Sunday, February 20, 2011

Shogi... The Art of War And Changing Sides

Today I was going to talk about something that I wish I could talk about a whole heap more. Shogi. Now, for those that don't know, Shogi (将棋) is the Japanese Chess. And the analogy to Chess is very good; at least in most ways. As with International Chess, the goal of the game is to checkmate your opponent's King piece using a turn-based sequence of moves. Unlike Chess however, you don't have a "white" and "black" set of pieces... for reasons I'll explain later... but rather you have pieces facing different directions. The pieces have a very close resemblance to those used in International Chess as well.... I will very briefly describe (where I've included the abreviated names and kanji):

Reigning King, or ō (王) and the Challenging King, gyoku (玉) : moves 1 adjacent square in any direction
 The Rook or hisha (飛)  : moves any number horizontally or vertically
The Bishop or kaku (角) : moves any number diagonally in any direction
The Gold Generals kin (金) : moves 1 adjacent square except diagonally backwards
The Silver Generals, gin (銀) : moves 1 adjacent square forward and diagonally backwards
The horsed knight or keima (桂) : moves 2forward + 1 left or right
The Lance or kyō (香) : moves any number of squares forward only (to the first obstruction)
The Pawn or foot soldiers, fu (歩) : moves 1 square forward only.
Shogi board in the starting position

Opponent pieces are captured by landing on them - however, this is where the first real differences comes in to the game. Unlike western Chess where captured pieces amount only to a score - in Shogi, the captured pieces can be re-used (or dropped back on the board) by the capturing king. In other words, the more you capture, the stronger your force. Now whilst this might suggest that wholesale capturing of pieces is the best strategy, it isn't. Indeed more times than not, it's the giving away of pieces in order to displace your enemy that wins the day... as the end-game is often a hectic orgy of attack and counter-attack with both sides trading pieces in a checking contest. In this case you also have to be very careful what pieces you sacrifice as they may be the very pieces that your opponent requires to win! It's because of the ability to drop your opponent's piece that all pieces look the same.

The limitation on drops is that the dropped piece must have a legal move available for it (e.g. pawns can't be dropped at the final row), they cannot produce an immediate checkmate, and for pawns you can't drop them on the same column (file) as another unpromoted pawn. Drops are a critical part of the game, and the key feature that distinguishes it from international chess and which makes it so much more demanding. And exciting.

On an historical note - the uniqueness of drops in Shogi I believe reflects a fundamental difference between Japan and the international chess communities. Japanese warfare has always been largely clan based throughout it's history (being largely internal in focus), and is therefore very much dependent on the relationships between clans that can span centuries. Loyalties changed in a much more complex way than perhaps was often seen in the west, and this dynamism is nicely reflected in the drops system.

Now talking about promotion... when a pawn reaches the final row in Chess it can be promoted... whereas in Shogi, when a piece (except the King or Gold General) reach only the last three rows (the promotion zone) they can be promoted. The hisha and kaku are promoted to the dragon king or ryū (竜) and dragon horse or uma (馬) respectively which retain their powers plus gain the power to move 1 square in any direction. All other pieces are promoted to an equivalent power of a Gold General. The Silver General becomes (全) , the Knight becomes (今), the Lance becomes (仝) where these can all be called nari which means to have grown or be promoted. The Pawn becomes (と) and is known simply as to. Promotion is purely voluntary - and in some cases such as the Silver, you may chose not to promote it in order to retain the diagonal backwards mobility. The promoted pieces are turned over to reveal the promoted kanji.
Example of "promoted" pieces which are turned over

One of the variants of shogi is known as tsumeshogi (詰将棋) which revolves around identifying how to achieve checkmate within a certain number of moves. In this case, the board only has those pieces that are important to the solution, already assembled in a particular pattern. The single player must then move his first and subsequent attacking moves into checking positions such that opponent must always be moving to escape check. The player must be able to identify which placements would result in checkmate in the shortest number of turns and resulting in no pieces remaining in their hands (including captured pieces).
Example of a tsumeshogi problem

One of the many difficulties in getting into a hobby like shogi is that it's hard to find English books that really allow you to get into it. They tend to either be too simplistic or too complicated (assuming at least a high level of understanding of chess). There are a number of books, but the Art of Shogi by Tony Hosking (below) is a good one. The other often quoted book is Shogi for Beginners by John Fairbairn (though I found this one to be written in a slightly less easy to read style).

On a personal level, Shogi was one of the things that was a good bonding point between myself and T-chan's father (who was really into Shogi). He took on the job of trying to teach me how to play... a challenge given my very limited Japanese. Still we managed ok. However, the hardest thing has been that there's no one really to play with back here in Adelaide when I came back... so my ability to learn properly was limited to playing against the computer (using Japanese software). That's a pretty bad way of learning as you don't improve by observing good play - only by trial and error. I have to admit that over the last few years since L-kun was born I haven't been keeping up with Shogi at all which is a big shame.

As I write this... I can't help but feel regret at not having been more dedicated... and that I've slowly forgotten most of the skills. I think it's time to re-invest the time.


  1. Thanks for comprehensive introduction to shogi. I would like to add some information to the resources you mentioned above. HIDETCHI uploaded more than 200 videos related shogi in English and they are watched worldwide now with high opinions. If you do not know them yet, please check it out.

  2. Thanks for an excellent follow-up. That's a nice collection of shogi related videos. To be honest, there wasn't that many resources on-line for shogi a few years ago... and I had got a little lazy in searching. Nice one.

    Anyone else know of good resources?

    These are good resources.

  4. Thanks once again... now I'm starting to feel a little guilty for not having done better research prior to posting. On the other hand, I feel happy to have people provide helpful advice.

    Keep it coming! ?;-)

  5. Hi Ben ,
    I really enjoyed reading your article on shogi , it's very well put together .
    yoku dekimashita
    Do you ever visit Melbounre , or play any turned based , or online shogi?
    I'm a long term shogi fan. Sometimes however , like yourself, I've not been able to put much time into it. I think it's the greatest game of the all!
    Darren ( user id ramalam on most shogi related websites)

  6. Thanks for that Darren - much appreciated. I love Shogi - and it's great to be able to write about it to a slightly wider audience. There's so few resources available here (unlike Go)... which online games can you recommend?

  7. No worries .
    It's great to meet a fellow aussie shogi player!:)

    Well , it depends on your lifestyle , spare time etc.
    I think the best turn based site is . If you prefer live play : shogi club 24 is the best. (also known as the shogi dojo)
    The 81 square universe is also an up and comming new site , it includes live play , forums and study , links etc.
    Last but not least ,is takodoris shogi world , a fantastic reference for all things shogi!
    Here's my email address

    If you have any problems with any of those sites , let me know.

  8. P.S.
    The shogi club 24 site can be difficult to join.
    It normally requires an email address , which is not a hotmail/ yahoo type.

  9. Thanks again for the info... alas, right now I'm snowed under so much work it's so not funny. I'm looking forward to having some quality time to sit down and get back into Shogi (any year now).

  10. mitsukamse wa himmana jikan gambatte o kudasai

    (in case I sad that wrong , good luck finding the spare time)