News photo
Shoji Segawa –
debuts Dec. 12 as a pro “shogi” (Japanese chess) player against amateur
champ Toru Shimizugami at Shogi Kaikan in Shibuya Ward, Tokyo.

Indulging in luxurious treatment before important games had become something of a ritual for the 35-year-old systems engineer from Yokohama.

It worked well this time.

That’s because the next day, Segawa defeated “shogi” (Japanese chess) pro Hideyuki Takano and made his childhood dream come true — becoming a professional player himself.

“I was relieved because a lot of people came to cheer for me” after the media earlier this year started giving heavy coverage to his improbable run, Segawa said.

He is the first player in 61 years to turn pro without following the prescribed path.

The Japan Shogi Association, the governing body for professional players, normally allows only members of its “shorei-kai,” a society of talented young players, to enter the professional world.

Shogi, which is believed to have been imported from China more than 1,000 years ago, resembles chess. The two players take turns moving the pieces to try to checkmate the opponent’s king with an overwhelming attack. Unlike chess, players can use the pieces they take from opponents as their own and can promote the rank of their pieces.

Segawa, who started playing at age 10, passed an examination to join the elite society when he was 14 but had to resign at age 26 because he could not clear the hurdle to become pro. Members of the association must achieve fourth-rank status by the time they turn 26 by winning competitions among third-rank members.

Each year, only four members of the society, which currently has 170 males and one female, can turn professional.

For Segawa, who devoted his life to shogi, getting the boot in 1996 was a tremendous blow.

“My 12 years turned out to be for nothing. I thought that I shouldn’t have played shogi. My friends had already graduated from universities and gotten jobs, while I didn’t have any job skills.”

After graduating from high school, he had spent all his time studying shogi.

In despair, he threw away the records of more than 700 matches he played as a society member over those 12 years.

One year later, in 1997, he entered Kanagawa University. By day he worked at an Ito-Yokado supermarket and took law classes at night. He also resumed playing shogi.

“After one year, I realized that I like shogi and that I had an experience few can have,” he said.

In 1999, at age 29, he won a national tournament for amateurs that allowed him to take part in some matches with professional players.

“When I won the amateur tournament, I found myself enjoying winning games. I regained the feelings that I used to have as a child,” Segawa said, noting that one thing about shogi that attracts him is that the game is decided — either in victory or defeat — by ability.

Segawa won 17 games against professional players and lost only seven over the five years through last February.

“As a shorei-kai member, I played games not to lose rather than to win, and consequently I couldn’t win. Playing shogi was painful for me,” Segawa said. “As just an amateur, I had nothing to lose by losing games, so I could enjoy playing shogi as a hobby.”

Encouraged by his amateur player friends, he wrote a letter in February to the shogi association to ask for a chance to turn pro.

“For me, it was natural that professional players must come directly from the shorei-kai. But I eventually came to think that a different path should be made because there are strong amateurs,” said Segawa, who has worked at computer systems development company YEC Solutions Co. for four years.

The shogi association responded positively and let him take an examination: If he could win three out of six games he could become a professional.

Segawa lost the first match with an amateur player in July, won the second against a male pro in August, lost the third with another male pro in September and was victorious in the fourth against a female professional, setting up the fifth and decisive match against Takano on Nov. 6.

“When the shogi association decided to have me take the exam, I thought half of my mission succeeded, which was to create another route for amateurs to become pro,” Segawa said. To complete the mission, “all I needed was to do my best.”

Thanks to his success, the shogi association is now considering a new system under which any amateur with the requisite ability can turn pro.

Earning a decent living as a professional player is no easy task. The annual salary in the lowest pro rank — where Segawa currently sits — can be less than 2 million yen if the player keeps losing.

“If I had a wife and children, I would not have tried to become a professional player,” Segawa said. “When I (publicly) expressed my wish to become a pro, I was expecting to receive various feedback (from shogi circles) about the pros and cons. My life would be meaningless if I had done nothing, out of fear of (negative) reactions.”

He made a good start Dec. 12 with a victory in his professional debut.

While working as a salaried worker, “I’ve realized how wonderful it is to build your career in what you really like to do,” he said. “I don’t mind even if I have a hard time (in the pro shogi world) because I’m doing what I really want to do.”

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