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Sunday, July 16, 2017, 15:38
Japan's teen player makes historic shogi moves
By The Japan News/ANN
Sunday, July 16, 2017, 15:38 By The Japan News/ANN

Sota Fujii sits in front of a shogi board after beating Yasuhiro Masuda to notch his 29th straight win in Tokyo on June 26. (The Japan News/ANN)

TOKYO - The amazing performance of a 14-year-old shogi player is wowing not only shogi fans, but also people throughout Japan.

The amazing performance of a 14-year-old shogi player is wowing not only shogi fans, but also people throughout Japan.

Sota Fujii has established a new shogi record of consecutive wins, beating his opponents for 29 straight matches since his debut in December. The streak was finally snapped on July 2, but people are keenly watching to see how far the teen sensation can go.

The fourth-dan ranked Fujii notched his 29th straight win on June 26, defeating 19-year-old Yasuhiro Masuda, who is also fourth dan, in the first round of the Ryuo tournament. It was the moment Fujii broke a record that had stood for 30 years.

“It’s a special pleasure for me to become the sole record holder,” Fujii said at a press conference held after the match, speaking as composed as always. “I feel a joy that is different from what I’ve felt before.”

The teen rolled up his sleeves for his next goal — to rewrite the record for youngest titleholder ever. The current record is held by 45-year-old Nobuyuki Yashiki, who won the Kisei title at 18 years and six months old.

“I want to improve my ability to become a player good enough to grab a title,” said Fujii, a third-year junior high school student. “I’m under pressure from all the attention, but I am telling myself to play as I normally do as much as possible.”

His streak started in his debut match in December against Hifumi Kato, a 77-year-old former Meijin titleholder who has recently retired. The match drew attention as a match between the “youngest and oldest” shogi players.

After that, Fujii went unbeaten for half a year. After notching his 28th win, his opponent, sixth-dan Shingo Sawada, praised the rookie by saying, “He made few mistakes — I couldn’t find any weaknesses in his shogi.”

Fujii finally suffered his first loss in official matches on July 2, falling to fifth-dan Yuki Sasaki in the second round of the Ryuo tournament.

“Considering my true ability, having such a long winning streak was an undeserved thing,” Fujii said.

“I want to be a better player, and work hard so that I will be able to play the kind of shogi that fans enjoy watching.”

Fujii poses with a shogi board depicting "29" with the pieces. (The Japan News/ANN)

Glimpse of genius

Fujii became the youngest-ever professional shogi player last October at the age of only 14 years and 2 months. He had already shown a glimpse of his genius as a “do-or-die” competitor in his younger years.

“He was an ordinary ‘boy next door,’ good at climbing trees in the garden, but he was also the type of child who immersed himself in something and couldn’t stop,” his mother Yuko, 47, said.

When he was 3, he became obsessed with a Swiss 3-D puzzle, in which wooden blocks with carved-out channels and holes are assembled to make a pathway for a marble to roll down. He spent a lot of time playing with it.

He was 5 when he first encountered shogi. He found a shogi board at home and learned how to play from his grandparents. He picked it up quickly — even before he learned hiragana. It did not take long for Fujii to beat his grandfather.

Fujii started taking lessons at a shogi school nearby four days a week and memorized a thick shogi book in only a year. He rapidly improved his skills with incomparable concentration.

His natural character of sticking with something in order to win also helped him advance his proficiency. When he was a second-grade elementary school student, Fujii played a game against ninth-dan Koji Tanigawa, who holds the record for youngest Meijin titleholder. 

When it became clear that Fujii was going to lose, the boy held onto the board and sobbed bitterly. Seventh-dan Masataka Sugimoto, who is his master, was surprised to see the boy feeling so chagrined at losing to a professional player. “He’s a born competitor,” Sugimoto thought.

Fujii also showed talent in tsume-shogi, a solitary puzzle used to come up with moves in a set situation aimed at checkmating an opponent’s king. When he was in the sixth grade in elementary school, Fujii won his first victory in a tsume-shogi championship, where he was the youngest-ever participant and some of the participants were titleholders.

According to Fujii’s mother, he has sometimes shouted “Done!” out of nowhere while they were chatting. When asked, “What happened?” Fujii would reply, “I was solving a tsume-shogi problem in my head.”

Fujii is currently a third-year student at Nagoya University Affiliated Lower Secondary School, a prestigious school in Aichi Prefecture. He is good at mathematics and social studies.

His busy schedule of shogi matches has often kept him from going to school recently, but he is said to read the newspaper all the way from the front page to the society page.

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