"For Japanese people, it's hard to get into chess"

by Georgios Souleidis
11/24/2019 – Japan has hardly appeared on the chess map so far. But since Yumiko Hiebert took over the office of President of the Japanese Chess Federation, but seems to sprout a small plant. GEORGIOS SOULEIDIS spoke during the FIDE Grand Prix in Hamburg with Hiebert (photo), who belonged to the tournament's Appeals Committee.

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Georgios Souleidis: Mrs Hiebert, you work as a member of the appeals committee at the FIDE Grand Prix in Hamburg. How did it come that you were selected?

Yumiko Hiebert: It was actually a surprise for me because I didn't really expect it. It was a real honour to be invited.

Georgios Souleidis: Did you have to interfere as a member of the appeals committee?

Yumiko Hiebert: No, everything has been good.

Georgios Souleidis: So basically you have enjoyed Hamburg all this time?

Yumiko Hiebert: Yes, and I feel really bad because I feel more like an arbiter, so I feel like I should be doing something more. But at least I am there every day and watch to make sure that all is going smoothly. I also talked to some players when I saw them at the hotel asking if everything was going ok, and they said all was good.

Georgios Souleidis: But there have been players like Ian Nepomniachtchi or Mr Dubov who were complaining about the organisation or not?

Yumiko Hiebert: I read a little about it but I don't know exactly what happened. 

Nepomniachtchi was knocked out in the first round | Photo: Valeria Gordienko

Georgios Souleidis: So you didn't talk to Mr Nepomniachtchi?

Yumiko Hiebert: No. But for the three players that I talked to, everything seemed fine. I asked Mr Vachier-Lagrave, Mr. Duda and also Mr Navara.

Georgios Souleidis: It's hard to imagine that Mr Navara would complain about anything.

Yumiko Hiebert: Yes, I know, he is such a polite person.

Georgios Souleidis: You are also an arbiter. Since when?

Yumiko Hiebert: I took a seminar in India three years ago, and since then I've worked in many different places like Germany, Serbia, Italy, Hungary and some others. Because we don't have many Fide rated tournaments in Japan, it's very difficult to get norms for an arbiter.

Georgios Souleidis: How did you come into contact with chess?

Yumiko Hiebert: My son started playing chess when he was 12 in Japan. We were living in Canada,  but when we moved to Japan, we wanted something that he could do in English and chess was something he was interested in doing. Once he started playing, he got right into it. He played at a local chess club, and then started playing more at tournaments. I went with him to tournaments and I started helping out at those tournaments and that's how I got involved. 

Georgios Souleidis: And this even developed to the point that you were elected as president of the National Chess Society.

Yumiko Hiebert: Yes. I am the president of National Chess Society of Japan

Georgios Souleidis: When did this start?

Yumiko Hiebert: February of this year.

Georgios Souleidis: The NCS is a small association compared to others. How is the connection to FIDE, and can you say if FIDE is supporting such a small association?

Yumiko Hiebert: I think with the new administration I am pretty hopeful they are going to support small organizations like ours. I am going to apply for funding, and I am getting all the stuff ready now. Once I submit the application, I am hoping we can get some financial support for the next year.

Georgios Souleidis: What plans do you have for your association, and what are your ambitions?

Yumiko Hiebert: Before NCS, we didn't even have a website in English but now we do, and we get a lot of inquiries from all over the world which is nice, and we are trying to have more Fide-rated tournaments, so we can make the organisation bigger, but it's easier said than done. One is the language. For Japanese people, it's hard to get into chess. It's easier at the beginning but it gets harder at a certain level if you don't know a lot of English. And also if you want to play more, you have to go outside of Japan, so together with the language issue, it's difficult. 

Georgios Souleidis: In the Fide rating list, there are only around 70 members. How many people play chess in Japan apart from them?

Yumiko Hiebert: Well, right now, we have close to 400 members in the NCS list, but some others just play online. Some just play on their own, so they don't become members, but they like to play a little. So we don't know the exact number of people who play chess in Japan, but we are encouraging more young ones to play.

Georgios Souleidis: You mentioned that you want to organize a big open international tournament in the next years?

Yumiko Hiebert:  Yes, We now have three or four FIDE-rated tournaments per year. We would like to organize a big open tournament.

Georgios Souleidis: But I assume that the prize fund is that low that nobody from abroad is coming?

Yumiko Hiebert: That is exactly our problem.

Georgios Souleidis: You hope to change the situation with the funding of FIDE?

Yumiko Hiebert: Yes, definitely.

Georgios Souleidis: In Europe, we have this chess in a school project, which is very common, e.g. here in Hamburg there are a lot of schools where chess is taught. Does in Japan something similar exist or do you have any plans to create such initiatives?

Yumiko Hiebert: It is very, very difficult in Japan to get into schools. Many people ask me, "Why are you not going to schools?" It is very difficult. I cannot explain the situation well, but let‘s say you want to have a chess club. There are some schools with chess clubs, but it has to be organized with a teacher who is in charge of the club and it's not very casual. So it's not easy. And there is shogi too. Almost all schools have a shogi club.

Georgios Souleidis: Of course, shogi has a big tradition, and millions of people play it. How do you want to compete against the big brother?

Yumiko Hiebert: There is a very good shogi player, Yoshiharu Habu, he is also a very good chess player. We are hoping that maybe he can bring shogi and chess together or help us spread the word a bit more. 

Georgios Souleidis: Did you have some contact with him?

Yumiko Hiebert: Yes.

Georgios Souleidis: He is a nice guy. He was in Europe playing lots of tournaments during a period 10-15 years ago. I even played him in a tournament 2005 in the Netherlands. But he seems to have stopped playing for some years. Do you know more?

Yumiko Hiebert: It is not that he stopped. I think he has just been busy. I think he would still play if he got the chance. 

Georgios Souleidis: I assume he is a star in Japan like Magnus Carlsen for the rest of the chess world?

Yumiko Hiebert: In shogi? Yes, I think so. And he certainly is one of the top chess players and is well-known. There are some young, strong shogi players coming out but he still is the big name in the shogi world.

Georgios Souleidis: Japan has not many titled players. Only three International Masters and some Fide Masters, but there is one name I found in the rating list, which is interesting. It's Hikaru Oka, a boy about 14-15 years old. What can you tell us about him?

Yumiko Hiebert: Since he has not played in any of the NCS tournaments, I can not say very much.

Mrs. Hiebert did not want to comment on inquiries about Oka. The results of Oka at two tournaments in Serbia between October and November 2018 aroused suspicion because his Elo exploded from 2086 to 2421. The FIDE evaluated and published these tournaments only a year later. Oka has not played a single official game since October 2018 and one has to wait and see if and when he will again participate in a chess tournament.


Georgios Souleidis: I assume there are no professional players in Japan?

Yumiko Hiebert: Mr Kojima. He is a professional chess player. That's what he does. He coaches privately and also in schools. He also plays, and he is one of the most active top players. There is also Mr Nanjo. He is not as active, but he just played the last Fide-rated tournament in November and won.

Georgios Souleidis: Do you play chess yourself?

Yumiko Hiebert: My son plays. I watch;) I don't really play. I am terrible! But I know the rules and of course I can watch and understand what's going on.


Georgios Souleidis is an International Master with a degree in media and communication studies. He is an experienced journalist, author, photographer, chess trainer, editor-in-chief for the German Bundesliga, YouTuber, a regular contributor to the chessbase website, German chess magazine SCHACH, and previously blogged on his own site entwicklungsvorsprung.de.


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