In the western world, the game of chess is a struggle between the forces of light and darkness; the pieces and the 64 squares on which they maneuver are designed in contrasting colors as if to emphasize the no-holds-barred opposition between the battling armies. Japanese chess, called "shogi," is subtler, more complicated.
If you think the name might be related to the word "shogun," one of the few Japanese words familiar to most Americans, you are right. "Shogun" means, among other things, "general." Shogi is sometimes called "the game of generals."
Two masters of shogi -- which has 20 million enthusiasts in Japan and, like Zen, karate and sushi, is starting to gain a foothold here -- came to Washington this week to demonstrate the game and play against anyone who might challenge them.
Yoshinori Kimura, 50, is one of the leading players in Japan. Keiji Nishikawa, 23, is a rising young player with what looks like a brilliant future. They both gave heavy odds to their American opponents, leaving off the board some of the 20 pieces to which they are entitled. It was not much of a sacrifice; in shogi, you can enlist a captured piece in your own army.
In a lecture-demonstration on Wednesday night and a game against one another last night at the Japan Information and Culture Center on 19th Street NW, Kimura and Nishikawa played on a board whose 81 squares are all the same color. So are the pieces -- flat, wooden tiles, distinguished not by their color and shape but by names engraved on their surfaces. Most pieces have one name written on the top, another on the bottom, in case they change roles during the game.
Only pawns can be promoted in western chess (to queen; a piece that does not exist in shogi). In Japanese chess, the bishop (kaku), rook (hisha), lance (kyo), knight (kei) and pawn (fu) -- even the silver general (gin) may hope for promotion. Only the king (gyoku) and the gold generals (kin), who stand by his side, have gone as high as they can go. Move one of your pieces successfully into enemy territory, and you can give it a battlefield promotion. Just turn it over so that the new rank is displayed.
Western chess is a matter of life and death. Most games end with only a few of the original 32 pieces still active. The others are dead; the euphemism used in the game is "captured," but they lie lifeless by the side of the board. The curious word that describes a decisive victory, "checkmate," is a corruption of the ancient Persian "shah mat," "the king is dead." In shogi, capture means exactly that; the captured piece can live to fight again, if not for the same side. No wonder that games of shogi usually last longer than games of chess.
Besides Washington, where there are about 50 Americans and an undetermined number of Japanese who play shogi, Kimura and Nishikawa are touring Seattle, Los Angeles and New York. In Washington, their visit was jointly sponsored by the Japanese Embassy and the Washington chapter of the All Japan Shogi Federation, whose president, Larry Kaufman, is also a master of chess.
Kaufman, who is the top-ranked shogi player in America, cheerfully admits that he is no match for professionals like Kimura and Nishikawa. "I go to Japan and play every year," he says. "My impression is that, besides the 200 professionals in Japan, there are about 200 amateurs who can beat me."