Fourteen-year-old shogi phenom Sota Fujii has managed an unbroken string of board-top glory since his pro debut in December 2016, winning his 28th consecutive game on June 21 and tying the all-time winning streak record. But even as a small child he showed all the signs of becoming a shogi prodigy -- as well as a tendency to volcanic fits of tear-soaked temper when he lost. In short, he didn't like to lose.
"He is the personification of fighting spirit," says Masataka Sugimoto, Fujii's 48-year-old instructor and a seventh-dan shogi player. "Fujii progressed by taking the frustration of any defeat and using it against his next opponent."
In his first year at primary school, Fujii would test his pet strategies against junior and senior high school students in his shogi class, blithely telling the older children things like, "If you don't take that pawn, you can't win." He would choose moves that were risky but increased his chances of winning and, with a spoken vocabulary that already made him sound like an adult, quickly marked himself out as a budding genius.
Sugimoto says he wondered at the time, "Can a 7-year-old really have this kind of intuition?"
From age 5 to 10, Fujii honed his talents at a shogi school in Seto, Aichi Prefecture, run by Rikio Fumimoto, now 62. According to Fumimoto, despite being too young to read, Fujii took just a year to master everything covered in the 480-page shogi textbook he received when he joined the school. Though Fujii was still in kindergarten at the time, Fumimoto says he felt very quickly that the boy "would become a pro player." Even then, he was so skilled that some local opponents would register in tournaments outside the area just to avoid playing him, Fumimoto adds.
When Fujii was in the first and second grade at primary school, Norio Nakayama, the head of a shogi school in Nagoya, visited Seto to play and found that Fujii possessed unrivalled prowess at resolving set shogi problems.
"His talent was truly remarkable," the now 57-year-old Nakayama says, "It was like watching a primary school child solve graduate school-level mathematics problems."
Those around Fujii at the time remember a little boy with such prodigious talent that he seemed a breed apart from regular folk -- and who would erupt into sobbing tantrums when he lost. One story tells of the boy wonder's game against ninth-dan player Koji Tanigawa when Fujii was only in second grade.
The game against Tanigawa, the youngest player to ever reach shogi's top "meijin" rank at age 21, was intended to be instructional, but Fujii took the gradual realization of his inferiority hard. Tanigawa, noticing Fujii's frustration, offered to call the game a draw. Fujii burst into tears and made to embrace the board, quickly attracting a crowd. His mother Yuko hugged him and picked him up to take him home. This had apparently become standard procedure whenever the boy lost.
"Normally you'd think that a person would cry quietly when they lost, but Fujii would let out a terrific wail when he cried," says 77-year-old Hidetsugu Ikeda, another of Fujii's boyhood instructors. "He really seemed to hate losing."