What do Chess and Sumo Wrestling have in common? Me as a fan! Or rather, I’ve renewed my interest in each.
==De Summo Sumo==
Back in the ’90s there was a brief surge of interest in sumo wrestling in the United States. Chad Rowan, wrestling under the shikona Akebono, became the first (and so far only) American to be promoted to sumo’s highest honor, yokozuna. He carved out a pretty nice sumo career before retiring for WWE, K-1, and other sideshow sports.
Thanks to Akebono, for a short time sumo could be found on some sports channels at weird times. My younger brother got me interested, although we couldn’t watch often and I was always trying to catch up to him in understanding. Our sumo phase lasted only a little less than did America’s in general. I remember being fascinated by the affair but it was not easy to be a sumo fan in those days.
Enter the internet! YouTube makes it extremely easy to be a sumo fan living in Not Japan these days, and there are plenty of easy-to-use online resources to get you through the byzantine maze of language and custom shrouding the sport. Inspired by an article on ESPN about Hakuho, one of the greatest rikishi of all time, I threw myself back into the sport with glee.
Sumo tournaments, or basho, are held every odd month of the calendar year. Men the size and athleticism of NFL linemen wrestle once a day for fifteen days. Best record wins the basho, and rikishi are promoted or demoted based on results after each basho. There are several tiers of leagues and sumo uses a relegation system even more fickle than what you find in European football. So there’s a lot of movement up and down the rankings.
The rules of sumo are extremely simple:
- If you touch the ground with anything other than the soles of your feet, you lose.
- If you step outside the dohyo (the ring) you lose.
- Make the other guy lose.
There are some finer points, but the above is more than enough to get into the sport. Little things are either obvious (no eye-gouging) or easy to pick up along the way (no pulling your opponent’s bun). Watching sumo with others is a ton of fun, and watching with a knowledgeable guide to help you understand it all is even more so. There are 82 officially-recognized winning techniques (kimarite)!
The Hatsu Basho just wrapped up a few weeks ago and featured some major surprises. Mongolians have dominated sumo for a solid two decades now–all three current yokozuna are Mongolian–but in this basho the Japanese rikishi made quite a statement. Hard-charging up-and-comers promise for some great sumo down the road.
More importantly for the Japanese, after the basho the sumo elders promoted Kisenosato, a Japanese wrestler, to the rank of yokozuna. Personally, and despite liking Kisenosato a lot, I think this was ill-advised. He’s been a bit of a head-case who has been thiiiis close to yokozuna for a while now, but he always loses in the critical match. In this basho he had tremendous good luck.
All three Mongolian yokozuna were hurt, and two of them (Kakuryuu and Harumafuji) withdrew from the basho with injury. The third and greatest, Hakuho, hasn’t been able to grip with his right hand for the last few basho.
With those three out of the way, Kisenosato had a much easier path. On the critical day thirteen, with Hakuho still just one win behind him, Kisenosato’s normally-dangerous opponent withdrew with injury and gave him a free win. Shady…if Goeido had announced his withdrawal the previous day, the matchmakers would have just given Kisenosato another opponent. By waiting long enough, he guaranteed Kisenosato a free win just at the moment he usually cracks.
Having said all that, I do like Kisenosato and the way he wrestles. Perhaps getting the promotion will settle his nerves and we’ll see him put up some respectable yushos (tournament wins) the next few years. I hope so, but I think it’s also very possible that the elders just promoted a guy who’s never going to win again. Better to wait for a proper champion who fulfills both the letter and the spirit of the promotion rules (Kisenosato didn’t even qualify based on the 2-consecutive-basho standard).
==Plus ca Chess==
My return to chess has been a source of great amusement and happiness. Like many of the great things in my life, I can thank my children. Both Gregory (11) and Catherine (nearly 7) have developed an interest in learning the game. They roped me back in!
I learned the moves of chess from my parents when I was a child, but my interest and skill never developed much from there. I have a few memories of watching friends play in high school and early college, and a fuzzy (even then) pride in the great Bobby Fischer, but I was by no means a chess student.
That began to change in 1999 when I somewhat mysteriously started playing, buying books, and studying chess and chess history in some detail. I was never going to amount to anything even as advanced as an Expert, but I caught the bug. My first really clear memory is participating in Kasparov vs. The World, a promotional correspondence match that took place in the summer of 1999.
On the chess timeline, that means I juuust missed out on the Kasparov-Anand years and the Shirov disaster. I was there for Kramnik’s shocking overthrow of the greatest chess player of all time (Kasparov) using an ancient, renovated defense (the Berlin) which surely no one would ever play again. I was heavy into chessgames and chessbase (but only slightly into chess.com), Mig, Kasparov Chess University, and resurrecting the world champion cycle. I was Fritzing and everything, even though it seemed Deep Junior would rule the chess computing world!
Once I started working at St. Anselm’s, sadly, my run came to an end. I simply didn’t have the time or the playing partners to keep up with the sport. And so chess faded into a ten-year fling I had once.
Now that I have returned and started to shake off the rust, I find the chess world in a state of almost pure comedy. I am a time capsule man, a Brendan Frasier if you will (terrific movie), who emerges to find that “this cannot possibly be the same universe I left behind.”
- Magnus Carlsen, the great chess prodigy, has become world champion…and plays boring, grind-it-out, positional chess???
- Anand, fastest human chess player in history, still plays for the world championship…but plays slow, boring, draw-it-all chess???
- Kramnik, my favorite 15 years ago who fell victim to both ill health and a bad case of the draw-it-alls, has a career resurgence and is dangerous and respected???
- All the young guns who didn’t look like they would amount to much are the best in the world…and they all imitate Kramnik???
- Everyone plays the Berlin defense???
Just as I thought I had surely crossed the streams into another dimension, I finally found a rock of stability: people are still unhappy with and arguing about how the world championship is decided. That feels right. But wait…Kramnik’s vision won out and Kasparov is not the center of gravity of the chess world? Most of the guys I liked fifteen years ago are still top-20 and still deciding tournaments? Anish Giri still plays 20 moves of theory and then draws every game?
Well, well, well.
As I enjoy getting back into the puzzles and the training, I’ve found one the internet’s jewels: Ben Finegold, a fantastically entertaining American GM mensch who makes terrific instructional videos and commentaries for the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of St. Louis. If you want some lowbrow, sarcastic, smack-talking chess lessons, check him out on YouTube. He really does know what he is talking about and he’s funny. Say what you will, he’s got the teacher gene in him. If he drives you crazy, try Mato Jelic instead.
And that’s enough on my hobbies for now.