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FOCUS: Shogi savior Fujii brings about unprecedented boom

Shogi appears to have come easy to Sota Fujii, who recently set
the all-time record with 29 consecutive professional wins, but the
14-year-old's rise in the highly competitive world of Japanese chess
was anything but black and white.

The shogi prodigy's move into and through the professional ranks
has set off an unprecedented craze in Japan, even among those
unfamiliar with the traditional board game.

With Fujii's achievement, it appears a cloud has finally been
lifted from over a shogi world that was rocked by allegations last
fall that one of its top players used software assistance to cheat,
although the player involved was ultimately cleared of wrongdoing.

Another story is now emerging as more professional shogi
players, and also players of the ancient board game, go, unabashedly
turn to technology to help them develop tactics -- a trend that many
are concerned is problematic for the traditional roots of the games.

Like all aspiring shogi players, Fujii entered the "shorei-kai,"
a society under the Japan Shogi Association aimed at training young
players on their path up the rankings, or dan as they are known, on
their way to professional status as fourth dan.

Of the 29 players, including Fujii, who participated for the
first time in third-dan tournaments from April to September last
year, only two slots were opened to new professionals. Fujii himself
was on the bubble -- with 12 wins and 5 losses he entered his final
game needing to win to gain promotion.

Although he did win promotion, the junior high school student
from Aichi Prefecture said, "I really felt how tough the shorei-kai
was and I considered what would happen to me once I turn pro."

Even while Fujii was on a 20-game winning streak, he said he
heard grumblings from a player in his 20s who questioned his
abilities, saying, "Fujii lost five games in the third-dan
tournaments. That's pitiful for a pro."

But after overcoming his rivals and making his breakthrough to
the professional ranks, he was able to again find the joy of playing
with a carefree attitude.

Such an innocent approach to shogi looked perhaps to be lost
when Hiroyuki Miura, a highest-rank ninth-dan player, came under fire
last October when he was accused by the association of using software
assistance on his smartphone during official matches.

Many players were shaken to find the game under this
unprecedented scrutiny. Indeed, professional shogi players almost
uniformly voiced concerns that public trust in the game had been
shattered.

But a third-party panel cleared Miura after an investigation
found "no evidence of cheating," which in turn led to criticism of
the association. It was right around this time that Fujii came into
the spotlight. And the fresh air the young star breathed into the
game proved enough to blow away the cloud hanging over it.

Den-osen (electronic king championship) matches, in which
professionals play a computer opponent, have proved another threat to
the game's future because the software has time and again proved too
good for the professionals.

On May 20, grandmaster Amahiko Sato, 29, suffered his second
consecutive humiliating defeat to a computer opponent named "PONANZA"
over 94 moves. This followed the title holder's first 71-move loss in
April.

Sato had in 2016 defeated Yoshiharu Habu, who currently holds
three major crowns and is widely regarded as the game's top player,
for his first career title, demonstrating the level at which the
computerized players operate.

In head-to-head, man versus machine den-osen matches,
professional shogi players recorded a sorry five win, one draw,
14-loss record.

PONANZA has seven consecutive wins against shogi professionals,
but it is not the only game in which humans have been outperformed by
high-tech opponents. In March, Yuta Iyama, owner of six go titles,
was beaten by a computer.

The shogi association began organizing matches between top pros
and AI opponents in 2012. A team of professionals exposed the
software's weaknesses to take a 3-2 series victory for the first time
in 2015, but shogi pros have been struggling against computer
controlled opponents in individual matches almost ever since.

The prodigy Fujii himself has benefitted from training against
computer opponents. He learned software-assisted training methods
from Shota Chida, a 23-year-old sixth dan, to help him improve
weaknesses at the start and middle sections of his game.

By pouring over software shogi puzzles, Fujii was able to
augment his play with an outstanding endgame, leading to his
monumental winning streak.

"He's complete, (he has) few flaws," said Habu, 46, a ninth dan
who in 1996 was the first to sweep seven of shogi's major titles in
one year.

Fujii's big break came in his pro debut on Dec. 24, 2016, with a
victory over the 77-year-old Hifumi Kato, a ninth dan who was the
oldest top-ranked player until his retirement earlier this month.

As the youngest pro in the game, Fujii demonstrated a cool
demeanor beyond his years in front of a large media contingent
against a legendary shogi master to etch his name in history.

Fujii's historic, record-breaking 29th consecutive win against
19-year-old Yasuhiro Masuda lasted over 11 hours, with shogi fans and
others following his every move online, on TV and elsewhere. Ameba TV
said there were 7.4 million total viewers on its shogi internet
channel at the end of programming at 10:30 p.m.

According to a survey, the number of shogi players in 2013 was
6.70 million, a number that dropped to 5.30 million two years later.
A professional shogi journal, which had been popular among fans, also
ceased publication in March 2016, showing the falling interest in the
game. But according to the shogi association, currently, an estimated
10 million adults and children play shogi across the nation.

Thanks to Fujii public interest has reignited shogi's waning
popularity, drawing people young and old to the game, but whether the
boom will be short-lived remains to be seen.
The game's young prodigy, however, has many moves ahead. (June 29)


Japan's youngest professional shogi player, 14-year-old Sota Fujii (L), is pictured after defeating fellow fourth-dan player Yasuhiro Masuda (R), 19, in the prestigious Ryuo Championship finals at the Shogi Kaikan hall in Tokyo on June 26, 2017. Fujii set the all-time record for consecutive victories with his 29th straight win.