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Stiff competition, mental strength and limitless curiosity led Habu to shogi glory

Shogi players Yoshiharu Habu, right, and Akira Watanabe, left foreground, recount their Ryuo title game after Habu's victory on Dec. 5, 2017, in Ibusuki, Kagoshima Prefecture. (Mainichi)

Some 28 years after winning his first ever pro shogi championship and decades spent locked in tabletop battles with some of the best players in the chess-like game, 47-year-old Yoshiharu Habu has become the first lifetime holder of seven of Japan's major shogi titles. He achieved the unprecedented honor with his seventh Ryuo tournament victory on Dec. 5, earning him a Lifetime Ryuo qualification.

"I felt this might be my last chance," Habu said, adding that he had a firmly determined attitude going into the tourney, though at the same time he was keenly aware of his advancing years and declining physical fortitude.

Habu took the Ryuo title in the fifth game of the tournament against 33-year-old Akira Watanabe. His manner barely changed throughout the game, his attention focused on the board. This was in sharp contrast to Watanabe, who admitted that his strategy had failed and barely looked at the board.

During the endgame, Habu repeatedly nodded to himself as if in silent approval of his own reading of the game. Watanabe finally gave up, and said in a clear voice, "I've lost." Habu bowed in return, while reporters rushed into the game room.

"I don't feel it's real yet," Habu said just after the match ended. At the postgame news conference, however, he was back to being his usual cool and collected self. The first time he had amassed titles in seven of Japan's premiere shogi tournaments, "I was 25, and I'd been playing professionally for only 10 years," he said. "It's now been more than 30 years (since I went pro), and I feel deeply that I have finally arrived at my destination through the gradual accumulation of accomplishments."

Indeed, Habu has been collecting titles since around the start of the Heisei era (this year is Heisei 29). He won his first Ryuo tournament in 1989, and had claimed seven major championships by 1996. However, though the Ryuo title was his first, it was also the one that took him the longest to achieve lifetime status in. And now he finally has it, in the same year that, with the abdication of Emperor Akihito expected for spring 2019, the end of the Heisei era is in sight. At age 47 and two months, Habu is apparently the fourth oldest person to win a shogi title in the history of the pro game.

"Through my experience, I have become able to dispense with everything unnecessary and think in terms of subtraction is very important. I want to maintain those strengths going forward as well," Habu said. And with those words, he seemed to float upon his newly won status as king of shogi.

But where did his strength and skill come from? First of all, Habu has always had top-flight competition to help sharpen his game. From his pro debut to around the middle of his career, he battled for titles against ninth-dan Koji Tanigawa, now 55. Then there is what's referred to as the "Habu generation": ninth-dan Toshiyuki Moriuchi, 47, and ninth-dan Yasumitsu Sato, 48. He has also had worthy opponents in Watanabe and his generation.

However, this year Habu lost the Oi title to 25-year-old seventh-dan Tatsuya Sugai, and the Oza title to 29-year-old Taichi Nakamura, also a seventh-dan player. The younger players are beginning to show their teeth, and Habu must feel the pressure.

To devote oneself to the battle on the board, win or lose, is a core precondition for playing shogi. Habu, however, has gone beyond that, delving into the game with a limitless spirit of exploration. He also plays chess at a nationally top-class level, and is extremely interested in artificial intelligence. He applies knowledge gained in other disciplines in his game, and says his desire to get to the very heart of shogi, to understand its true essence, never wanes.

Habu's expression is always serious during matches, but after the final move he is quick to smile at whatever surprising new ideas his opponent has deployed during the game. That after game glow seems like a happy moment for him. Furthermore, when confronting opponents he has played with less frequently, Habu will let them try their best honed stratagems and simply defend against them, creating a stock of useful ideas that can be used in later games.

One other major factor in Habu's success must be his psychological strength, demonstrated by never dragging out a lost battle. Even when he loses decisive games, when next he faces the same opponent, it is as if nothing has happened. He has also lost two games in a row only very rarely.

At the dawn of 2018, Habu will aim to have his 100th tournament title under his belt. He is also just 42 pro career match wins behind the all-time record of 1,433, held by 15th Meijin Yasuharu Oyama. Even as he senses the pack of youngsters gaining on him, the 47-year-old looks set to make an even deeper mark on shogi history.

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