Friday, 12 July 2013

Shōgi master Yoshiharu Habu @ Kyoto University

"If you are guaranteed to succeed by challenging yourself to achieve something, no doubt anyone would do it. But persisting with the same passion, energy and motivation somewhere where there is no guarantee of success - is extremely difficult, and this is what I believe talent to be."
- Yoshiharu Habu

by Junta

On Sunday the 7th of July, I had the honour of meeting shōgi (Japanese chess) master Yoshiharu Habu as he made a visit to Kyoto University. Although inactive since 2007 due to being busy with his main profession, Mr. Habu holds the highest FIDE rating in Japan (2404), having achieved an initial rating of 2342 in 2001 and having played less than 100 FIDE-rated games!

Mr. Habu (born in 1970) is arguably the best shōgi player ever, and certainly the most famous since the second half of the 90's. In the world of shōgi in Japan, where there are around 150 players on the professional circuit, there are 7 traditional 'titles' players compete for each year (with a match between the champion vs. challenger who won through the gruelling qualifying stages) in classical time controls, as opposed to chess just having the World Championships.

After turning pro at the age of 14, Mr. Habu won his first title at the age of 19, and 'Habu' became a household name in 1996 when he won the 'Ōsho' title, thus becoming the first player to hold all 7 titles at once, covering the front of newspapers nationwide the following day! In 2012, he broke a long-standing record, achieving the number of 81 for total titles won (currently 83). Today he holds 3 of the 7 titles, and aged 42, will no doubt stay one of the top shōgi players for years to come.

Mr. Habu playing an simultaneous chess / shōgi exhibition match against French GM Maxime Vachier-Lagrave

On Sunday evening, we played two rapid (25 minutes + 10 seconds/move) games in a classroom. In the first game, a Sicilian Kan with 5.Nc3 b5 was reached - I had played two games with this line as Black in the Japanese Championships in May, and Mr. Habu had prepared a natural-looking Nc3-d5-sacrifice against it. It is unpleasant to have to deal with such a novelty in a rapid game, but I was able to find enough logical moves, and although it was possible for White to play on with an initiative, the game concluded peacefully in the early middlegame.

In analysis, Mr. Habu proposed an interesting alternative for Black (which I hadn't seen) after accepting the knight sacrifice: retreating the c6-knight to d8, and then giving back the piece with Nd8-e6, reaching a balanced position!
In the second game, I played a line against Black's Semi-Slav structure involving Rg1 and g2-g4, which I am quite fond of. This time, my opponent was unfamiliar with the variation, and after a perhaps premature 8...dxc4 and slow 10...Re8, was faced with a strong attack on the kingside.

We had a lot of fun analysing after each game
Mr. Habu was also kind enough to visit the Kyoto University Shōgi Club after the chess, and I couldn't help smiling, seeing the excitement and awe on the club members' faces as their idol all the way back from childhood had really come - it is like Anand visiting students at a chess club in India!
Since my early teens, I have read one of Mr. Habu's bestsellers, 「決断力」(Ketsudanryoku = 'The Power of Deciding', or 'Decisiveness') many times, and I recently bought another of his books where he gives many deep and insightful thoughts about shōgi which can also apply to chess. It was a real delight to meet him in person and be able to hear his views on different things. I hope I will have another opportunity to meet him again in the future.

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