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On Chess: The lambs of sacrifice in chess

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 22, 2013: A sacrifice in chess is a move that gives up a piece in the hopes of gaining tactical or positional compensation in other forms.

Last week, Grandmaster Hikaru Nakamura sacrificed his crown as the King of America.

The nation’s top-rated player and 2012 U.S. champion passed on the chance to defend his title after no-showing this year’s event, which recently wrapped up in the Central West End. But he was one of the first to applaud the now-reigning 2013 champ, the U.S. No. 2 Gata Kamsky, with a congratulatory shout out on Twitter.

It was gracious, and why wouldn’t it be? The sacrifice was Nakamura’s to make, and it was calculated.

He sent off that tweet from Norway, and then returned his attention to his positional compensation.

Last week’s Norway super tournament featured seven of the top-10 players in the world in a 10-man round robin billed as one of the strongest-rated tournaments in the history of chess. Nakamura is rated 2775, seventh by the World Chess Federation, FIDE. And with much respect to Kamsky – certainly considered to be one of the elite, having once competed for a FIDE title and currently ranking 18th around the globe – Nakamura faced an individual decision to play against the best in the nation or the best on the planet.

The super tournament was headlined by the participation of World Champion GM Viswanathan Anand, India’s undisputed heavyweight since 2007. But what sparked a particular theme of gossip out of Scandinavia was the simultaneous presence of GM Magnus Carlsen, the highest-rated player in the world (Anand is fifth) and next on-deck to challenge for the World title. Carlsen won the rights to challenge Anand after winning the FIDE Candidate’s Tournament in April, setting up a worldwide showdown that will take place this September. The Norway super tournament promised a sneak peek of what was to come, though ultimately a bit deflating: the two played, not surprisingly, to a quiet draw in their only matchup.

If you haven’t heard of Carlsen yet, you should probably get to know him. He is your quintessential chess prodigy: Grandmaster by 13 years; the youngest-ever to rank No. 1 in the world at 18 years; and at 22 years old today, ready to challenge for the World title.

I’ll leave most mainstream media promotion to the barking heads, but I do recommend a CBS News 60 Minutes special from last year that dubs Carlsen as the “Mozart of Chess.” My favorite segment is when a just-emerging Carlsen finally meets then-World Champion Garry Kasparov, who all-but snubs the boy after showing up 30 minutes late to their match. But if a picture paints a thousand words, Carlsen’s story is written by the priceless look on the champ’s face – shaking in disbelief – after playing the 13-year-old to a draw. 

Blasphemous proclamations are a dime a dozen around the Internet these days, calling out the next Michael Jordan or Wayne Gretzky in every other clip on YouTube. But it’s telling that “Mozart” has stuck with Carlsen; perhaps more telling that no one disputes the comparison. Anand himself described the young man who seeks to dethrone him as “the greatest talent I have seen.”

Most discussions on Carlsen as World Champion take on the tone of When, not If. It seems the first question to provide any debate is just how long he’ll command that title. It’s very possible that chess is teetering on the brink of a Renaissance.

Depending, of course, on whom you ask. Russia’s Sergey Karjakin snagged top billing in Norway last week, but right on his heels was Nakamura, who finished just a half-point behind, good for a second-place tie with Carlsen. He fell just short on a furious come-from-behind flurry, scoring 4.5 points in his last five games, besting the World Champ Anand and drawing the World challenger Carlsen along the way. According to the live rating list, Nakamura’s rating shot up to 2784 following his performance, which ranks him No. 6 in the world and just two points shy of overtaking Anand at No. 4 on the list.

It's hard to fathom a sacrifice of the national title, but most of us don't play with pieces so magnificent. I think Nakamura is enjoying his positional compensation.

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