Before this whole inevitable comparison thing goes too far (and it is inevitable), let one important point be made: Hikaru Nakamura is essentially normal. Sure, he and his older brother, Asuka, own the John Tesh CD Live at Red Rocks. O.K., they listen to it too. However, to hear Hikaru talk New York Yankees and Tennessee Titans and Harry Potter is to hear your average American 14-year-old.
So even as Hikaru is increasingly perceived as the next Bobby Fischer, keep in mind that—personalitywise—he is as Fischeresque as, say, Chris Tucker. In the family's White Plains, N.Y., apartment, the brothers' bedroom is, like the bedrooms of millions of other teenagers, a sty. Clothes here, clothes there. Guitar picks scattered like ants on a watermelon. An American flag next to a couple of yellowed magazines next to a worn BILL BRADLEY FOR PRESIDENT sign next to a pile of creased books next to a Wayne Gretzky Rangers jersey.
" Bobby Fischer was one of the greatest chess players ever, but he was totally crazy," Asuka, 15, says of the eccentric Chicago native who dominated the game during the 1960s and early '70s and is indeed widely regarded as the greatest player ever. "I mean, he was Jewish and anti-Semitic. He made no sense. To succeed at chess, you almost always need balance in your life. Many players don't have that. Hikaru does."
In a short time Hikaru has emerged as the prince of U.S. chess and (shhh!) a possible heir to Fischer. Three years after taking up the game seriously, Hikaru, at 10, became the youngest U.S. player to earn a master rating and the youngest to defeat an international master in a tournament game. Last February he became the youngest U.S. player to attain the title of international master. In July, when he won the U.S. Junior Invitational in Tulsa (open to the top 10 players under 21), he was only three months older than Fischer's record age of 13 years, four months.
Yet despite victories over six grandmasters, Hikaru's most daunting—and, inevitably, rewarding—challenge came not from Russia or Hungary or any of the other elite chess nations but from five dirty-laundry-laced steps across his bedroom, where for several years Asuka played Venus to Hikaru's Serena.
The older brother first excelled at chess, picking up the game from a friend when he was five years old. To Carolyn Weeramantry, Asuka and Hikaru's mother, her sons' devotion to chess was, and still is, a mystery. Before 1989, when she separated from Shuichi Nakamura, the boys' father, and moved with them from Osaka, Japan, to her native Ridgecrest, Calif., neither she nor her former husband was interested in the game. "The only reason I can guess is that their father liked games," says Carolyn, a classically trained violinist who first went to Osaka as an exchange student 20 years ago. "Otherwise, their success is very surprising."
Asuka quickly emerged as America's top young player, winning a record-tying 12 National Scholastic titles. From 1993 to 2000 he won 47 consecutive matches in the National Grade School Championships. At one of Asuka's tournaments in '93 Carolyn met Sunil Weeramantry, a renowned youth chess instructor and founder of the National Scholastic Chess Foundation. The two have been married for almost seven years.
Hikaru, meanwhile, tagged along to many of his big brother's events, but he watched little and cared less. Then, in 1995, at the 12-day U.S. Open in Concord, Calif., something clicked. Hikaru began messing around with the pieces. He liked the way they felt, the ways they could be moved. "I enjoyed the tactics," Hikaru says. "I like the feeling when you don't have much time and you have to think fast." He and his stepfather played several games of Blitz. To Sunil it was obvious: The kid was a natural.
In three years Hikaru advanced to master, at which point, in February 1998, Asuka received a jolt of reality: his younger brother was superior. "I was in denial for a long time," Asuka says. "I tried to think of reasons I was better—my opening is better, I'm a smarter player, I'm older—but I had to accept it. He's better, and it'll be hard to catch him."
At July's championships Asuka and Hikaru met in the fifth round. It was the first time they had played head-to-head in a formal setting. Hikaru won handily. "It was just like another game," Hikaru says, "but sometimes I'd think, That's my brother."