Hikaru Nakamura: Meet the world’s wealthiest chess player

The 34-year-old American has spent half his life in the game’s most elite circles, but it is online streaming that has made him a millionaire

Hikaru Nakamura posa en el Palacio de Santoña de Madrid durante el Torneo de Candidatos
Hikaru Nakamura posa en el Palacio de Santoña de Madrid durante el Torneo de CandidatosPhoto Chess

Multiple sources estimate 34-year-old chess player Hikaru Nakamura’s fortune at around $50 million (or €47.3 million). However, only a small percentage of those earnings come from prizes he has won in chess competitions such as Madrid’s Candidates Tournament, where he is currently competing (he is in third place). At the beginning of the pandemic, the American chess player, who was born in Hirakata, Japan, devoted himself heart and soul to streaming (playing or commenting on his own games live on the internet). This pursuit made him the richest chess player of all time.

“I am losing money in this tournament,” Nakamura told EL PAÍS a few days ago. He was heading to his hotel to set up another streaming session on YouTube (where he has 1.3 million subscribers) and Twitch (where he has a similar number of followers). He is very popular on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and POG University as well. Additionally, he generates substantial income from energy drink endorsements, among other things. The same sources who estimated Nakamura’s earnings figured that Norwegian world champion Magnus Carlsen’s earnings can’t be more than €8 million. The eight prizes at the Candidates Tournament total €500,000, although the winner will split at least €2 million with Carlsen in the chess championship scheduled for April 2023.

Nakamura at the Candidates Tournament last Wednesday.
Nakamura at the Candidates Tournament last Wednesday.Photo

Nakamura’s income is not the only thing that makes him unusual among chess players. Born in Japan, his parents emigrated to the United States when he was two years old; they divorced soon after. His mother’s new partner, Sunil Weeramantry, a leading chess player from Sri Lanka, discovered Hikaru’s extraordinary talent. At the age of six, he already flourished in tournaments; at 10, he began to break records for precocity; and at 15, he surpassed the legendary Bobby Fischer as the youngest grandmaster (chess’s highest rank) in the history of the United States. At the age of nine, he stopped attending school so he could compete in more tournaments; thereafter, his parents educated him at home.

Asked by EL PAÍS about his son’s estimated current earnings, Weeramantry considered them to be “exaggerated.” He went on to clarify: “Right now, I don’t think his earnings are more than $20 million, but it is true that his ability to generate money is really increasing.” Nakamura has just been signed by the powerful Misfits Gaming Group, a video game and electronic sports company, guaranteeing him a substantial income.

As a twenty-something, the former child prodigy continued to fuel controversy and debate in the world of mind sports. He spent a lot of time playing one-minute-per-player matches on the internet, which many fans do not consider to be real chess. That activity probably had a negative impact on his progression toward the world title in classic chess. Similar to other elite chess players, Nakamura is also an avid poker player: “Many of the qualities that chess develops are very useful in poker. The main difference is that if you play a nearly perfect game of chess, it is impossible for you to lose. But in poker, the role of luck means that you can be defeated,” he explains.

In this context, it is unsurprising that his time being coached by former world champion Gari Kasparov, in 2011, lasted less than a year. They were completely different people: “Obviously, working with one of the best in history was a great experience, a great way to learn. His intuition, his way of capturing the essence of a position, he’s a beast. But we have very different personalities,” Nakamura points out. He’s probably referring to the fact that the spirit of military discipline that has always defined the Russian player is incompatible with his own, much more flexible temperament.

Still, Nakamura’s sporting exploits in classical chess make him one of the last quarter century’s great stars. On October 1, 2015, he was ranked 2nd in the world in classic chess, despite his terrible record against Carlsen: 14 defeats, one victory and 26 draws. His brilliance in rapid chess is even more consistent. Right now, he ranks 10th in the world in slow games, and 2nd in rapid (half an hour per side) and lightning (five minutes per player and game) chess. He has achieved all this success despite the fact that he spends most of his energy and time on internet broadcasts, not high chess competition.

Nakamura invests much of his earnings in stocks and he frequently participates in charitable activities. Another essential area where he differs from the vast majority of his elite colleagues: Nakamura almost always greets his fans very kindly. He signs autographs, takes photos, and even plays rapid games for hours in the hotel lobby. Unlike most mind sports stars, he understands that he is not just paid to play but to communicate as well.

That is why he is playing in the Candidates Tournament, despite essentially losing money. In reality, he wins anyway because the international attention he gets through matches and events increase his followers on social media. One might also wonder if Nakamura could have become world champion if he had dedicated himself fully to high competition. In that case, his fortune would surely be much less. He can still be the king (elite chess players usually start to decline between the ages of 35 and 40) if he wins Madrid’s Candidates Tournament. But the million-dollar question is whether such a tournament can be won by someone who is so anxious to rush back to the hotel and grab his headphones and mouse for another night of streaming.

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