Editorials

Accomplishments of shogi and go champions

Shogi champion Yoshiharu Habu this month became the first shogi player to hold all seven eisei lifetime titles of the game. Go champion Yuta Iyama in October succeeded in grabbing all seven major go titles simultaneously for the second time. Their great accomplishments come at a time when human players have become no match for rapidly progressing artificial intelligence in their respective board games. Their feats carry extra significance in that they have highlighted the fact that shogi and go matches are fascinating for their drama and excitement — two elements that computers cannot generate merely by winning games through algorithms.

In the fifth round for the 30th Ryuo title held in early December in Ibusuki, Kagoshima Prefecture, Habu beat title-holder Akira Watanabe in 87 moves. The 4-1 victory in their best-of-seven match enabled him to retake the prestigious title for the first time in 15 years. Since he has won the Ryuo title seven times, he gained the eisei lifetime Ryuo honor. This made him a holder of eisei honors for all seven major shogi titles — Ryuo, Meijin, Oi, Oza, Kio, Osho and Kisei.

It must be noted that, given the tough competition in the shogi world, to earn even a single lifetime honor is quite difficult. Each title has a rule for according an eisei honor to a player. Depending on titles, a player must win the title five or more times, either in total or consecutively. To obtain the Ryuo eisei honor, a player must win the Ryuo titles either five times back to back or seven time in total.

Habu’s great accomplishment will add to the excitement in the shogi community along with the advent of 14-year-old prodigy Sota Fujii, who in June set an all-time record of 29 consecutive victories while being unbeaten since his professional debut in October 2016.

Habu himself turned pro in 1985 when he was only in the third year of junior high school. In 1989, when he was just 19, he became the youngest-ever shogi player to win a title when he clinched the Ryuo. In 1996, at the age of 25, he became the first player to dominate all seven major shogi titles. Now 47 — an age at which many past shogi champions were no longer able to win titles — Habu’s latest accomplishment raises hope that he will continue to be a formidable player who defies the challenges of age.

Iyama in April 2016 became the first go player to simultaneously hold all seven major titles of the game by winning the 54th Judan title at the Nihon Ki-in (Japan Go Congress) in Tokyo with a 3-1 score against Atsushi Ida in a best-of-five match. Besides Judan, he became the holder of six other titles — Kisei, Meijin, Oza, Tengen, Gosei and Honinbo. Although he later lost the Meijin title, the 28-year-old player won it back in October, thus recapturing all seven titles at the same time.

These days, players from China and South Korea are exhibiting their strength in international go matches. But hopes are building that early next year Iyama will win the international tournament for the LG Cup, sponsored by the LG Group of South Korea, which would be the first such victory by a Japanese player in some time. In the semifinal held in November, he beat Ke Jie from China, who is touted as the world’s top go player. Iyama is scheduled to face Xie Erhao from China in the final match in February.

This year, the growing performance of AI in the world of board games was conspicuous. In shogi, the PONANZA software routed Grandmaster Amahiko Sato 2-0 in April and May. In the go world, the AlphaGo program trounced China’s Ke 3-0 in May. Since the power of AI appears to be overwhelming, the ability of human players to create drama that moves spectators during the games will be all the more important. Noting that the rapid progress of AI has put the raison d’etre of human players in question, Habu stresses the importance of contestants making efforts to make their games interesting for the people who watch them. Iyama says the arrival of AI will not lower the value of games played by humans because spectators are moved by each judgment that players make under extreme conditions during matches, including their errors.

One aspect of AI’s arrival on the shogi and go scenes is that players have started to hone their tactics and strategy by learning from new moves employed by AI programs. How to cope with the progress of AI is a major question posed to human society as a whole. People can gain courage and insight from how these shogi and go players approach the issue.

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