Fujii wins Ryuo title, becomes youngest shogi player with quadruple crown

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Sota Fujii studies the board during the endgame of the fourth game of the best-of-seven Ryuo title series in Ube, Yamaguchi Prefecture, on Saturday.

Shogi prodigy Sota Fujii has captured the Ryuo title after sweeping the best-of-seven series over defending champion Masayuki Toyoshima, becoming the youngest shogi player to hold four major titles simultaneously at 19 years and 3 months old.

Fujii won the fourth game of the series at 6:41 p.m. Saturday on the 122nd move played at a hotel in Ube, Yamaguchi Prefecture.

“It doesn’t really feel like I’ve captured the title,” Fujii said at a press conference on Sunday. “But as I now sign autograph cards with the Ryuo title appended and attend events like this, I think I will have more occasions to feel it.”

Aichi Prefecture native Fujii is the sixth player in history to hold four of the eight major shogi titles, greatly rewriting by 3½ years the record once held by 51-year-old ninth-dan Yoshiharu Habu, who was 22 years and 9 months when he held four titles.

The Yomiuri Shimbun

In addition to the Ryuo, which is considered to be the most prestigious of the major titles, Fujii has defended his Oi and Kisei titles and recently captured the Eio.

Toyoshima had successfully defended the Ryuo twice, but failed to do so a third time. He is now among the ninth-dan players, the highest rank in shogi, without a major title.

The other titles are held by Akira Watanabe, who holds the Meijin, Kio and Osho, and Takuya Nagase, who is the Oza titleholder.

Deep, speedy calculations

During the final phase of the fourth game of the series, Fujii pressed his temples repeatedly and had a pained look on his face, his typical expression when he is pushed into tough situations because of a miscalculation.

“I thought it was going to be difficult to win the game,” Fujii said afterward.

But his recovery demonstrated his current strengths. Fujii tenaciously pressured Toyoshima to draw a mistake from the defending champ. He then turned the game around all of a sudden, exercising his ability to excel in the endgame.

His ability to calculate moves is regarded as being deep, speedy and accurate. Habu has described Fujii’s ability as a “gifted talent.”

Fujii also has the mental toughness to stay calm as he works to recover from tough game situations.

But it had been Toyoshima who continued to get the better of Fujii. Until last year, Fujii had lost six straight matches against Toyoshima.

In the past year, Fujii developed his skills quickly, partly with the help of artificial intelligence. He studied Toyoshima’s tactics, such as placement of shogi pieces after the opening, and has acquired the game skills to overwhelm rivals.

Shogi players were among those observing the games in the anterooms, and on many occasions they voiced their surprise over Fujii’s moves, with one saying, “He’s thought it over from scratch.”

During games, officiating and other shogi players made predictions for the next move, but they hardly ever made correct guesses for Fujii’s moves. The Ryuo title challenger made moves that veteran shogi players never imagined.

For the opening of the second game of the series held last month in Kyoto, Fujii surprised observers with a move that led seventh-dan Hiroshi Kobayashi, one of the officiating players, to say, “I’ve never seen that nor would I have thought of it.”

That move forced Toyoshima to think long and hard, taking nearly two hours until his next move.

“It’s no good thinking of my move after Fujii has made a move,” Toyoshima said.

“Fujii has new ways of assessing the game that cannot be acquired just from studies via AI,” Toyoshima said. “I want to know how he studies and thinks on a daily basis.”

Fujii plays a balanced shogi in attacking and defending, hardly showing flaws from the opening to the endgame. When he made his debut as a professional, there were a number of matches where he lost as his opponents took the advantage right from the beginning due to Fujii lacking sufficient knowledge. But Fujii now has conquered that weakness after enhancing his skills, including increased knowledge of piece placements, through the use of AI software and more traditional methods.

His speedy, deep and accurate calculations for moves overwhelm top-level players. This is seen in the fact that Fujii has won the tsume-shogi checkmate puzzle championship five times in a row.