May 26, 2021


7:27 p.m.

Chess Grandmaster Hikaru Nakamura takes on the UChicago Chess Club

Hikaru playing during the virtual simul.

Finn Hartnett / The Chicago Maroon

On Sunday, May 16, the chess grandmaster Hikaru Nakamura, a five-time U.S. Champion, took on the UChicago Chess Club in an online simultaneous exhibition. During the “simul,” as it is called, Nakamura played 39 members of the club at the same time, over the course of about an hour. He streamed the event on his Twitch channel, which is extremely popular; Nakamura is the most-watched chess streamer on the platform, boasting 1.2 million followers. The simul was broadcast to about 13,000 people live, and thousands more have watched the recording since then.

It was the first event of its kind for both the chess club and Nakamura, neither of whom had taken part in a simultaneous exhibition featuring this many participants, much less a virtual one. William Graif, the third-year president of the chess club, organized the event with the popular chess website Graif had been coached by Nakamura’s stepfather Sunil Weeramantry for 11 years, and the two remain close friends. “I was able to get in contact with Hikaru via Sunil, and after months of effort, we finally arranged a date,” he told The Maroon.

Graif said before the event that he expected Nakamura to win nearly all of his games. He wrote in an email to The Maroon that he expected the club to win about 1.5 points against the grandmaster. In chess, a draw counts as half a point for both players. A win is a point for the victorious player. 

The chess club did have one advantage in the contest: time. Nakamura only had 40 minutes to play 39 games, while each participant had 20 minutes just for their one game. This is why simuls are a challenge for even the so-called “super grandmasters”—a category which Nakamura, at his peak ranked the No. 2 chess player in the world, easily fits into.

A few minutes before the simul began, as ’90s pop played on Nakamura’s stream and through his headphones, the grandmaster left his chair and walked off-screen to take a breather. Nakamura’s streams are intense, often lasting more than six hours, and he allows himself breaks when switching between events. After a few minutes, the grandmaster sat back down and began the simul without much fanfare. 

Nakamura played with the white pieces in each game so the boards didn’t change in perspective as he navigated through matches. While using one series of opening moves in all 39 games would have made playing so many games at once simpler for him, Nakamura employed different gambits and attacks against each of his opponents, lending each game a distinct position. Nakamura’s audience, typing in the live chat, urged him to play the “bongcloud”—a meme opening where the king moves upward early in the game—but the grandmaster stuck to more traditionally solid structures.

As Nakamura played, he spoke to his audience, responding to comments in chat and discussing his moves. He was complimentary of the UChicago players, particularly first-year Praveen Balakrishnan, who began playing at the age of five and is already an international master. “He’s no joke,” Nakamura said of Balakrishnan. 

Indeed, the UChicago Chess Club boasts 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 into the event, was discovering the club’s strength. The grandmaster was down about 12 minutes in time, focusing more on each position, and bantering less with his audience. He won his first game a few minutes later.

People in the chat egged their favorite streamer on. “SPAM THIS BIRD FOR HIKARU TO CRUSH THESE NERDS!” a viewer wrote, alongside an assortment of chicken emojis. Nakamura had positioned his pieces well in each game—but time still posed a problem. He upped his pace as his clock ticked down; after 15 minutes, Nakamura was playing a move every few seconds. His play was as impressive as it was hard to keep up with. Knights, rooks, and pawns flickered across the screen in a frenzy.

Doubters had started appearing in Nakamura’s live chat. “Too little time mannnnnnnnn” someone wrote. “Ur gonna lose lol,” wrote another. But most of the audience was still confident in the streamer. “A lot of them are about to be finished, so as that happens, he will be more time efficient, even if he has 3 min with 3 players left, he’s the best blitz player in the world…he's fine,” one wrote, echoing a popular sentiment. Nakamura spent some time thinking about a few positions, his head in his hands. Some chess club players had gained material leads in their games, like the recently graduated Hibiki Sakai, who had taken Nakamura’s rook after a clever pin of the queen. 

A few people in Nakamura’s chat were complaining about members of the chess club not resigning their games in lost positions, which forced the grandmaster to spend extra time checkmating them. In fact, the team had agreed to do this in their Zoom call prior to the match: they wanted every advantage they could get for one another. “Our collective goal was one win for the chess club,” said Ben Adler, a first-year.

With 10 minutes left on his clock, Nakamura got his third win. The pop music was still playing on his livestream—“Dani California” by the Red Hot Chili Peppers. The guitar riffs were more pronounced now than ever; Nakamura wasn’t talking much at all. When he did speak, it was more often than not a curt phrase: “let’s go here,” “let’s just take.” Nakamura repeats himself often on stream, a verbal tic which annoys many of his detractors. Here, though, it seemed appropriate, as the games moved quickly across the screen. “Time to speed up. Speed up, speed up,” he said to himself.

Nakamura is fiercely competitive. One could tell, during the presumed final minutes of the event, that the lack of time he had received in the simul was beginning to irritate him. The chess club was playing 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 in a hurry for me,” Nakamura said while examining a complex midgame against first-year Dylan Sunjic. The lack of simplification meant Nakamura had to spend more time on each position, so as not to make any mistakes—or “blunders,” in chess terminology.

With three minutes remaining, Nakamura had stopped talking entirely. Thirty-six chess club members continued to hold fast, and the grandmaster was averaging about a second per move. His viewers were amped up alongside him, sending words of encouragement in the chat. Still, it wasn’t enough for the streamer, who, with a little over a minute left, slowed down in seeming acknowledgement of an overwhelming UChicago victory. “I literally have no time in any of these games, there’s nothing I can really do,” he said. “40/20 just doesn’t work,” he added, referencing the time format of 40 minutes for him and 20 minutes for each member of the field. “It needed to be 60/30.” Nakamura then resigned to Dylan Sunjic. The field had won its first game! “This guy tricked me in the opening. It was a pretty good game by him,” he said—high praise from the super grandmaster.

Suddenly, 15 more minutes were added to Nakamura’s clock, just as it was about to reach zero. The moderators had belatedly realized they had not given Nakamura enough time. The grandmaster remained frustrated; he had made some game-changing mistakes while playing under pressure from the clock. “I’m making moves under the assumption that 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 trick that I just missed,” Nakamura said. “I’m actually upset about this game,” he said while playing second-year Wesley Gow. Nakamura eventually stopped moving against Gow, letting his clock run out and losing on time instead of resigning outright. He did the same after losing a bishop against Adler, letting one of the lower-ranked members of the club take home a major victory. Against most of the other participants, Nakamura unsurprisingly rebounded after gaining 15 minutes, converting most of his games with ease.

After drawing with Balakrishnan and Graif, Nakamura had one final game to play, against fourth-year Jay Yalamanchili. A relaxed look fell upon the grandmaster’s face; he seemed happy to be playing on a single board. Nakamura had two pawns and a rook alongside his king, while Yalamanchili clung on with two pawns and a knight. After a few moves, Nakamura expertly trapped Yalamanchili’s knight and won the game. 

After the simul, Nakamura analyzed some of the games, and talked about the experience. “It clearly wasn’t structured correctly, but nothing is ever going to be perfect,” he said of the time format. “I thought several of the players played extremely well,” he said of the club team. “I thought Praveen defended well, William Graif also.… [Eric Hon] also played really well. Considering he had a lost position, he found some really good moves toward the end of the game.”

In the end, the field took 8.5 points against Nakamura, from six wins and five draws. Nakamura had 31.5 points. Both sides could be content with their score. Nakamura won the majority of his games playing at an incredible speed for almost an hour, and UChicago’s chess players smashed their own expectations: Several players can now claim they won or drew against one of the greatest chess players in the world.