Shogi, the Japanese Chess
Les échecs japonais
Shogi is Japanese Chess, Chess played in Japan. With its original system of promotions and drops, it can pretend to the title of most complex Chess in the World. Shogi is played in competition and has its champions. In Japan, there are professional players, as for Go, the great rival strategy game. Nowadays, there are also enthusiast players in many other countries.
Shogi is played on the cells of a 9x9 board (shogi-ban). The 3 first raws form the player's camp and the last 3 raws represent his promotion zone. The cells are slightly rectangular - longer than wider - and small points help to visualize the promotion zones.
Each player has 20 men. The pieces are flat and wedge-shaped and are not distinguished by color. Ownership of the pieces is indicated by the direction in which they face, with a player’s pieces always pointing towards the opponent. South (arbitrarily designed as "Black") is named Sente and plays first. North (or "White") is named Gote.
The pieces bear their name with two black ideograms. On the reverse side, they also have the name - in red or in black - of their promoted form (except the King and the Gold General who do not promote). The pieces are the following:
The table gives the English name, the Japanese name with the usual diminutive in bold, and the usual Japanese kanji used in books and publications for writing problems and games.
Promotion and drop are the essence of Shogi. Those rules are:
The origins of Shogi remain obscure. The eldest mention of Shogi is the Kirinshô, a text dated 1027 which just explains how to calligraphy the characters on the pieces. From Nara and about the same time (1058-1059) 16 pieces in Hinoki wood (Japanese cypress) have been conserved. They have already the same shape as modern pieces. Along with them was found a wooden tag (a mokken) used for writing purposes, on which some Japanese archaeologists have identified the characters for Suizô, meaning “Drunk Elephant”. But this is not widely accepted by Shogi historians.
Shogi is then mentioned in several personal diaries but no useful information is recorded about the game rules. One must wait until 1230 when the Nichûreki details two different forms of Shogi: one over a 8x8 and/or a 8x9 board (both might have existed), the other over a large 13x13 board.
The first one is is called Heian Sho Shogi (Little Heian Shogi) in reference to the important Heian period (794-1185) of Japanese history.game was played over a 8x8 and/or 9x8 . It had only six different kinds of pieces (King, Gold General, Silver General, Knight, Lance, and Pawn). The game has been reconstructed with all pieces promoting to Gold General on reaching the 3rd rank, and that baring the opponents King wins the game. An interesting point is that both Hisha and Kakugyo (Rook and Bishop) were not present. Those two pieces were (maybe) used in the enlarged variant only.
About 1300, the Futsû shôdôshû written by a Buddhist monk describes two forms again: Dai Shogi (Large Shogi) which was played on 15x15 board with 130 pieces and Sho Shogi (Little Shogi).
Sho Shogi was played over a regular Shogi-ban of 9x9 spaces and each player had 21 pieces which were those still in use in modern Shogi, with the remarkable introduction of both Hisha (Rook) and Kakugyo (Bishop), plus a Suizo, a Drunk Elephant. The Suizo moved 1 space on 7 directions (all except backward). This piece was potentially a very important piece, as it promoted to a Taishi, Crown Prince. A player who gained a Crown Prince effectively acquired a second King as the Crown Prince had also to be captured (or bared) before the opponent could win the game.
Sho Shogi was then stabilized for a long time. It was one of the variants played by people, as Dai Shogi and, also, Chu Shogi (Middle Shogi), on a 12x12 board, were equally popular. In the 15th centuries, even larger variants were recorded on 17x17, 19x19 and even 25x25 boards.
Several Shogi pieces were excavated in 1943-44 from a grave of the Asakura clan in Fukui. They have been dated to 1567 and the 98 pieces, of which 20 are illegible, contain exactly those pieces that would be needed for this Sho Shogi and no others. There are Kings, Golds, Silvers, Knights, Lances, Pawns, Rooks, Bishops (10!) - and Drunk Elephants. Apart from the lack of the other pieces the presence of Knights seems to rule out Middle Shogi.
On the 16th century, the drop concept has been introduced in Sho Shogi. It is possible that drops were inspired by the Japanese war custom in that period were many valorous knights fought as mercenaries, switching sides to get better income or profit. Tradition says that Emperor Go-Nara (reigning 1527 or 1536-1557) reformed Sho Shogi by permitting drops. In exchange, it is supposed that the Drunk Elephant was definitively withdrawn. Modern Shogi was born.
In 1612, the Shogun Ieyasu Tokugawa asked Sansa Honinbo, the best player of Go and Shogi of his time, to found the first professional academy for these two games. Sansa did it along with Sokei Ohashi (1555-1634) who became the first Meijin (Grand Master). In 1636, Sokei's son, Soko Ohashi published the Shogi Zushiki, a treatise with the essential standardised rules of modern Shogi.
Caution : contrary to Japanese habit which places family name first, all names in this page are given in westernized fashion : first name, followed by last name (family name).
One could simply think that Shogi derives from the Chinese Xiangqi, as the game of Go came from China where it was known and played for so long under the name of Weiqi. But, such a theory would be unable to explain several characteristics of Shogi which shows troubling similarities with Chess games from South-East Asia like Makruk/Ouk Chatrang or Sittuyin.
Let us start by discussing and sorting the basic elements we find in Shogi. Some characters are with no doubt of Chinese influence:
However, the characters inducing a South-East Asian connection are as much important:
Then, it is very likely - as it has been suggested by the Japanese game historian Koichi Masukawa, that Shogi comes from a melting of different Chess influences. It is known that under the Yamato period (until 8th century) Japan borrowed many cultural things from China: writing, Buddhism and also Weiqi (Go) to name just a few. But Japanese were also excellent navigators, sometimes, pirates too, and archaeologists have found proofs that they were commercing along the "Maritime Silk Road" which was going to Siam, Burma and India through the Malay straits. That influence entered Japan before the Heian period (from 9th century) when the archipelago stopped to imitate China and started to develop its own national culture. It is very probable that Chess - Shogi - underwent this "nipponisation" phase as well.
Shogi has a many enlarged variants which also deserve a description. Follow this link
Photographs of Heian Shogi pieces from the following book:
Asian Games The Art of Contest, Asia Society, 2004
If there is any problem with their presence here, please do mail me.
I am very grateful to Peter Banaschak for all informations he gave me.
Many thanks to Steve Evans too, author of Shogi Variants freeware, from whom I borrowed few illustrations and lines of text.