June 27, 2017 / 7:42 AM / 3 months ago

Japanese chess prodigy, 14, breaks 30-year winning streak record

Japan's youngest professional shogi player, 14-year-old Sota Fujii, holds a shogi board with the number 29 portrayed with shogi pieces at the Shogi Kaikan hall in Tokyo, Japan June 26, 2017. Kyodo/via REUTERS

TOKYO (Reuters) - A 14-year-old Japanese player of the traditional chess-like board game of shogi has captured the nation’s heart by winning a record straight 29 matches, breaking a record held for 30 years.

Sota Fujii, who trains himself with computer software and was the youngest player ever to turn professional, surpassed the previous record of 28 consecutive wins on Monday.

His feat, a rare bright spot in a nation grappling with more than 15 years of deflation and stagnation, drew applause from all walks of life ranging from avid shogi fans to the prime minister. His picture was all over Tuesday’s front pages.

“Young power has made history. This victory gives dreams and hopes to the Japanese people,” Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told reporters.

After a gruelling 11-hour match on Monday with a 19-year-old fellow professional, Fujii was calm before reporters.

“Winning 29 straight matches was beyond my wildest imagination. I‘m delighted, but I‘m very surprised as well,” Fujii said.

The object of shogi, also known as Japanese chess, is to checkmate the opponent’s king, as in the Western game. But there are no black and white squares or pieces, and most pieces can only move one square at a time.

Japan's youngest professional shogi player, 14-year-old Sota Fujii (L), is pictured after defeating fellow fourth-dan player Yasuhiro Masuda (R), 19, in the prestigious Ryuo Championship finals at the Shogi Kaikan hall in Tokyo, Japan June 26, 2017. Kyodo/via REUTERS

Following the centuries-old shogi tradition, Fujii has a senior professional shogi player as an official mentor.

But his game has improved significantly since he started training with computer software about a year and a half ago, frowned on by many professional shogi players, the Asahi Shimbun daily said.

“A professional shogi player is lucky if he has as many as 1,000 matches in his lifetime. An artificial intelligence-based programme has several thousand times more matches than that virtually, and accumulates expertise,” a Japan Shogi Association official said.

“Professional players understand computers’ strength and their way of thinking is now shifting to how to use AI to improve their own strength.”

Fujii’s winning streak comes after Google’s AI programme, AlphaGo, beat Chinese Go master Ke Jie last month in a best of three series meant to test the limits of computers in taking on humans at complex tasks.

Ke, the world’s No.1 Go player, is 19, while Norway’s Magnus Carlsen, the current world chess champion, became a chess grandmaster at 13.

No matches between Fujii and an AI-based programme is planned at the moment, the Japan Shogi Association said.

Reporting by Kiyoshi Takenaka; Editing by Nick Macfie

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