BHUBANESWAR: Most of the Japanese players have an app called Shogi (pronounced show-gee) on their phones. Basically Japanese chess, it was one of the first things coach Siegfried Aikman encouraged his players to do.
Aikman, who engineered Japan’s gold at the 2018 Asiad, explains why he did it. “It has everything to do with abstract thinking,” he told this daily. “It’s about strategy, I read a lot about it. I read about how generals prepared for war and I also read about Japanese wars and how they did it. Nowadays, we have games on phones and players always have mobiles with them.”
Once the Dutchman came to this conclusion, the next logical step was to ask them whether they knew how to play chess. Even though the answer was negative, he didn’t lose heart. “When I asked them to play chess, they looked at me like water was burning (smiles). So I asked them whether there was something similar in Japan. They did tell me about this game (Shogi). Even though I didn’t know about it, I asked them to play it and that’s how it really began.”
Even though Shogi can be played on a board as well, the 60-year-old says physically playing the game doesn’t bring in that abstract aspect. “I want them to play on their mobile because then you have to do it in the mind and not on the chess board... that becomes physical and you lose abstract ability.”
That novel approach seems to be working for Japan anyway. On Friday, they posted a 3-1 win over Mexico in a Pool ‘B’ game. Though the World No 18 have already qualified for the Olympics, Aikman has designs on winning the Series Finals because of the extra ranking points on offer. And he is of the belief that they won’t win it if they don’t rapidly improve on their performance on Friday. “If they make mistakes while trying, I don’t care. I get angry when they don’t try and that’s what happened today.”
It’s apparent that he cares quite a lot for this team — his baby — but at times it almost feels like one will have to remind him of the steps they have taken to reach this far. Even when he is happy to concede that they have improved under his watch, he harks back to what they did against Mexico and how that inconsistency is a cause for concern. “They have improved a lot but they didn’t show it today (Friday). When you are at school, you learn before going to an exam. If you fail the exam, all that learning is for nothing. The players failed their exam, I failed.”
It’s extraordinary to think that way especially considering that the team is surviving against all odds. Their reward for winning the Asian Games? A “substantial budget cut,” said Aikman. “You have a good sense of humour (on if there has been increased funding and publicity following the Jakarta win). We got a substantial budget cut after the Asian Games because we aren’t ranked among the medal winners (for the Olympics).” That’s not all. Till this year, the players had to shell a substantial amount to even make it to training. While that has stopped, Aikman — whose Indian links are well chronicled — says 11 of the core group of 33 will always be left back whenever they do training because of a lack of finances.
“We have 33 players in our group but I can field only 22 at any one time because we have no money. So it’s a constant juggling act. One time, I will leave one 11 at home and the next time, another batch of 11 are left behind... we envy India.”The irony in that statement is that Indian hockey, in all probability, right now, envy their Japanese counterparts.
India dig deep to overcome Poland
India found the going tough and had to rely on individual brilliance from a couple of players to beat Poland 3-1 in their second match of the Series Finals on Friday. After taking the lead through the influential Manpreet Singh, they allowed the visitors to equalise before Manpreet combined with Akashdeep Singh and Simranjeet Singh to put the icing on a flowing coast-to-coast move. Harmanpreet Singh added a third from the penalty corner in the third quarter. In another match, Russia thrashed Uzbekistan 12-1.
Friday’s results: Japan 3-1 Mexico, Russia 12-1 Uzbekistan, India 3-1 Poland. Saturday’s schedule: Pool B: USA vs Mexico (5.00 pm), Japan vs South Africa (7.00 pm).