Junta Ikeda, Chess Champion

Most people, after some years of initially learning about and playing chess, are disinclined to revisit the board game of their childhood. While it is fun, the logical nature of the game makes competing with even slightly more skilled players an arduous experience.

However, for ANU Bachelor of Arts student Junta Ikeda, who recently represented Australia at the biannual Chess Olympiad in Norway, it has always been an integral part of his life. On a windy Canberra afternoon, I sat down with him to ask some questions about chess and his participation in the international event.

The 22 year old Canberra resident was first taught the mechanics of chess by his father just as he started primary school. Anxious to learn the game as his sister had been similarly taught a few years prior, he impressed both his father and the school’s chess club with his intuitive understanding and quick absorption of chess strategy. This encouragement, and his ability to best players much older than himself, blossomed Junta’s casual interest into an unwavering passion.

After a strong showing in the national under 12s division (his first attempt at competitive play), he started to receive private coaching lessons several times a week to further develop his skills. Now approaching the end of his tenth year of professional chess, he was finally able to achieve the impressive ranking of International Master by FIDE, the governing body of international chess competition, just before his arrival in Europe. While Junta has been Canberra’s best chess player for some time, his impressive play at two international events in Canberra and Sydney ultimately convinced the Olympiad selection panel. It was his first time playing in the Olympiad, as one of the five players on the men’s team – amongst them, 13 year old prodigy Anton Smirnov and 29 year old David Smerdon, who is one of the few Australian Grandmasters, the most prestigious chess title apart from World Champion (which is reserved for the best ranked chess player in the world).

The Australian team exceeded expectations with positive results, first in the preliminary warm up tournament in Denmark, the Politiken Cup, which ran from the 21st of July to the 29th, and then a few days later in the actual Olympiad, which ran from the 1st to the 14th of August. Anton in particular played tremendously, beating many of the players across his board, enabling him to gain a rating very close to Junta’s.

Speaking about the level of competition domestically, Junta admitted that the country’s geographic isolation has been detrimental for regional chess, with only a handful of Australian International Masters and even fewer Grandmasters. Both Junta and his youngest teammate Anton have resorted to Skyping with European coaches in order to maximise their training efficiency, as local coaching development has been superseded for many years by other countries. In fact, since there is currently no infrastructure that facilitates governmental assistance with the flight tickets and associated travel expenses, the team required donations from the Australian chess community to be able to represent them in Norway.

While committed to the sport, and eyeing the Grandmaster title as his next big chess achievement, it is not something that he is interested in as a profession, instead veering towards a possible career in linguistics once he has finished his university degree. He has said that while finding time to play internationally will become more difficult as he gets older, he will still continue to develop as a player more casually.

He is excited about the possibility of returning to the team again in 2016, since travelling and meeting others who have the same passion for chess made the Norway Olympiad an enriching experience for him.