Shogi: Japanese Chess

Shogi: Japanese Chess

What the heck is shogi?

Shogi is known outside of Japan as “Japanese chess.” The rules of Shogi are actually very similar to that of Chess. The name Shogi is translated as Sho, meaning “general” and Gi, meaning “board game.”

Sometime in the 10th to 12th centuries, the game of chess made its way to Japan where it became many different games all with different variations on the same “chess” theme.

One of these was called “Small Shogi.” Eventually, Small Shogi won in popularity and went through many forms, until its present incarnation, referred to simply as “Shogi.” It is certain that Shogi in its present form was played in Japan as early as the 16th century.

The general concept of the Shogi, to capture your opponent’s King, make it very similar to Chess. However, a few differences make this game uniquely Japanese. It was the first chess variation where your captured pieces could be returned to the board to be used as your opponent’s. Some speculate that this came from the practice of 16th century mercenaries who switched loyalties when captured, as an alternative to execution.

The board is divided into 81 instead of 64 fields, and each player starts with 20 pieces instead of 16 as in chess. The board itself is raised for the comfort of players seated on tatami mats and is hollowed underneath to produce a specific sound when the pieces are moved.

Another difference between Shogi and Chess are the playing pieces themselves. Each player has a set of 20 wedge-shaped pieces of slightly different sizes. Opposing pieces are differentiated only by the direction they are facing, not by shape or color. Each piece has its name written on its surface in the form of two Chinese kanji, usually in black ink.

Just as the Japanese game of Go, Shogi is considered a Martial Art. Players are ranked from 15 kyu- to 1 kyu- and then from 1 dan and up. Professional Shogi players have their own ranking system from professional 4 dan up to 9 dan for elite players.

In December of 2004, Ito Sea, an 11 year old, became the youngest girl to win admittance into the Shoreikai, an organization that trains professional Shogi players and is run by the Japan Shogi Association. Ito was just 10 years old when she first took the test to enter Shoreikai and remains the youngest girl ever to pass. Admission into Shoreikai is based on the results of a written test and a competition with the other applicants. If they are successful, they then play against three Shoreikai members. Winning one these games means admission to Shoreikai.

Twice a month, the Shoreikai members take a day off from school, go to the Shogi center, and play from morning until night. To graduate from Shoreikai and become a professional, a player must have at least a fourth dan ranking. Winning promotion to the fourth dan is not easy. After reaching third dan, players compete in a six-month-long tournament. Only the two with the best records earn promotion to fourth dan. Shoreikai members who do not win promotion to first dan by the time they are 21 and do not become professional by the age of 30 must withdraw from the organization.

(Originally published in Muzosa Journal 6/2/06. Author retains all copyrights.)


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