This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: If baseball is the thinking man’s game, chess is the best game to play with a bat.
Chess players get playoff fever, too. It’s just harder to gauge because we don’t get sweaty; we don’t often douse ourselves in alcohol after we win, and the chase of a chess World Championship moves even slower than America’s pastime.
In chess, as any other sport, when one of the game’s best gets hot, he can leave a scorched trail behind him.
That said, GM Hikaru Nakamura is on fire right now. America’s top horse in the world title race is competing in Paris at the final stage of the FIDE Grand Prix, and it is a fine moment to be playing at his best.
Up for question is the World Championship – for 2014, with this year’s title fight between reigning king Viswanathan Anand and challenger Magnus Carlsen already set for November. Whereas the final showdown – the World Series, if you will – will always be played between the current world champion and one challenger, the real playoff race in chess can be seen in the selection of that challenger: The winner of the coveted Candidates' Tournament, and the lengths players have to go to earn a seat in the annual eight-man contest.
Nearly all of those chairs have been claimed for the 2014 Candidate’s Tournament. Two seats will be awarded to the top-two finishers of the Grand Prix, which has been a six-event tournament rotating the globe over the past two years. The world’s top players each competed in four of the six events, with their three best scores taken as standings.
Bulgaria’s Veselin Topalov has already locked up the top spot of the Grand Prix, though second place is up for grabs and waiting on the results from Paris. Unfortunately, here’s the rub for America: Nakamura is merely playing the role of spoiler in Paris as he won’t catch up in the overall standings, even if he wins the tournament outright.
Which, ironically, is what he seems to be attempting. With two games to play after Wednesday’s round 9, Nakamura sits in clear first with 6/8 points, including three wins – one of them in true spoiler fashion. Italy’s Fabiano Caruana is highly motivated and can earn the second Grand Prix spot if he wins Paris outright, but Nakamura served him his only loss of the tournament last Sunday, and he now trails the American by a half point in second place.
Considering how well Nakamura is playing right now, it’s a pity he stumbled in the early Grand Prix events – dead last in London back in 2012, and a meager seventh-of-12 in Thessaloniki, Greece, earlier this year. But again, right now is a fine moment to be playing at his best.
And I mean, literally, his best. Nakamura has not lost a game since before coming through town for last month’s Sinquefield Cup. On Tuesday’s rest day, his live rating sat at 2794.4, the highest ever in his career, which currently places him fourth in the world, also the highest rank of his career. He is less than three rating point away from the No. 2 spot in the world.
Not only that, he is the closest he has ever been to cracking the 2800 rating barrier, which would put him in a super(-duper) elite club that has only been breached by seven other players ever, and currently has only one member: Carlsen.
The Grand Prix will wrap up this weekend, and while Nakamura is certainly helping rain fall on someone’s sunny day, he ultimately won’t change his own fate as a 2014 Candidate – perhaps. What looms is one final seat in the Candidate’s Tournament – a wildcard –awarded to whoever organizes the event. And it remains unclaimed.
Now, let’s not get our hopes up too high: Nakamura would be the first to scoff at the idea of being selected as the wild card. Word across the chessboard is that the frontrunner for the 2014 Candidate’s event bid is Khanty-Mansiysk in Russia, and like any event organizer would do, the wild card will likely be awarded to some hometown hero. And Russia has plenty. Bulgaria has also submitted a bid, but do you really think the Bulgarians want their World Championship hopeful Topalov to have to go through a red-hot Hikaru?
Nakamura, playing like this, will make it nearly impossible for the organizers to overlook him. In fact, that’s exactly what they’ll have to do. If he maintains his current status, Nakamura will be a glaring omission from next year’s Candidate’s Tournament, and any other selection will just simply make for a weaker event.
Unfair? Perhaps. Frustrating? Yes. But that’s how it goes in this game of inches.