Chess grandmaster Hikaru Nakamura takes on the UChicago Chess Club
On Sunday, May 16, five-time United States Champion Chess Grandmaster Hikaru Nakamura took on the UChicago Chess Club in an online simultaneous exhibition. During the “simul”, as it is called, Nakamura played against 39 club members at the same time, for about an hour. He streamed the event on his hugely popular Twitch channel; Nakamura is the most-watched chess streamer on the platform, with 1.2 million subscribers. The simulation was broadcast to around 13,000 people live, and thousands more have watched the recording since then.
It was the first event of its kind for the chess club and Nakamura, who had not taken part in a simultaneous exhibition with so many participants, let alone virtual. William Graif, the chess club‘s third-year president, organized the event with the popular chess website chess.com. Graif was coached by Nakamura’s stepfather, Sunil Weeramantry, for 11 years, and the two remain close friends. “I was able to get in touch with Hikaru through Sunil, and after months of trying, we finally agreed on a date,” he said. Jhe Bordeaux.
Graif said before the event that he expected Nakamura to win almost all of his matches. He wrote in an email to Jhe Bordeaux that he expected the club to gain around 1.5 points against the grandmaster. In chess, a draw counts as half a point for both players. A win is one point for the winning player.
The chess club had one advantage in the contest: time. Nakamura only had 40 minutes to play 39 matches, while each participant had 20 minutes for their single match. That’s why simuls are a challenge even for so-called “super grandmasters” – a category that Nakamura, at his peak ranked as the world’s No. 2 chess player, easily fits into.
Minutes before the simulation started, with 90s pop playing on Nakamura’s stream and in his headphones, the grandmaster left his chair and stepped off the screen to take a break. Nakamura’s streams are intense, often lasting over six hours, and he allows himself breaks when moving from one event to another. After a few minutes, the grandmaster sat back down and began the simulation without much fanfare.
Nakamura played with the white pieces every game so the boards wouldn’t change perspective as he navigated the games. While using a series of opening moves in all 39 games would have simplified playing so many games at once, Nakamura used different gambits and attacks against each of his opponents, giving each game a distinct position. . Nakamura’s audience, typing in the live chat, urged him to play “bongcloud” – a meme opening where the king moves upwards at the start of the game – but the grandmaster stuck to it. more traditionally solid structures.
As Nakamura performed, he talked to his audience, responding to comments in chat and discussing his moves. He was complimentary of UChicago’s players, especially freshman Praveen Balakrishnan, who started playing at age five and is already an international master. “It’s not a joke,” Nakamura said of Balakrishnan.
Indeed, the UChicago Chess Club has many strong players, some of whom, including Kapil Chandran, Eric Hon, Graif, and Balakrishnan, have already won titles for their outstanding performances. Nakamura, 20 minutes after the start of the event, discovered the strength of the club. The grandmaster lost about 12 minutes in time, concentrating more on each position and joking less with his audience. He won his first match a few minutes later.
The chat people cheered on their favorite streamer. “SPAM THIS BIRD FOR HIKARU TO CRUSH THESE NERDS!” one viewer wrote, alongside an assortment of chicken emojis. Nakamura had positioned his pieces well in every game, but time was always an issue. He picked up his pace as his clock ticked away; after 15 minutes, Nakamura was playing a move every few seconds. His game was as impressive as it was difficult to follow. Knights, rooks and pawns marched frantically across the screen.
Doubters had begun to appear in Nakamura’s live chat. “Too little time mannnnnnnn” someone wrote. “You are going to lose lol,” wrote another. But most of the audience was still confident in the streamer. “A lot of them are close to being finished so as it happens he will be more time efficient even if he has 3 minutes left with 3 players remaining he is the best blitz player in the world. world…he’s fine,” one wrote, echoing a popular sentiment. Nakamura spent some time thinking about a few positions with his head in his hands. Some chess club players had gained material leads in their games, such as recently graduated Hibiki Sakai, who had taken Nakamura’s rook after a shrewd queen pin.
A few people in Nakamura’s chat were complaining about Chess Club members not giving up their games in lost positions, causing the grandmaster to spend more time subduing them. In fact, the team had agreed to do so in their Zoom call before the game: they wanted every advantage they could get for each other. “Our collective goal was a win for the chess club,” said Ben Adler, a first-year player.
With 10 minutes left on his clock, Nakamura secured his third win. Pop music was still playing on his livestream — “Dani California” by the Red Hot Chili Peppers. The guitar riffs were more pronounced than ever; Nakamura didn’t speak much at all. When he spoke, it was most often a dry phrase: “Let’s go”, “Let’s just take it”. Nakamura often repeats himself on stream, a verbal tic that annoys many of his detractors. Here, however, it felt appropriate, as the games moved quickly across the screen. “It’s time to step up. Speed up, speed up, he told himself.
Nakamura is fiercely competitive. You could tell, during the presumed last minutes of the event, that the lack of time he had enjoyed in the simulation was beginning to irritate him. The chess club played slowly and thoughtfully – against Balakrishnan, for example, only two pawns were off the board, with five minutes left on Nakamura’s clock. “This game is going downhill fast for me,” Nakamura said as he surveyed a complex midgame against freshman Dylan Sunjic. The lack of simplification meant that Nakamura had to spend more time on each position, so as not to make mistakes or “blunders”, in chess terminology.
Three minutes from the end, Nakamura had completely stopped speaking. Thirty-six chess club members continued to hold their own, and the grandmaster averaged about a second per move. His viewers were amplified alongside him, sending words of encouragement in the chat. Still, that wasn’t enough for the streamer, who, with just over a minute to play, slowed down in apparent acknowledgment of a landslide UChicago victory. “I literally don’t have time in any of these games, I really can’t do anything,” he said. “40/20 just doesn’t work,” he added, referring to the time format of 40 minutes for him and 20 minutes for each field member. “It had to be 60/30.” Nakamura then resigned in favor of Dylan Sunjic. The field had won its first match! “This guy cheated on me in the opening. It was a very good game from him,” he said – high praise from the super grandmaster.
Suddenly, another 15 minutes were added to Nakamura’s clock, just as it was about to hit zero. The chess.com moderators had belatedly realized that they hadn’t given Nakamura enough time. The grandmaster remained frustrated; he had made game-changing mistakes while playing under the pressure of the clock. “I’m making moves assuming more time won’t be added,” he said later in the event.
The event continued and the UChicago players continued to play well. The grandmaster resigned against Sakai. “This guy won on an opening round that I just missed,” Nakamura said. “I’m really upset about this game,” he said while playing against Wesley Gow. Nakamura eventually stopped moving against Gow, letting his clock run out and wasting time instead of resigning outright. He did the same after losing a bishop to Adler, leaving one of the club’s lowest-ranked members to earn a major win. Against most of the other participants, Nakamura unsurprisingly bounced back after winning 15 minutes, converting most of his plays with ease.
After drawing with Balakrishnan and Graif, Nakamura had one last game to play against fourth-year Jay Yalamanchili. A relaxed look fell on the grandmaster’s face; he seemed happy to play on a single chessboard. Nakamura had two pawns and a rook alongside his king, while Yalamanchili clung with two pawns and a knight. After a few moves, Nakamura skillfully trapped the Yalamanchili Knight and won the game.
After the simulation, Nakamura analyzed some of the games and talked about the experience. “It clearly wasn’t structured properly, but nothing will ever be perfect,” he said of the time format. “I think several of the players have played extremely well,” he said of the club’s squad. “I thought Praveen was defending well, so was William Graif.… [Eric Hon] also very well played. Considering he had a lost position, he found some really good moves towards the end of the game.
In the end, the field took 8.5 points against Nakamura, out of six wins and five draws. Nakamura had 31.5 points. Both teams could settle for their score. Nakamura won the majority of his games playing at incredible speed for nearly an hour, and UChicago chess players exceeded their own expectations: many players can now claim to have won or drawn against one of the greatest chess players in the world.