The Knight that Jumps High Falls Prey to a Pawn (1)

by Diana Mihajlova
1/3/2015 – In chess, a number of specialized proverbs exist to pass on wisdom, such as pawns never move backwards, with lessons in the game and in life. Shogi is no different, and this is how a gentle article sharing this and an overview of the shogi world begins. Here you will see how the games overlap or differ, the conditions of becoming a professional, and how women also fight prejudice in shogi.

ChessBase 17 - Mega package - Edition 2024 ChessBase 17 - Mega package - Edition 2024

It is the program of choice for anyone who loves the game and wants to know more about it. Start your personal success story with ChessBase and enjoy the game even more.


‘Begin your attack with a sacrifice Pawn push’.
‘Early escape is worth eight moves’.
‘Don't just run from a fork; consider the position in a positive light’.
‘An attack with four pieces won't fail. Three pieces are not always enough to carry an attack’.
‘Approach the King by Surrounding Him’.
‘Don't Put the King on the Bishop's Diagonal’.
‘Avoid a Sitting King. It is extremely dangerous to start fighting with the King sitting on the original square’.
‘A Pawn is worth a Thousand Generals’.
‘In the Opening, the Bishop is Stronger than the Rook’.
‘Pull the Horse to your own camp threatening the opponent's camp from afar’.
‘The Knight that jumps high falls prey to a Pawn’….

The above sparks of wisdom are a selection from the booklet ‘Tiny dictionary of Shogi proverbs’ by Masahiko Urano. At first sight, a chess player would be taken in thinking that they relate to chess. However, upon closer inspection, there are nuances that just do not fit entirely. Because chess and shogi are two siblings that grew up on different shores, separated by a different language; they follow slightly modified rules to the ones that originally bound them; however, they kept a blood and soul connection.

‘Battle of the Shogi Pieces: Prosperity and Peace across the Board’, ukiyo-e by Kuniyoshi
Utagawa (1843) (Photo: Kuniyoshi Project)

Garry Kasparov, during his recent presidential campaign, in one of his many speeches about the future of chess, intimated his intention of ‘bringing shogi under a common umbrella because it is part of the chess family.’ Kasparov is known to have flirted with the idea of taking up shogi after his retirement from chess.

Kasparov plays shogi on the occasion of an interview for Kyodo News
by Eiichiro Ishiyama, in 2008

Shogi and Chess are the offspring of the same mother, Chaturanga, which, it is widely believed, was born in ancient India, in the 6th century. Evolving in two directions, to the West and to the East, the game has undergone modifications in accordance with the spirit and customs of various nations who embraced it. In this respect Europe and Japan could not be more different in their ways of life, therefore ‘Western’ chess and Japanese chess – shogi, differ in many aspects, maintaining in common only the final aim – to capture the King. To be more precise, in shogi, the ’king’ is a royal general called ‘osho’.

The earliest archaeological evidence of the existence of Shogi in Japan dates from 1058, based on 16 pieces excavated at the Kofuku-ji temple in Nara Prefecture.

Shogi’s board is gridded with squares but, unlike western chess, it is of a unique colour; it is larger than chess’, made of 9 X 9 squares; All pieces, 40 in number, are of the same colour and the same irregular pentagon shape with writings in Kanji.

Shogi board and pieces

A traditional Shogi board – can be very expensive depending on the type of wood used. A blunt Japanese sword is used to draw the lines by special craftsman.

Traditional shogi board (Photo: Nihon in London)

Two most essential playing rules by which shogi differs from chess are:

  1. While in chess only the pawns can be promoted, in shogi each piece can be promoted when reaching the end of the board
  2. While in chess the captured pieces are gone once and for all, in shogi captured pieces can be returned to the board to continue the fight on the side of the opponent who captured them; this is the so-called "drop" rule, which makes shogi essentially quite a unique game.

The ‘drop’ rule makes it very difficult for the game to be drawn because the material levels all the time. In the spirit of the samurai who were fearless before death, in shogi too, checkmate is the only goal. Also, the public would be less prepared to accept such an ignominious outcome. There is, however, a small percentage of draws, which can be achieved only on two occasions: after a fourfold repetition and when both players have moved their King into the promotion zone and the Kings cannot be checkmated. But even then, the ‘draw’ does not count and the drawn sets are replayed.

This rule also makes shogi a brain game with the highest number of legal positions and the highest number of possible games of all chess variants.

Human shogi match in Yamagata, on a mountain with cherry blossoms in full bloom
(Photo: Tokyo Mango)

While chess has spread worldwide in a par with the global expansion of European and western culture, shogi, for a long time has remained confined to Japan, exuding mysteriousness both about the game and its masters who were bestowed the status of ‘national treasures’. It was ingrained in the Japanese traditional culture as it is the Ikebana - the art of flower arrangement and the tea ceremony.

Only very recently, at the end of the 20th century, chess and shogi started to intermingle. If somewhat still hesitant, but incursions from chess and shogi players into each other’s camps are ever more frequent. Japan has its own Chess Federation and is a member of FIDE. And the number of shogi associations is rising in Europe and throughout the world.
A Federation of European Shogi Associations (FESA) was established in 1985.

Human pieces chess war, in medieval town of Marostica (Italy)
(photo: Marostica chess)

From the Japanese side, efforts have been made to invite top chess players to instruct the chess enthusiasts among the shogi masters. Peter Heine Nielsen, Alexander Chernin, Almira Scripchenko, Joel Lautier and Maxime Vachier-Lagrave are just few that have been invited to Japan, on various occasions, to a shogi-chess exchange experience. The aim of these encounters is to benefit shogi masters from chess instructions by their chess counterparts and the chess masters would also be induced first hand into the secrets of shogi.

Chess and shogi players venture into each other’s domain, some sporadically some with more serious approach. GM Peter Heine Nielsen recently made an official excursion into shogi by participating at the European and World Championships (July, 2014, Budapest). At the same Championships, two more chess grandmasters participated, Sergei Krivoshey (UKR) and Gerry Hertneck (GER). GM Larry Kaufman, also a well known researcher in computer chess, is known as one of the strongest shogi players among the chess masters.

Chess masters ‘cheat’ with shogi during a break at the highly acclaimed Biel chess tournament
(Switzerland, 2014), including the tournament director GM Yannick Pelletier (on the left),
GM Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, IM Joaquin Antoli Royo and IM Anna Rudolf.

Among the shogi top players, Yoshiharu Habu, holder of one of the highest titles - the 19th perpetual Meijin (meijin = grandmaster), has taken most seriously to chess. He is often seen playing at chess tournaments in Europe. He has reached a FM title, a current rating of 2415 and has two IM norms. In the shogi world, he is considered the greatest visionary. He has written an extensive series of articles titled ‘Changing Modern Shogi’ for the magazine ‘The Shogi World’. Habu describes shogi as ‘the most highly developed, most interesting, and most scientific and philosophical of all the games ever invented, illustrating the secret and intricate combinations of cause and effect on human nature.’

Another prominent shogi top player taken by chess with occasional participation at international chess tournaments is Moriuchi Toshiyuki (FIDE, 2310). Habu and Moriuchi are both eight times Meijin title holders, the highest placement in the shogi world. They are often referred in the Japanese press as the ‘shogi rivals’.

Habu Yoshiharu (left) and Toshiyuki Moriuchi (meijin match 2008) (Photo: Reijer Grimbergen website)

The following game of 2005 (Essent Open) was played by the world’s top shogi player, Habu Yoshiharu, when he had just barely started playing chess, against a seasoned, full-fledged chess grandmaster. If a shogi trained mind can create such a virtuoso chess game, perhaps all aspiring chess players should think about getting some shogi training, which might advance their chess careers.

GM Peter Wells vs Yoshiharu Habu 0-1 (Essent Open, 2005)

[Event "Hoogeveen Essent op"] [Site "Hoogeveen"] [Date "2005.10.22"] [Round "2"] [White "Wells, Peter K"] [Black "Habu, Yoshiharu"] [Result "0-1"] [ECO "D47"] [WhiteElo "2513"] [BlackElo "2341"] [PlyCount "56"] [EventDate "2005.10.21"] [EventType "swiss"] [EventRounds "9"] [EventCountry "NED"] [Source "ChessBase"] [SourceDate "2005.11.24"] 1. d4 d5 2. c4 c6 3. Nf3 Nf6 4. Nc3 e6 5. e3 Nbd7 6. Bd3 dxc4 7. Bxc4 b5 8. Be2 b4 9. Na4 Bd6 10. e4 Nxe4 11. Qc2 f5 12. Ng5 Nxg5 13. Qxc6 Ne4 14. Qxa8 O-O 15. Qc6 Ndf6 16. f3 Bd7 17. Qa6 Bxa4 18. Qxa4 Bxh2 19. Rxh2 Qxd4 20. fxe4 Nxe4 21. Rh1 Qf2+ 22. Kd1 Rd8+ 23. Kc2 Qxe2+ 24. Kb1 Nc3+ 25. bxc3 bxc3 26. Ba3 Rb8+ 27. Qb3 Qd3+ 28. Kc1 Qd2+ 0-1

The main shogi regulatory body is the Japan Shogi Association (JSA), founded in 1924. Its structure and regulations are in sharp contrast to its western chess counterpart, FIDE. This is mainly due to the fact that, while FIDE is composed of millions of fans, members of 181 Federations worldwide, including professionals and amateurs alike, the Japan Shogi Association is composed of exclusively professional players, either active or retired. While there is an abundance of chess players that hold the title of grandmaster, in shogi, ‘top professionals’ are a distinguished rarity. From this, another important difference stems: in the case of chess, in the face of its worldwide popularity and millions of active players, the number of professionals who make a living on it is very small, estimated at about 60, according to some statistics. But all shogi professionals, both active and retired, about 200 in Japan, are paid regular salaries by the JSA.

Another remarkable rule makes shogi professionals such an elite class: those who were promoted to the ‘Third Dan League’ of their pre-professional group must compete among themselves and in various tournaments. If they do not make the Fourth Dan before the age of 26, they are asked to leave the group. They will not be able to become Shogi professional unless they pass this test. (Amateur players are ranked backwards from 15 kyū to 1 kyū and then from one dan upwards to nine.) Apparently, this system has undergone some modifications in the recent years, however the path to becoming a shogi professional is still governed by strictly set up rules.

Today shogi is played by 20 million people in Japan and a few thousand people outside of Japan.

Blindfold shogi exhibition – the ‘drop’ rule must make the game much more complex than
western chess and a blindfold match ever more challenging

Shogi and women

The JSA recognizes two categories of shogi professionals: Professionals and … Women Professionals. In the shogi jargon, there are two professional systems: ‘real pro’, which is open to both men and women, and ‘ladies pro’, which is open only to women.

A ‘professional’ man and a woman in shogi do not stand on the same ground and they follow different promotion and ranking criteria. If prejudices of ‘female inferiority’ and segregation are still attached to women in western chess, in shogi they are even more pronounced.

In 2007, a group of women professionals broke away from JSA and established their own association - Ladies Professional Shogi players' Association of Japan (LPSA). The two organisations reached an agreement to co-operate, however, each of them organises separate tournaments for their own members.

Hiromi Nakakura, the current President of the Ladies Professional Shogi Association

An important year for the women’s shogi was 1974, when the first women's contest, the Women's Meijin Title Match was held. It was won by Akiko Takojima, who became the first woman meijin (grandmaster). This year marks the beginning of women’s shogi and, ever since, The Ladies Shogi Professional Organization celebrates it with yearly ‘anniversary parties’.

In professional competitions among men, only one or two ‘ladies pro’ can take part, after having obtained permission by the JSA. This has only been possible since about eight years ago; before then, women were not allowed to participate in men’s competitions.

This information rings back sad memories about similar early state of affairs regarding women in chess, as well. However, they have earned their right to participate in ‘open’ tournaments much earlier, thanks to Susan Polgar who, in the late ’80, paved the path to the right of equality in mixed competitions.

Fighting the establishment: Akiko Takojima and Susan Polgar

Women’s presence and status in both chess and shogi has made a considerable progress and things are changing steadily in a positive direction. Shogi has been lagging behind chess in this respect, however recently it has also started seeing examples of women breaking through the barriers of the male dominated brain game.

One such notable example is Kana Satomi, who, at 21 years of age, became the youngest "Queen Meijin". She had become ladies pro at a remarkably young age of 12. She is the first woman who, two years ago, was promoted to the First Dan of the regular ‘men’s system’. Currently she holds the rank of 3-dan at Shoreikai, only one step away from the 4-dan level which would mark her debut as a regular pro.

As Gergely Buglyo, the leader of the Hungarian Shogi Association, pointed out: ‘Kana Satomi is close to becoming a regular professional player. If she is successful, it would produce a phenomenon similar to the Polgar girls' achievement in chess.’

Kana Satomi winning the 6th Mynavi Women's Open (2010)

Continued in part two

A former university lecturer in Romance philology, she is currently a painter as well as a chess journalist, and reports regularly from the international tournament scene.


Rules for reader comments


Not registered yet? Register