Shogi and Western Chess

Where Japan has kept to its traditions, the world has in fact been impressed. For instance, there are few games where there is less action than shogi, go or Western chess. The shogi championships are fought out in a quiet room with a referee and recorders. At most three or four honoured guests are allowed to watch. I have been one of them; it was an honour. I was invited because I had just received a 5th dan at shogi from the Japan Shogi Federation. The then champion Yasuharu Oyama wrote the certificate in his own hand, and I keep it as a rare treasure.

In Japan, shogi is much more popular than chess is in Europe and America, though in the former Soviet Union it is encouraged. Our newspapers do not have a daily chess column, while the Japanese papers have a daily shogi and go column. Yet though shogi is so popular, the Japanese recognize that the players ought to have quiet and privacy for their tournament games. Those of the general public who want to watch the moves of the games sit in a separate hall, where the changing position is shown, move by move, on a very big display board. A shogi master comments on the moves to explain the strategy to the audience. There is excitement in the public hall, but the players in their silent room are protected from any disturbance.

Contrast this with the Western world chess championships, which take place in some enormous hall, in front of hundreds of people. Though they are spectators, they cannot see the position on the actual board, which is of course only the size of a small tabletop. The moves are shown on a huge display board at the end of the hall. They can also see the players, but it is quite meaningless.

The players are distracted by cameras and camera lights. Sometimes the spectators clap and even cheer, if they think a good move has been made. It is not so much a test of chess as a test of the calm of the players. Bobby Fischer, an American and perhaps the greatest genius of chess, won the world championship, but then gave up championship chess because of the constant disturbances during matches. The Western chess championship arrangements are an example of great stupidity and vulgarity. The audiences simply look at the two players from a distance.

In 1978 a Russian player named Korchnoi, who was out of favour with the Soviet authorities, played the champion Viktor Karpov, who was liked by them. Korchnoi complained that a mysterious Russian spectator, sitting in the sixth row of seats, was looking at him fixedly, trying to hypnotize him. The press investigated and found that the man was Dr. Zoukhar, a Russian government psychiatrist, who could not play chess. He was simply sitting there, staring, and Korchnoi (a very irritable nervous man) said that it upset him. Under the rules, the referee could not interfere: Dr. Zoukhar was simply sitting there quietly. But finally he was persuaded to sit further back. He or his Soviet government employers realized that though he was successful in upsetting Korchnoi, the publicity was becoming unfavourable.

If we compare these amazing happenings with the atmosphere of Japanese go and shogi, we get a very high estimate of the civilized and gentlemanly Japanese arrangements. I have described the example of chess, because it shows how a purely intellectual game, with no action at all, can be taken over by the desire for a public display which can be a focus for group rivalry. The game is no longer for its own sake; it is simply a means to show a superiority of one group over another.

© Trevor Leggett

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