By Lubomir Kavalek
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, July 20, 2009; 9:16 AM
Can Hikaru Nakamura become the world chess champion in the next 10 years? Looking back into history, the answer is: Why not? Only twice in a span of a century has a chess player crossed the Atlantic Ocean, arrived in the Basque city of San Sebastian and won his first major round-robin tournament. In 1911, the 22-year-old Jose Raul Capablanca of Cuba finished first in a field of the world’s best players. Only the world champion Emanuel Lasker was missing. In 1921 Capablanca defeated Lasker in the world championship match in his native Havana. The U.S. champion Nakamura, 21, won the elite San Sebastian tournament last week. It is up to him to match Capablanca’s feat in the next decade.
The San Sebastian tales of Capablanca and Nakamura are full of other remarkable coincidences. Both were the last players invited to the event. (In 1911, Capablanca was admitted over the objection of several players led by Osip Bernstein of Russia. The Cuban redeemed himself early, defeating Bernstein in a sparkling first-round game that was awarded the Rothschild Prize for the tournament’s most brilliant game.)
Both Capablanca and Nakamura had a fast start, scoring five points in the first six games. Both ended with only 50 percent in the last week of play. Capablanca was slowed by a high fever, but edged Akiba Rubinstein and Milan Vidmar by half a point in the end. Nakamura was caught in the last round by Ruslan Ponomariov, the winner of the 2001-02 FIDE knockout world championship. They each scored 6½ points in nine games, but Nakamura won the title, smashing the Ukrainian grandmaster, 2-0, in the playoff. Several of the world’s top players were missing in this year’s tournament, but the event was not easy. For example, the legendary world champion Anatoly Karpov finished last. He did not win a single game, managing only three draws and losing six games. It must be the worst result of his marvelous career.
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