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Emerging shogi prodigy Fujii seen as threat to top champion Habu

Fourth-dan shogi player Sota Fujii (Mainichi)

A 14-year-old shogi prodigy who may have the ability to overcome 46-year-old champion Yoshiharu Habu, holder of the Oi title, has appeared on the scene.

    Sota Fujii made his professional debut in shogi, or Japanese chess, last autumn at the age of 14 years and 2 months, becoming the youngest to do so. He has won 13 straight games since beating 9th-dan master Hifumi Kato in his inaugural match.

    Kato previously held the record for being the youngest to turn pro, at the age of 14 years and 7 months, while Habu made his debut when he was 15 years, 2 months old.

    So just what kind of player is Fujii?

    Fujii often leans forward when he becomes engrossed in the game, covering the board with his face. When reviewing his games, older players ask him, "What if you were to move there?" He then quietly moves his piece -- and then corners his opponent, who can do nothing but give a wry smile.

    "He goes beyond common sense, and there is nothing but surprise. You could even say he has divine ability," said 59-year-old novelist Yoshio Osaki, who was a longtime editor of the magazine "Shogi Sekai" (Shogi world) and wrote the book "Satoshi no Seishun," portraying the life of ninth-dan shogi player Satoshi Murayama, who passed away at the age of 29.

    Osaki interviewed Habu before his debut. "I never imagined I'd see someone with greater ability (than Habu)," Osaki said. "Mr. Habu exuded a certain aura, but Mr. Fujii rather gives off the impression of an ordinary intelligent junior high school boy. And that's the amazing thing. I can feel the magnitude of what's hidden inside him."

    Fujii, who is now in his third year of junior high school, grew up with one brother in a family of four. His 47-year-old mother Yuko says, "His older brother goes about things efficiently, but Sota is a slow-paced child."

    The prodigy learned to play shogi at the age of 5, and attended a local shogi class in Seto, Aichi Prefecture. Soon after entering Shorei-kai, a society of talented young players who are trained to become professionals, Fujii played two games against seventh-dan player Masataka Sugimoto, 48, without a handicap, and scored one win and one loss.

    "He (Fujii) won first, but I was surprised that he didn't look happy," Fujii's trainer recalled. "And when he lost in the second game, he was unusually devastated." Apparently there were times in Fujii's younger years when he cried after losing.

    Even when Fujii wins, he sometimes looks downcast in interviews, and uses grown-up language, saying for example, that it was an "unexpected result."

    Fujii peruses the newspaper every day and takes an interest in social issues. He also reads serialized novels.

    The 14-year-old is famous for his skills in shogi problems. In 2015, during his sixth year of elementary school, he won an annual problem-solving championship in which top professionals compete. With victories in the 2016 and 2017 championships, he now has three straight wins.

    Kensuke Kitahama, 41, a former winner of the championship, commented, "He plays on a different level. Reading the moves, I can't solve them that fast. The checkmate position probably occurs to him in an instant."

    Conspicuously, Fujii has been able to overpower opponents in his wins, and his strength is compared to that of Habu, who managed to hold all seven major Japanese professional shogi titles by the age of 25.

    Kazuo Azuma, 61, an eighth-dan shogi player, commented, "Mr. Habu's magic involved tenaciously hanging on and then turning the tables. Mr. Fujii goes in for the attack if his opponent falters at all, and builds a superior position."

    Sugimoto, meanwhile, says, "Fujii's openings are stronger than Habu's were at the time of his debut. He's also strong in the endgame, and has me thinking in surprise, 'So you can hold on like that.' Most of his 13 straight victories were easy wins, but his distinctive characteristics come out when he's under pressure.

    Fujii played Habu in a friendly match broadcast on the internet television station AbemaTV on April 23 -- and won.

    The 14-year-old commented that Habu had played moves he hadn't considered.

    "I got a taste of the scariness of Oi champion Habu in the endgame," Fujii said.

    Habu, noting it was his first game against Fujii, said he was impressed by his sharp attack.

    "He has a calmness you wouldn't expect from a new player," Habu said. "I think he'll really grow, and I look forward to seeing what kind of player he'll become."

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