Shogi, the Japanese Variant of Chess

“A Pawn is Worth a Thousand Gold Generals.” – Shogi proverb

Sailors and merchants brought Shatranj to southeast Asia sometime between the 9th and 11th centuries, whence it spread to China and Japan.  Shogi is the Japanese national variant of the game we call Chess, and it’s a fine game in its own right.

Shogi board and pieces.

Shogi board and pieces. The pieces at the far side of the board are showing their obverse sides denoting promotion values. (Wikimedia)

The goal in Shogi is checkmate. It’s recognizably Chess, but with some important differences, the most notable of which are:

  • The board is a 9×9 matrix of rectangles.
  • The 20 pieces per side (arranged 9-2-9 on the first three rows) are wedges denoted by Kanji, all of the same natural wood color.
  • The two sides Black and White are distinguished by which way the wedges (and Kanji) are facing.
  • The King, Rook and Bishop move the same as in Western Chess (except there is no single “castling” move: the King castles ‘by hand”).
  • The other pieces (Lance, Knight, Silver General, Gold General) move differently from Western Chess pieces.
  • Pawns capture as they move, one square straight ahead.
  • All pieces except the King and Gold General promote! Promotion occurs in the last three ranks and promotion values are fixed and printed on the obverse of the pieces.
  • A captured piece is kept by the player and can be reintroduced (unpromoted) on a subsequent move within certain limits, such as that no pawn can be reintroduced on a file still containing one of that player’s unpromoted pawns, and that checkmate may not be given by reintroducing a pawn.

Bughouse Chess is a bizzaro-world version of Shogi, amusing but clumsy and ugly where Shogi is graceful and beautiful. I wonder why the bored Chess960 crowd doesn’t try Shogi.

I find Shogi more natural than Chess. The board aesthetics and ergonomics are superior, since you don’t gaze through a forest: the pieces lie down before you. Of course, the larger number of pieces along with reintroduction render the combinatorial complexity of Shogi greater than that of Chess. If an average Chess game is 40 moves, an average Shogi game is 60 moves.

Pawns capturing forward as they do, the lack of a permanent pawn structure is a major  difference for Chess players. Shogi has been called “boneless”.  But pawns are still the soul of the game! The odd number of rows on the board renders the fifth rank a no man’s land in the center. Opening action takes place on the wings, with the openings categorized by the file to which the Rook mobilizes and activates itself by a pawn advance. One Shogi axiom is that “the middlegame begins with a pawn sacrifice”.

Shogi helped my chess. Boris Spassky once expressed the wish that he could forget chess so he could relearn the game correctly. Shogi can have that “born again” effect on the experienced Chess player. It freshens the mind.

You have to learn to read Japanese Shogi notation to get on well with the game, to read the best books, and to stumble around Japanese websites like http://goshogi.net/ . That takes some practice, but it’s simple Kanji and Hiragana, algebraic and sensible.

In the meantime, you can visit English webbage such as the English edition of Asahi Shimbum’s Shogi coverage and Shogi.net .

Also, check out Garry Kasparov playing Chess in a two-game match against the winningest Shogi player of all times, FIDE FM Yoshiharu Habu:  Kasparov vs Habu and Habu vs Kasparov.

Jacques Delaguerre