When a Shogi champion turns to chess

5/17/2002 – Michael Jordan tried it with baseball – it, like, didn't work out. But what about a professional Shogi champion switching to chess? Yoshiharu Habu, one of the most gifted players in the history of the ancient Japanese game, has taken a casual interest in chess – and already reached IM strength. He is currently playing in a tournament in Paris, where Joel Lautier interviewed him.

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Yoshiharu HABU, the Shogi champion

at the NAO CHESS CLUB from Monday 13th until Tuesday 21st of May 2002 in Paris

Yoshiharu HABU, the undisputed champion of Shogi (a complex game which is the Japanese equivalent of chess), is a top celebrity in Japan. He has been invited by the prestigious NAO Chess Club in Paris to participate in the second international tournament held at the club.

This unusual event aims to achieve two goals: introduce the fascinating game of Shogi to a larger Western audience and likewise enhance chess's popularity in Japan, where every move of their national champion Habu will be scrutinised by countless fans.

Ever since he joined the Professional School of Shogi at the age of twelve, Mr Habu, who is now 31 years old, has been known as the one of the most gifted player in the history of this ancient game. He is the only player to have ever won the seven most prestigious titles successively and he has an outstanding record of 74% of victories over the entire span of his career.

Since 1995, he has taken a keen interest in chess, and notwithstanding the little time he has had to study our game, he has already scored an International Master norm. This took place in what was only his second official tournament, the open of St Quentin (France) in April 2001.

The tournament at the NAO Chess Club is being held every day from the 13th until the 21st of May 2002, with rounds starting at 2.00 pm and ending at 8.00 pm. It is a round-robin of category IV (average rating 2336). Let's see if Mr Habu can reach the magical score of six points out of nine, which would yield him his second IM norm!

Other participants in this event will include the legendary Grandmaster Mark Taimanov and the 12-year old prodigy from France Edouard Bonnet.

After the tournament, on the 22nd of May, Mr Habu will give a simultaneous display of Shogi on ten boards, at the Japanese Embassy in Paris.

All the information on this event is available in French on the website of the NAO Chess Club at www.nao-cc.com . There will be live coverage of the games together with daily reports, photos, interviews and much more.

In organising this unique contest, the NAO Chess Club wishes not only to strengthen the cultural ties between Japan and France, but also to bring together two magnificent games for the benefit of both.

Organisation: NAO Chess Club – Phone: +33-1-40727690. Email: nao-cc@wanadoo.fr


This interview was conducted by GM Joel Lautier, with the kind assistance of Mariko Sato for the translation, on the 15th of May 2002 at the NAO Chess Club in Paris.

Joel Lautier: When and how did you learn to play chess?

Yoshiharu Habu: About ten years ago, I bought a book on chess and learned the game on my own. It was a Shogi player, Mr Murooka [the same person who first introduced me to Shogi! - JL], himself a passionate chessplayer, who aroused my interest in this game. And then six years ago, I started playing games on a regular basis with Mr Jacques Pineau [Jacques Pineau is a Frenchman who has been living in Japan for many years, with a chess playing strength of approximately 2250. He is also the president of the Asaka Chess Club, located in the suburbs of Tokyo - JL]. We play an average of one or two games a month, and I also read chess magazines to keep up to date. I have learned a bit of theory, but together with Mr Pineau, we have always tried to understand how to think in chess rather than just learn.

Lautier: That is still very little practice for such remarkable progress. What areas of chess do you find most difficult to master?

Habu: I find that the most difficult is to adapt oneself all the time to the changing rhythm of a chess game. A position may demand either fast and energetic action, or much quieter positional play, or something else still. Having to switch from fast play to a slower one and vice versa is the most unsettling for me. In Shogi, the rhythm of a game is much more stable. The opening is usually rather slow, whereas endgames are always a speed race [what Shogi players call "endgames" are in fact mating attacks! There is no such thing as endings in Shogi, since taken pieces can come back into the game at any moment, thus the game does not tend towards simplification - JL]. The rhythm of Shogi never slows down, it only accelerates.

Lautier: Do you find chess more, or less complex than Shogi?

Habu: Before I learned how to play chess, I thought the two games had to be very similar. I think now that they are very different. In chess, it's important to have a good position, whereas in Shogi, it's more important to be the first one who delivers checkmate! I couldn't say which of the two is more complex.

Lautier: Do you have ambitions in chess? Do you plan to become a Grandmaster?

Habu: Most of all, I wish to be able to play chess during my free time, and have the chance to play Grandmasters. If you ask me whether I think I can become a Grandmaster, then I honestly don't know. If I keep progressing and I realise that it is within my reach, then I shall try.

Lautier: Who is your favorite chessplayer?

Habu: Bobby Fischer. My first chess books were about him and his games are the ones I studied most.

Lautier: Do you think chess could become popular in Japan?

Habu: Among developed countries, Japan is perhaps the only one where chess is little known.
Nonetheless, the Japanese like very much this kind of games, they have excellent natural abilities for them. However, there is a great lack of information about chess in Japan. If a tournament with the participation of the best players in the world was organized there, it could have a strong impact on the publicity of chess in my country.

Lautier: Do you think chess and Shogi are sports ?

Habu: Chess is certainly a sport. For Shogi, it is a bit different, since it is part of the Japanese traditional culture, along with the tea ceremony and Ikebana, the Japanese floral art. During the Edo era [from 1603 until 1868 - JL], there were only three families who played Shogi, and the Master of the game was called Meijin. However, this title could only be inherited, and it has only been a century since the title of Meijin is contested in a real competition.

Lautier: The world of chess is very prone to conflicts whereas the Shogi world seems much more united and organised. Have you any advice to give FIDE?

Habu: (Laughs) No, no, I cannot give any advice! But it is much simpler for the small Shogi federation to remain united, as it only comprises 130 professional players. Moreover, these are all players from one country, which avoids many of the political problems within FIDE. The great size of FIDE makes consensus more difficult, all the more since it is partly made of people who are not chess professionals but have other activities. The Shogi Renmei (the Shogi federation) is composed exclusively of professional players, active and retired, who also handle the whole organisation of tournaments and the contracts with the sponsors. It's actually the case in many other federations in Japan, namely in martial arts. A person who has never been a professional in a given field cannot be part of the federation that regulates it [a very healthy principle to meditate ! -JL].

Lautier: How popular is Shogi in Japan?

Habu: Shogi has been very popular in Japan for a long time. Until 30 years ago, the Japanese people used to play in a room that led to the garden, traditionally reserved for this activity. Today, Shogi can be played everywhere! The number of people who know the rules of Shogi can be roughly estimated at ten million, the number of those who play regularly must be around a hundred thousand.

Lautier: Let's talk about women! Do they play Shogi?

Habu: Yes, they also play Shogi. There are two separate professional categories for men and women. There are approximately fifty full-time women professional players (there are 130 among men). In professional competitions among men, only one or two women players can take part. This is only the case since seven or eight years ago, before that women could not participate in them. Over that period of time, these women have played about two hundred games against their male colleagues with a success rate of 30%.

Lautier: Are computers a threat for Shogi ?

Habu: In mating problems, called Tsume Shogi, the computer is already superior to the best players. In normal games, however, the computer is still far from the professional level. Its level can be compared to a 4-dan among amateurs [approximately 2300 strength in chess Elo terms. The first dan among professionals starts after the amateur 6-dan. To get a rough idea, the best Shogi players in the world, including Mr Habu, have a ranking of professional 9-dan - JL].

Lautier: Thank you for answering our questions and good luck!

Further information is available at the NAO Chess Club.

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