True Mettle of Young Shogi Star to Be Tested from Now On

The strongest shogi player has earned another title at 20 years old. Since his debut, he has been accumulating wins at an astonishing pace, and he might achieve an unprecedented sweep of the eight major shogi titles by the end of this year.

Challenger Sota Fujii, who holds the prestigious Ryuo title, defeated Meijin titleholder Akira Watanabe for a 3-1 series victory in the fourth match of the best-of-five Kio title series, stopping Watanabe from holding the Kio title for the 11th consecutive time.

Fujii also holds four other titles, the Oi, Eio, Osho and Kisei, and has become the youngest player in history and the second since top rank 9th-dan Yoshiharu Habu to hold six major shogi titles simultaneously.

“I will have to work even harder to play shogi that is appropriate for my position,” Fujii said after the match. Part of Fujii’s charm is that he does not get carried away with his victories and maintains his humble attitude.

In July 2020, at the age of 17 years and 11 months, Fujii earned his first title, the Kisei. Since then, he has never lost a title challenge or defense and has extended his winning streak in title series to 13.

The secret to his formidability is his remarkable powers of concentration. He continues to strengthen his ability to think through unknown situations, by practicing with artificial intelligence on a daily basis. This training must have led to the highly accurate moves he makes at crucial moments of a match.

His overall match winning percentage is above .800, and he continues to improve. It is difficult to imagine how much stronger he will become.

At the end of last year, when he defended his Ryuo title for the first time, Fujii said: “I recognized anew that assessing the situation in the middle game is my problem. It was a series that made me realize that I must improve my ability.”

He continues to find issues in each game and work to improve. This attitude seems to reflect his genuine desire to become stronger and to master the game of shogi.

During this year’s Osho title series, he fended off challenger Habu, who was seeking to win a title for the 100th time, with a 4-2 series record. Shogi fans were thrilled by the “duel between the legends of the Heisei and Reiwa eras,” with their age difference of more than 30 years.

Fujii has already earned the right to challenge for the Meijin title, bringing a seventh title within sight. If he wins the series against Watanabe, Fujii will become the youngest Meijin titleholder, breaking the record set by 17th Lifetime Meijin Koji Tanigawa in 1983 of 21 years and 2 months.

In order to win all the major titles, it will also be important for Fujii to defend the titles he currently holds.

Recently, his speedy and accurate ability to think and foresee moves far ahead on the board have been improving, but other top players also are formulating their strategies for matches with Fujii, and the number of close matches between Fujii and other top players is increasing.

The true mettle of Fujii, who has been making rapid progress since his pro debut and has already been described as the “dominant player” in shogi, may be tested from now on.

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, March 21, 2023)