Seventh Title Brings Shogi Sensation Even Closer to Unprecedented Glory

A young talent in the shogi world is now within reach of becoming the first player in history to hold all eight titles. Many people are eager to see if he will reach that milestone by the end of this year.

In the best-of-seven Meijin series, Sota Fujii beat defending titleholder Akira Watanabe in four of their five games, capturing his seventh title.

At the age of 20 years and 10 months, Fujii became the youngest player to hold seven titles, greatly rewriting the previous record of 25 years and 4 months previously set by ninth-dan player Yoshiharu Habu. Fujii also broke the record for the youngest Meijin titleholder, previously set by Koji Tanigawa, who is now a lifetime Meijin titleholder, when Tanigawa was 21 years and 2 months old.

Fujii made his debut as a professional shogi player at the age of 14 years and 2 months in 2016. He claimed the titles of Oi, Eio, Ryuo, Osho and Kio in just three years after winning the Kisei title in 2020. It is difficult to find anything but words of praise for his phenomenal achievements.

If Fujii earns the right to challenge for the Oza title series to be held in the autumn and defeats current titleholder Takuya Nagase, the shogi sensation will achieve the unprecedented feat of holding eight titles simultaneously. But first, Fujii must defend two of his titles in the Kisei and Oi series this summer. People will not be able to take their eyes off the matches that are scheduled to be held one after another.

His ability to think both quickly and deeply, which is known as his strength, has continued to evolve as he competes with top players. His rivals have tried to induce mistakes from him by steering their games into uncharted waters, but he has overwhelmed them with his response capability that goes beyond their maneuvers.

His recent match performances can be well described by the term “Fujii curve.” During online streaming of his matches, artificial intelligence generates a line graph indicating whom the odds favor. The line curves steadily toward Fujii’s side as each game progresses.

In his heyday, Habu, who holds the eisei lifetime honor for his seven titles, was known for “Habu magic,” his technique of using brilliant moves to come back from an inferior position in the middle and endgame. In contrast, the true essence of Fujii’s shogi playing style is that he rarely allows even the slightest chance of being outperformed by his opponent.

Next year, the Japan Shogi Association will celebrate the centennial of its establishment. It intends to capitalize on the milestone year to pass on the tradition of shogi culture, and Fujii’s achievements will surely provide a tailwind for that purpose.

Next year, the association’s shogi halls in Tokyo and Osaka are to be relocated. To increase the number of fans, steady efforts are called for to support the current shogi boom such as by offering training to amateur players and holding enhanced events in regional areas.

Watanabe, who lost the Meijin series, has been left without titles for the first time in 19 years, but he has had glorious accomplishments so far, such as reigning as a Ryuo titleholder for many years. It is hoped that Watanabe, together with his rivals, will aim once again to beat Fujii.

Fujii has not lost a single title series to date. How far will his unbeaten streak continue? The 20-year-old player already has the air of a shogi legend.

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, June 3, 2023)