Result could serve as stepping stone for 6th title

“The strongest shogi master of the Reiwa era” once again exhibited the strength that befits this description. When the New Year dawns, a historic title match will take place between the young genius and his predecessor, drawing much attention to the shogi world.

Sota Fujii has for the first time successfully defended the most prestigious title, the Ryuo, fending off eighth-dan Akihito Hirose by 4 games to 2. “It was a tough series,” Fujii said. “I’m relieved that I managed to produce a result.”

When talking about a match between Fujii and Hirose, their 2018 Asahi Cup final might still be fresh in people’s minds. Fujii, then a 15-year-old junior high school student, defeated Hirose, rewriting the record books as the youngest player to win an official championship outside the eight major shogi titles.

Hirose won two games off Fujii for the first time in a best-of-seven title match, but praised his opponent, saying, “It was a total defeat that transcends the score.”

Defending the Ryuo means that Fujii maintains his hold on five titles. He will aim to continue defending these while seeking a sixth title. As Fujii has exhibited exceptionally stable performances in recent matches, it is also possible that he could achieve the difficult feat of holding all eight titles simultaneously.

Fujii’s overwhelming ability to concentrate seems to be the secret behind his strength. “When it’s difficult to make a decision during a game, that’s when thinking gets interesting,” he said. Even when placed in a very difficult position in a match, Fujii can patiently think through what his best move is.

Ninth-dan Masayuki Toyoshima, who lost the Ryuo to Fujii last year, described his opponent thus: “His ability to concentrate is extraordinary. He made me realize what an ordinary player I am because I sometimes feel tired when I have to continue thinking.”

Stoic during his shogi matches, Fujii plays chess as a hobby. He reportedly pauses as soon as he’s in a bad position when playing computer chess games. This human side is surely another reason why he is adored by people around him.

With the emergence of this young master, the shogi world has been seeing an increase in the number of fans whose hobby is watching official matches. The snacks and meals Fujii consumes during his games have also become topics of conversation.

Top shogi master ninth-dan Yoshiharu Habu, who has won 99 title matches, praised Fujii, saying, “Fujii’s achievement is that shogi has become a matter of public interest.”

Habu now aims to earn his 100th victory in a title match when he challenges Fujii for the Osho title at the start of next year. This will be the first time for the two players to compete against each other in a major title match.

In 1996 when there were only seven major titles, Habu became the first player to hold all seven. He later won the eisei lifetime title-holder honor for each of these.

In recent years Habu has not won any titles, in recent matches, however, he has been reviving his strength in the endgame that recalls him at his peak. The 20-year-old and the 52-year-old are two shogi masters that fans cannot stop watching.

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, Dec. 4, 2022)