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Subject: Intro to shogi: rule and HOW to play rss

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Moshe Callen
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1. Introduction:

Most historians believe that the game which developed in the West into Chess derives from an ancient Indian game. For many years, this ancient games has been identified as Chaturanga or Shatranj, although some now question this identification. Whatever the case may be, some ancient Indian game spread along spice-trading and missionary routes. The game developed into widely diverse forms in various regions [for which one is referred to the “chess variants” website] but the three most prominent forms are unquestionably Xiangqi, Shogi and chess, sometimes referred to respectively as Chinese, Japanese and International chess. This discussion presumes familiarity with (international) chess but serves as a complete introduction to shogi. [Those professing ignorance of chess are kindly referred to the highly useful summary of the rules in modern Irish Gaelic at http://ga.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ficheall.]

The raison d’étre of this article is that, the available information on the game either progresses no farther than how to identify and move the pieces, including basic rules, or overwhelms one with catalogs of games with little or insufficient actual explanation of the basic notions of the strategy. [For example, I would cite the popular book “The Art of Shogi” by Tony Hoskins-- which I admittedly use as a reference to double-check myself in this article—as guilty of this latter fault.] Even in the identification of the pieces, many sources simply display the standard kanji used in game notation—the upper portion of characters on the actual pieces generally—without even mentioning that the markings on actual shogi sets may be somewhat more stylized than the textbook denotations. Therefore this article seeks to introduce: 1. how to identify pieces [albeit more difficult without recourse to diagrams, a fault easily surmountable if one refers in a second window to the diagrams and pictures in the wikipedia entry on shogi or to the BBG images], 2. rules of play and 3. basic practical notions of the strategy of HOW actually to play.

I. RULES

2. Set-up and piece names

Shogi is played on a 9x9 square board [a shogi-ban], using the squares as spaces for pieces rather than the crossing-points of lines as in either Go or Xiangqi. Conventionally, the player who moves first is designated as “black” and the second player as “white”—confusingly opposite to the designations in chess—but in fact the pieces are not distinguished by color. In fact, the pieces are identical for both sides save for the “kings” [as explained below]. The practical reason for this is that captured pieces may be “dropped” onto the board and thus switch sides. Pieces are pentagonal, flat at the back with sides almost rectangular but slightly narrowing toward the front and with a noticeable point like an arrow at the top which points away from the player in control of the given piece. In other words, pieces are initially placed in the three rows nearest each given player, again with the “arrows” of the pieces pointed away from the given player who controls those pieces. Keeping the pieces facing the same direction as one moves them is then very natural given the nature of the pieces.

The third row from each player is initially filled entirely with “pawns”, or more properly speaking with nine pieces [slightly smaller than the more powerful pieces] each of which is called a fuhyo [fu for short]. A promoted form of this piece is marked—usually in red as opposed to black—on the under-side of this and other pieces, as discussed below.

The second row is mostly empty except for the spaces second inward from the edge on left and right. On the right [i.e., on the second space in from the right in the second row] one places the “rook”, i.e., the hisha [hi for short]. Also on the second row but on the space second inward from the left one places the kakugyo [kaku for short] or “bishop”.

The row nearest a given player is initially filled symmetrically with the “king” in the central position. The two players’ kings are the only pieces which differ between the two players in name or markings because these are the only pieces which cannot change sides. [This is explained more below where an excellent mnemonic device is identified for distinguishing who goes first.] The word “king” osho [“royal general”] properly refers only to the second player’s piece. The player who moves first has instead a “jade general” [gyokusho] which really refers to a rebel general who has thus become a “would-be king”. Both of these pieces called be loosely termed a king without undue abuse of language for the sake of clarity. On either side of the “king” [i.e., of either the gyokusho or of the osho], is placed the “gold general” or kinsho. [One may notice the common ending of these and other piece names –sho, often dropped, which etymologically means “general” or “commander”.] Second away from the “king” on each side and thus on the third space from the side edge is initially placed a “silver general” ginsho. On each of the two spaces second from the side edge is initially placed each “knight” keima [kei for short] or “laurelled horse”. Finally, at each corner space is placed a “lance” kyosha [kyo for short] or “fragrant chariot”.

3. Piece identification

a. Unpromoted forms

The fact that the pieces are marked with kanji symbols [i.e., Japanese characters or more precisely Japanese adaptations of characters borrowed from China in antiquity] should not put Western players off. For the first few games, one may wish to have a printed reference sheet handy, but in practice the following mnemonic devices will probably be of greater assistance.

The uppermost portion of the marking on the osho [“white king”] consists of three horizontal lines, the lowest of which is slightly longer than either of the other two, connected through the middle by a single vertical line. All the pieces whose name ends in –sho will have a number of horizontal lines connected by a single vertical line. For the osho and gyokusho this portion of the kanji symbol will include three horizontal lines; for the others, it will include four horizontal lines. On the gyokusho [“black king”] to the right of the middle horizontal line is a small mark like a check mark or an apostrophe; this essentially designates the gyokusho as the “would-be king” and thus his side naturally goes first; a king [osho] only goes to the field of battle against his own general AFTER that general commits an act of rebellion.

On both the kinsho and ginsho [gold and silver general respectively] the symbol with four horizontal lines and one vertical line through their center lies under two strokes resembling the apex of a pointed roof-top. This indicates these are household generals, as opposed to “free” generals or warlords. [By contrast the Chinese or Japanese character for “wife” consists of the ordinary symbol for “woman” similarly under such a “roof-top” because a “wife” is the woman of the house, to use the Western expression.] On the kinsho [gold general], although symbols are placed below the “general” symbol, i.e., the four horizontal lines with the center lines connecting vertically, no symbol is placed to the right; on the ginsho a qualifying symbol is placed to the right of the “general” symbol. The latter piece is considered the weaker of the two, as evidenced by the fact that the ginsho promotes to move like the kinsho.

On the bottom of the “knight” [keima] the kanji for “horse” is written; this consists of four horizontal lines connected to the left and through the center by a vertical line so that the symbol is reminiscent of a capital “E” with two middle bars, a second vertical bar and the lower-most bar elongates to form a sweeping curve below itself. Beneath that will properly be a row of four apostrophe-like marks but on many sets—such as my own—a single straight line connected to nothing is used in their place. The only possible point of confusion is that this same symbol is used in printing as a short-hand for the promoted “bishop” [called then a “dragon-horse” or just ”horse” confusingly], but in practice this is not a problem because promoted pieces are marked in red and will not be easily confused with unpromoted pieces.

At the bottom of both the hisha [“rook” or “flying chariot”] and the kyosha [“lance” or “fragrant chariot”] is a symbol indicating movement perpendicular to the edge of the board. This consists of a long central vertical line crossing entirely through both an elongated bottom-most line and a short stack of four rectangles [the uppermost not quite closed on the right] vaguely reminiscent of an ultra-modern office building. Above this on the kyosha [“lance”] is written a symbol consisting of another two horizontally oriented rectangles; this indicates restriction to specifically forward movement. The hisha is also slightly larger than the kyosha as befits a more powerful piece; the hisha also has an upper kanji with a vertical stroke to the right sweeping outward in an elongated lateral direction. The common root –sha means “chariot”.

The kakugyo [“bishop”] is the only piece the kanji at the bottom right includes a triangle completely closely by a diagonal stroke on a cpaital “T”-like symbol; by contrast, each of the unpromoted –sho pieces includes a capital “T”-like symbol with a partial diagonal stroke ending in a flourish half-way. The unique complete triangle is distinctive, and the complete diagonal stroke is a propos for a diagonally moving piece.

Finally, the fuhyo [“pawn” or “foot-soldier”] is the smallest and most plentiful piece on the board. If one is familiar with Xiangqi, the lower kanji is identical with the bing pawns of that game. If one is not familiar with the Chinese game, the size alone easily distinguishes the piece.

b. Promoted forms

All pieces expect the “king” [osho or gyokusho] and the “gold general” [kinsho] may promote upon reaching or moving within the last three rows of the board with respect to the controlling player’s pieces’ starting position. Promotion is not required as long as the unpromoted piece can still make another legal move.

The promoted “pawn” [now termed a tokin or just to rather than a fuhyo or just fu] or “gold-reacher” is also easily recognizable as the smallest piece on the board but now marked in red by a symbol like an up-side down numeral seven with its point rounded and a vertical line pointing out from half-way up the upper part of that inverted seven.

The narigin or “promoted silver” is the only “general” symbol—again, four horizontal lines with a single connecting vertical stroke, in this case also under a “roof-top”—marked in red and no other symbols appear of the promoted side of the piece. [The root nari- will repeat and means “promoted”.]

The uppermost symbol on the promoted “rook” [in unpromoted form, the hisha]— the “dragon-king” [ryuo or just ryu] after promotion—retains the vertical stroke on the right which sweeps out laterally that appears on the unpromoted form. [Ryuo means “dragon-king” from the root ryu for dragon and o for king; by contrast, osho most literally means “king general”.]

The ryuuma [“dragon-horse”], sometimes called simply the uma [“horse”], bears the “horse” symbol mentioned above in red on the bottom but in many sets—such as my own—this symbol is heavily stylized so that no vertical lines appear and instead the uppermost bar is connected to the bottom sweeping curve by a lightning-bolt-like zig-zag.

The narikei [promoted “knight” or “promoted laurel”] bears only the same symbol as that at the bottom of the ryuo under a “roof-top”; this symbol is printed as a small circle with a small vertical stroke from its top and a short leftward diagonal stroke from its bottom connected to a long horizontal stroke. However, this is also often heavily stylized and the symbol looks on my shogi set like a numeral two which at its upper end curves down into a small loop which then extends into a short vertical line above the “2”.

Finally, the narikyo [promoted “lance”] or “promoted fragrant (one)”—the kyosha in unpromoted form-- consists of an elongated zig-zag on a central vertical line with a long horizontal line at the bottom.

If in doubt, shogi etiquette permits one to lift up a promoted piece to glance at the underside and thus see what its unpromoted form was. One mainly has to in practice remember the ryuo and ryuuma because all other promoted pieces besides these move the same way; if given a choice of pieces to capture, one need only look at the underside of a promoted piece to aid deciding which piece to take.

4. Movement

All pieces, whether promoted or not, move and capture in the same way. An opponent’s piece is captured my moving one’s piece onto the square that the then captured piece occupied. The captured piece is thus removed from the board but placed near the side of the board—usually the right side—by the player whose piece captured that piece; in other words, a captured piece becomes a piece the capturing player can in future place on the board in lieu of moving a piece already on the board, subject to restrictions discussed in the “drops” section of this article. Naturally, one may not capture one’s own pieces.

In shogi, no special moves comparable to either castling or capturing en passant in chess exist. Again, all pieces capture as they regularly move. One does use the term “castle” in shogi, but as discussed below this refers to a defensive formation about the “king”.

a. Unpromoted pieces

Both the osho and gyokusho [“kings”] move one space in any direction like a chess king.

A kinsho [“gold general”] moves one space in any direction except diagonally backwards. Thus, a kinsho may move one space straight forward or diagonally forward to either side, as well as one space to either side or straight backwards.

By contrast, a ginsho [“silver general”] may move one space diagonally in any direction or directly forward.

A keima is sometimes called a “knight” by Western players precisely because it moves almost like a knight in chess. The keima may jump intervening pieces—unlike the analogous piece in Xiangqi—BUT movement is only forward, not either backwards or to the side. More precisely, a keima jumps from a square to another square two rows forward and one column to either the left or right of the original position.

Movement of a kyosha [“lance”] is almost like a rook in chess except that it is restricted to only a forward direction. Thus, a kyosha cannot move to the side or backward but can move any number of spaces forward, barring the presence of an intervening piece.

Respectively, a hisha and a kakugyo are termed by some Western players as a “rook” and a “bishop” because movement of these respective pieces is exactly analogous. A hisha moves any number of spaces along a row or column, to left, right, forwards or backwards, barring an intervening piece. Likewise, a kakugyo moves diagonally in any direction any number of spaces barring an intervening piece.

Finally, a fuhyo [“pawn”] moves one and only one space forward; no option of two spaces on the first move as in chess exists.

b. Promoted pieces

Except for the promoted “rook” [ryuo] and promoted “bishop” [the kakugyo termed ryuuma or just uma after promotion], all promoted pieces move like the “gold general” [kinsho] described above.

The ryuo [promoted “rook”] and ryuuma [promoted “bishop”] each retain the original movement, respectively either horizontally or vertically and diagonally any number of spaces without the ability to jump over pieces, but these pieces also gain the ability to move one space in any direction [like the movement of the osho or gyokusho “king”].

5. Drops

As mentioned above, a player may “drop” a piece captured from his opponent subject to the following restrictions. All dropped pieces must be placed on the board in the unpromoted form; the piece must be able thereafter to make at least one legal move. Thus, a keima [“knight”] cannot be dropped on the eighth or ninth row. Similarly, a kyosha [“lance”] or fuhyo [“pawn”] cannot be dropped on the ninth row. A fuhyo [“pawn”] cannot be dropped to achieve check-mate [tsume] and also cannot be dropped onto a column already on which a given player already has a fuhyo [“unpromoted pawn”].

6. Object of the game and remaining rules

The object of the game is to achieve tsume [“check-mate”] in which the “king” [osho or gyokusho] is in a position in principle to be captured on the next move and cannot escape either by moving out of such a position or by moving or dropping a piece into an intervening position. No stale-mate exists in principle in shogi; if a “king” must on a player’s next turn move into “check” [ote]—since a player must always move a piece on his turn—then the other player wins. Nonetheless, draws can be declared by agreement of both players, most commonly when neither side can either force tsume or gain material “in hand”, i.e., captured pieces to be dropped, in order to do so.

Any move or series of moves which repeats the identically same position four times is illegal and a player who makes this or any other illegal move formally loses automatically.

II. HOW TO ACTUALLY PLAY

Because of the relative weakness of the pieces with respect to chess, the practical manner of actually how to play the game may not be immediately clear to chess-players. For those interested in in-depth studies, plenty of works already exist such as that referenced at the beginning of this article. For those wishing to sit down and play rather than embark upon a scholarly analysis of the game, the following basic notions ought suffice to get one started.

First, leaving a “king” [osho or gyokusho] in its initial position is generally a bad idea. Practically speaking, this allows the opponent to attack the piece whose capture is the object of the game quite effectively from both sides. The saying is that, “a fixed king is a fixed target”.

In contrast, the two main offensive pieces are the hisha [“rook”] and kakugyo [“bishop”]. As the most powerful pieces on the board, one usually uses these pieces to either directly attack unsupported pieces or to support weaker attacking pieces. Yet, the kakugyo as the “angle mover” can mover easily slip through openings between pieces. In practice, the hisha [“rook”] will lead to open columns. Thus, a wise player will tend to keep his “king” [osho or gyokusho] and his hisha relatively far apart to avoid endangering the former.

Because the osho or gyokusho [“king”] is universally moved to the left or the right but one wishes to keep the hisha [“rook”] away from it, offensive positions generally fall into one of two categories: furibisha [“swinging” or “ranging” “rook”] or ibisha [“static” or “standing” “rook”]. Respectively, these refer to initially leaving the hisha in its starting position at the right side of the board or moving it to the left side along the second row, usually to the third or fourth space. Practically speaking, furibisha generally requires moving the hisha [“rook”] first.

Part of the reason for this is that a player should as soon as possible construct a yagura [“tower”, “castle” or “fortress”] formation in order to protect his “king” [again, osho or gyokusho]. This generally consists of three “generals”—either a kinsho [“gold general”] and both ginsho [“silver generals”] or a ginsho and both kinsho. Most commonly, the “king” is moved onto the second row and one sho [“general”] is moved to either side, as well as one below possibly diagonally backward from the “king”. This formation effectively defends the “king”. Using all four sho [“generals”] is excessive and usually a waste of valuable material but at the same time tow are usually insufficient to the task. The reason two “generals” should share the second row with the “king” is to support the fuhyo [“pawns”]. One should generally spend one’s first few moves primarily to construct a yagura to establish “good shape”, specifically a position in which the “king” is defended BEFORE pieces are captured.

Furibisha [“ranging rook”] tends to be a move offensive position, whereas ibisha [“static rook”] tends to be more defensive. Thus, if “black” [the first player] chooses furibisha, “white” usually counters with some form of ibisha; the reason for this is that momentum of play initially favors “black” and so setting a “ranging rook” against a “ranging rook” is usually a bad idea for “white”. This does not mean one CANNOT do so, but such games are understandably rare. In contrast, if “black” chooses ibisha, “white” may much more freely choose either furibisha or ibisha. Either type of opening may be easily played against “static rook” [ibisha]. This is precisely why I strongly prefer furibisha when playing “black”; part of the game strategically is to limit the options available to an opponent—which I think best done right from the beginning.

The most common first fuhyo [“pawn”] moves are opening a path for the kakugyo [“bishop”] and especially advancing the fuhyo in front of the hisha [“rook”]. The first object of offensive strategy is to force the opponent’s “king” into the open so that he becomes vulnerable. This is often accomplishes by “full frontal assault”. Yet, this assault must be balanced by effective resource management. ANY captured piece can be placed ANYWHERE on the board where that piece has a legal move. One therefore must balance the need to not provide one’s opponent valuable material and yet at the same time have enough material available to drop for one’s self in order to follow through from ote [“check”] to tsume [“check-mate”]. Once the momentum of a series of “checks” is lost, it is very difficult to regain. At the same time, even a relatively weak piece—like a kinsho-- becomes powerful when it can be dropped onto any space on the board.
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Manabu Terao
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Re: Intro to shogi emphasizing HOW practically to play, not
Very good article, whac3.

I have several different views regarding what you mentioned in II. HOW TO ACTUALLY PLAY. First, Furibisha [ranging rook] is considered defensive strategy rather than offensive. Bishop's diagonal line is stopped by moving P6g-P6f in Sente(black) or P4c-P4d in Gote(white) in most of Furibisha formations in the opening while Ibisha's Bishop's Diagonal line usually go through to Furibisha's camp. Whether opening or stopping one's bishop's diagonal line is one of the criteria to decide whether an offensive or defensive position in the opening. Second, ranging rook against ranging rook is not a bad idea. After 1990's, lots of top professional players start adopting such strategy. But I admit the degree of opening standardization has been least progressed in this strategy and thus in this sense it is not a simple strategy for novices/beginners to try.

There are four big opening patterns in shogi. Sente(black)'s Ibisha[static rook] against Gote(white)'s ibisha, Sente's Ibisha against Gote's Furibisha[ranging rook], Sente's Furibihsa against Gote's Ibisha and Sente's Furibihsa against Gote's Furibisha. Almost all the games played by professional players can be classified to one of them.
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Moshe Callen
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ἄνδρα μοι ἔννεπε, μοῦσα, πολύτροπον, ὃς μάλα πολλὰ/ πλάγχθη, ἐπεὶ Τροίης ἱερὸν πτολίεθρον ἔπερσεν./...
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μῆνιν ἄειδε θεὰ Πηληϊάδεω Ἀχιλῆος/ οὐλομένην, ἣ μυρί᾽ Ἀχαιοῖς ἄλγε᾽ ἔθηκε,/...
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Re: Intro to shogi emphasizing HOW practically to play, not JUST
takodori wrote:
Very good article, whac3.

I have several different views regarding what you mentioned in II. HOW TO ACTUALLY PLAY. First, Furibisha [ranging rook] is considered defensive strategy rather than offensive. Bishop's diagonal line is stopped by moving P6g-P6f in Sente(black) or P4c-P4d in Gote(white) in most of Furibisha formations in the opening while Ibisha's Bishop's Diagonal line usually go through to Furibisha's camp. Whether opening or stopping one's bishop's diagonal line is one of the criteria to decide whether an offensive or defensive position in the opening. Second, ranging rook against ranging rook is not a bad idea. After 1990's, lots of top professional players start adopting such strategy. But I admit the degree of opening standardization has been least progressed in this strategy and thus in this sense it is not a simple strategy for novices/beginners to try.

There are four big opening patterns in shogi. Sente(black)'s Ibisha[static rook] against Gote(white)'s ibisha, Sente's Ibisha against Gote's Furibisha[ranging rook], Sente's Furibihsa against Gote's Ibisha and Sente's Furibihsa against Gote's Furibisha. Almost all the games played by professional players can be classified to one of them.


As someone who must still be considered relatively novice, thank you for the info and corrections.
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Max Pfennighaus
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An excellent overview! I found the mnemonic hints particularly helpful. Thanks!
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