"I played Nakamura. He was 18 years old at the time, at the 2005 U.S. Championship. His name is Hikaru Nakamura. And he's the top U.S. player right now." This is the top chess player in San Diego, international master (IM) Cyrus Lakdawala, 46. He's telling me about the strongest opponent he's ever faced. "This kid Nakamura's just a natural genius," Lakdawala says. "And I don't normally use that term. I think it's thrown about, like, 'Oh, this guy's a genius,' and 'That guy's a genius.' But Nakamura really is a genius. He was a 16-year-old grand master. The top seed at the U.S. Championship. I think he's almost 20 now."
Lakdawala has been a professional chess player for the past 27 years. He's one of the best in the world. The average serious chess player rates about 1500. Lakdawala's international rating is 2424. But the U.S. Champion, Nakamura, rates a 2651.
"When I played this kid," Lakdawala says, "I remember one point in the game where I spent 45 minutes on this incredibly long combination. I had a horrible feeling in my heart that it wasn't going to work, but I had to do it, because it looked like I was winning. I spent 45 minutes thinking it through, and I just plunged into the position. I'd worked out what I felt was a win at every line. So I made my move. And Nakamura looked at the position, and then he sat back in his chair, and he looked up at the ceiling. He looked at the ceiling for about 5 minutes, after I moved. He didn't even look at the board. He was just looking at the ceiling, which was actually very intimidating. He was working it out in his head and not looking at the board."
Lakdawala chuckles. "And then he made his move, and we banged out the entire sequence that I thought was going to happen. At the tail end, he saw one move further, and my whole position just collapsed completely. He saw this in his head in 5 minutes. He saw one move further than I did, in 5 minutes in his head, than what I could see in 45 minutes of looking at the board. You just can't beat someone like that. The genetics are too powerful. You would have to have blind luck. He would have to be sick, or just really off, or maybe I could beat him on a good day."
Lakdawala was born in India in 1960, grew up in Montreal, and came to San Diego in 1978. Lakdawala's father, who's also a strong player, taught young Cyrus chess when he was about eight. Now, Lakdawala teaches chess, plays it every day, and writes about the game for numerous organizations, such as Chess Ninja and the U.S. Chess Federation. He was the chess columnist for the Union-Tribune for almost ten years in the '80s and early '90s.
The first time I called Lakdawala on the telephone, his son answered and passed him the phone. Lakdawala sounded friendly and had a kind of "aw, shucks" tone to his voice. I wanted to meet him. Would Wednesday night at the San Diego Chess Club be a good time and place? He told me that would work out fine. Next I asked him for the phone number of one of his students, the most talented young player in the area, a 17-year-old named Elliott Liu (whom we'll meet later), and Lakdawala said, "I'm sorry, but could I call you back soon with that number?" We'd been chatting amiably for two minutes, but now he let it be known: he was in the middle of an online chess game. "I'm almost through playing," he said. "It's a blitz game. A three-minute game. I'll call you in, like, five minutes, if that's okay."
I couldn't believe it. He was having a conversation with me while playing chess with someone else. (And he won!) He was apologetic about not being able to get the phone number just then -- he was making quick chess moves, after all. "I play every day on the Internet," he explained. "I'm considerably higher rated than other players in San Diego, and I need to play international masters and grand masters, and the only way to do that is through the Internet."
I can't pat my head and rub my stomach at the same time, but Cyrus Lakdawala can be gracious while simultaneously competing in perhaps the most intricate and challenging game ever invented.
The following Wednesday, I stroll up to the San Diego Chess Club on the outskirts of Balboa Park. It's a chilly evening, just after dark, and the best chess players in town are beginning to arrive for the 2007 Club Championship. Lakdawala and I shake hands and talk a little chess. I recognize him from some of the photos online. He's rather giant and looks gentle. He seems almost to have a permanent shrug, a genial indifference that is perhaps the result of hunching over chessboards for the better part of his life.
Lakdawala shows me around, introducing me to club president Ron Rezendes and to other local players, and it becomes apparent that everyone assumes I don't know how to play chess. One older gentleman even explains some of the rules. I decide to play dumb and bide my time, nodding and taking notes in my yellow pad.
Finally, about a half hour before the tournament is scheduled to start, Lakdawala and I are standing near a chessboard with all the pieces set up, and I tell him I'd like to play him sometime. "Sure," he answers. "We could play right now." And we sit down to it.
What Lakdawala doesn't know is that I used to play chess seriously in New York City in the early '90s, and I was a pretty strong player then, right around an 1800. Chess ratings are figured by tabulating a player's wins, losses, and draws in sanctioned matches. If you beat a higher-rated player, your own rating goes up a lot. If you beat a lower-rated player, it hardly goes up at all. If I were still rated 1800 and I beat Cyrus Lakdawala in an official tournament match, my rating might jump as many as 30 points from one game, while Lakdawala's rating could plummet nearly as much.