Fabiano Caruana, without question, is the best classical chess player in the United States. He’s the 2nd best chess player in the world. And last November, he was just a tiebreak away from becoming World Champion.
In the American mainstream media, Caruana has been portrayed as the successor to 11th World Champion Bobby Fischer. He’s written about as a celebrated, nationally-admired figure, one that has inspired a generation of young American chessplayers. In many ways, Caruana is widely seen as the main catalyst behind the growth of American chess, especially young American chess, in these past few years.
That’s not the entire truth.
Let’s start with my story. Growing up as a young American chess player in the 21st century, I had no idea who Fabiano Caruana was. In fact, the first time I heard the name Fabiano Caruana was in 2010, when a young Caruana led Italy to 21st place at the World Chess Olympiad. Yes, Italy. Yes, 21st place. In short, Fabiano Caruana had a rather limited impact on my chess development, and the development of other young American chess players.
So, if Caruana wasn’t our inspiration, who was?
Hikaru Nakamura. Since 2011, when Nakamura’s victory in the prestigious Wijk aan Zee super-tournament cemented his status as the first “homegrown” American chess talent to reach the world chess elite since Bobby Fischer, Nakamura has been the inspiration for thousands of young American chessplayers. That includes players like World #32 and 2018 US Chess Champion Sam Shankland, who, moments after losing his US Champion title to Nakamura in 2019, noted that he would not have rather lost his title to any other player. That includes players like World #35 and World Junior Champion Jeffrey Xiong, who learned to play chess as Nakamura was breaking into the world elite. That includes players like Samuel Sevian, who at age 13, broke Nakamura’s record for the youngest ever American grandmaster.
To many, Nakamura was proof that the American method of developing chessplayers could produce elite grandmasters. Previously, only the European method, which consisted of laboriously studying classic chess books, playing in lengthy 9-round, one round a day tournaments, and analyzing with grandmaster coaches, was seen as a feasible way to produce top chessplayers. As a case in point, at a young age, Fabiano Caruana moved from the United States to Italy to pursue the European method. Nakamura, however, stayed in the United States, and with his long online blitz sessions, hectic weekend swiss tournaments, and no coach, made it.
When I was six years old, waiting for half an hour in a long line at a local chess center for a measly autograph, I wasn’t waiting for Fabiano Caruana. I was waiting for Hikaru Nakamura. When I was ten years old, and purchased my first chess book, it was “Fighting Chess with Hikaru Nakamura”. Even the fact that I waited until I was ten to purchase my first chess book is a testament to Nakamura’s influence in legitimizing the American method, blazing a path forward for the countless young American chessplayers who would follow in his footsteps.
There’s a reason why a whopping 37 of the United States’ current top 100 chessplayers were born in or after 1995. When those players were beginning to take chess seriously, Nakamura was rapidly rising into and establishing himself as a member of the world elite. Sure, Hikaru Nakamura isn’t the only reason the United States finds itself with its best collection of elite young chessplayers since the 1960s. But I can guarantee you that he had a lot more to do with it than Fabiano Caruana.