Japan’s youngest professional shogi player, 14-year-old Sota Fujii, set the all-time record for most consecutive wins on Monday, continuing a winning streak that has reignited public interest in the traditional board game.
Fujii, a junior high school student, defeated fellow fourth-dan player Yasuhiro Masuda, 19, in first round of the prestigious Ryuo Championship finals at the Shogi Kaikan hall in Tokyo, staying unbeaten in 29 official matches since his pro debut match in December. His first win of the streak came against the oldest top-ranked player, Hifumi Kato.
“I cannot believe (this accomplishment) myself. I was very lucky,” Fujii said, retaining his calm demeanor after Monday’s historic game that lasted over 11 hours while shogi fans and others followed every move online, on TV and elsewhere. “I somehow held out,” he also said.
Fujii, who holds the fourth “dan,” or rank, broke the record of 28 consecutive wins 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 just last Wednesday registered his 28th win against 25-year-old Shingo Sawada, a sixth dan, to tie the previous all-time winning streak.
Masuda, who went pro in 2014, is regarded as having had exceptional skills from his early days.
With the record on the line in Monday’s match, Fujii and Masuda faced off in hopes of going 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 final takes home the largest prize purse of the year, around 43.2 million yen ($390,000) plus anything earned from winning 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 once. Habu, 46, a ninth dan, retains three of the titles and remains one of the most famous shogi players.
The Eio championship was elevated this year to make a total of eight top tournaments.
Last October, Fujii became the youngest professional player ever at the age of 14 years and 2 months. Two months later, he beat 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, putting an end to a career spanning 63 years.
Fujii’s rise to prominence has inspired brisk sales of books about shogi catered to children, and inspired more young people to play the board 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, the boy started attending 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 piece, is thought to have originated from the ancient Indian game of chaturanga.
Fujii’s success is also seen as a positive turn for the shogi world which was rocked in 2016 by allegations that one of its top players, Hiroyuki Miura, cheated with software assistance. Miura was later cleared.
The shogi world is highly competitive. An aspiring shogi 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. In order to do so, they must finish first or second in the twice-yearly third-dan tournament.
There are currently around 160 active professional shogi 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 through giving talks, teaching the game and TV appearances.
Top players can earn hundreds of thousands of dollars per year.