Fourteen-year-old Sota Fujii, the youngest-ever professional shogi player who has just set a record for the longest winning streak — 29 matches — is known not only for his outstanding talent but also his fiery, competitive spirit that often triggered tearful outbursts when he lost as a child.
“He is the personification of fighting spirit. He grew up by taking the frustration of defeat and directing it at the next match,” said Masataka Sugimoto, Fujii’s 48-year-old mentor who ranks seventh dan, the third-highest rank in the professional world of the chess-like traditional board game.
One of the stories most often told about Fujii, currently fourth dan and a third-year junior high school student, is about an instructional match he held against ninth dan player Koji Tanigawa, 55. At 21 years old, Tanigawa was the youngest player to capture the top title of meijin (master).
During the course of the match, it became clear that Fujii, at the time a second-grader in elementary school, was almost certain to lose. Tanigawa offered to call a draw. That prompted Fujii to burst into tears and hunch over the game board, drawing a crowd around them. His mother Yuko had to drag him away.
Fujii was born on July 19, 2002, in Seto, Aichi Prefecture. His father was a company worker and his mother ran the household. He began learning shogi at age 5, when his grandmother gave him an introductory game set.
After quickly surpassing his grandfather, he started taking lessons at a shogi school in his neighborhood, instructed by Rikio Fumimoto, the school operator, until age 10.
Even though he was too young to read, Fujii took just a year to master a 480-page shogi textbook given to him when he joined the school, said Fumimoto, adding that his intuition told him the kindergarten pupil would one day turn pro.
As a first-grader, Fujii would test his strategies against junior high school or high school students. Using a vocabulary that sounded like that of an adult, Fujii would make moves that were risky but offered a higher chance of winning, Sugimoto said.
“He has marvelous perspective, and I was amazed that a 7-year-old kid would have such insight,” he said.
Fujii’s mother does not hide her surprise at her son’s intense focus. “He gets really absorbed in things he loves, even to the extent that he cannot pay attention to other things,” said Yuko, adding that she tries not to disturb him when he is focused on something.
As a child, Fujii also loved drawing mazes and playing with railroad toys. In elementary school, he adored books such as Ryotaro Shiba’s “Ryoma ga Yuku” (Ryoma Goes), an epic covering the life of Sakamoto Ryoma, a prominent figure in the 19th century, and “Shinya Tokkyu” (Midnight Express), a travel novel by Kotaro Sawaki.
In 2012, just five years after he began shogi, Fujii was accepted into Shorei-kai, a highly selective society run by the Japan Shogi Association to train young and talented players. It is so competitive that only four members can be elevated to fourth dan every year and become professional players.
Fujii joined the society at the lowest level, but worked his way up rapidly to attain fourth dan in October 2016 at age 14 years and 2 months. This rewrote the previous record held by ninth dan Hifumi Kato, 77, who went pro in 1954 at age 14 years and 7 months.
In his debut match as a pro in December, Fujii defeated Kato, who is one of the most famous players in the nation, known as “Hifumin” by his fans.
Fujii’s winning streak has sparked interest in the world of professional shogi, including the prize money players earn. Top players can earn a fortune with prize money and payments for competing in matches. Players can generate additional income by appearing on TV, making speeches and teaching classes.
In 2016, top-earning Yoshiharu Habu, 46, who holds three championship titles, raked in more than ¥91.5 million.
Fujii, who defeated Habu in an unofficial match in April, has already earned about ¥900,000 in prize money for winning a preliminary tournament of the Ryuo championship, one of the eight title matches in which professional players can participate.
Monday’s match against 19-year-old fourth dan Yasuhiro Masuda, as part of the Ryuo championship finals, brought Fujii an additional ¥460,000. If he wins the championship by beating Akira Watanabe, he will take home ¥43.2 million.
Shogi, a 20-piece board game, is similar to chess, as two players alternate in moving one piece at a time to put the opponent’s king in checkmate. But unlike in chess, players can reuse pieces taken from opponents as their own.
Fujii’s historic run has further elevated the profile of the game. His popularity has prompted many children to attend classes and triggered strong demand for books, as well as the brain games Fujii used to develop his sense of concentration.
Shogi had also been gaining traction due to the popularity of “Sangatsu no Raion” (March Comes in like a Lion), a manga series in production since 2007. An animated TV adaptation has since been produced, and a two-part live action movie is set to be broadcast this year. The work depicts the story of a 17-year-old high school student and professional shogi player, following the growth of his career and life.
Now all eyes are on how far Fujii will go.
“Although often touted as (already) having perfect shogi technique, I believe Fujii will be even stronger,” said mentor Sugimoto. “If all goes well, he might even become a player beyond others’ reach within several years.”