Japanese Chess – The Game of Shogi

Book description

Trevor Leggett’s book is the ultimate guide to Shogi, Japan’s unique variant of chess. Its step-by step instructions and easy to follow diagrams lead the reader through the strategies and intricacies of one of Japan’s most popular board games. Shogi is the only variation of chess in which an opponents captured pieces can be dropped back onto the board as one’s own. This makes for extremely exciting, dynamic gameplay in which the momentum can quickly shift back and forth between players. More than just an essential source of information, Japanese Chess features a fold- out shogi board and sturdy paper playing pieces
– everything that you need to get started playing this challenging and fun game.

Paperback published by Tuttle Publishing

ISBN 9784805310366

Price £13.99

Book extract

SHOGI is the Japanese representative of the family of chess games, offshoots of the Indian chatur-anga which was traditionally invented by the legendary Emperor Ravana to exercise his generals in strategy and tactics. Chatur-anga literally means four limbs, and some authorities believe it referred to the four “arms” of the military in India: elephants, chariots (or boats), horses, and foot.

The name became corrupted to shatranj when it spread westward to Persia, which introduced it to Europe. The chess words “check” and “mate” are from the Persian shah (king) and mat (dead). The traditional elephant remains symbolized by the castle, or Rook, because originally the archers shot from a howdah on the back of the elephant. The horse has become a Knight, with the same peculiar move in the Far West and Far East. The foot soldiers are Pawns the world over, usually with the right to advance only in single steps. Their power to capture, however, varies in the different forms of chess.

The object of the game is everywhere the same-to capture the leader of the opposing forces, generally by depriving him of most of his men first. In the West this leader is the King, but to the Chinese a second Emperor on a level with the first was inconceivable, and the Chinese game is fought out between two “commanders-in-chief.” In the course of time the Chinese made considerable alterations. Instead of the castling maneuver, the commander is provided with a special enclosure which he cannot leave; he has a special bodyguard of two retainers who remain in it with him. An early allusion to the game is supposed to date from about 570 A.D. The Chinese later incorporated an entirely new piece which is like a Rook except that it must jump over another piece and can then capture anything on the line beyond. This piece is called a Cannon, and a twelfth-century text mentions a mock war game in which each side has sixteen men: two Cannons, two Elephants, two Horses, two Chariots, two Knights, one Commander, and five Foot.

The game went to Korea and is believed to have entered Japan in different forms about the eighth century. However there is considerable confusion and few reliable records. When it first came to Japan the board was probably already nine squares each way, the pieces totaling 36. The elephants had become Gold and Silver generals.

It is thought that Shogi had already divided into two or even more forms by the time it reached Japan. The simplest was begun with the pieces on the back rank, or horizontal row of squares, with the Pawns on the second rank-rather like the Western chess opening position. The game must have been extremely tame because most of the pieces could only move one square at a time. The Japanese courtiers soon livened up the play by introducing (or rather re-introducing) the Rook, the Bishop, and some fresh pieces. At one time no less than six Japanese forms of the game were current: Little Shogi, in which one Elephant was restored, and two Leopards, a Flying Chariot (Rook), and a Diagonal Runner (Bishop) were added, making 46 pieces in all; Middle Shogi, with a board of 12 squares each way and 92 pieces; Great Shogi, with a board of 15 squares each way and 130 pieces; Great-Great Shogi, 17 squares each way and 192 pieces; Maka-Great-Great Shogi, 19 squares each way and 192 pieces. (Maka is the Japanese rendering of Sanskrit Maha, meaning great, so the game is called Great3 Shogi); Tai-Shogi, a final supreme chess-to-end-all-chess, invented by some recreational megalomaniac, with a board 25 squares each way and a total of 354 pieces. The opening set-up of a game of Maka-Great-Great Shogi is like a menagerie. The first rank is presumably human, with its Gold, Silver, Copper, Iron, Stone, and Clay generals, but the next four ranks are a jungle of Furious Dragons, Raging Tigers, Blind Boars, Soaring Phoenixes, Hard-Biting Wolves, Thrashing Serpents, and even the odd Cat and Old Rat. In front of this horde is a single line of 19 stolid Pawns. In the rear is the Commander who might well say, like the Duke of Wellington at a march-past, “I don’t know what effect they’ll have on the enemy, but by Heaven they frighten me!” One would think that the play must have been hopelessly confused; however, we know that this mastodon of a game was actually played. On September 12, 1142 a minister at court recorded in his diary that he played Maka-Great-Great Shogi in the Imperial presence, adding the pathetic note, “I lost.”

Towards the end of the sixteenth century a great purge was made, and the game was standardized to a board 9 squares each way and a total of 40 pieces. The reform is traditionally attributed to the Emperor Go-Nara who based it on Little Shogi minus the Elephants and Leopards. This talented Emperor is also supposed to have introduced the revolutionary rule by which a captured piece becomes the property of the capturing side and can be dropped on the board. The rule is the special characteristic of Japanese chess, found in no other game of the family. It gives Shogi a peculiar excitement, which was doubtless necessary to replace the lost thrills of leopards and tigers. Shogi was taken up by three great generals of sixteenth-seventeenthcentury Japan: Nobunaga, Hideyoshi, and Ieyasu. They esteemed it for its original purpose, namely as an exercise in military strategy and tactics. Ieyasu became sole ruler of Japan, and under his patronage the game was popular with high and low. In the seventeenth century the first championships were held. The second champion, Ohashi, established the rules, including a new rule against the repetition of moves. The championship descended, in the Japanese fashion, in the Ohashi and Ito families. (This does not work out so badly as might be expected because of the Japanese custom of adopting into the family the favorite pupil, to whom certain trade secrets are then imparted.) Early in the twentieth century the granting of the title was formally surrendered to the All-Japan Shogi Association, to be competed for regularly.

At present Shogi players are organized in two classes, professionals and amateurs. There is a ranking system under which a beginner enters in the 15th kyu class and works his way down until he becomes 1st kyu. This is a reasonable amateur level. The next step is to 1st dan grade, and then he goes up through the dans. In the 8th dan there are generally some 30-40 masters, with probably fewer in the 7th and 6th dan ranks below. Three living masters have attained 9th dan rank (which is fought out among the 8th dans), and they are all also championship holders. Amateurs do well if they get a 1st dan grade certificate from the All-Japan Shogi Association; the top rank ever held by an amateur is 5th dan. Shogi is extremely popular among all classes. There is almost no magazine without a column on it, and the evening editions of the big daily papers feature some current tournament game, giving a few moves and a long commentary. A top Shogi master thus can make a reasonably good living by writing articles and books for the very wide Shogi public and by giving lessons. Some of the masters are striking personalities in their own right and well-known figures on the Japanese scene. For instance former champion Yoshio Kimura, when he retired from tournament play, overnight became a television star noted for his sharp wit.

Book Review

Shogi- Japan’s Game of Strategy (Japanese Chess)

Together with the game of Go, Shogi ranks on the top of the hierarchy of intellectual indoor games in Japan. Unlike Go, however; few books in English have so far been published on the subject of Shogi. This is probably because of the fact that the game of Shogi has such an outward similarity with the game of chess that Westerners thought it unnecessary to introduce the game to their part of the world.

As all the dabblers in both Shogi and chess know, however, there is a world of fine differences between  the two and Shogi has a variety of fascinating points all its own.

The debut of the present book, therefore; is particularly welcome. The step-by-step instructions and thorough diagrams given here makes this· book invaluable both as a guide for beginners and a review for seasoned players. The book includes an explanation of the board, the moves of each of the pieces, the effective use of the various pieces in game situations, the use of the ‘para-troops (pieces which have been captured from the opponent)’, relative value of each of the pieces and all other fine points of the game.

The current book will  prove a refreshing interlude for your study of Japan and things Japanese.


Oriental  – June 1967