The Knight that Jumps High Falls Prey to a Pawn (2)

by Diana Mihajlova
1/4/2015 – In this second part on the world of shogi, you will see what the state of computer playing software is, and how they compare to chess engines, as well as online resources, and of course how they approach teaching the complex game to children. There is also a profile of Karolina Styczynska, who taught herself the game online, is now turning pro, after discovering the game in a comic.

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Shogi and children

The importance of inspiring and instructing children in this ancient game has not been neglected either. It is widely believed that chess and shogi, as brain games, can infuse young minds with ability for a strategic, decisive and concentrated thinking. Regarding popularising the game among the youngest, the shogi world has their own Judit Polgar in Madoka Kitao, a well known professional player, Ladies 2-Dan.

Judit Polgar, the woman chess player number one, together with Kasparov, has been lobbying the introduction of chess in schools’ curriculum, which has been supported by the European Parliament. Judit Polgar has created a ‘Chess Palace’, an educative system for teaching chess to children.

In a similar vein, Madoka has created a miniature, simpler version of shogi, suitable for children. It is called ‘Dōbutsu Shōgi’, which means ‘animal shogi’. It is aimed at attracting children and helping spread the game among the younger generation.

A Dōbutsu Shōgi set

Instead of soldiers, bishops and knights, there are five animals that play in a field: Lion, Elephant, Giraffe, Chick and Hen. Actually, there are only four pieces that play, but on the back of the piece of the chick there is a picture of a hen, because the chick turns into a hen when promoted. Its westernised title, by which non-Japanese speaking children know it, is ‘Let's Catch the Lion!’. The aim is to either catch the opponent's lion or move one’s own lion to the opponent’s side. 

Madoka Kitao teaching pre-school kids to catch the lion

The Dobutsu shogi’s board is only 3×4 squares; obviously, it would unfold a much shorter game than a normal shogi game. This simplified version contains all the essence of shogi in a condensed format. In Japan, it is very popular and not only among children; adults enjoy it too because it is much deeper than the pretty childish drawings would make you believe.

Madoka Kitao with a demonstration board of Dōbutsu Shōgi; Judit Polgar with her three-volume
chess manual for teaching children (in the photo is the version in her native Hungarian)

Shogi and computers

Have computers invaded the realm of this ancient game as they did to the western chess? Of course, although it took much longer and caused quite a bit of consternation to the JSA, who in 2005, officially forbade professionals to compete publicly against machines as a way of preserving the dignity of shogi masters. In any event, shogi computer programs were too weak, for a long time, to present a serious challenge to the human mind.

This was due partly to the distinctive feature which allows captured pieces to be returned into the game; compared to western chess, the material balance is less important and the branching factor is greater, which means that the computer has many more positions to examine; therefore it requires a higher degree of sophistication than programs playing western chess. When Deep Blue defeated the World Chess Champion Garry Kasparov in 1997, shogi programs were still at an ordinary amateur level. Only very recently have computer shogi programs started to defeat human experts. JSA has also become more lax and permits, on occasion, some players to compete against a machine.

The first ‘victim’ was the late Kunio Yonenaga, who, then a retired pro, lost to Fujitsu Laboratories’ program Bonkuras, in 2012. The first active professional to lose to a computer in a public match was Shinichi Sato who lost to Issei Yamamoto’s program Ponanza, in 2013. He was part of a team of five professional shogi players playing a match against the five best computer programs at the ‘Shogi Master Versus Machine Match’. The humans lost three matches, drew one and won only one, which astounded the shogi public. One of the defeated masters, Hiroyuki Miura, a Top Ten pro, who lost after 102 moves to the program GPS Shogi, made a public apology for “failing to fulfil his duty”.

Checkmated by a machine: Shinichi Sato  

Since 1990, the Shogi Computer Association has organised an annual shogi computer championship. The latest three winners are GPS Shogi, a program from the University of Tokyo (2012), Bonanza by Kunihito Hoki (2013) and Apery by Osaka City University Mathematical Engineering Laboratory (2014).

In an email correspondence, I received the following comment on the computer shogi situation, by Reijer Grimbergen, a shogi player, promoter and programmer, Ph.D. in Cognitive Science and professor at the School of Computer Science at the Tokyo University of Technology: ‘Shogi programs are currently definitely stronger than the majority of professional players. There is a yearly contest called "Den-O Sen" between computers and professional shogi players and in the last two years computers have won this contest. The next tournament is scheduled to be held next Spring, although the participants have not been announced yet. Therefore, it is not that the Japanese Shogi Association is banning play between human and computers, they just like to control how these games are being played.

There is not much to separate the top programs these days. The Shogi World Championships this year had Apery, Ponanza, YSS as the top finishers, but this could have been in any order and programs like Bonanza and Gekisashi are always in the mix as well.’

Prof. Reijer Grimbergen (Photo: Tokyo University of Technology archive)

Three times European Shogi Champion, the Dutch Reijer Grimbergen runs a website with comprehensive content about Shogi. He created his own shogi program, Spear, during the early stages of shogi computer programming. Spear has participated at the Computer Shogi Championships thirteen times, but it has been on hold since 2009, his maker redirecting his creativity towards...

‘trying to figure out how to make a program that is based on Cognitive Science, i.e. a program that makes move decisions in a way that is close to the way human players make their decisions.’

...which is what the western chess programmers have been aiming at for quite a while. The ‘man v machine’ contest represents high challenges to both chess and shogi; computer programming has infiltrated both games to such an extent that they will never be the same again.

Karolina Styczyńska

As a final touch to this attempt of a comparative take on western and Japanese chess, I would like to present the most recent phenomena that made waves in the shogi world. Its ranks have been infiltrated by a person who not only is a woman but, lo and behold, is not Japanese either!

The accolade of successful shogi players and moreover champions, as per natural right, belongs to the Japanese. But the recent shogi championships, both the World Open and the European, were won by a young Polish lady, Karolina Styczynska.

Karolina Styczynska, with her three trophies as a winner of the European Shogi
Championship, the World Open Shogi Championship and as a best female player  

As a winner of the European Shogi Championship, Karolina will represent Europe at the International Shogi Festival in Japan, Shizuoka, at the beginning of December, 2014 (together with the runner-up, Marco Dietmayer from Austria). This is an important event, taking place once every three years, and run under the auspices of the Japan Shogi Association.

The World Open and European Championships were held in Budapest, 17–20 July, 2014. 78 players from 18 countries participated. Professional players Hirotaka Nozuki, 7-dan and Akira Nishio, 6-dan were special guests sent by the Japan Shogi Association. Also, Shohei Takada, 6-dan and Madoka Kitao, woman professional Joryuu 2-dan and a diligent shogi promoter, were present. The professional guests participated in the blitz tournament giving handicaps, however, their ranking in the table was not taken into account.

A group photo of the participants at the World Open and European Championships 2014,
in the lobby of the Gellert Hotel in Budapest

The Championships were organised by the Hungarian Shogi Association, which is a branch of the FESA (Federation of European Shogi Associations), under direction of its two highest ranked members Gergely Buglyo (3-dan) and Laszlo Abuczki (4-dan). This was the second time that the European Shogi Championship took place in Hungary; the first one was held in Debrecen, in 2010.

Hungary is well known as one of the strongest chess nations in the world. But shogi’s popularity in the country has started only recently, mainly thanks to Gergely Buglyo who lived in Japan for awhile where he studied shogi with master Satoru Kitabatake. Upon his return, in September 2005, Gergely founded the first shogi club at the University of Debrecen, which is still today the most active shogi club in Hungary, with around 30 members.

Gergely Buglyo playing a simultaneous game against lady professional Shino Kumakura in
Shanghai, at the 2nd Yingde Cup

The World Open and European Shogi Championships’ venue was the splendid Gellert Hotel, an early 19th century marvellous Art Nouveau architectural example, seated at the foot of the Gellert Hill, by the Danube, on the Buda side.

The Gellert Hotel

The Gellert hotel also hides a secret of interest to the chess world – it is where Bobby Fisher spent a considerable time of his reclusive existence in the mid 1970s.

The Szabadság (Freedom) Bridge, is almost at the doors of the Gellert Hotel and connects
it with the Pest side of the city of Budapest

A familiar sight as in chess tournaments: in shogi also youngsters are coming!

Karolina Styczynska at the Championships in Budapest, paving her way towards becoming
a double champion; her opponent on the photo above is western chess grandmaster Peter
Heine Nielsen, in a blitz game, which Karolina won

If Karolina’s win of the European and World Open Champion titles is impressive, more impressive still is the way she learned to play shogi. Completely self-taught! She got acquainted with the game, only about seven years ago, through her favourite comic strip books about Naruto by Masashi Kishimoto. One of the main characters in the popular Japanese Manga series, Shikamaru the ninja, would often play this odd board game, which intrigued Karolina. She made researches on the internet, her curiosity grew further and, in her modest teenager’s room in Warsaw, she picked up the game’s rules from internet shogi sites.

Ever more engrossed, she started playing shogi on-line. Along the way, she would gratefully accept occasional instructions from some of her internet opponents. 

Karolina remembers the beginnings: ‘I kept playing on-line. There were many people that would give me hints, some of them spending some time to teach me via the internet. But I had to work a lot on my own.’

Naruto, a cover of the comics and its main character (Photos: Wiki)

Karolina has tender recollections about her teenage year’s favourite book:

‘Manga Naruto was special for me. Not only because I found my passion, shogi, but also because by reading about difficulties Naruto experienced in his life, I could cope better with my own difficulties. I never had many friends; I didn’t like to go to school. Thanks to Naruto, I could grow up and find my way of life. Thank you for the beautiful story, master Kishimoto. I will keep part of Naruto's spirit of never giving up in my heart.’

With her skills formed online, she steadily improved and entered more and more official tournaments on the internet, achieving surprising results. The important shogi playing internet site 81Dojo is crucial for her discovery. Its developer, Tomohide Kawasaki, impressed by the unusually good moves by some ‘troll’, checked the identity of the player and were surprised to discover that it was an unknown lady from Poland. He shared his discovery with his colleague and good friend Madoka Kitao. Madoka invited Karolina to a two-week visit to Japan.

Tomohide Kawasaki, a former student in Aeronautics and Astronautics at the Tokyo University,
and a senior engineer/coordinator at the Toyota Motorsport, today is an active shogi player
and promoter.  He is a creator and chief director of the international shogi playing site, 81Dojo,
which runs under the patronage of the Japan Shogi Association.

Karolina’s love for the game and her genuine, systematic efforts to master it, paid off. She impressed the Japanese shogi authorities and was invited to study shogi in Japan. She is the first foreign woman to be admitted to the most prestigious shogi training institution in Japan, which runs under the auspices of the Japan Shogi Association. In June, 2014, the JSA announced on the Japan Times: ‘Karolina Styczynska, a 22-year-old college student, was entitled to join the Kenshukai training program’s C2 class after recording three wins and five losses in eight matches since May’.

Karolina with her new shogi friends; Madoka Kitao is in the centre, back row; on Karolina’s
right is Huang Shengjia, a Chinese lady, another rare foreigner admitted to the prestigious
Shogi training institute in Japan

If she gets promoted to the C1 class and fulfils the performance requirements, she will become a professional woman shogi player. That is Karolina’s dream. If it becomes a reality, she would have achieved a most unlikely career in Japan – becoming a rare, if not unique foreign woman shogi professional.

Karolina Styczynska in a recent program on the National Japanese TV, in which she was presented
as a successful non-Japanese shogi player contributing to the promotion of shogi outside of Japan

Karolina now lives and studies in Japan. In Poland, she graduated in IT, but she continues her academic study in Japan, in, as she says ‘something called Keiei Jouhou which, I guess is translated as Information Management’. Naturally, a big chunk of her time is taken by improving her Japanese. In her email to me, at the beginning of September, Karolina describes her training schedule: ‘I have a professional teacher, Daisuke Katagami (6-dan), who always gives me comments on my games that I play in Kenshukai. In my city, Kofu, I train with my friends in shogi clubs, also together we enter shogi tournaments. For this weekend`s Kenshukai I was reading endgame shogi books two days straight. I showed the kifu (ed. notation/score sheet) to my stronger friend, who commented my mistakes for me. He also gave me hints. Generally, solving endgame problems (we call them tsume shogi), playing games and reviewing professional games is a good way to train.’ 

Karolina flanked by two women shogi professionals, Madoka Kitao (on the left) and Aya Fujita

The above photo was taken in the NHK TV studios while recording the latest New Year program; the three shogi ladies, clad in kimonos, in accordance with the festive traditions, were given the honour to wish the nation a Happy New Year. For the occasion, Karolina was also given the opportunity to play a handicap game with one of the strongest professional players, Akira Watanabe. 

Karolina does not play western chess and for the time being she is strictly devoted to improving her shogi.

Gergely Buglyo comments on the chess- shogi relationship: ‘One would think that a game like shogi is easier marketed towards chess players, but it's not necessarily so. Firstly, in my experience as a teacher of shogi, chess players tend to have a different learning curve in shogi than people with no experience of chess-like board games. Being familiar with how to calculate moves on the board, they typically get through the initial levels very quickly, but tend to get stuck at the higher kyu or lower dan levels unless they can let go of their defensive material approach, which seems to originate from playing chess. Secondly, chess players tend to devote most of their time to chess rather than shogi. It's not that shogi is not attractive to a chess player, but reaching a professional status in shogi would be very difficult and it would probably require being raised and trained in Japan from early childhood. As of now, no foreign player is close to reaching a real professional status - even though there is a Chinese boy training currently in Shoreikai, but unfortunately he's been stuck at the bottom of the ladder for years. 

Karolina Styczynska’s success, if she becomes a ‘lady pro’, it would be a major achievement for the international shogi community.’

Karolina Styczynska

However, latest trends show that shogi is definitely becoming ever more embraced by chess players. At least, somebody over there… can simply not stay indifferent to the fascination it represents:  in a post, at the end of September of last year, Mig Greengard tweeted a photo of Kasparov engrossed in shogi, with the comment: ‘New challenges? Kasparov solving 'Tsume in 5' Shogi puzzles while still learning the pieces. Watch out, Habu.’

Kasparov solving shogi puzzles (Photo: Mig Greengard’s Twitter account)

The latest: Habu v Kasparov match, Tokyo, 28 Nov, 2014

Photos: unless otherwise indicated, photos are by the official websites of the Japan Shogi Association, the Japan Ladies Shogi Professional Association, Karolina Styczynska and Madoka Kitao archives and Diana Mihajlova

Special thanks to Tomohide Kawasaki, Madoka Kitao and Gergyely Bulyo who kindly read the text pre-publication and provided the author with valuable expert explanations and corrections.

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.


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