Japan’s youngest professional shogi player, 14-year-old Sota Fujii, set the all-time record for consecutive victories Monday, continuing a winning streak that has reignited public interest in the traditional board game.
“I cannot believe (this accomplishment) myself. I was very lucky,” said Fujii, a junior high school student, said after defeating fellow fourth-dan (rank) player Yasuhiro Masuda, 19, in the prestigious Ryuo Championship finals at Shogi Kaikan hall in Tokyo.
Monday’s historic game lasted over 11 hours while shogi fans and others followed every move online, on TV and elsewhere. “I somehow held out,” said Fujii.
Fujii has been unbeaten since his debut match in December. His first win in the streak came against the oldest top-ranked player, Hifumi Kato, age 77.
His winning streak has been hailed by players and fans for breathing new life into the world of shogi, which is often described as Japanese chess.
The previous record of 28 consecutive wins was set in 1987 by Hiroshi Kamiya, a 56-year-old eighth-dan player. Professionals are ranked between fourth dan, the lowest, and ninth dan, the highest.
Fujii registered his 28th win last Wednesday, defeating 25-year-old Shingo Sawada, a sixth dan.
Masuda, who turned pro in 2014, is regarded as being exceptionally skilled since he was a youngster.
The victory means Fujii will move on to challenge Ryuo title holder Akira Watanabe, 33.
The Ryuo title is one of the eight contested by professional shogi players. The winner of the Ryuo tournament will take home the largest purse of the year, around ¥43.2 million plus whatever was earned from winning the previous matches.
The current level of interest in shogi has not been seen since 1996, when Yoshiharu Habu made a clean sweep to hold all seven top shogi titles at the same time. Habu, 46, a ninth dan, retains three of the titles and remains one of the most famous shogi players of all time.
The Eio championship was elevated this year to make a total of eight top tournaments.
When he turned pro last October, Fujii became the youngest professional player ever at the age of 14 years and two months. Two months later, he beat the 77-year-old Kato, a ninth dan player, in his professional debut.
Kato, meanwhile, retired last Tuesday after he lost to 23-year-old fourth-dan Satoshi Takano, bringing an end to a career spanning 63 years.
Fujii’s rise to prominence has inspired brisk sales of books about shogi aimed at children and has inspired more young people to play the game.
Fujii began playing shogi at age 5 after his grandmother gave him a children’s version of the game. After his late grandfather became no match for him, he started taking shogi classes in his neighborhood.
Shogi can be more complicated than chess as players, given 20 pieces each, can reuse the pieces captured from their opponent and introduce them back into the game as their own. The game, in which players attempt to capture their opponent’s king, is believed to have originated from the ancient Indian game of “chaturanga.”
Fujii’s success comes at a good time the shogi world as it was rocked in 2016 by allegations that one of its top players, Hiroyuki Miura, cheated with the assistance of software. Miura was later cleared.
The shogi world is highly competitive. An aspiring player typically enters “shorei-kai,” a society under the Japan Shogi Association aimed at training young aspiring players under the age of 26.
Only four new players per year can enter the professional ranks through attainment of fourth dan. To do so, they must finish first or second in the twice-yearly third-dan tournament.
There are currently around 160 active professional players. Including retired players, the number is around 200.
Under the Japan Shogi Association, no women have ever attained fourth dan. Females play as professionals in a separate women’s only category.
The players get their income from playing in competitions. On top of fees for competing in matches and prize money, they can also earn money by giving talks, teaching the game and appearing on TV.
Top players can earn tens of millions of yen per year.