National

The era of young shogi pro Fujii is here, but so is the era of AI in changing the game

by Kakumi Kobayashi

Staff Writer

The record-setting winning streak of a 14-year-old shogi sensation has turned the spotlight on another new phenomenon shaking up the centuries-old Japanese board game — the use of artificial intelligence to improve players’ skills.

Sota Fujii, a junior high school student from Seto, Aichi Prefecture, set the all-time record for 29 consecutive victories on Monday, beating Yasuhiro Masuda, a 19-year-old pro.

Fujii’s victory “symbolizes the beginning of a new era,” said Yoshiharu Habu, a shogi legend and ninth dan who became the first player to sweep all seven major titles of the game in 1996, describing it as “a historic feat.”

And similar to the games chess and go, advanced shogi players, including Fujii, have turned to high-tech machines and computers, utilizing software to brush up their skills.

The Japan Shogi Association began organizing matches between top pros and AI-equipped robots in 2012. Many pros, including those holding the highest rank of ninth dan, have been beaten by the robots.

Fujii, a soft-spoken teenager who sometimes cracks a bashful smile before cameras after a win, started using computers as part of his training regimen last year. It remains unknown exactly what kind of digital training he has been doing, but top pros say he has made fewer mistakes recently.

“Fujii has been doing far better than we expected,” said Taku Morishita, a spokesman and executive director for the Tokyo-based Japan Shogi Association.

“He makes moves that we never think of,” said Morishita, a ninth dan.

Morishita, 50, lost to a computer in an official match in 2014.

“I felt as if I was hitting a fastball traveling at 200 kph,” he said. “But young competitors such as Fujii are more capable of maintaining that type of pace.”

It has been just half a year since Fujii’s debut in December as the youngest ever shogi pro. He qualified as a fourth dan, the lowest professional rank, after surviving a competition involving about 160 dues-paying participants seeking to become pros at Shorei-kai , a training institute that operates under the Japan Shogi Association.

In September last year, Fujii won one of the two slots opened to new professional players every six months.

Fujii has yet to win any of the eight major titles of the game, but his 29th win made the front pages of all major Japanese newspapers Tuesday as he has remained unbeaten since turning pro. The association announced last month the creation of an eighth major title.

His earnings from the 29 wins have not been disclosed, but the top prize for one of the major titles is ¥43.2 million.

According to the association, an estimated 10 million people, including young children, play shogi across the nation. Ninth dan Habu earned ¥91.5 million from matches in 2016.

“In Mr. Habu’s era, shogi players used computers mainly as databases,” said Takuya Hiraoka, the developer of the software behind the Apery shogi engine that won the 2014 international computer shogi championship. “But now, computers can evolve by themselves” to levels that can defeat professional players.

“Some junior shogi pros in the past have had difficulty advancing their game play rapidly if they failed to find a good teacher. But today computers can help pros improve their skills,” said Hiraoka, 32.

Hiraoka said he has been thrilled to see new developments in shogi, such as changes to even time-honored winning strategies based on suggestions from computers. “They could change every year,” he said.

“Shogi is in a transitional stage in many aspects” and the association has yet to release a guideline for the use of computers in training players, including children, Morishita said.

Morishita, who coached Masuda, the 19-year-old who lost to Fujii in the high-profile match Monday, said personally he stops short of telling his young apprentices to use computers as too many things remain unknown about how their use affects the brain.

“I told Masuda to try to learn shogi in analog form at least before he turns 25,” he said.

Morishita said, however, he can “understand” why professional wannabes struggling amid the fierce competition in the Shorei-kai academy would turn to computers. Members of the academy, in principle, have to leave if they fail to turn professional by the age of 26.

When asked if he believes the day will come when junior professionals who are using computers to train will easily beat high-ranking veterans, Morishita said, “The possibility is not very high, but I would not say it’s impossible.”

Moving up the ranks: A list of shogi trivia

  • The following is a list of trivia related to the centuries-old board game shogi. The information was provided by the Japan Shogi Association.
  • 14-year-old Sota Fujii now holds the all-time winning-streak record but remains at the fourth dan, the lowest among the six-stage ranking system, with ninth being the highest.
  • All pros go through the qualification process at the association’s competitive Shorei-kai training institute, where selected amateurs with ranks from third dan down to sixth kyu compete. The bigger the number, the higher players are ranked according to the dan rankings. The order is reversed for the kyu rankings.
  • Shogi has eight major title competitions, none of which Fujii has won. The highest prize among the eight is the ¥43.2 million awarded to the winner of the Ryuo Sen competition, while the Meijin Sen is another coveted title dating back to the 17th century.
  • The Meijin Sen competition is widely regarded as a chance to gauge the latest strengths of each player regardless of rank. The amount of Meijin Sen prize money is not made public.
  • The other six major titles are Eio Sen, Oi Sen, Oza Sen, Kio Sen, Osho Sen and Kisei Sen competitions.