Yale Bulletin and Calendar

January 30, 2004|Volume 32, Number 16















A three-time winner of Japan's national chess championship, Akira Watanabe enjoys the old-fashioned "long" version of the game.

Japanese chess champion balances strategizing and study

Akira Watanabe would like someday to become an international master at chess, but for now, the three-time Japanese national chess champion is focusing more on academics, studying this year at Yale on a Fox International Fellowship.

Nevertheless, he is always game for a good chess match, and has occasionally found some tough competitors on campus.

"Sometimes I lose, and it humbles me," says Watanabe, who has played against members of the University's undergraduate Chess Club as well as other Yale aficionados of the game. "When my competitors play well, they play very well."

Watanabe won Japan's chess championships in 1999, 2000 and 2001, securing the first title when he was 27 years old. He currently is a "FIDE Master," a title issued by the World Chess Federation (FIDE), which designates him as a highly competitive player. Watanabe hopes to advance someday to the next level -- "International Master" -- or even to the highest title of "International Grandmaster."

After winning his third national championship, Watanabe chose not to defend his title so that he could pursue another passion: the study of Mexican politics.

Watanabe became interested in the topic while he was in college, when he also began studying Spanish. He obtained a scholarship from the Mexican government to study for a year at El Colégio de Mexico in Mexico City. Now a doctoral candidate at the University of Tokyo, he is pursuing study in this field as a Fox Fellow at the Yale Center for International and Area Studies.

For Watanabe, who began playing chess seriously when he was about 16 years old, his interest in Mexico has indirectly helped him improve his game of chess. It was while he was studying in Mexico City for the first time in 1994 that Watanabe met some Cuban chess coaches, who helped him improve his game.

"When I competed in a World Junior Championship in 1990 when I was 18, I played very badly; I came in around 55th place out of 58 players," says Watanabe. "At that time, the overall level of Japanese players was very low. Four years later, I met my first really good chess teachers in Mexico. ...

"Cuba has had a strong tradition of chess since the beginning of the 20th century and it later became one of the best chess-playing countries in Latin America, partly due to its ties to the former Soviet Union," he adds. "Likewise, Mexico and Cuba have had a strong relationship in sports, and a lot of Cuban chess coaches were invited into the country to promote the sport. I learned a lot from these teachers and became a much better player."

The Yale Fox Fellow particularly enjoys highly competitive tournaments, despite the stress involved.

"The game of chess is supposed to be a challenge," Watanabe says. "That's what I like about it: the planning of strategy and calculation. Sometimes I play well and that makes me happy. But more often I find that even in games that I play well, I can look back and find that there are better moves than the ones I made. Those discoveries motivate me. The game always gives me food for thought."

Watanabe has also improved his game by reading extensively about chess and by studying the techniques of the world's best players, particularly by watching the games of old masters. His favorite chess player is the late Mikhail Tal, from Latvia, whose games he has studied intently.

"It's just impossible to imitate him and other masters' play though," Watanabe modestly admits. "They are so beyond my level."

Regardless of how many tried-and-true strategies he learns, Watanabe says there are always surprises in every match.

"People who play chess are coming up with new moves -- called 'novelties' -- all the time," explains the chess champion.

Watanabe is not a fan of the shorter chess games that are increasingly becoming the vogue. Until a few years ago, a competitive game was generally played in two-hours (for 40 moves). The World Chess Federation has since instituted a 90-minute per game time control in tournaments, thus drastically shortening matches. At the same time, "rapid chess" tournaments (30 minutes a game) are becoming more popular.

"I don't like fast games, and I don't think chess was ever meant to be a fast game," comments Watanabe. "Some people think that the best chess players are so intuitive that they can play very quickly. That may be true, but there are some moves that can be found only after a lot of reflection. I much prefer games that require that kind of profound thought."

Likewise, he is not a huge fan of matches between a human player and a computer, such as the showdown in November between grandmaster Garry Kasparov and the virtual reality supercomputer known as "X3D Fritz." This fall, Watanabe offered his play-by-play commentary on one of those matches at a public event hosted by the Yale School of Management Chess Club.

"My own opinion is that I would rather watch a game between the two best players in the world than watch a game with one of the best players with a computer," he says. "It's bound to be an uneven match, because the results depend mainly on two elements: either the human player makes a mistake and the computer 'punishes' it, or the human player can find the weaknesses of the computer program. These games are a contest between two players who don't have the same type of strengths. The games that are the most fun are those in which two equally matched players compete."

Watanabe competed over the holiday recess in an international tournament in Yucatan, Mexico, where he devoted time to both scholarly pursuits and chess. He came in a respectable 14th place (out of about 54 contenders) in the "open" competition -- which featured both masters and accomplished amateurs.

The Yale Fox Fellow says that, in addition to rising to the International Master level, his aspirations include teaching in Japan, with a focus on Mexican and Latin American politics and culture.

For the time being, he also intends to adhere to his self-imposed ban on participating in games of chess with other players on the internet.

"I do not play chess online," asserts Watanabe. "I'm not that wise to go on and play for 30 minutes and then quit. No, I think that if I started doing that, I'd get addicted. Then I would never have time for my studies."

-- By Susan Gonzalez


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