Getting Reacquainted With Shogi: Japanese Chess

Happy 2022, dear readers!! 🥳

Ages ago, I got into playing a Japanese chess-variant called Shogi (将棋). Shogi as we know it has been played in Japan since the 16th century, but is based on older versions of the game, which in turn derived from continental Asian chess games. Back then, there weren’t that many books on the subject in English. Fortunately, the Wikipedia article was very thorough, so my co-workers and I learned from that, and started playing together during our down time. None of us were particularly good, but being a bunch of nerds, that also meant we could learn together.

Shogi is similar to Chess in many respects, except for one important aspect: pieces you capture can be replayed on your side. It’s thought that this rule, introduced in the 16th century, reflected the fluid nature of Japanese warfare at the time, and the switching allegiances of warlords, mercenaries and so on.

This rule adds some interesting complications as one closes in to defeat the enemy king, and drops key pieces in the right place to cut off his escape.

Sadly, after I moved on to another job, I never really played Shogi again. I tried playing online but it was fierce competition and I just wasn’t motivated enough to invest the time, grinding one loss after another, to improve. I just kind of forgot about over time.

Another challenge for Westerners in particular, is learning how to read the pieces, since they’re written with Chinese characters (kanji). My bi-racial son is learning Japanese anyway, but isn’t old enough to read most kanji yet. Fortunately, we had a solution.

Then, last month, my eight-year old son took a sudden interest in Shogi. This happened after he uncovered an old Shogi set from the closet and asked me to teach him.

I bought this set years ago, when my daughter was a little girl, and briefly interested in Shogi. During our yearly trip to Japan, I bought her this great introductory set to Shogi and Go, featuring the famous character Doraemon:

This set is great because each piece has arrows to remind players which direction that piece can move, and furigana letters over the Chinese characters to help young Japanese kids, and so on. It also includes some optional beginner games for younger kids in order to ease them into Shogi and Go, including “mini Shogi” and “mini Go”.

My daughter enjoyed the intro games with me, but never really took Shogi after that. My son also played the mini games, but soon moved onto playing Shogi.

I would love to see a similar introductory set for Western audiences. Shogi is a really fun game, and really not that hard to learn, but getting over the language barrier can be intimidating at first.

In any case, playing Shogi with my son has forced me to dust off my old skills and give my son a good challenge, while also teaching him basic strategy and such. I don’t know if he’ll keep it up, but I am happy to see him take an interest anyway. It’s a good father-and-son moment. 😄

P.S. I may post a few other “learnings” from Shogi as time goes on. Stay tuned!

Published by Doug

🎵Toss a coin to your Buddhist-Philhellenic-D&D-playing-Japanese-studying-dad-joke-telling-Trekker, O Valley of Plentyyy!🎵He/him

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