Kunio Yonenaga, a celebrated professional “shogi” (Japanese chess) player, died Tuesday of prostate cancer at a Tokyo hospital. He was 69.
Yonenaga, chairman of the Japan Shogi Association, was known for the innovations he brought to the culture surrounding the traditional board game.
Before Yonenaga, professional players had a laissez-faire attitude about winning games that were not seen as important to their careers. Yonenaga’s approach of doing his best in all matches eventually became the norm.
Yonenaga turned professional in 1963 after serving as an apprentice with to shogi master Yuji Sase.
After winning his first title of “kisei” in 1973, he took part in a number of games that are now part of shogi folklore, such as matches with the legendary Yasuharu Oyama and Makoto Nakahara.
He was awarded a permanent “kisei” in 1985 after retaining the title for five terms.
Yonenaga, who hailed from Yamanashi Prefecture, was known for his cheerfulness and the humor he brought to shogi.
In 1985, he became the third person ever to win four titles — “judan,” “kisei,” “osho” and “kio.” In 1993, one month shy of his 50th birthday, he became the oldest player ever to win the prestigious “meijin” title.
Yonenaga ranks fifth in the number of titled terms. He became chairman of the Japan Shogi Association in 2005.
He was back in the spotlight last January when he lost an official match to a computer.
Yonenaga was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2008, but his health improved after radiation treatment. However, he said earlier this month that the cancer had returned.