any secret.
But nowadays I think the thing is you just play, and when I play badly or lose a game here or there I do get annoyed from time to time, but for the most part it’s online chess, and I think when you’re young it’s very hard to put it all in perspective – it’s just like the heat of the moment, you want to win every game, you feel very aggressive, the adrenaline is flowing, whereas now it’s sort of like, ok, I played a game, I lost, it’s just online chess!
You can’t lose your mind over things like that, so I do get angry, but for the most part… unless say it were a match against Magnus, I’ve had a few of those online of course, unless I get a position that should be winning and I make a one-move blunder, something like that, then I will be upset, but I don’t generally stay upset. I think one of the things that’s really important – this applies even to over-the-board matches – is to not tilt, and some of these other top players, I think Nepo specifically, I’ll say, he tilts very easily, online or live. I’ve played him online quite a few times and he loses 2-3 games and then he just goes on this huge losing streak, and that’s one thing I’m very happy about - that I don’t get super angry over these losses, which in turn it helps me avoid tilting when I’m playing some of these matches.
Magnus says he tilts too - I’ve asked him about it. He says nothing to do, just wait till it’s over.
Yeah, I think
even Magnus tilts, but the problem is Magnus can tilt but he’s still generally, on average, playing better chess
so his tilt is not going to be as severe for the most part as most other top players, because just the quality of his moves is still going to be generally higher.
Do you do non-chess stuff on the channel? I saw you played Fortnite, or something like that?
Yeah, sometimes I play Fortnite from time to time, not that often.
Again, it’s another thing that takes up time, and I don’t feel like it’s super-productive. I did it more for fun, and fortunately I am halfway decent at the game, which doesn’t help, because I think to use Ian (Nepomniachtchi) as an example again, one thing that held him back for a long time is that he played a lot of Dota. I think he was playing League of Legends as well, and I know he plays Hearthstone now.
So I do play it from time to time, but I think that it’s one of those things that there’s no added benefit to it. Doing something like the stock market there’s a clear reason, a clear motivation and purpose. If I’m doing many of these things, if there’s a purpose and a goal to it it’s very easy to do, and it’s logical, but with playing games online I don’t play them that much because it’s taking up a lot of time and also I feel like I should focus on the things that really matter, so I don’t do it that much. I don’t plan on streaming games on my channel that often.
I’m decent at Fortnite, so I don’t mind doing it, but overall I wouldn’t say I want to be a variety streamer, where I play a bunch of games and I’m just bad at most of them. To me, if I play something - this applies to everything actually -
say tomorrow I was 2650 or something, I would just quit chess
because I would not…
Welcome to my world!
You’re higher than that, aren’t you?
2645, but I did quit chess…
If tomorrow, for example, say I was 2645, I would not keep playing chess, because I would just be so disgusted at my inability to play at a high level, and when I play games, for example, let’s just say I take one week and I literally play Fortnite 10 hours every day, and I get to say the equivalent of maybe 1800 or something, I still would be so disgusted, because by the standards of where I am in chess that’s just not very good, and so
if I’m going to play games and I’m just going to suck at them, for lack of a better word, I’m just not going to waste my time on that.
Why do I want to do that if I can’t be any good at it? So, for that reason, you’re not going to see me taking up a lot of games or streaming many games. Fortnite was more or less a one-time thing. I might do it in the future, just a little bit, but it’s not something that will ever become a regular part of my streaming.
Speaking of games, how’s your poker career? You used to play quite a bit of poker too, right?
Yeah, I played poker in the old days when it was still legal in the US. Unfortunately it hasn’t really been legal in the US for many years now, and there were a few chess tournaments back in the day at places like Foxwoods, where there were casinos, or in Las Vegas, like the National Open, but in general to drive to a casino really doesn’t excite me that much.
And oddly enough, a lot of people have said that they find poker players interesting. To me, I’ve found that chess players as a whole are much more interesting than poker players.
I agree. Greetings to our poker watchers!
Maybe things have changed, but a lot of the poker players that I saw when I was playing it a lot, the really good ones, they were very young kids with very little life experience, and coming from chess, where a lot of people 16, 17, 18 are travelling everywhere, playing tournaments, they have some understanding of culture, for me I really didn’t like the vibe of that. So when you combine the fact that there’s no online poker with the fact that I wasn’t a big fan of the people that I was interacting with when I played live, I just...
I do the headphones! I sit in Commerce, do the headphones, lose all my money and go home miserable.
Yeah, so not really. I might play a tournament here or there, but I’ll never be serious about poker again.
But you are involved with this new thing called Choker, which is an app combining chess and poker?
Yes, so basically the way Choker works is you’re going to end up getting five cards with various pieces, so for example you could get a queen, rook, bishop, knight and pawn - that would be a very basic setup. So each player starts with a king and a pawn – king on e1, king on e8, pawns on e2, e7 - and then you get five cards with five different pieces and you place them on the board and you play. So it’s a mix. You start with two cards, there’s a round of betting, you get two more cards, a round of betting, you get the final card. You bet, and then you play a game of chess.
It’s basically Texas
Hold’em but then you didn’t win the pot but you have to play a game of chess?
Exactly. Of course you can resign the game of chess, you don’t have to play.
So you get a bunch of pawns, you fold?
Well, you can fold before you get to the chessboard. Say we start with 1000 chips and playing 25/50 and I bet 250 you can just fold, you don’t have to go to the chess part. So you’re combining the betting part of poker as well as having cards, like in Texas Hold’em, and then you also have the chess aspect, so I think it adds a lot of variety. I think it’s quite different, in that you have to have a little bit of skill in chess and poker.
Obviously if you’re really good at chess but you’re not good at understanding betting and you just assume, hey, I’m Hikaru Nakamura, I’ve got a queen and then I get four pawns and I can just beat anybody, it’s probably not going to work out very well!
So it’s an interesting new game, it’s combining poker and chess, and I’m looking forward to seeing how it goes.
Is it finally going to make me rich, because most people don’t play chess for money with players that are weaker than them, but if you add some chance element like with the poker is that going to happen? Do chess skills matter there?
I think chess skills matter. I think the thing that for me is very interesting is the fact that it’s not clear-cut what are good starting hands. For example, say you get two cards at the start and you get a rook and a knight, or rook, knight, bishop, or say two rooks, bishop, knight and your opponent is betting at you, it’s not clear to me what sort of starting hands are going to be great, what you should fold and what you should play against a good chess player, but also someone who understands the betting patterns as well as the percentages, the way that most really strong poker players do.
I think it will be interesting to see how it develops from the standpoint of strategies, like the betting, understanding what starting hands are good, what ranges are good and then also just pure chess ability as well.
So it’s really interesting, I’m looking forward to it being playable on computers as well. Right now it’s just an app, but I think at some point it’ll also be on a browser, so it should be a lot of fun and interesting and hopefully a lot of people take a look at it.
For you, if let’s say your opponent is an 1800 chess player and you get a starting position where you’re a rook down, are you actually an underdog there?
I think you actually probably will just lose, and the reason being that you only have six pieces on the board, so the fact that you have a pawn on e2 and then you place five other pieces, I think due to the limited material you’re actually a big underdog against an 1800. I think an 1800 should be able to just beat you, I would say 9 out of 10.
Greetings to Lawrence Trent! So yeah, we’ll check out the poker thing, the Choker thing, it sounds very interesting. Stay tuned for desktop versions. What’s your role with it? You’re like the spokesman, the ambassador?
I’m an ambassador for it.
So you have all these ventures, you have the stock market, the streaming, the classical chess. Do you ever take a day off? Do you go on holidays?
I try to, but the thing is that one thing or another almost always comes up, so if it’s say a weekend, for example, I’m not playing chess and there’s nothing going on on the stock market, usually there’s something to deal with in real estate. As people in the US would know, when you own properties, or you’re very heavily involved in managing things, there always are issues, whether it’s say a leak in a house, in a condo or an apartment, whether it’s an issue with a homeowner’s association, or say you have a mortgage, for example, and there’s a service transfer from one company to another. There are always are little things going on, so I don’t take that many days off. There are periods when I don’t look at these sorts of things, but for the most part I try to stay very busy and it’s just the sort of person I am. I’m not somebody who likes to, I wouldn’t want to, or not I wouldn’t want to but
I could not just sit on a beach for a week and do nothing, that’s just not me.
Thailand beaches are nice now! Do you have like these homeowner meetings where someone is saying, “I think we should pool our money to buy Jacuzzis for all the condos,” and then you have to argue with them? Do you do stuff like that?
I don’t deal directly with that, but there are things along those lines, like say there have to be repairs and there’s a whole homeowners meeting and arguments, discussions and all that sort of stuff. Luckily when I’m playing chess all that stuff is out the window and nothing that I have to think about, but those are the sorts of things that do come up, more frequently than one would assume. I think one thing, having been involved in real estate for probably about 2-3 years now, is that
not to be political but I completely understand how the President of the United States is the way that he is, because of his background in real estate.
Thank you so much for your time. Check out, you probably already are if you’re watching this, https://www.twitch.tv/gmhikaru. Check out Choker. Anything else?
No, I think we covered a lot. It’s really nice being here, first time being at the chess24 studios here in Hamburg. Obviously I’ve watched so many of the different videos, like Sopiko, Anish, you, Peter, everybody, so it’s really nice being here in the studios.
Likewise. Thanks so much for stopping by and best of luck with that classical chess 2020.
Thank you so much. Appreciate it.
Thank you guys for watching – see you around!
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