Polish woman becomes first foreign female pro ‘shogi’ player in Japan

Staff Report, Kyodo

A Polish woman has become the first foreign female professional shogi (Japanese chess) player after pulling off a big win in a tournament on Monday, fulfilling her dream of turning pro.

Karolina Styczynska, a 25-year-old native of Warsaw and graduate student at Yamanashi Gakuin University, beat professional player Minami Sadamasu in a preliminary game of the 44th Women’s Meijin (master) in Tokyo.

“Yesterday’s game was very important, which is why I had spent every day preparing for it,” Styczynska told The Japan Times on Tuesday, a day after she attained the status following four years of effort.

Her next goal is to move up to the level of shodan, the first stage in the women’s senior rankings. Achieving this status would increase Styczynska’s chances of winning a major title.

“I’m now focusing on winning the next competition,” she said.

Styczynska first came across shogi when she was a teenager reading “Naruto,” a popular manga series published by Shueisha Inc. that has been translated into more than 30 languages, including Polish. The depiction in the comic of the then-unfamiliar board game sparked her interest. When she tried to find out more about shogi on the internet, she became intrigued by one particular feature of the game that allows players to use captured pieces — a move not seen in chess.

She spent five hours a day teaching herself the game and sharpening her skills via online competition. Her technique wowed female professional player Madoka Kitao, who had been actively promoting shogi overseas. The two became acquainted.

In 2012, Styczynska was invited to play at an official women’s tournament in Japan where she beat a professional player. After that, she set her sights on becoming a professional.

Then, the following year, she passed an entrance examination for the prestigious Japan Shogi Association in Tokyo, which trains professional female players. The same year, she enrolled at Yamanashi Gakuin University in Yamanashi Prefecture and moved to the city Kofu, despite her mother’s objections to her living in Japan given the massive earthquake and tsunami that had recently devastated the Tohoku region.

Styczynska attended the training institute in Tokyo, commuting from the university’s dormitory in Kofu. While acclimatizing to life in Japan, she said she would sometimes shed tears of frustration as she rode home on the train, upset about goals that seemed just out of reach.

However in 2015, after years of work, she was finally promoted to the game’s C1 level, placing her one step away from becoming the first foreign female professional player.

Styczynska said juggling her commitments as both a shogi player and a student has been a constant struggle.

“It’s not easy but I’m trying my best,” she said. “I’d like to promote the game worldwide in the future.”