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Chapter 4

Page history last edited by Jun Koda 14 years, 11 months ago

Chapter 4: The Charm of Professional Shogi Players — Koichi Fukaura's Sociality



"If I get into a fist-fight, I'm going to win"


First I went to see the first round of the Kisei title match on June 11th. It was in Nigata and then I returned to Silicon Valley via Tokyo. Then we had only about a month before going to another title match. That was because I made a promise with Oui Fukaura to go to see the second round of the Oui title match which was held in Toyota-city in Aichi Prefecture. But in that one moment our shogi world changed dramatically.

A week after the first round of the Kisei title match, Habu won the sixth game of the Meijin title match (June 16th to 17th) of the Meijin title match. So he got the title of the 19th Eisei Meijin. And then on June 19th, which was two days after travelling, he got the chance to compete for the Oui title after defeating 7-dan Takanori Hashimoto.  In addition, he won the Kisei title match series with a great comeback on July 18th.  There were five rounds and he won the last three in a row after losing the first two rounds. He had only two titles on June 11th. But  37 days later he had four titles and the challenger Habu won the first round of the Oui title match. He kept so many titles that it became a main topic that Habu may get seven titles for the first time in thirteen years. Of course he had to defend his titles, but if he won three titles in a row (the Oui title match with Koichi Fukaura, the Ryuoh title match with Akira Watanabe in October, and the Kisei title match with Yasumitsu Sato in February), Habu might become a seven title holder in March, 2009. People started to say the "Road to the Grand Slam again." 

It seems Fukaura may feel uncomfortable to play the second game of Oui title match, which begin with Habu's victory, as part of his first match to defend his title because of people's expectation toward "Habu's Grand Slam again." "But Fukaura may be a person who shows his true colors in such adverse circumstances," I thought while I was riding a bullet train to Toyota-city.

In fact, Fukaura was a bit upset and said that "it was too early to talk about the Grand Slam, yet."; he turned this angst into positive energy. 

Later he asked younger fellows what they would think if they started a fist fight with Habu: 

"I think I'm going to win. What do you think? Don't you think so?"

I was surprised and asked him what he exactly meant.

Then he explained: "It it important to think that there is something I could defeat Habu at as a human so that I don't have to be afraid of him. I hate to think I would lose everything to Habu. Does everybody think they will lose the game when they start it with him? That is meaningless, isn't it? We are all equal when we play shogi; The game never depends on players' careers. We need such spirit."

Although most professional shogi players were overwhelmed by their cumulative results with Habu, only Fukaura was about to break even. His mentality, "If I get into a fist-fight, I'm going to win," seemed to be the secret for his results.



Professional shogi players in San Francisco


I first met Fukaura in April, 2008, which was three month before the Oui title match.

In the shogi world, the off season came in April after the league ranking tournament called Juni-sen was over.

Oui Koichi Fukaura, 8-dan Hisashi Namekata, 7-dan Hirotaka Nozuki, and 4-dan Yusuke Toyama had a plan to travel to San Francisco, Vancouver, and Seattle. I was invited by my old friend Toyama to go for lunch or dinner in San Francisco. I thought I couldn't miss it and I took one day off and went to San Francisco on April 14th.

In May, I had a conversation with Shigesato Itoi and Satoru Iwata, the CEO of Nintendo. 

Iwata: "What are you going to do after your career?"


Umeda: "This is kind of strange but I think I have been too disciplined. ... So recently I started to try to be more relaxed and do something other than my job. More specifically, I really like "Shogi". ... I really liked it since I was a child but I haven't played it between the ages of twenty and forty.


Itoi: "What does that mean? You intentionally didn't touch it?"


Umeda: "Yes. I'm that kind of person."


Iwata: "So you sacrificed something for something else"


Umeda: "Yes. I have been doing that, but I have started to change.  I started to have communication with professional shogi players recently. I don't know how to say this, but I really love them (Laugh)."


Iwata: (Laugh)


Itoi: "I totally understand. (Laugh) They are really pure."


Umeda: "That's true. Recently I spend hours with them and I felt like I enjoyed it from bottom my heart."


(If only problems which are appropriate size, Almost daily Itoi News paper)


The precious time I mentioned above was those with four professional shogi players in San Francisco.


Itoi pointed out their essence by one word "pure"; their charm as humans comes from the pureness that they always thought they would spend their entire life as professional shogi players from their childhood. As professional shogi players who started because they really liked it, they needed to become engrossed in shogi to become a professional, even though people around them thinks "they are addicted" and worried about them.

If they become a pro, competition for the top professionals will last forever. As part of  that process during each competition, "Winning or Losing" is always obvious and the players have to take responsibility for it.

Such world rarely exists in model society.

We sometimes envy them because they found what they really like as children and have made it their job.

It looks like they are earning their living by doing only what they really like.

But when we realize they are living in such a harsh world, we start to feel comfortable in our ambiguous world.

How did those professional shogi players, who live in such a world, look like to me?

First, they are incredible geniuses. They are really smart, have quick minds, have good memories, and are good at talking and confident. During the conversation, they get to the point incredibly fast. I always feel comfortable with their smooth style of conversation. They are totally different from people who belong to organizations. They are also different from engineers, artists or scholars, but at the same time they are part of the mysterious and wonderful Japanese culture. They sometimes look like roughnecks. They also look to have an old-fashioned-workman spirit, "spending their earnings for the day before the night is out." They are really gentle and look mature even when they are young. They take everything seriously. The senses of Individualism are naturally parts of their personality. I can detect their smartness within their words; they decide quickly and take full responsibility for their decision. Living in an unrestricted world in relation to time, many like drinking and overindulge when it comes to hanging out. They tend to be very fussy about the details of their sport and play by using their good memory. And they really cherish people who love shogi and the shogi world. They are communicating with people deeply through shogi. I got those feelings from them.



Koichi Fukaura's Feelings about his hometown, SASEBO


Among the professional shogi players, Fukaura is a person who listens to others carefully, and stands out for having inner strength, though being quite. When I had a conversation with him, he obviously memorized everything I said and got the point easily. But he was really easy to talk with, and after spend a day with him, I had the feeling that he was an old friend of mine even though that was my first time to meet him.

In San Francisco, we crossed Golden Gate Bridge and went to a small seaside town called Sausalito.

As everybody suggested that we had better relax at seaside and have a chat rather than to move around to many spots, we spent time in Sausalito by taking a walk and chat. While we were taking a walk, I started to talk about the major league and said that:

"The thing that touched me when I went to a ballpark to see a major-league game is that the audience knows a lot about baseball and is engrossed in watching baseball. For example, when a player who just became a major league player from a minor league comes to the batter's box, the audience welcomes him and he receives a standing ovation even if there's no reason to on the scoreboard." 

Then Fukaura said that "We see the same situation when we go to the country side of Japan." 

I envy him because I was born in Tokyo and am not in his same situation but Fukaura deeply loves his home town, Sasebo. His fans from his home town are as enthusiastic as the audience who supports their home team in the major-league at a baseball stadium.


The second game of  the Oui title match in Toyota-city was therefore an important match for him. As the fourth game was schedule to be held in Sasebo, this was a big topic for Nishi-Nippon Newspaper and everyone in the town could not wait for Oui Koichi Fukaura's come back. But if he lost that second round, then he has to go back to his home as a loser. Think about the worst possible case, that he lose his title by losing four games in a row in Sasebo. To refrain from such a situation, Fukaura cannot lose the second round.


In spring when he was a sixth grader at his elementary school, he participated in the Munakata Oui match (held by our paper) which many amateur shogi players from Kyushu and Yamaguchi competed. He participated as the representative of Nagasaki Prefecture. That autumn he said "I want to join the club and become a professional shogi player." Everybody was surprised because he was not good at expressing himself. ... He graduated from his elementary school in spring, 1984 and went to Tokyo supported by his relatives and joined the club, but it was hard for him.

It took a year to become 5 kyu from 6 kyu which was his first challenge. Everybody else was getting higher rank and he couldn't. He went back to his room and cried by holding his shogi board. After he graduated from junior high school, he rented his own room. Once his allowance from home was delayed and he couldn't pay the 30,000 Yen for his rent. "I cried and apologize to the owner. I'm so embarrassed" said Fukaura.

(Nishi-Nippon News Paper, 1st August, 2008)


There are plenty of biographies for Habu. But every professional shogi player has his own story from his childhood when he was found as a genius shogi-boy in a part of Japan and he has to live in the shogi world to compete as a "Top Genius" for his entire life. 


Fukaura left his home town and came to Tokyo when he was twelve, so he just graduated from elementary school. Twelve is just a kid. Fukaura said "How my parents would allow that kid to go to Tokyo." My friend from my home town said the same thing when I left my home town, but I was fifteen years old. Three years make a big difference. ... Fukaura became really strong after he left his relative's house, started living alone, and work as a scorekeeper for many times.

As a member of the Shoreikai who didn't get paid to play games, score keeping was the only way to make money other than the allowance from his parents, but it was good chance to learn about shogi at the same time. In that sense, Fukaura learned about shogi and was trained in the old fashioned way.

(Aspects Of The Game by Teruichi Aono)


9-dan Teruichi Aono wrote that article more than ten years ago. Even Fukaura chose to live the way he likes, his reality is that he went to Tokyo right after he graduated from elementary school and survived while playing the game every day. This is far beyond the imagination of the people who live ordinary lives like us. And more than twelve years later, when he was in his middle 30's he got one of the top title in the shogi world. As a brain sport athlete, a professional shogi player, Fukaura was a late bloomer. That is why the Oui title was very important for him.

"There are many cases where talented professional shogi players who were expected to stay A class, but couldn't, and resulted in falling down to B2, and C1, being unable to stay even at class B1. I think they reach the time to give up. One day they lose their ambition. And their heart goes far away from shogi. That moment tends to come when the players are around their middle thirties. How do I keep my ambition? This sounds a little hypocritical but the expectations from my home town are huge. This is my main motivation. Of course I hate to lose, but my reason is totally different from other professional players, including Habu. The importance of my "hometown" is different.

When I listened to his words, I couldn't stop asking him "Is 'hometown' really your main reason?" His feelings about his home, Sasebo, are truly really strong.



Players who exude an atmosphere of refusing to want to come to an easy conclusion.


The Oui title match is played on a two-day system but the Kisei title match is played on a one-day system. In order to watch the second game of the Oui title match with the organization parties, you need to make a three night stay. It was impossible to secure that much time during my business trip to Japan in July, so I had no choice but to head alone for Nagoya by Shinkansen after finishing a breakfast meeting in Tokyo on the second day of the match. If I visited the resort hotel, Hotel Foresta in Toyota city, where the match was being held, after checking into a hotel in Nagoya, I could watch the second afternoon when the match reached the best part.


The second game of the Oui title match started with "R-3b as the 2nd move (2手目△3二飛)" by Habu (Gote, the second mover), which was an immediate drastic move after the first move P-7f. This was a typical example of "freedom on the board" in the opening; the match was a rough-and-tumble fight in a style had never before been seen.

Board: second move at 49th Oi match and its Japanese version
[The 2nd move △R-3b]

The 49th Oui match, Game 2

Fukaura described the "R-3b as the 2nd move" later as: "To be honest, I thought that ‘he really did it.’ It was only about three minutes after the game stared, therefore the official observer, the chairman Yonenaga, and many other people were still in the play room. Habu made a swift move of the Rook in such a circumstance. I thought he was a real entertainer." After "R-3b as the 2nd move," the game maintained an explosive situation with the players in high spirits until the end.

In the past, this kind of game was called "Free Shogi," and it was not studied or researched seriously because the same position is unlikely to reoccur. However the current Shogi trend is to study this "Free Shogi" deeper and deeper, and to try to find a way to improve the situation. The late 9-dan Kingoro Kaneko defined "Free Shogi" as follows:

We call a game "Free Shogi" when the two players fight each other building an amorphous piece formation which is different from all of the standard openings. It takes a high level of skill to judge all positions on your own. Only high level professionals can keep it under control, and others have a hard time understanding it or to even have a chance to see it. (Kindai Shogi, November 1951 issue)  

The major reasons that this type of shogi is felt to be hard to understand are the following points that Kaneko described: (1) You have to keep proceeding by yourself while perceiving and judging positions you have never seen before. (2) You have to build an amorphous piece formation during the battle. Those two point are significant. 

I spent my time on the afternoon of the second day of the game alternating between the waiting room in Hotel Foresta and the room of the commentary show that used a demonstration board. I felt so relaxed and happy watching shogi without the pressure to write any commentary. 

Speaking of the game, I had been watching all the surroundings such as the professionals discussing the game; it was very interesting that they all would say anything off the top of their head without having a concrete thought. The atmosphere which differed from an ordinary standard opening was very exciting.  The result of this match was that Fukaura won this game by coming back in the endgame.


After the match, both players came out to the room of the commentary show using a demonstration board and talked of their impressions of the match for the fans, then they went back to the playing room again for the post-game analysis. However, they did not say anything and both dropped into deep thought. They did not even exchange their thoughts. It was like they "did not have time to think enough during the match."

In order to write instant articles, the media reporters and authorized people tried to get the reasons for victory and defeat. However, both players exuded an atmosphere of refusing to want to come to an easy conclusion. Habu said "We’ll find the meaning of this match in two or three years." I understand that it requires a lot of time for this "Free Shogi; R-3b as the 2nd move" (Animal Trail without a milestone) to become a standard opening sequence (Paved Highway), and the meaning of the game will be analyzed clearly only after the whole standardization process is over.  



A fellow who take the initiative in Modern Shogi


Speaking about the post-game analysis, just the same as the Kisei title match between Sato and Habu, I saw researchers thinking about the meaning of the results of an experiment, rather than fighters looking back at the game. 

I mentioned about Habu’s first book, Habu’s Brain, in the first chapter; likewise, Fukaura’s first book This is the cutting-edge. – perfect guide to the latest standard sequences of moves (April 1999, Kawade Shobo Shinsya, written when he was twenty seven) shows that he was well-qualified in research. This book was published at the same time that Habu was serializing Changing Modern Shogi in the magazine The Shogi World. Fukaura's book was a masterpiece with a taste of the contemporary history of the current technological evolution of Modern Shogi. The preface says,

There is a variety in the latest standard sequences of moves from those that have changed in the last few years to those that have stayed the same for a long time, from the Showa era. I included important games and title matches as many as possible, therefore this book has become a "History Book of Shogi Strategies" over the last ten years, as a result. I have also covered most of the openings, so you could enjoy professional shogi by using this book as a dictionary when watching title matches, games broadcasted on TV, or any commentaries in print.

It was of course my first time to write 300 pages using 400-character paper and to insert 400 board diagrams into the book. I spent at least six hours for each theme, and I feel I spent all of my little free time writing this book over the last nine months.

Like Habu’s Brain, this book covers all of the strategies, and very detailed information is given whenever any innovation occurred and whose games drove such evolution. Interestingly enough, nearly at the same time, Fukaura in his twenties, wrote an ambitious sentence,

In my study, since I have written down some new moves that I have never tried yet (but will try) without hiding anything, which is kind of a disadvantage to me, I will have no choice but to study more. 

This strongly indicates compatibility with the concepts of "freeing the knowledge" and "winning," which is also in Habu’s Brain. Fukaura certainly derived the philosophy of intelligent evolution which Habu started. Habu and Fukaura are in the same boat by not just leading current Shogi with their play, but also enlightening others.


After the post-game-analysis was over and Habu left the room, Fukaura basked in the afterglow of the victory with his face beaming with a smile. Maybe Sasebo, the venue of the coming fourth game, crossed his mind. He whispered "Winning is not that easy" with a sigh when he noticed me. Fukaura had shown his fighting spirit before the challenger was decided by saying "In my head, I have only one foe (Habu)." According to Fukaura, the match against Habu is totally different than those against others, in that it gives him a feeling that something is happening or some excitement or fear. Today’s match seemed the same and that gave him particular pleasure when he beat Habu.



Two tables


I moved to the party for only authorized people after the post-game analysis. Private parties in hotels differ from those in a Ryokan (Japanese-style hotel). There were two rows of round tables for eight people, just like a small wedding party. The title holder’s table had elite members of society, the host, the executives of sponsoring companies, official observers, etc.  Mainly elderly people surrounded Fukaura who held the title. I was seated beside Habu who was escorted by staff.  Habu was very relaxed with an easygoing attitude. 

I found that there was huge difference between those two tables after a while. The challenger’s table was just like a fun party, but the title holder’s table had great meaning for the Shogi industry, by talking with sponsors and the elites of society. Habu had been taking lots of responsibility as the face of the shogi industry over many years, but on this night, he gave everything over to Fukaura and relaxed. When I observed Fukaura at the table next to us, he was managing his responsibility perfectly. 

I remembered Fukaura’s words "I have been a responsible person since I was a kid, or I would say, I had a strong feeling that given jobs must be done." With the fact that he turns to the expectations of his hometown for inspiration, I thought Fukaura surely is sociable. 

When I see a group of professional players, I sometimes feel that they are similar to engineers in Silicon Valley. About one in ten engineers in Silicon Valley are very sociable, and this kind of engineer tends to turn himself into a top executive. On the other hand, those who are sociable at too young of an age tend to lose their concentration on one thing, and are likely to lose their technological competition so that they could not become top engineers. People who are silent but have an inner fortitude with latent sociality tend to sacrifice themselves improving their skills and become top executives in their 40’s with their human skills. That is a typical pattern in Silicon Valley; Fukaura is exactly like that.


His brother player (i.e. their mentor is the same), 9-dan Morishita, said in The Shogi World (February, 09 issue),

When professional shogi players were in the Shoreikai, or were young, many of them work as hard as Fukaura. However, few players who pass their mid-thirties keep working hard just like him.

The key factor of the fine line that distinguishes a genius of geniuses is to keep improving yourself every day; Fukaura has crossed this line with his sociality. He continues to work hard in order to live up to his social responsibility, and that stance has brought him to the top position in the shogi world.

Fukaura once said, when he was low ranked, that he envied others of the same age including Habu and Sato who played in a title match while Fukaura was working as a staff member in all aspects. What he meant by "all aspects" probably includes the social responsibility that a title holder has. If a professional player is satisfied with someone saying "you are strong," happy with the challenger’s table, or not capable of taking social responsibility, he may reach one of the top with his young luck, but he could not maintain his energy trying to keep sitting in the title-holder's table, again and again. Some professional players in their thirties, their skill might start to decline, allowing being passed by younger players and their desire to improve might fade away, and might end up loosing interest in shogi. I was thinking about things like that when remembering Fukaura’s words and comparing the two tables.



A huge match in life


The Oui title match, game one, took the whole summer of 2008. Fukaura won the third game which followed the second, and he made a triumphant return with a 2-1 lead to his hometown, Sasebo. After he won the fourth game in Sasebo, and had the happiest night of his life, he managed to win the seventh game after a 3-3 tie. He secured the title against Habu, and stopped him from getting the Grand Slam at the same time. When the match was scheduled, Fukaura said "If I don’t win against Habu two years in a row, I wouldn’t become a real Oui, right?" with fighting spirit, but after he won the title, he said "I think I should be recognized as Oui a little bit because I secured the title against Habu" with a proud look.


There is sometimes a huge game in your life, and the seventh game of the 49th Oui title match was the one for Fukaura. The competitor was tremendously strong; he could not have any title unless he won. There are many players who have lost a title match against great contemporary kings like Kimura, Oyama, Nakahara, Tanigawa, and Habu, and never came back to a title match again. Fukaura made himself overcome the situation, and winning the title put him on the level one stage.


In the meantime, even though Habu lost the Oui title with a complete match, he tossed his hat into the ring for the 21st Ryuoh title match. The expectation for "Habu’s Grand Slam again" will be after 2010, but one great record of "permanent seven-crowns (Grand Slam)" came under close scrutiny. The seven round match starting October will create a "permanent Ryuoh no matter who wins," and Habu who has already been entitled for six permanent titles will be entitled for permanent Ryuoh which is a truly-unexplored territory.


The baton of stopping Habu was passed from Fukaura to Watanabe, and this time Watanabe would face a "huge match in life" against Habu. The first round will be held in Paris. That location is tremendous.


Fukaura was asked about the development for the best of seven games in the Ryuoh title, and he forecasted a "4-3 Watanabe win."



Next > Chapter 5


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