As in Western chess, shogi has rooks, knights, bishops, pawns and kings. The games ends in checkmate.
However, unlike in Western chess, shogi also has lances, silver generals, gold generals, horses and dragons.
The other major difference is that, as to contrasted to chess, where a pawn can promote to a queen when it reaches the enemy back rank, in shogi almost all pieces have the option of promoting to a stronger piece just by reaching the seventh rank. As a result, multiple promotions are a feature of every game in shogi, whereas promotions are relatively rare in Western chess.
A recent survey has shown that there has been a great increase in the popularity of shogi in Japan. According to a survey done in 1995 of 16-17 year olds in Japan, a whopping 70 % of all boys played shogi sometimes or often, whereas only 15% played Western chess and only 7% played go. Among girls, 61% of all Japanese girls owned a shogi set. Shogi is by far the most popular board strategy game in Japan. What this means is that, if you want to get a Japanese girl, you gotta learn how to play shogi. With this important fact in mind, here are the basic rules.
In this discussion, for the convenience of the reader, we will use only Western terms. I am well aware that many purists insist that for the purpose of maintaining and furthering Japanese culture, we must use Japanese language words. However, I, for one, am not interested in becoming thoroughly imbued with Japanese culture. I just want to win a couple of games of chess. If somebody wants to make an argument about this, why don't we just wager a little money on the side. The fact that I can probably whip them at shogi, and probably give them rook and bishop odds as well, plus blindfolded, without knowing hardly any Japanese language at all, should only add to their utter humiliation.
One major objection which Westerners have to learning shogi is that it becomes necessary to learn a bunch of difficult Japanese characters. I did not find that a problem. It took me less than an hour to feel comfortable with them. Nevertheless, others do not agree and this has been and will continue to be a significant barrier to the spread of shogi outside of Japan.
Westernized sets have been introduced which, in the place of Chinese characters, give simplified diagrams of how the respective pieces move. This helps beginners get over the initial hurdle and, as soon as they feel that they know the pieces, they invariably prefer to play with Japanese style sets.
At the beginning, each side has one king, one rook, one bishop, two lances, two knights, two silver generals, two gold generals, and nine pawns, for a total of 20 pieces in all.
The initial setup resembles that of chess, but with major differences. The lances go in the corners. Next to the lances are the knights. Next to the knights are the silver generals. Next to the silver generals are the gold generals. In the center, between the two gold generals, is the king. That takes care of the back rank.
On the second rank are just two pieces. In front of the knight on the left side is the bishop. In front of the knight on the right side is the rook.
An important fact to note about this is that at the initial stage, the two enemy bishops are pointed at each other. They often capture each other in the initial stages of the game. However, as noted previously, once captured, they can be dropped back into the game. Unlike certain other pieces, the bishops can be dropped anywhere on the board without restriction. Therefore, before trading bishops with the opponent, the player needs to look around to see where he can drop his newly captured bishop and where the opponent can drop his bishop as well.
On the third rank, in front of the rook and the bishop, is a row of nine pawns. Because of these two walls of pawns, the bishops cannot capture each other immediately, However, the best first move in shogi is to move forward the pawn in front of the left side silver general, which opens the long diagonal and frees the bishop. One of the best first moves on the other side is to make the same move, so that the long diagonal is completely open and the two bishops can capture each other. However, such a capture would cost a tempo, so it is rarely made. Instead, the first player often then moves up the pawn in front of the left side gold general, thereby closing the long diagonal again.
The pawns move similar to the pawns in Western chess, in that they move one square forward. However, the pawns in shogi do not capture diagonally. Instead, they capture the same way that they move. This greatly changes the dynamics of the game, because pawns can never blockade each other and there are no pawn chains as in Western chess.
The other major difference is that when the pawn reaches the seventh rank, it promotes to a "tokin". A tokin moves like a gold general, which means that it can move one square in any direction except that it cannot move diagonally backwards. Thus, the tokin can move one square in any of six directions. A tokin is a strong and dangerous piece, precisely because it is so weak. If the enemy captures a gold general, he gets a gold general which he can drop back anywhere on the board. However, if the enemy captures a tokin, all he gets is a lowly pawn, because captured promoted pieces revert to their status before promotion. For this reason, a tokin is actually worth more than a gold general.
Another important rule and the rule which is most frequently violated in shogi, is that two pawns for the same side can never occupy the same file. Where this comes up most often is in drops. A player is holding a captured pawn in hand and he drops in on the board, forgetting that he has another unpromoted pawn on the same file. When that happens, the harsh rule in shogi is that the player who has made the illegal move immediately loses the game.
According to the proper etiquette, what you are supposed to do when your opponent does this is you are supposed to leap up from the board, point at the two pawns on the same file, and say "Ni Fu !!!". Nifu is an expression in Japanese which means, "You idiot. You just lost the game."
However, I never do that. If my opponent commits nifu, I just calmly make a move, preferably in some other area of the board, away from the nifu. Then, after two or three more moves, my opponent will probably notice it himself, and politely give up the game, or I will casually point it out myself. The reason I do this is that usually, if I call nifu as soon as he makes the illegal move, he hastily takes it back and plays another move.
The remainder of the pieces can best be visualized by thinking in terms of chess. Remember that chess and shogi do obviously have a common ancestor. In the original game, and in all variations of modern chess, including Western chess, Chinese chess, Korean chess, and Thai chess, the piece in the corner is a rook, the piece next to the corner is a knight, the next piece is a bishop or an elephant and the king is in the center.
It is the same in shogi as well, except that the pieces, while similar, are weaker.
The piece in the corner is a lance. The lance is a vestigial rook. In the evolution of shogi, it used to be a rook, but it got weaker. Now, it can only move directly forward. It cannot move sideways or backwards. It can never retreat. Upon reaching the seventh or eighth rank, the lance has the option of promoting to a piece that moves like a gold general. If a lance reaches the ninth rank, which is the opponent's first rank, the lance must promote to a promoted lance, which moves like a gold general. This is because of a rule in shogi which provides that no piece can ever move to a square from which it can never move again.
The piece next to the lance is the knight. Again, it moves similar to the knight in Western chess, but is weaker. The knight has only two legal moves. Either a knight jump one square forward and one square diagonally to the right, or a knight jump one square forward and one square diagonally to the left. Unlike the knight in Chinese or Korean chess, the knight in shogi can jump. Upon reaching the seventh rank, the knight has the option of promotion to a piece which moves like a gold general. Upon reaching the eighth or ninth rank, the knight must promote to a promoted knight, which moves like a gold general.
Next to the knight is the silver general. This is a vestigial bishop. It moves one square in any direction or one square directly forward. The silver general cannot move straight backwards or straight sideways.
I found the silver general to be the most frustrating piece to learn. I kept forgetting that if I moved it straight forward, I could not retreat it straight backwards again. It would require a minimum of three moves to get back to the square from whence it came. (Work this out). Many a time I wanted to smash the board on my opponent's head when to realized this, but eventually I got used to the way the silver general moves.
Upon reaching the opponent's seventh, eighth or ninth rank, the silver general has the option of promoting to a piece which moves like a gold general. However, it is frequently the case that the silver general prefers to remain a silver general and does not promote to a gold general. This is because a silver general can move zigzag and backwards more readily than a gold general. For example, if the opponent's king has moved forward and is behind the silver general, the silver general will probably want to remain a silver general to that it can attack the enemy king more readily from behind.
The gold generals are next to the silver generals and are on each side of the king. The gold general is a vestigial queen. It moves one square in any direction, except that it cannot move diagonally backwards. The next point is important,. The gold general is the only piece besides the king which cannot promote to a stronger piece. Let's try that again. The gold general is the only piece besides the king which cannot promote to a stronger piece. Look on the back side of the gold general and you will see that it is blank. The gold general and the king are the only pieces like that.
The bishop moves like a bishop in Western chess. However, upon moving in, through or out of the seventh, eighth or ninth rank, the bishop promotes to a horse. Please note that the horse is a different piece from the knight. The knight is a weak piece. The horse is an extremely strong piece. The horse can move one square in each direction, plus it can move the full length of the board diagonally. The horse is considered to be the strongest defensive piece.
The rook moves like a rook in Western chess. However, upon moving in, through or out of the seventh, eighth or ninth rank, the rook promotes to a dragon. The dragon is the strongest piece of all. It can move one square in any direction, plus it can move the full length of the board horizontally or vertically. The dragon is the strongest attacking piece. The dragon should never be used as a defensive piece, except in dire emergency, because a dragon can easily get stuck behind its own pieces and trapped and captured by two enemy gold generals. It is harder to trap a horse, and that is the reason why a horse can better be used defensively.
Let's work this out. A knight can jump forward only like a knight in Western chess. Thus, a knight on the seventh rank attacks two squares on the ninth rank. If the knight promotes, it moves like a gold general, which is generally a stronger piece in that it can move in six different directions. However, if the knight on the seventh needs to be able to move to the ninth, because it is checking the enemy king for example, it will remain a knight.
The same holds true of the lance. A lance on the seventh can move two squares forward to the ninth. If it promotes, it can move in six different directions, but it cannot move two squares forward. However, it almost never happens that a lance, having the opportunity to promote, remains a lance, because a lance on the seventh is so weak, whereas a promoted lance, which moves like a gold general, is so strong.
As noted previously, if a lance reaches the ninth rank or if a knight reaches the eighth or ninth rank, it must promote, because of the rule that a piece can never reach a square from which it can never move. If a player forgets and fails to promote a lance which has reached the ninth rank or a knight which has reached the eighth or the ninth rank, he has made an illegal move which is an automatic loss.
There are several important restrictions on pawn drops. By far the most important is that a pawn can never be dropped onto a file on which there is already an unpromoted pawn of the same side. If this occurs, there has been a nifu, which is a fatal illness in shogi.
Another rule is that a pawn can never be dropped on the opponent's back rank, because of the rule that a piece can never reach a square from which it can never move.
A third extremely important rule is that a pawn can never be dropped in such a way that it administers checkmate. This again results in an immediate loss. I have lost games this way and this is the most frustrating way to lose. You think that you have won the game and suddenly your victory turns to a loss. Even professional players lose games like this occasionally.
There is no such thing as stalemate in shogi. Since pieces never leave the game but can always be dropped back into the game by the capturing side, just about the only mathematical way for stalemate to occur would be if one side had all the pieces and the other side had only a bare king. In a real competitive game, the side with the lone king would be checkmated long before this could occur. (It is theoretically possible, in games involving very large handicaps, for a stalemate to occur, but even this never actually happens.)
Occasionally a draw occurs in the opening by both players moving, usually a rook or a bishop, back and forth perpetually.
The other draw situation requires some explaining. Indeed, this is the most difficult rule in shogi and the rule itself has never been formulated precisely.
Sometimes, and indeed fairly frequently, it happens that the king crosses the board entirely and reaches the opponent's back rank. Because the pieces in shogi tend to be weaker moving backwards than forward, a king on the enemy back rank can be difficult to checkmate. The side with the king on the enemy back rank can then drop a pawn on say the seventh rank and on the next move will move it one forward, promoting it to a tokin. Then, following this pattern, the side with a king on the enemy back rank drops and then promotes another pawn, and then another, and then another.
Soon, the king on the enemy back rank will be surrounded by its own tokins. They will be like a horde of termites or like ants in an anthill. Even if the other side has all the major pieces on the board, the side with the king and just a relatively few tokins can never be penetrated and the king can never be checkmated.
In this situation, the rule is that the other side must then move his king and all of his pieces over to the opponent's side of the board. Eventually, a position swill be reached where both sides have all their pieces in enemy territory. Since checkmate is no longer possible, or at least is highly unlikely, the result of the game is decided by a point count.
This works like this: each player counts the pieces in his possession. Each rook and each bishop, whether promoted or unpromoted, is worth five points. Every other piece or pawn is worth one point. The kings don't count. The total number of points in the game is 54. (Work this out).The rule is: If a player has more than 30 points, he wins. If a player has less than 24 points, he loses. If a player has anywhere from 24 to 30 points, the game is a draw and must be replayed.
Mathematically, this works out that if a player has three of the four major pieces in the game, the two rooks and the two bishops, he almost certainly wins the game. If he has only one of the four major pieces, he almost certainly loses. If both sides each have two of the four major pieces, the game will almost certainly be a draw. (Work this out.)
What makes this rule so difficult and uncertain to administer is that it almost never really happens like this. After one side has got his king safely ensconced on the opponent's back rank, he can attack his opponent at will. In shogi, even a small attacking force will eventually overwhelm all but the largest defensive force, so that the player who has his king in safety and only a few major active pieces can just keep attacking his opponent again and again. Since exchanged pieces come back in the game, this attack will just keep going endlessly. Nobody wants to play a game of shogi lasting five, ten or even fifteen hours, and these games could actually last that long without some extraordinary intervention.
As a result, what happens is that eventually an arbiter will be called. He will decide at what point the game will be halted. As far as I know, there is no hard and fast rule about this. If an official iron-clad rule has been formulated, I am not aware of.
If you find these rules difficult, do not feel alone. Every year, at least one or two official top level tournament games by professional players are won or lost when one of the professionals makes an illegal move. An illegal move in a tournament game between masters or experts is almost unheard of in Western chess.
The most common and biggest mistake which a Western player makes in shogi is to start counting up and hoarding the pieces he has captured. In chess, if a player is just one lowly pawn ahead, he will probably in more than 90% of the cases have a winning position.
As a result, a chess player taking up shogi will have a natural tendency to go around grabbing enemy pawns and pieces, thinking that by accumulating material he is building up a winning advantage.
In reality, material advantage has almost no bearing in shogi, except in the early stages of the game. What is important in shogi is king safety. Shogi can be thought of as a racing game, not unlike backgammon or Parcheesi. The important point to remember is that, given enough time, the attacking force, however small, will almost always overwhelm the defending force, however large.
Shogi is simply not a defensive game. It is an attacking game. The side with the attack will almost always win. In chess, a normal strategy is to grab a pawn, even though it gives the opponent the attack. You then set up a solid defensive position, beat back the opponent's attack, trade down pieces, and eventually queen a pawn and win the game.
This sort of strategy will not work at all at shogi. In all but the rarest of games, both sides have an attack, and both attacks will succeed in checkmating the enemy king, if given enough time. What the shogi player tries to do is to break through with his attack on the enemy king before the enemy breaks through with his attack on the player's king. Both attacks would succeed eventually. The winner of the game is simply the one who brings his attack through first.
In games between evenly matched opponents, most of the time it comes down to a situation where both sides are right on the brink of checkmating the other. These are actually called brinkmates. There are composed problems which are called tsumi shogi problems. The way these problems work is that the problem shows several pieces near an enemy king. The assumption in these problems is that every other piece which is not shown in the game belongs to the side with the king. The problem is to make a series of moves, each one of which must be check, and at the end of the sequence is checkmate.
These problems, unlike problems in Western chess, have practical application because real games of shogi usually end like this. Usually, both players are threatening immediate checkmate. Whomever has the next move will win the game. However, each move must be check. If the player makes just one move which is not a check, then the other side will have the opportunity to move and will checkmate.
So, the point is, always attack. "Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead", as we say. Forget about accumulating material advantage. If you ever find yourself stuck in a defensive position, forget it. You've lost the game already.
In shogi, openings are known by the position of the rook and by the formation of the "castle" or king position which is set up. For example, it might be said that the first player played a fourth file rook and the second player played a static rook, which means that he left the rook in its starting position, while advancing the pawn directly in front of the rook.
In the early part of the game, each player will build a castle around his king. This is not exactly like castling in chess, but is somewhat similar. The player marches his king to the right or the left hand side of the board and then surrounds it with defensive pieces. In so doing, he divides his army into two forces, the attacking force and the defensive force.
There are around one hundred recognized formations for castles, which have names. The most popular are the Fortress or Yagura, the Boat or Mino Gakoy and the Bear-in-the-Hole or Anoguma. Me? I'm a cowardly person. I play the Anoguma.
Even as a beginner, you will need to know one of these formations and use it all the time until you learn it.
The easiest to learn is the Mino Gakoy. I recommend that one. To set up this castle, first you must move the rook over to the left hand side of the board somewhere, either to the third, fourth or fifth file from the left. I recommend the fourth file. Next, you march your king up and over to the square where the rook started out. This takes three moves. Next, the silver general near the king moves one square directly forward, so that it defends the knight which is behind the king. Finally, the gold general which is on the left hand side moves diagonally right one so that it is defended by the gold general on the right side which still has never moved. Now the Mino Gakoy is complete. This has taken six moves. In addition, in most cases, the player will advance his right lance pawn one square to give an escape route for the king to run out once the enemy succeeds in breaking open his castle.
It is extremely important that the knight behind the king and the lance diagonally behind the king never move until forced to do so. They must remain where they are to defend the king. Note that the lance pawn diagonally in front of the king is defended by three pieces, the lance, the knight and the king. Similarly, the pawn in front of the silver general is defended by three pieces, the knight, the silver and the king. However, the pawn directly in front of the king is only defended by two pieces, the silver general and the king. This is the terrible weakness of the Mino Gakoy and that is where in all likelihood the enemy will try to break through and checkmate.
All recognized castles have one feature in common. In every case, the king is defended by exactly three generals, never four and never two. Sometimes, out of necessity, a player will have only two generals defending his king, but that is only because his opponent attacked so early in the game that he did not have time to complete his castle. A defense of the king by only two castles to too weak and insubstantial to resist for long any kind of serious attack. On the other hand, a defense by four castles is too bulky. They get into each other's way and can easily be picked off and become part of the enemy army.
Particularly at the lower levels, you will find players who do not bother with these castles. They just start attacking from the first move. The favorite opening of such players is called the climbing silver attack. It is a bit like the Fool's Mate attack in chess, which starts with 1. e4 e5 2. Qh5. In shogi, the left side silver general simply runs up by itself and attacks, supported only by a pawn. The silver general tries to sacrifice itself in such a way that pawn promotes, with devastating effect.
The problem is that the climbing silver attack is not entirely bad. There are a lot of traps and tricks in it. You need to know what you are doing and to defend against it with great caution. Finally, if you do succeed in fending off the climbing silver, the game is far from over. Your opponent has only lost one or two tempi at most, which hardly counts in a complex game like shogi.
For the first move of the game, there are only two moves worthy of consideration. You must either move the pawn in front of the rook or you must move the third file pawn, opening the long diagonal for the bishop. The opponent will also make one of these two opening moves. It can be demonstrably proven that any other first move besides these two is bad, except for possibly an edge pawn move. Any immediate rook move is bad because it leaves the pawn in front of the rook undefended. Any other central pawn move is bad because it leaves a hole in which the enemy can drop a piece.
A matter of utmost importance is that a player must not leave any holes or gaps on his first three ranks during the initial stages of the game. Look at the initial setup of the board. Every square on the first three ranks is either occupied or defended. Leave it that way for as long as you can and remember, every time you move a piece forward, you leave an empty square behind that piece where your opponent might be able to drop something.
However, in shogi, there is no such rule. Material advantage does not mean much, if indeed anything at all, except during the initial stages of the game. A silver general might be the most valuable piece on the board if it is threatening checkmate on the next move, or it might be less than worthless and an absolute liability if stranded out of action on the wrong side of the board where it can be picked off at will and made part of the enemy army.
As a rule, two pieces, no matter what they are, are better than one. For example, the rook is the strongest piece and the gold general is a seemingly weak piece. However, if I can get two gold generals in exchange for a rook, I will usually feel that I have gotten the best end of the bargain. Like an army of termites, gold generals and the other short pieces are fantastically effective for moving in and checkmating the enemy king, whereas the rook often has to stand from a distance and watch helplessly.
An experienced player at shogi can give a beginner the handicap of eight pieces easily. This means that the experienced player plays without his rook, his bishop, his two lances, his two knights and his two silver generals. In fact, games are sometimes played at the handicap of ten pieces (without the two golds as well) and still the giver of the handicap wins. I have played games where I have given a beginner a handicap of the entire board, playing only with my bare king, without even pawns, and still won.
I am by no means a great player of shogi. Nevertheless, I can easily give the average person, not a regular club or tournament player, the handicap of six pieces, meaning a rook, a bishop, two lances and two knights. Moreover, I can give any player rated less than 5 kyu the handicap of a rook and a bishop and I will win every game at those odds.
On the other hand, a recognized professional player in Japan can easily give me rook odds and can probably give me rook and bishop odds, winning most of the games at those odds.
How is it possible to give such enormous odds? Such a thing would be not be possible in chess.
This is because of the dynamics of the game. To win a game of shogi, the player must break though the enemy barrier and, in order to do that, the player must make sacrifices. Remember that, in shogi, the attacking force, however small, will almost always eventually overwhelm the defending force, however large.
If I give my opponent a handicap of eight pieces, meaning that I only have my pawns plus two gold generals, my opponent will often just decide to hide behind his pawns, thinking that my small force can never get him. This strategy leads to certain death, for him.
If he knows enough to realize that he has to attack, it is not so simple. Unlike chess, he cannot simply pile up and trade down to an endgame. Remember that captured pieces come back into the game. Therefore, even exchanges tend to favor the weaker side, whereas in chess, even exchanges favor the stronger side.
So, the player who has received the handicap realizes that he must sacrifice and break through and get behind the enemy wall of pawns. This is where the calculating ability of the stronger player becomes decisive. The player who has received the handicap thinks that he sees a way to sacrifice, beak through and checkmate the enemy king. However, there is a slight flaw in his analysis. It is not quite checkmate. The enemy king slips out. Now, the piece he sacrificed for his breakthrough is in the enemy hand and can be dropped anywhere on the board, with devastating effect. Once the player who has received the handicap gets just one or two pieces in hand, the final result is just a foregone conclusion.
Roughly speaking, we can say that a 1-dan player in shogi is the equivalent of an 1800 player in chess. Every ranking up or down from that is the equivalent of 100 points. Thus, a 4-kyu player is the equivalent of 1400. I am officially ranked 2-dan at shogi. This makes me the equivalent of a 1900 player. By the way, my current United States Chess Federation rating at chess is 2102.
This is true up until 4-dan. After that, it becomes less clear. After about 7-dan, players reach professional strength. As in go, professional players start at one dan and go up to 9-dan, which is the highest rank.
Because of the greater complexity of shogi, the stronger player will win with much greater frequency than in chess. Big upsets are much rarer.
In games between players of unequal strength, there is a handicap system. If a player is one rank better than his opponent, the lower ranked player has the first move. If the difference is two ranks, for example a 1-dan player against a 2-kyu player, the dan player must play without his left lance. For three ranks difference, the higher player plays without his bishop, for four ranks without his rook, for five ranks without a rook and a lance and for six ranks without a bishop and a rook.
This means that if a 1-dan player plays a 6-kyu player, the 1-dan player gives a handicap of rook and bishop. This may seem like a big handicap. Yet, the truth is that these handicaps are too small. At these odds, the 1-dan player will win almost every game.
This winds up the major rules of shogi. Shogi is such a complicated game that probably I have forgotten something really important. I just can't think of it right now.
It is not only Bill Clinton who has this problem: Japanese chess champion admits on TV to affair with female chess champion. Japan public calls for resignation of his title.