Hiroshi Yamai: I was born and raised in Mizuhashimachi, an area in Toyama city, Toyama prefecture. The area is surrounded by nature, only three minutes to the sea and thirty minutes to the mountains. I was born on Februrary 3, 1970. I’m a 47 year old male, my blood is type B and I play an aggressive style of mahjong. (lol)
Mahjong News: How did you come to be playing mahjong?
When I was a child, the adults often played mahjong at family gatherings, so I would join, and eventually I started playing with my friends. From my perspective I thought mahjong was a game that adults played and in a way I wanted to play to feel like a grown-up.
Mahjong News: Did you have any mentors to look up to and guide you, and did you have any inspirations to help move you forward?
I didn’t have a specific mentor, but it was Takeo Kojima who inspired me to become a pro when I saw him depicted in mahjong comics. There was a comic called Happo Yabure. The main character was called Kajima... he was based on Kojima. When I attended study sessions, it was President Moriyama, Yudai Maehara and Masayoshi Ara who taught me the essence of the game. Kojima was there at the beginning as well but, unfortunately, he hasn’t been attending lately.
I never even considered or thought about winning
Mahjong News: Before winning the 2014 WRC, did you have any other mahjong accomplishments or milestones to speak of?
No, nothing in particular.
Mahjong News: You won the first iteration of the WRC. Did you expect that to happen? How did that feel?
In most tournaments I play planning to win the title from the start, but the world championship was different. First of all, this was the first trip abroad with so many people in the league,so I was really looking forward to that. Of course one of the things I was looking forward to was playing with players from other countries. I cared mostly about making sure this first tournament was a success and exciting, so I never even considered or thought about winning. After the tournament started, my focus changed, of course, and then I ended up winning, which was incredible.
HIROSHI YAMAI (SECOND FROM LEFT) EXAMINING HIS OPTIONS IN THE FINAL TABLE OF THE FIRST WRC.
Mahjong News: How did winning the first WRC affect your life?
It gave me a lot more opportunities. That year I also was on Mondo TV and won that event. I gained many fans who learned about me as the World Champion. I was also featured in the newspaper in my hometown of Toyama. My relatives also held a party for me to celebrate (lol).
After the tournament started, my focus changed, of course
Mahjong News: As the winner of the previous WRC, you are guaranteed a seat for the next iteration in Vegas. Are you hopeful to be a two-time World champion?
I’m the only one who can defend the title so of course I will try my best to do so, but I’m not banking on it. When I became the champion, various news and media outlets featured me, and that coverage led to eighty participants from Japan this year.
There are more participants from other countries this year as well for a total of two hundred and forty participants. I think players all over the world have been improving, so it will definitely be more challenging this year.
Mahjong News: Are there any rivals that you think are players to watch during the next WRC in Vegas?
If Thomas, who beat me in New York, plays, then I think he will be the biggest contender from outside of Japan. There are a lot of top players coming from Japan, and I consider them all to be rivals.
Mahjong News: Beside yourself, who do you see as having a real shot at winning the next title?
That’s a really difficult question. Players like Hisato Sasaki, Yudai Maehara, Satoshi Fujisaki, Aki Nikaido and Kotaro Uchikawa are at the top of their game right now, and of course President Moriyama and Vice-president Yuko Ito are favorites.
Mahjong News: Japan is the birthplace of riichi mahjong, but the world has gotten involved in the Japanese style of mahjong. What are your thoughts about Japanese mahjong going worldwide?
I believe riichi mahjong has the highest level of competition, and is perfect for tournaments. Now players can play anytime online and even study so I think it will continue to gain popularity.
HIROSHI WITH THE REST OF THE PODIUM OF THE INAUGURAL WRC IN FRANCE.
Mahjong News: What is your assessment of the competition that comes from outside Japan? How do you view the world riichi competitor?
I think at some point, players will improve dramatically, and extremely quickly. In this day and age, information travels fast, so if someone is there to teach the nature of mahjong, it will spread quickly, and I think other players will reach the same level as the Japanese pros. Perhaps we need a good teacher to do that.
Mahjong News: Vegas can be an exciting place to visit, with a world-wide reputation. Any thoughts about Vegas, and your opportunity to visit there?
I want to see the Grand Canyon. After visiting France and becoming the world champion, I was invited to play in New York and Moscow. I look forward to eating food in various countries the most. I’m very excited this time too.
...that is the weight of the WRC Champion...
Mahjong News: And now the WRC is gearing up for it’s second iteration in Vegas 2017. It’s no longer just a one-time event, but is proving that it can become an enduring tradition. What are your thoughts on the WRC becoming a stable World platform for riichi competition?
I think it will continue. At the very least, it gives me a reason to travel to other countries every three years, so I hope it will continue (lol).
Mahjong News: As the WRC carries on into the future, there will only ever be one first-time World Champion, and that is you. How does that make you feel?
I really appreciate that. I hope to continue to offer support for the WRC from Japan so that the first-time World Champion title appreciates in value as well.
Mahjong News: As the events in Vegas continue to develop, what are some things you’d like to ensure become an enduring part of the WRC?
The lunch break and various awards ceremonies. The trophies awarded last time were treasured mementos. However, they were so heavy (8 kg) and I remember having to carry the heavy thing on the plane. I feel that is the weight of the WRC Champion, and I remember it giving me the inspiration to work even harder after returning to Japan. So I hope the trophy tradition will continue. It would be a pain to bring back if I win again though (lol).
Mahjong News: Do you think there were any lessons learned in Paris 2013 that may carry over into Vegas to help improve the competition?
Once the format changed for the finals at the tournament in France, many players were matched up against each other consecutively. I would like the organizers to consider a format in which the players who see each other in the top 32 aren’t at the same tables when they advance to the top 16, and again for the top 8. It would be difficult to make sure players don’t play each other twice once the finals start, but I think a system that allows a buffer so they aren’t consecutively placed at the same tables would be better.
I believe riichi mahjong has the highest level of competition
Also, in France there were one hundred and twenty players, and there were plenty of judges, but there are twice as many players this time, so I’m a bit worried. I hope the judges will be prepared to handle any issues that occur. The opening and closing ceremonies in France were really excellent. I hope that Las Vegas continues this tradition, and the tournament is really unique and provides an experience that we didn’t have in France.
Mahjong News: In the process, are there any pitfalls the WRC needs to avoid, or are there any particular challenges that the WRC needs to overcome to make this event succeed and endure into the future?
The burden of the host, David Bresnick, and prize money. Everyone is currently working to run these tournaments on a volunteer basis. Perhaps it would be a much more exciting event if there were sponsors for the event, sponsored players, fees paid to the management, and cash prizes for the winners. In Japan we want to offer as much support as possible if it will lead to spreading mahjong throughout the world, but if these things were incorporated in the event, then it would definitely be more sustainable.
Mahjong News: What comes next for Hiroshi Yamai, in life, and in mahjong?
I would like to be at the top of the mahjong world, but that’s a long and difficult road, and one that I’m particularly excited for.
In life? Hmmm (lol), I do hope one day to have Japan Professional Mahjong League branches throughout the world.
Mahjong News: Any other words you’d like to share with the readers?
Mahjong is a game that is fun for all ages. I want more people throughout the world to learn that such a fun game exists. I hope that anyone reading this who isn’t yet playing mahjong will use take this as an opportunity to learn about this great game.
translation services - Gemma Sakamoto