Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Made in America

  The first super GM chess tournament of 2012 started on Saturday in Wijk aan Zee, Holland. This tournament is sponsored by Tata Steel and has the unique format of 3 14 players groups (A, B, and C) playing in a 13 round tournament. The ‘A’ section features 12 of the 21 top ranked players in the world along with Dutch player Loek Van Wely and last year’s champion of the ‘B’ tournament, Czech David Navara.

  Going into the tournament, the favorites were world numbers 1 and 2 Magnus Carlsen and Levon Aronian, and the defending champion Hikaru Nakamura of the United States. Nakamura made a big splash by winning last year’s Tata Steel tournament. It was the biggest tournament victory from a homegrown US player in at least 20 years. While there have been plenty of victories by US chess players in recent years, they have all been by émigrés from the eastern bloc countries who were already world class chess players when they arrived in the US, while Nakamura has lived in the US since he was 2 years old after being born in Japan.

  Nakamura has gotten off to a rocky start in the defense of his title, with 3 draws (2 as White) and a loss as Black to Aronian in the first 4 rounds to share next to last place. Nakamura’s results have been very erratic lately (last place at the Tal Memorial in November and a clear second in the London Chess Classic in December), so a comeback is still possible. Since winning at Wijk aan Zee last year, Nakamura was expected by many to challenge Carlsen for the top spot in the world rankings, especially once word got out that his sponsor (billionaire chess benefactor Rex Sinquefeld) had arranged for training with Garry Kasparov (the highest rated player of all time) prior to his victory. Carlsen had trained with Kasparov in 2010 before gaining the world number one ranking. Nakamura’s training with Kasparov came to an end sometime last year and probably not very amicably, with Nakamura saying that Kasparov’s main strength was getting good positions out of the openings and that other players were better than him in middlegames and endings. Carlsen said much the same thing, only much more delicately, even though as the top rated player in the world he would have the authority to take a swipe at Kasparov. Even if it true, by pointing it out publicly Nakamura is showing off his immaturity, although at 24 he is almost middle aged when compared to the top 20 players in the world.

  When chess players from the Eastern Bloc emigrated to the US en masse in the late 70s and early 80’s, there was a concern that an entire generation of talented young American grandmasters was being shut out of the already meager prize funds. To a certain extent this has been the case, but given the opportunities available outside the chess world in America, most of the homegrown US chess talent has always found their way to other professions upon reaching college age. In any event, enough homegrown American players have become able to make their way as professional chess players to be competitive in the US Championships, winning around 40% of championships held since 1990. It doesn’t bother me when chess players from other countries come to the US and dominate the national chess scene, but I have to admit I have a lot more national pride when home grown players represent our country instead of imports.

  Many of the foreign players have also had a difficult time making a living by playing chess and turned to teaching chess as a way to make a living. I wondered if this would lead to an increase in elite homegrown chess players. After a generation progress has been noticeable but slow. The huge push for chess in schools has led to exposure for many children who would never have seen a chessboard in years past and this has led to a huge increase in higher rated youngsters. For example the 100th rated 10 year old in the US is rated 1496, but when Matt cracked the top 100 list as an 10 year old in 2003, his rating was 1319 and he was in the 50's, not at the tail end of the list. There has been an increase in the number of strong young players, but I wondered if this increase has filtered through to the top levels of chess. I grabbed a list of the top 200 players by FIDE (international chess) rating born after 1991 and there were 9 Americans on the list. This is tied for 5th with Hungary and Spain behind Russia (37), China (14), India(14), and Ukraine(13). FIDE records only are available since 2009 so I have no idea whether 9 is high or low, but I suspect the US is underrepresented on the list since the USCF has its own rating system and very few US tournaments are internationally rated.

  Immigration is a hot topic in Marshalltown, Iowa and whenever someone rails to me about the large number of Hispanics that come to town (perhaps illegally) to work in the meat packing plant, I mention that I’ll worry when people don’t want to come to this country, illegally or not. It may be time for me to worry. When I was researching this post, I noticed that the foreign players at the top of the US ratings lists are the same ones that have been on these lists for years and years except for Alejandro Ramirez, a recent arrival from Costa Rica. This means that not only are the top Russian players not coming to America any more, the US isn’t a place of destination for the top chess players from China, India, South America or anywhere else in the world. And it gets even worse for the USA. When I printed out the FIDE list of the top 200 born after 1991, the top name on the list is Fabiano Caruana. Caruana is playing in Wijk aan Zee under the Italian flag, but is a homegrown American player, learning chess in New York in the 1990s. Because his mother was an Italian citizen, Caruana has Italian citizenship. He moved with his family to Europe in 2004 and hasn’t played in the United States since 2008.

  Not only is America not attracting the chess players from other countries, we can’t even retain the best of our home grown players. If this is happening in chess, I’m sure it’s happening in all professions and a clear sign that our country has lost a lot of its attractiveness to the rest of the world.