With 5th title, Fujii’s dream to hold every shogi title becoming a reality

The strongest shogi player of the Reiwa era has claimed another great honor while continuing to rewrite shogi records. It is also becoming more likely that he can achieve the feat of having sole possession of all eight major titles.

Sota Fujii, the challenger in the best-of-seven Osho title match, swept Akira Watanabe, whose titles include the Meijin and who was aiming to hold the Osho title for the fourth consecutive time. At 19 years and 6 months old, Fujii, whose titles include the prestigious Ryuo, thus became the youngest player in history to hold five major titles.

Watanabe is a shogi player thoroughly versed in the methods to win big matches, having captured the Ryuo at age 20 and holding the title nine years in a row. His strong play and presence earned him the nickname “the devil.” This time, however, even Watanabe couldn’t get anywhere close to Fujii.

Fujii’s game has been improving while he continues to win. Of course, this is likely the result of his tireless efforts, but one can only admire his endless talent.

In 2016, at 14 years and 2 months, he became the youngest shogi player to ever turn professional. Since then, he has accomplished a number of other feats, including winning 29 consecutive matches and becoming the youngest player to win a major title. With the meals and sweets he eats during matches becoming topics of conversation, his popularity is no longer limited to shogi fans.

At the recent conferment ceremony to crown the Ryuo title, it was impressive to see Fujii bowing many times to the people there. During the ceremony, Shingo Kunieda, the Tokyo Paralympic gold medalist in wheelchair tennis who is a big fan of shogi and has played against Fujii, delivered a video message.

Kunieda said, “He’s shy and look like a cute 19-year-old, but when we face each other with the shogi pieces arranged on a board between us, I feel such clean and crisp pressure from him, like a gust of wind is blowing, that I get goose bumps.”

A usually unassuming 19-year-old, when facing the board, Fujii wears a serious look on his face as if winning is the only thing that matters. Many people are probably fascinated by this disparity.

Fujii has said that the most important thing in playing a shogi match is to “believe in myself.” When making a risky move, a shogi program using artificial intelligence has no hesitation, but humans find it difficult to trust their own calculations of the match and whether they can take the risk, he said.

While Fujii is able to make thought-out moves that are said to be “beyond AI,” he also possesses techniques that have a human touch, being patient in his moves to invite a mistake from the opponent. This may be the secret of his strength.

Fujii’s strong performances were chosen as one of the top 10 domestic news stories by Yomiuri Shimbun readers in 2020 and in 2021. His feats have brought brightness to society, which has been liable to become gloomy amid the novel coronavirus pandemic.

Fujii’s playing style and achievements have both been compared to those of ninth-dan Yoshiharu Habu in his younger days. At the age of 25, Habu captured all the major titles when there were seven at that time.

Will Fujii be able to reach those heights? Without doubt, many people are excited about what he will attempt to achieve from now on.

— The original Japanese article appeared in The Yomiuri Shimbun on Feb. 13, 2022.