Shogi professional Karolina Styczynska pores over a game record, retracing the moves made by one of her Twitch followers as viewers on her channel look on intently.
With the result hanging in the balance, captures, drops and recaptures come one after another in quick succession. It’s a symphony of movement more befitting the Bolshoi Ballet than a virtual shogi board.
“This is beautifully chaotic,” someone writes.
“I agree. Beautifully chaotic,” Styczynska responds.
Welcome to Shogi Sunday, a weekly gathering of shogi fans from around the world on a Twitch channel that Styczynska started as a way to promote the Japanese chess variant overseas.
Those who tune in can submit their kifu (game records) and have their moves — blunders, brilliancies and the rest — analyzed and dissected by Styczynska, the first and only foreign shogi professional, in English, Japanese or her native Polish.
Her channel, which boasts more than 1,200 followers, shows there is an appetite for shogi analysis and instruction in English and is part of a growing push to grow the game beyond Japan’s borders.
“I think it’s still very small but it’s evolving toward a good direction,” Styczynska tells The Japan Times.
Still, despite the efforts of Styczynska and other passionate players and professionals, shogi’s global reach remains tiny compared with chess, which benefits from a storied history across much of the Western world. Case in point: Chess grandmaster Hikaru Nakamura has in excess of 900,000 followers on Twitch, earning him a deal with esports giant TSM.
There are about 6.2 million people in Japan who played shogi in 2019, according to a Japan Productivity Center report on leisure activities in the country, but the number of players overseas remains unclear.
While the Japan Shogi Association has 55 branches overseas, the body’s major tournaments and competitions are almost all focused on the domestic market.
But as chess experiences a boom abroad amid pandemic-induced lockdowns and following the release of Netflix’s smash-hit miniseries “The Queen’s Gambit,” shogi players and fans who have long tried to bring the game to foreign audiences have sensed an opportunity.
Taking shogi global
Long before Twitch channels and Shogi Sunday, there was Hidetchi.
It’s hard to overstate the impact of Hidetchi’s series of YouTube videos explaining the rules, etiquette and strategies of shogi, sometimes called the game of generals, in English. Tomohide Kawasaki, the man behind the curtain, launched the series in 2008, and it continues to be a go-to resource for new players even though he hasn’t uploaded any videos since 2014.
“There were actually many, many people overseas who were interested in shogi but did not have much information on the internet,” says Kawasaki, 42, who played shogi for years, albeit never professionally.
Thanks to his videos, foreign nationals like Styczynska, who discovered the game through the popular “Naruto” anime and manga series, suddenly had an easily accessible, English-language resource for learning the basics of this incredibly complex game from Japan.
“He was kind of everyone’s teacher,” Styczynska says, adding that Kawasaki’s efforts inspired her to promote the game via Twitch. “We all watched his videos and we learned the opening basics which we didn’t know.
“He did so much for shogi promotion and that’s how many people joined.”
After learning the basics, all foreign players needed was a place to play.
For that, too, Kawasaki had an answer.
While there were already places to play shogi online at the time, English-language support was another matter, meaning the vast majority of online shogi players were Japanese.
“After people found my videos, one of the things they always talked about is they (didn’t) have opportunities to play,” Kawasaki says.
Kawasaki realized that would quickly need to change if shogi were to spread overseas, and the man who introduced the game to thousands of people through YouTube decided to build a server where they could put what they had learned into practice.
In building out the site, one of his primary goals was to bring the experience of in-person shogi to the web as accurately as possible.
He made sure the higher-ranked opponent received the о̄shо̄ (king general) piece, rather than the gyokushо̄ (jeweled general) that uses a slightly different kanji character and traditionally indicates the lower-ranked player.
He also made it so players could stay on and discuss and analyze the game after it was over, as is customary following both amateur and professional games.
The site, 81Dojo, launched in 2010 and, aside from drawing foreign players because of its bilingual support, became a hit among Japanese shogi fans for those important but subtle features that made Kawasaki’s digital replica of the game feel nearly like the real thing.
Behind it’s rather simplistic design, the nonprofit website also offers a wealth of analysis and learning tools to help both new and advanced players improve their game.
“It just makes studying easier for everyone,” Styczynska says.
Around that time, Kawasaki also learned that many foreign players had trouble procuring boards and pieces, and that there was a dearth of reading materials available in foreign languages for people who wished to further their study beyond the Hidetchi series.
Kawasaki teamed up with shogi professional Madoka Kitao, who founded Nekomado in 2010 with a goal of promoting the game internationally.
Together they built an online store selling boards and pieces, and Kawasaki translated shogi books into English, including Kitao’s “Glance Shogi” Series.
With that, the pieces were in place to grow the game abroad. In shogi terms, the opening was over and the biggest question heading into the middlegame was whether or not these efforts would bear fruit.
Signs of progress
Shogi’s online infrastructure has taken on a new level of importance as millions of people around the world shut themselves inside and search for things to do and new hobbies to pick up.
A domestic shogi boom that began with the much-publicized emergence of prodigy Sota Fujii in 2016 at the age of 14 has continued during the pandemic, albeit online. Many shogi players, new and long time alike, are gravitating to 81Dojo for its extra features and multilingual support.
Nearly 1.3 million games were played on 81Dojo’s servers in 2020, according to the site, up from a little over 700,000 in all of 2019, with the spike in traffic beginning in March as much of the world began to lock down due to COVID-19.
It wasn’t just the site’s regulars getting in extra games, either. A total of 8,332 new users from Japan registered with 81Dojo in 2019, a figure that soared to 24,487 in 2020, peaking in April and May during the nation’s first state of emergency.
In a sign of progress on efforts to grow the game globally, nearly 35,000 of 81Dojo’s 114,000 users are from overseas. As the pandemic hit last spring, the number of new users from the U.S. and Europe also rose, with 2,092 Americans joining in 2020, compared with 723 the year before.
“The pandemic is actually a great chance for shogi,” Kitao says. “While children were staying at home (during school closures) they had more time to practice shogi, which only encouraged them to study more.”
Kitao, part of a small team that keeps 81Dojo running, and her instructors with Nekomado, including some who teach foreign nationals in English, have had to move many of their shogi classes online due to the pandemic. Despite that transition, in 2020 they saw their number of students rise 1.6 times from 2019.
Kitao believes that some aspects of online teaching are actually better than in-person classes, with online tools allowing for deeper analysis and study.
“It’s also possible to teach people living in foreign countries,” says Kitao, who played Styczynska in an online match and was so impressed she invited her Polish opponent to Japan in 2011 to explore the idea of becoming a professional.
While many teachers moved their existing classes to the web, others saw stay-at-home measures as a chance to find new students and introduce the game to a whole new audience.
Growth Down Under
Growing up in a rural part of Fukuoka Prefecture, Shuma Matsumoto didn’t have many opportunities to play shogi.
“I didn’t know any strategies … I just played with my dad, but I felt like I wanted to learn more and play with more friends but I couldn’t find any,” he recalls.
Matsumoto, now 36, moved to Australia after high school and found his way back to the game at the age of 30. But living in Sydney, he found himself in a similar predicament: He had a desire to play but no one to play with.
To change that, he started searching for local players online, eventually leading him to form a shogi club that evolved into Shogi Australia, an official overseas branch of the Japan Shogi Association.
To ensure that children didn’t lack opportunities to play like he did as a young boy, Matsumoto started teaching the game to children in Australia — in person at first, then online since the start of the pandemic.
With parents looking for things for their young ones to do amid Australia’s strict lockdowns, he sent emails out to schools in cities such as Perth and Adelaide to let them know about his online lessons.
Matsumoto and his assistant, Ryohei Yamato, now teach a total of 34 students, most of whom are children of Japanese nationals.
“Once they grow up, they can teach shogi to other people in English, which is a really good thing. This is how shogi can expand all over the world,” Matsumoto says.
The chess boom
Nekomado’s Kitao spent much of her 2019 in the air, traveling around the world introducing shogi to foreign audiences. In total, she has visited 35 countries.
What she’s discovered is that potential new shogi players generally fall under one of three categories: Those who enjoy board games such as chess, those who have an interest in Japan and Japanese culture, and those who have no experience with either.
“Chess players tend to pick it up quickly,” Kitao notes.
That first category is taking on a new level of importance as chess experiences an explosive rise in popularity overseas thanks to Netflix and the pandemic.
Following the release of “The Queen’s Gambit” starring Anya Taylor-Joy as chess prodigy Beth Harmon, free online server Lichess.org reported a record 89 million games had been played on its site in December, up from about 40 million in November 2019.
And what’s good for chess may also be good for its Japanese cousin.
“In Europe, shogi spread to countries like the U.K. and the Netherlands in past decades, starting from chess players thinking of shogi as a variant of chess,” says Noboru Kosaku, associate professor at Osaka University of Commerce’s Institute of Amusement Industry Studies and a former editor-in-chief of Weekly Shogi magazine.
Convincing chess players to give shogi an extended look might seem like a tough sell given the comparative lack of resources in English and other foreign languages and the need to learn some basic kanji to identify the different pieces.
“Compared to shogi, go may be easier to spread because the pieces are only black and white. But it’s not like shogi doesn’t have potential,” Kosaku says.
What’s important, he noted, is to have key people passionate about growing the game to help shogi take root overseas.
Styczynska agrees. “You need a lot of people in local communities that are passionate about the game in order for it to work,” she says.
“Many people would be interested in shogi if only they’d heard about it.”
Staff writer Kanako Takahara contributed to this report.
Shogi and chess: distant relations
Both chess and shogi are believed to be descendants of chaturanga, a game that originated in India 1,500 years ago, with modern shogi dating as far back as the 15th century in Japan.
Similarities can be seen in how some of the pieces move and the game’s ultimate goal: To checkmate the opponent’s king, or, in other words, deliver an attack from which the king cannot escape.
In addition to the chess equivalents of kings, rooks, bishops and knights, shogi has gold and silver generals and lances, but no queen. Unlike chess, pawns attack the same way they move and pieces (minus the king and gold general) can promote on the final three ranks, as opposed to chess, in which only pawns can promote and only once they’ve reached the end of the board.
Where the two games take wildly different turns is with shogi’s drop rule, which allows players to keep pieces they’ve captured from their opponents and return them to the game. This means that, unlike chess, all pieces remain in play — either on the board or in a player’s hand — until the very end.
The drop rule makes shogi more complex than chess — computers only started beating pros in 2013, while AI reached the pinnacle of the chess world in 1997 when IBM’s Deep Blue defeated world champion Garry Kasparov.
Perhaps depending on who you ask, the drop rule also makes shogi more exciting, particularly in the endgame.
In chess, the endgame often comes down to kings and pawns, and the player with even a slight material advantage typically goes on to win, especially at the game’s highest levels. Shogi’s endgames, on the other hand, are dynamic, and even dire positions can turn into a victory with strategic drops behind enemy lines that deliver an all-out assault on the king.
In other words, if chess’ endgame is fought with the sophistication of muskets and cannons, shogi’s endgame is one of tanks and fighter jets.
Chess’ quiet endgame also lends itself to draws, while ties are rare in shogi because of the drop rule.
That’s part of the argument shogi professional Karolina Styczynska uses when convincing chess players to give the Japanese variant a try.
“If a person loves chess, I would say, ‘Aren’t you bored with draws?’” she says. “It’s much more dynamic, much more fun.”
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