04 June 2023

Thoughts on GM Hikaru Nakamura not caring his way back to world #2

As was just reported - for example in this Chess.com news item - GM Hikaru Nakamura has now regained the world #2 ranking, last held by him in 2015. This remarkable achievement, given the level of competition, cannot be simply ascribed to "luck" or other random factor. What explains it then?

Naturally Hikaru has always been a strong competitor with great talent, focus and work ethic - although with ups and downs over his career, like many. One of the key factors I would point out is him "Not Caring My Way to the Candidates" - although it is not directly addressed in the linked video, a useful and entertaining post-mortem of the victory that got him into the 2022 Candidates tournament, the attitude change was important enough to be reflected in the title.

GM Kayden Troff in the (long) blog post "Hikaru Nakamura and the Significance of Playing Without Pressure" at the time went into the significance of how this kind of freeing of the mind leads to better play and better results. The full post is worth reading, but the main points are (quoted):

  • Focus on playing well, not on how terrible it would be to lose.
  • Learn from your mistakes, love your brilliancies.
  • Practice and play.
  • Enjoy the game.

As is common with mental mindsets, simple prescriptions in fact can have profound impact - and simplicity does not mean that something is easy to achieve. (If it were so easy, everyone would automatically be doing it.) Some similar ideas can be found on mental toughness, although if I were to summarize the above points, it would be: to have a serene and positive feeling about chess, while mindfully engaging with your own games (to learn from them) and your opponents (to play well against them).

Adopting this overall attitude has in fact helped me in the past during tournaments. During games, it feels as if a mental weight is lifted, so I can concentrate on each game for what it is - a creation of the moment - rather than worrying about arbitrary, external things such as ratings or tournament results. This is just simple math: the more attention your brain pays to externalities, the less focus it retains on the actual game in front of you.

So give your brain a break and "not care" in the moment about future results, which are simply a distraction, thereby allowing yourself to play the purest and best chess you can. 

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