PRO INTERVIEW: Nakayama on Starting Late
By Solomon Smilack
[8 August 2005]
Nakayama Noriyuki 6P wears a fishing hat and a smile wherever he goes. He is, in a word, jovial. Now in his 70s, Nakayama’s interest in go continues unabated, as if he is still making up for a late start. These days, travel is Nakayama’s only diversion, and he’s been a frequent and much-loved visitor to the U.S. Go Congress, where I caught up with him for an E-Journal interview.
Nakayama sensei began playing go when he was 15 years old, just after the end of the Second World War. He had watched the game often, and knew the rules, but had never held the stones himself. “Go was not a children’s game. Of all the Japanese pros, I probably have the latest start.” It was a serious time, Nakayama says, with the wide-scale destruction brought on by the war: “It was very hard at that time. There weren’t even buildings for a while.”
In his home town of Nagano, his mother’s father was known as the weakest player in the area. In spite of this, or perhaps because of this, his grandfather’s home had become the gathering place for the strong local players. One summer day, it was raining so hard that no one came to play. Nakayama pouts, imitating his grandfather. Glum, moping, and bemoaning the bad weather, his grandfather sat at the lonely board, then, lifting his eyes from the board to the young Nakayama, smiled, and eagerly motioned him to sit down. “You know how to play, don’t you? Let’s play.”
That day, his grandfather gave him nine stones and beat him ten games in a row. They played well into the evening, and Nakayama finally won the 11th game. “Come back tomorrow,” said his grandfather, “and I’ll give you 8 stones.” The next day they played with 8 stones, the following day with 7, and by the end of summer vacation Nakayama was holding white. His rank increased slowly but steadily, rising by a dan rank once a month, until he was the strongest player in Nagano.
Coming from a poor family, Nakayama had no means of traveling to Tokyo to pursue his go future. When he asked for his father’s bicycle, he was hard pressed to answer why he needed to go to Tokyo. “Are you going to go to Tokyo to get a job? Are you going to university?” It was hard to find work in Tokyo, and for a while he didn’t even have a place to live. Finally, he found a job recording professional games. So proud of his work, he switched to English to tell me, “I was a supreme game recorder.”
Nakayama began taking the Pro Test each year, and each year he failed. Finally, he pas sed on his ninth attempt, just before his 30th birthday, becoming the oldest player to pass the Pro Test. After a quick ascent to 3P, his rank increased slowly but steadily. Unlike most professionals, who peak by age 30, Nakayama’s rank increased once a decade: 4P when he was 40, 5P at 50, and 6P at 60.
Having passed 70 without a jump to 7P, he says he isn’t holding his breath for a promotion. While he still plays professionally, most of his income now comes from his work as an author. Between writing go articles for monthly publications and writing go books, he stays very busy both at his home in southern Chiba Prefecture and abroad. In his own words, “I live so far south, I almost live at Narita airport.” And it’s not far from the truth: Narita is almost a second home for Nakayama sensei, who has traveled overseas every year since he was 49.
Nakayama’s tale is living proof that dedication overcomes hardship and that hard work is rewarded. Like many, I have often thought that only those who learn go as children can grow up to be pros, and that even their careers will be over by 30. Nakayama’s story shows that the game can last a lifetime, and that careers can begin at 30. When’s the next Pro Test?
The 12 August edition offers some more context, as Aria von Elbe reports on bringing up the topic with Maeda Ryo. It’s strange to note that Aria, who was 17 at the time, will be around the same age now as Maeda was then.