Tuesday, 8 July 2014

Interview with Ryosuke Nanjo, the 2014 Japanese Champion

by Junta

There are three Japanese players on the country's active list rated above 2300.
I've written posts on the #1 ranked, Shōgi master Yoshiharu Habu here and here, and the #2 ranked full-time chess professional, Shinya Kojima here. I interviewed the #3 ranked player, Nanjō, after he showed a dominant performance in the Japanese Championships in May. From his words and games, one can sense his creativity and striving to always give his all at the board, strong character, objectivity, and a yet unfulfilled potential.

Name: Ryōsuke Nanjō (Japanese: 南條遼介)
DOB: September 27th, 1988
Title: FM
Current FIDE: 2344
Graduated from Azabu High School, 2007
Studied at the University of Tōkyō
Currently in final year of studies at Keiō University

At the closing of this year's Japanese Championships, Photo: Yumi Hiebert
First of all, congratulations on winning the 2014 Japanese Championships! 10.5/11 is a phenomenal score, and is in fact the new record. Did you feel that you were playing well?

Thanks! I was playing okay, but I didn’t feel I was playing especially strong. I’m kicking myself for not getting that last half-point rather than parading on victory.

The top seed in FIDE ratings, Shinya Kojima was half a point behind you for most of the tournament. Did this have an effect to spur you on?

No, as I’m a player who tries to win every single game regardless of the tournament situation. The last time I noticed Kojima’s existence during the tournament was when he faced me on the board; I was too busy thinking what to do against other opponents after that. (And I think it’s the right reaction; does Usain Bolt look back during the 100-metre dash just because 7 other guys are trailing him by a tenth of a second?)

You have now won the Japanese Championships three times. How important is the national title for you?

For me it’s just another national tournament. Just because I won this tournament doesn’t mean I can lose every single tournament I enter this year and still say “I’m the strongest player in Japan” with a smile on my face.

It’s true that it is one of the only two FIDE-rated tournaments held in Japan, but it’s also true that this tournament has no GMs or IMs.

Please share your best or favourite game/s from the event with us.

My best game was the one in round 6 against CM Tomohiko Matsuo, a former national champion.


You are a member of the Japanese team who will play at the Tromsø Olympiad in August. Has the board order already been decided?

Yes it has. I’ll just say that I’ll be playing on Board 1.

You already have some experience of playing at the Olympiad – how will you train before the event? Will you play any other tournaments in Europe?

I’ll be working mainly on books, it’s what I usually do. I’ll probably have some training sessions with our team coach GM Mihajlo Stojanovic online, maybe some training games with Japan’s top players too, but I won’t be doing anything exhausting.

About my tournament schedule, as I have exams in late July, I won’t be going anywhere before the Olympiad. But I’m thinking about going to the Riga Technical University Open right after Tromsø.

What do you look forward to the most about this Olympiad? Do you have any goals?

Playing strong opponents, it’s what makes my heart rush. Being the first board of this team, I can expect to play 7 GMs at least, which gets me really excited. I haven’t set any goals, but since my score against GM opposition was 40% at the Cappelle la Grande this year, I suppose breaking that record would be a sign of progress.

What advice could you give to someone playing their first Olympiad? Playing on a team for your country must be very different from playing in an ordinary tournament as an individual.

One thing that makes team competitions different from other tournaments is that you need to keep in mind what your role is and what the team is asking you to do. You may be able to get norms by thinking about only yourself, but you won’t be able to get category medals without teamwork.

Most of the chess ‘elite’ will also fly north to play for their own countries. Do you have any favourites or players you see as role models in the current elite?

I try to learn most from the games of Magnus Carlsen, of course. It’s the Carlsen Era, and while it may not be the ultimate answer to chess, it’s something special and the wisdom in his chess may be difficult to learn if not now.

Who are your favourite players through chess history, and why?

I have many favorites, but I guess if I had to pick one it would be Alexander Alekhine. I like the way he blends logic and passion to create beauty on the board in many different shapes. If I were to choose another one, David Bronstein would be my pick.

You were born in the USA, and I believe you hold dual citizenship. When did you move to Japan? Did you ever consider moving back to the States again?

I moved to Japan in August 1999, when I was a ten year-old, and I’ve lived in this country ever since, although I’ve travelled to more than a dozen countries to play chess.

I actually wanted to enter a university in the US, but couldn’t get the financial support. Maybe I can move back by getting a job there, it’s another option I’ve been pondering on.

You attended the Azabu High School in Tokyo, well known in the Japanese chess scene for having a school club which has produced many of the current top players in the country. Please tell us about the club and the time you spent there.

I entered Azabu junior-high in 2001, because it was the only school with a chess club in Japan back then. I was both lucky and unlucky; lucky because I met players who were much stronger than I was (such as Masahiro Baba and Tomu Sano), unlucky because all of them were 3 or 4 years older than me and quickly stopped playing to prepare for university entrance exams. I had a golden first year with them, during which I rapidly grew to qualify as a member of team Japan at the 2002 Bled Olympiad, and then I had to do everything on my own. For the next five years I dedicated myself to giving back what I learned to other club members, while trying to find a way to improve all by myself.

Chess does not have a large following in Japan, there being two other board games which are much more popular (Shōgi and Gō). In fact, in 2013 there were only two FIDE-rated tournaments in the country. Do you think there is a good market for chess in Japan? How do you think chess could be popularised?

There is certainly something to be said about Japan’s potential; there are not many countries which can parallel Japan’s high level of population, economy and social stability. The main problem is we have a national organization with ridiculously low skills, which means that we have to do everything as individuals and that there’s no room for new players even if we succeed in our rogue campaigns. About possible solutions please ask someone else, as I’m a player and not a politician.

Have you played Shōgi and Gō yourself? How similar or different is Shōgi in comparison to chess?

I was never a Shōgi player nor a Gō player, because I lived my first ten years in the US and discovered chess there. I know the rules for both of them, but nothing more.

Shōgi is a sibling of chess, but I believe they are completely different games. The ability to use captive pieces makes Shōgi much more mindboggling than chess in tactics, while the existence of draws makes chess strategically more difficult to win.

Which tournament performances would you rank as your best?

I suppose my 8.0/8 at the Japan Open last year, which includes a win over Yoshiharu Habu, a true legend.

Please share with us one or more of the best games you’ve played.






What aspects of chess attract you to the game?

One thing that I really love about chess is I keep find something new and interesting about it. And it comes with different shapes and sizes, from astonishing ideas played in top level games to unpleasant opening novelties unleashed on me. That makes it better.

From the Japan Open in November 2013, Photo: Yasunori Honma
What would you say are the most important qualities for a chess player to have?

I would say courage. You can’t play difficult moves without courage to believe in yourself, you can’t improve unless you have courage to be honest and objective; you basically can’t do anything without it.

How would you describe your chess ‘style’?

I am an idealist, and I constantly try to make the most out of my position. With such meager opening preparation I suppose it isn’t a wise tournament decision not to back down, but I keep forgetting to do so and try to learn from my scars and burns instead.

Please tell us about your studies and what your plans after graduation are.

I’m in my final year studying financial econometrics, and I’ll be working at a securities company from next April.

How do you work on your chess nowadays?

Analyze my games with engines, look at games from the latest tournament, read books.

You are currently ranked 3rd in Japan, and you will surely be one of the top players for many years to come. Do you have particular goals in chess?

I’d like to play good games in general, so that if there were a collection of my best games it would need to be revised constantly.

Last but not least, I heard you have a Russian girlfriend you met through chess…?

It’s true, but it’s also supposed to be a secret…

Thank you very much for answering the questions. I look forward to seeing how you perform at the Olympiad!

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