Shogi – The Vancouver Shogi Club Rides Again
Like many aspects of Japanese culture, shogi, sometimes known as Japanese chess, gestated elsewhere before being adopted and then adapted to Japanese tastes. Originating in India in the 6th century, it spread to China and then Japan, where it has spawned a number of variants.
While not played widely outside Japan, it is enjoyed in Nikkei communities around the world, including Canada, where the Vancouver Shogi Club was formed by Makoto Kumano (熊野理) in 1968. The first club outside of Japan to be officially recognized as a branch of the Japan Shogi Association, it ran for many years, with clubs also forming in Montreal and Toronto.
An aging player-base and lack of new recruits saw the Canadian clubs go dormant for a number of years, along with the Canadian Shogi Federation. It took a player new to the game to revive organized Shogi in Vancouver. Devon Rowcliffe, who had played a little chess as a boy, became interested in the game after seeing it on TV. After researching the history of the game in Vancouver, he decided to revive the club, relaunching it in early 2014.
Over the past year, the Vancouver Shogi Club has hosted more than 30 shogi events in Vancouver, including participating in the Powell Street Festival, the Summer Festival at SFU, West End Games Night, and an event at Sunset Beach.
Last summer the club organized the third Canadian Shogi Championship – the first such event since 2008. The winner went on to compete at the 2014 International Shogi Forum in Shizuoka, Japan, where he progressed to the quarter-finals against the best shogi players from around the world.
This year, from April 17-18, the Vancouver Shogi Club will host professional shogi player Madoka Kitao, the first time that a shogi pro has visited Canada. Her visit will include free shogi events for Vancouverites of all ages and abilities.
Travelling the world regularly to promote Japanese chess, Kitao has written several books about shogi, and is the creator of Let’s Catch the Lion! (or “animal shogi”), a smaller version of shogi that uses animal images to encourage children and adults to try Japanese chess.
Future plans include making the Canadian Shogi Championship an annual online event and working towards the revival of the dormant Canadian Shogi Federation (formally run by Ted Hsu, now an elected Member of Parliament). There are also plans to establish the Cascadian Open Shogi Championship (an in-person tournament open to players from British Columbia, Washington, Oregon, and around the world), and they are exploring the launch of the world’s first English-language radio program/podcast about shogi.
The club also aims to make it easier to buy shogi materials from stores here in Vancouver, as well as to encourage the creation of shogi clubs in other major Canadian cities (particularly Montreal) and in Seattle.
Everyone is welcome to join the Vancouver Shogi Club’s events, regardless of skill level or experience. Club members are happy to show newcomers how to play. More details can be found online at: shogivancouver.wordpress.com/events.
Madoka Kitao, professional female shogi player from Japan ［日本からプロの女流棋士がやってくる］
Saturday, April 18
1:00 pm – 4:00 pm
Join us for the first-ever visit to Canada by a professional shogi (Japanese chess) player! Shogi pro Madoka Kitao (北尾 まどか) will deliver a shogi and animal shogi presentation at 1:00pm. Afterward, we will break out into games of shogi and animal shogi.
Ms. Kitao travels the world regularly to promote Japanese chess. She has written several books about shogi, and is the creator of Let’s Catch the Lion! (animal shogi / どうぶつしょうぎ), a smaller version of shogi that uses animal images to encourage people to try Japanese chess.
Please note: The initial presentation at 1:00pm will be entirely in Japanese language; we apologize for any inconvenience. Everyone is welcome to attend, and we hope that you’ll join us for games of shogi and animal shogi after the presentation!
Bulletin Interview: Devon Rowcliffe
Shogi may be popular in Japan, but it’s pretty obscure here in Canada. How did you come to become interested in the game?
There was a serialized drama about shogi on NHK in late 1996/early 1997 called Futarikko (ふたりっ子) that made its way onto the multicultural TV channel here in Vancouver. I played chess a little bit as a child, but had no idea that other types of chess existed; I thought shogi looked quite interesting. My father bought me a shogi set shortly afterward (late 1990s), but sadly I never seemed able to prioritize learning shogi over other interests. In recent years, I would mention to my wife every few months that I should learn how to play shogi – by 2013 she had heard enough, plonked the shogi set down in front me, and ordered me to finally take the plunge.
Shogi is called Japanese chess. Is there a real similarity to chess or is it just a superficial likeness? Is there an advantage to being a good chess player when it comes to picking up shogi?
The two games share a common ancestor, chaturanga, which was developed in India during the 6th century. That original game spread west to Persia and late-medieval Europe; to the east, it spread all across East Asia, where numerous countries adapted it to create local versions of the game. That’s why there are unique variations of chess in countries such as Japan, China, Korea, Thailand and Myanmar.
Shogi was first developed in Japan during the 9th century, but in a different form than the 9×9 game we’re used to today – that originated much later, in the 16th century. Variations of shogi range from a micro board (4×5) all the way up to the massive taikyoku shogi (“ultimate chess”) – a 36×36 game that was re-discovered by archaeologists in 1997, and would take at least several full days to play.
Because shogi and chess share a common ancestor, the games have numerous similarities. Some of the pieces have the same movement (king, bishop, rook), while others are very similar (pawn, knight). Having knowledge of chess or other national chess variants is definitely helpful for learning shogi.
The Vancouver Shogi club was founded in 1968 and it was relaunched in 2014. What happened in the intervening years – why did it die?
Several years ago, the club’s membership was comprised mostly of older Japanese Canadian men. Some of them retired from the club due to old age, while others found that the rigors of senior career positions didn’t leave them much free time on weekends. Eventually, the number of active members dwindled so low that the club became dormant.
You rebooted the club last year. It’s a pretty big jump from taking up a new interest like shogi to actually running a club. What prompted you to take that step?
I wanted to learn how to play shogi, but I realized it would be difficult to do so without people to play against. Given that the Vancouver Shogi Club was the first overseas branch officially recognized by the Japanese Shogi Association (back in 1968), its dormancy was an unfortunate development.
I knew that there were still a decent number of shogi players scattered throughout Metro Vancouver, and so re-starting the club wouldn’t be as difficult as beginning something literally from scratch. Being able to build upon the legacy of the previous club has been very helpful.
How has the response been?
Turnout has been surprisingly good. Some of the players from the previous club returned, including former North American champion and original club founder Mr. Makoto Kumano. They have been joined by newcomers who already know how to play. We also have a few players – including myself – with little to no background in shogi.
Unlike chess, with its iconic (and easily recognizable) pieces, shogi uses Japanese characters to identify the pieces – is that a challenge for non-Japanese speakers who want to take up the game?
The Japanese characters may initially look like a difficult barrier, but most people are surprised how quickly they can grasp how the pieces work. Not including promotion, there are only eight types of pieces, and they come in slightly different sizes – another way to assist with differentiation.
For those who aren’t keen to learn the Japanese characters at first, there are other ways to start playing shogi. Animal shogi uses animal pictures, for example, which makes the game much more visual. “Internationalized” shogi pieces have also been designed that feature chess-like pictures, some of which also include directional arrows that illustrate how the pieces move.
Give me three good reasons why someone should take up shogi.
1) To have fun! Like most board games, playing shogi is a blast, and every single match is different. There will be always be something new to learn, no matter how many games you play. And if you join a club, you can meet interesting people.
2) To experience something different! The world is a huge place filled with so many fascinating cultures. Why limit oneself only to what’s locally ubiquitous and already known? Numerous chess masters who have taken up shogi have declared that they prefer the Japanese game. And given that shogi was honed and tinkered with for 700 years until the version known today was decided upon, what board game could possibly be better than that?
3) To exercise your mind! The human brain peaks cognitively at age 24; after that, one must regularly engage in rigorous mental activities if they wish to slow the decline. Our society understands – and is perhaps currently obsessed with – the importance of physical health and exercise, but brain health is just as important. Shogi is great for keeping sharp, and has resulted in a noticeable improvement in my ability to concentrate. In this age of smartphones and constant distractions, I love being able to become completely engrossed in one activity. My wife finds that she can fall asleep more quickly and has a deeper sleep after she plays shogi, and thus is convinced that it creates alpha brain waves – something produced during activities such as meditation.
I was surprised to learn there are professional shogi players in Japan. Is it common? And how do you earn a living?
There are more than 200 professional shogi players – all of whom live in Japan. They each receive a small salary – barely enough to survive – but they also receive performance bonuses based upon their results. Yoshiharu Habu, considered to be the best player, has an annual income that sometimes tops $1 million, thanks to the several titles that he holds.
A young Polish woman, Karolina Styczyńska, recently moved to Japan to become a shogi professional-in-training – the first non-Japanese person to do so. She caused a minor sensation back in 2012 while still an amateur by defeating a professional player.
Friday, April 17 – Special event (details to be announced)
Thursday May 7 – International Village food court, 5:30-9:00pm
Saturday May 23 – Moii Cafe, 2:00-6:00pm
Thursday June 4 – International Village food court, 5:30-9:00pm
Saturday June 20 – Moii Cafe, 2:00-6:00pm
Thursday July 2 – International Village food court, 5:30-9:00pm
Saturday July 18 – Moii Cafe, 2:00-6:00pm
Animal shogi overview
Animal shogi (also known as “Let’s Catch the Lion!”) is a fun and easy way to learn how to play Japanese chess. Created in 2008 by professional shogi player Madoka Kitao, animal shogi uses a smaller board (3×4) and features animal pictures instead of Japanese kanji. Originally meant to make shogi more appealing to children, animal shogi has also become popular with females, adults and non-Japanese.
Animal shogi helps to introduce the basic concepts of shogi: how pieces move, capturing your opponent’s pieces, re-using captured pieces (the “drop rule” that makes shogi unique among national chess variants), and promotion of pieces.
There are four pieces in animal shogi: a chick (pawn), elephant (bishop), giraffe (rook), and lion (king). The pieces can each move one square; red dots on the pieces show which directions they can move.
If you capture your opponent’s piece, you can drop it back on the board as your own piece. And if your chick reaches the final row in your opponent’s territory, it promotes into a chicken (gold general).
A player wins by either capturing their opponent’s lion, or by moving their lion into the final row of their opponent’s territory.
There is also a 5×6 version of animal shogi called “Goro goro animal shogi” (“goro goro” is the Japanese word for “purring”, but “goro” can also mean “5 6” – the board dimensions of this game). The larger board allows for more strategy. Pieces include cats (silver generals) and dogs (gold generals).
Finally, there is a 9×9 version called “Animal shogi in the Greenwood.” This is exactly the same as regular shogi, except that it still features pieces with animal pictures instead of Japanese kanji.
The three types of animal shogi provide a gradual transition to the full version of Japanese chess, and help to make shogi accessible to a much larger audience.
The basic (3×4) version of animal shogi can be purchased online at Amazon.ca for CDN$ 21.77, which includes free shipping.