Japan stands increasingly at the forefrontgammon.

I used to love backgammon as a kid. I never actually learned how to play the game, but I used to make fake Oreo cookies out of the round black and white pieces, and the board that folded up into a briefcase-looking thing was perfect for playing spy.

While that all proved invaluable to my current profession of making Oreo and Spam sandwiches, it seems others were actually picking up the rules and getting good at it, especially in Japan. This is evidenced by Japan being crowned world champions in the WBIF Online Team Championship 2020 which ran from September 2020 to January of this year.

In this tournament teams of five from 33 countries squared off in a grueling gauntlet of 55 matches arranged in 11 best-of-five rounds. By the end of all matches on 24 January, for the first time since 2008, the winner was the Japanese national team, consisting of Masanori Ichikawa, Hideaki Ueda, Kentaro Meijo, Kiyokazu Nishikawa, and Naoki Iketani.

Iketani also goes by the handle “Ipetani” and commentates the YouTube matches via an animated cat avatar.

What makes this team’s victory extra special is that none of Japan’s top players were even on it. There is said to be only 200,000 competitive backgammon players in Japan compared to a global total of 300 million — which amounts to about 0.06 percent — and yet three Japanese players can be found in the worldwide top ten: first place Masayuki “Mochy” Mochizuki, Second place Michihito “Michy” Kageyama, and Sixth Place Akiko Yazawa.

▼ Yazawa was a backgammon trailblazer as a Japanese player, female player, and even underwater player.

A little over a week after his national team victory, Ueda faced-off against Mochizuki in the Ultimate Backgammon Championship 2020 singles final. Although he lost to the number one-player, Ueda put up a strong showing and confirmed his position as a rising star of the international backgammon scene.

These elite backgammon players are welcoming others to the fold as well, saying that thanks to the convenience of online play, anyone has the potential to become the best in the world. With many Japanese workers migrating to telework where more opportunities to pick up online backgammon exist, we may be on the cusp of total Japanese domination of the game on a competitive level.

And I for one welcome this, because I still have no idea how to play. But thanks to these Japanese giants and the reputation they are building, anytime someone tries to talk to me about the game I can just say, “Dude, I’m from Japan, don’t even try bringing up backgammon around me,” then walk away with a conceited air and the other person none the wiser.

Source: Asahi Shimbun, Nikkan Sports, Japan Backgammon League
Top image: Wikipedia/Bdevel
Insert image: Japan Backgammon League
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