Shogi vs. Chess

Recently my interest in Shogi has been rekindled. This is the Japanese version of Chess (literally – the two games are probably derived from the same source) – similar in some ways, but played on a 9X9 board with some different pieces (notably without a queen) and with drops allowed after captures.

I first got acquainted with this in Japan. I mentioned being interested in Chess and was immediately told about Shogi. I learned how to play in my second month and played on and off over the course of the three years I spent there. Partners were hard to find: the Japanese seem to invest a lot of nationalistic pride in Shogi, and losing to a foreigner (without hinting at having thrown the game) is something of a face issue. But there was a weekly program on NHK featuring an hour-and-a-half tournament between two masters that I watched religiously, and when I wanted to play there was always a Gameboy version. There were also endless books of tsumeshogi(checkmate) problems at the bookstores for working while on the train.

I was quite good for a time – but then the years went by and I’m afraid I’m more or less back where I started. I have this impression because last week I downloaded GNUShogi (a variant on GNUChess, actually – the sourcecode is adapted). I have the impression it’s not very good, and yet I’ve played it three times and haven’t beat it. And this is even without the “learning” mode on (in a certain mode it remembers your past games and learns from you, apparently). So I guess I need to start over.

For Americans wishing to learn the game, let me recommend above all this book. It’s the only introduction in English I know that’s worth a damn. (Which isn’t to say there aren’t plenty I just don’t know about, you understand. I learned Shogi in Japan, after all.) The link above to checkmate problems is also quite useful: most of my quantum leaps in skill were from working checkmate problems on the train, or in bed trying to sleep. There’s also a free software downloads page here.

As for the game itself – well, I highly recommend that too. And in fact, the purpose of this post is to breifly make the case that it’s more complex and interesting than Chess.

That’s a bit of a sore point for me, I have to admit. Mainly because, as noted, Shogi is kind of nationalistic thing in Japan. Players literally belong to a guild that borders on being a secret society. They join at a young age (there’s a cap) and go into an apprenticeship – after which point they spend the rest of their professional lives in the guild. It imposes all kinds of xenophobic rules – like, for example, that professional Shogi players aren’t allowed to play official matches against computers. (They train with them, but the only time a Shogi master has played a computer(link goes to play-by-play), it was with special permission of his guild.) And although they aren’t specifically forbidden from playing foreigners, the low bar entry age makes it highly unlikely that they ever do. Most ordinary Japanese people are completely convinced that Shogi is the most complicated strategy game in the world. While I rather doubt that (probably that honor goes to Igo – at least among traditional games) – I do think it’s probably more complex than chess. Here are the reasons:

  1. Bigger board, more pieces – the board in Shogi is 9X9, compared with 8X8 for chess. In addition, each side in Shogi has 20 pieces to worry about, compared with 16 for Chess. While this naturally doesn’t guarantee a greater combination of possible sensible games, it does more or less guarantee a greater number of possible games (and hence probably a greater number of decisions per turn).
  2. Drops – adding to the idea that there are more possibilities to consider per turn is the drop factor. In Shogi, captured pieces convert to the capturing player’s side. He keeps them in hand and, in place of moving one of his own pieces, he may drop one of the captured pieces anywhere on the board. This alone greatly increases the number of potential configurations that a player has to consider when making his decision. More importantly, it removes the option of “simplifying,” as Chess players like to call it: killing off pieces to clear the board when one has a slight advantage.
  3. Shorter range – adding to the problem is the shorter range of most of the pieces. In Chess, there is a greater number of pieces that can travel several spaces in a single move. In Shogi, by contrast, pieces generally move only one space at a time (with several important exceptions, of course). This means that the conflict in Shogi is less direct; one is required to plan further ahead and generally doesn’t have the luxury of anticipating specific moves. It takes longer to build up to actual battle, and one must plan in the abstract.
  4. No center of battle – anyone who’s had a crashcourse in Chess strategy can tell you that the second thing they teach you is “control the middle four squares of the board.” (The first thing is “get your pieces out and into play fast!”) This is good advice in that lots of the pieces seem to be naturally trained on those four squares anyway. It’s like the boardgame version of Palestine – a crossroads any aspiring power needs to control to maintain hegemony. Just because of the setup, there is no such nerve center on a Shogi board. Action typically takes place along both flanks at once – and there never seems to be a complete focus of action the way there often is in Chess. Players really do have to pay attention to the whole board; there don’t seem to be as many heuristics available for help.

Naturally, “more complex” doesn’t necessarily translate into “more fun.” Considering gaming as an art form, I much prefer Chess – and largely for the reasons outlined above, actually. I like “simplifying.” Indeed, that’s the whole thrill of Chess for me. What I live for in Chess is that moment when I realize that I’ve subtly got the upper hand and can press my advantage. That’s less subtle and more bloodthirsty, I suppose, but isn’t the kill what it’s all about? My favorite Chess game, in fact, is one of Bobby Fischer’s, which he describes as a “lightningbolt,” in which he absolutely castrates a fussy opponent who spends so much time setting up the perfect defense net that Fischer is able to just zap him with an unexpected sacrifice. That kind of thing happens a lot less often in Shogi, and this makes it less thrilling. I also like the fact that Chess is more integrated. It isn’t a mess of separate battles being fought here and there all over the board, and (and this point can’t really be explained – you have to play Shogi a lot to really know what I mean) there are fewer pointless “loop exchanges.” Because of the dropping rule, it seems like Shogi captures get drawn out into pointless detail a lot of the time. Rather than simply taking a piece and advancing your position, you sometimes have to go through a series of captures, recaptures, drops, redrops, etc. before staking claim to a particular area on the board. Because of the more direct and involved (all pieces a
re trained on the same areas, usually) nature of Chess, Chess seems more integrated and elegant to me. It’s a beautiful thing in the hands of skilled player. I never get the same feeling of being in the presence of beauty watching Shogi players at work.

All the same, at the end of the day I would rather play Shogi – and that’s simply because it’s mindfood. Chess is a kind of aesthetic for me – I enjoy winning it, and I enjoy watching other people win it, but I’m less motivated to study the subtleties. I am willing to read transcripts of Chess games, but I’m not so much interested in listening to commentary on it, or on working endgame problems or memorizing formations. Shogi is more fun to pick through because it’s harder to spot the moment when the game switches. Mistakes aren’t as easy to unearth – and tracing back just what went wrong where can be more absorbing than it is with Chess (where it’s usually plenty obvious). In addition, mate problems are actually interesting with Shogi, whereas I mostly find endgames in Chess tedious. Chess is about simplifying for me. There’s a point where you just know who has the upper hand, and beyond that it’s just fussing. The fact that a game can slip away from someone who dominated the middlegame in Chess just seems unjust – because it’s all about the middlegame for me. With Shogi, I don’t mind the endgame. The mate problems are truly challenging – and it’s really not uncommon to pass opportunities for mate just because they’re often so subtle it’s almost not humanly possible to know they’re there.

So the conclusion is – for me, Chess is more fun to watch, and more fun to play for amusement. It’s a truly beautiful thing when done right – and thus better appreciated as a spectator sport. But I ultimately like Shogi better. It’s not as pretty and not as transparent, but it wins for me on straight logical complexity. My programmer’s love of problem solving and arcane detail just has more to cut its teeth on, I suppose. I may consider starting a club here at IU.

One thought on “Shogi vs. Chess

  1. Congratulations on a well thought out and excellently articulated article!

    I especially like the point you made about Shogi being a bit more abstract than Chess. I guess that is another reason I prefer Shogi to Chess – I love philosophy :) .

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