Magnus Carlsen Watch Out! (For Real This Time)
Two days ago we witnessed a monumental return to classical chess that ended in triumph for popular Grandmaster Hikaru 'Juicer' Nakamura, where he took down Grandmaster Levon Aronian in the tiebreaker of a match to win the first leg of the FIDE Grand Prix.
Notably, if Hikaru comes anywhere near repeating this result when he plays in the third leg in Berlin in April, it will assure him Candidates qualification for the first time since 2016 and could mark the beginning of an unprecedented run to the world championships.
For players new to the chess scene picked up by the recent chess boom, this has come as quite a shock. While viewers have witnessed Hikaru's superiority in the blitz and bullet categories in online chess, new audiences have not yet seen the player who the world saw rise as high as world number 2 in the classical time control in 2015 and take out numerous Super GM classical tournaments.
The reality is, this tournament is no fluke. Hikaru was dominant against other super GMs in classical for more than a decade before his streaming 'hiatus'. Dominant against most, except for the seemingly infallible World Champion Magnus Carlsen...
Because of a single-player, I lost faith in my longtime favorite player's ambitions of becoming a world champion. I thought the dream was gone and I think he did too.
But, something has changed. Now Hikaru... literally doesn't care. And that makes him powerful.
The Mindset Rebirth
I wanted to start with the absolute #1 reason why Hikaru should be one of the favorites leading into the candidates. Back in 2016, Hikaru was a serious, emotive chess player who put his heart on his sleeve during every game. One of the reasons I liked watching him is because you could ride the highs and lows of how he was feeling during games. Unfortunately, against a stone-cold professional like Magnus Carlsen, this just does not work.
If you look at some of the most successful sports professionals of our time; take Roger Federer, Lionel Messi (this may cause debate in itself, sorry Ronaldo), Jon Rahm, and even Carlsen, you will notice that, while these competitors are emotional beings... they have mastered their own mind so that at the critical moment... they are present and consistent.
Due to Hikaru's knowing that he had the potential to be the best I believe he put significant pressure on himself to reach the top and it hurt his chess.
Streaming, however, has thrown a spanner in the works. Even though Hikaru's 'I literally don't care' line has become a meme that even world-leading 'General Memeologist' and Twitter pest Anish Giri would be quietly proud of, this approach shone through in his Grand Prix games and showed us a fearless Hikaru, willing to take risks and play his best chess.
From a wonderful Reddit post
If he can take this mindset to the candidates and beyond, we cannot count him out!
The Path To Candidates
Presuming that Hikaru does in fact perform at a reasonable level in leg 3, we first need to assess his chances against the other candidates who he will take on in Madrid in June.
Historically, Hikaru has been consistently above the level of this group in classical and holds a lifetime win-loss record against all but one of the players in the field (excluding Firouzja who he has not yet played).
See below his classical win-loss rates against the other candidates so far...
Hikaru Nakamura beat Ian Nepomniachtchi 3 to 2, with 5 draws
Hikaru Nakamura beat Teimour Radjabov 2 to 0, with 12 draws
Hikaru Nakamura beat Jan-Krzysztof Duda 1 to 0
Hikaru Nakamura beat Sergey Karjakin 8 to 5, with 24 draws
Fabiano Caruana beat Hikaru Nakamura 7 to 6, with 33 draws
Hikaru Nakamura has not yet played Alireza Firouzja
Taking Down 'Magneto' - The Prevalence of World Championship Tiebreaks
Should Hikaru ascend to the challenger position, the toughest task will lie ahead. Despite a dismal classical record against Magnus Carlsen, Hikaru has shown a more 'mature' style in his recent Grand Prix games, indicating his potential to patiently draw out the 12 classical games that await him, as Fabiano Caruana achieved in 2018.
If it comes down to rapid and blitz tiebreaks, it's anyone's game. We are talking about the undisputed best and second-best (I'll let you decide who is who) blitz and rapid chess players of the century and possibly ever?
What would a Hikaru Victory Mean for Chess?
A world championship challenge from Hikaru, let alone a victory, would bring waves of old and new audiences to the game. I have no doubt it would be the most-watched chess event of all time and potentially spark a secondary chess boom.
Do you think Hikaru is a shot of making it... or perhaps even winning it?! Let me know in the comments below and let's see how the next year pans out.