Is it really possible in a strategy game like Shogi to ‘read the thoughts’ of your opponent to predict and anticipate his moves? Yes, and it is not magic. If it is indeed true that movements on the chessboard depend on the mind, it is equally true that, in the light of solid technical preparation, the chessboard allows access to the player’s mind that can reveal his strategies and ultimately betray his intentions. Beware, however: the mind-chessboard connection is insidious and can also be a double-edged blade, a path paved with gambits and blunders. Let’s start exploring this complex relationship with Michele’s very interesting article.

Sun Tzu wrote: “If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself, but do not know the enemy, for every victory you gain you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither your enemy nor yourself, you will be defeated in every battle.

Know your enemy. Is there room in Shogi for the application of this ancient maxim? The doubt is legitimate, considering that Shogi is an information-perfect game, i.e. a game in which both players, at all times, know exactly how their own and their opponents’ forces on the field are arranged.

The answer to the question is absolutely yes. In an information-perfect game each player knows the current situation and the ‘history’ of the game, i.e. the moves made previously, but not the future moves of the players (except if the next move is, according to the rules of the game, the only possible one, e.g. the compulsory checkers trick).

In order to foresee future moves, one must know the enemy and also understand his intentions, otherwise, as Sun Tzu teaches, we will be exposed to continuous defeats.

In order to foil our opponent’s plans, we need to use preventive thinking. Basically, at every move we have to put ourselves in our opponent’s shoes and ask ourselves what he would play if it were his turn to move. If we understand what he has in mind, we can prevent him from achieving his goal.

It is a type of reasoning that must be developed through training. Anyone who has experience of any strategy game, (so not just Shogi, but also Chess, Draughts, Go, etc.) will have noticed that potential threats in our favour are easier to ‘see’ than those in the opponent’s favour.

Pre-emptive thinking, therefore, by eliminating this widespread flaw, allows us, by itself, a real leap forward, regardless of our skill and competence in the other aspects of the game.

Example 1

Let’s look at a concrete example, taken from a game I played on the Internet.

I was black and my King still didn’t enter the Yagura (Fortress) castle, because of the white Bishop, who dominates the 11-99 diagonal, abandoned by the black Bishop who moved to the adjacent diagonal. These kinds of positions, with the Bishop pointing at black’s castle, in joint action with Knight and Rook are very dangerous for the Yagura player. What can black play in this position?

To answer the question you have to ask what threatens white.

In the game I was very worried about ☖ S-44, attacking P55, not so much because of the possible loss of the Pawn itself (defending it with ☗ G-56 would have ruined the structure of my castle, while I wasn’t attracted by the idea of moving the Rook away from the white King, moving it to 58), but because it would have increased the range of influence of the white Bishop against my castle.

The move I played was 45. ☗ S-45 to prevent 46. ☖ S-44. ☖ P-44 (not the best) and, after 47. ☗ S-56, black has consolidated his position in the centre, while the 11-99 diagonal is clogged with pawns and the white Bishop and Silver are relegated to a purely defensive task, without being able to exert any pressure against my position. The black king can now enter his castle without too much worry.

Let’s look at the next example.

Example 2

The white castle is a variant of the Anaguma, a very solid castle with the king hidden in the corner of the board.

Only the essential pieces are shown in the position to illustrate a typical Black side-attack scheme, with the combined action of Spear, Knight and Pawn on column 9. The black rook does not seem to do much, but in fact it performs the very useful function of tying the white Silver to the Gold defence in 71.

The attack starts with 1. ☗ P-94 2. ☖ Px94 3. ☗ P*93 4. ☖ Lx93 5. ☗ Nx93+ 6. ☖ Nx93 As stated before, we cannot play 6. ☖ Sx93 because it would follow 7. After Cavsllo’s move, if black immediately plays 7. ☗ Lx94, white can block the attack with 8. ☖ P*92.

What can black play?

Among the many Shogi proverbs, there is one that is based on preventive thinking: “Parachute where your opponent wants to parachute”.

When we realise that white wants to parachute a Pawn in defence, we can prevent this by parachuting a Pawn of our own with 7. ☗ Lx94 After 10. ☖ N*81 11. ☗ L*99, the side attack is successful and the white castle is under pressure.

As you can see, foreseeing and preventing the opponent’s plans is not a method of play limited to the defensive phase and is also effective in attack.

On the subject of preventative thinking, the fourth game of the 2017 final for the Eio title between Masayuki Toyoshima, then title holder, and challenger Sota Fujii is particularly interesting, because on several occasions players show that they understand their opponent’s intentions and take appropriate countermeasures accordingly, playing moves that would otherwise be mysterious.

On the official YouTube channel of Shogi Renmei (the Japanese Shogi Association) there is a video with comments on the match by the professionals Marika Nakamura, 3-Dan female, and Shuji Muranaka, 7-Dan, famous in the West for his Shogi videos subtitled in English (you can read an exclusive interview with him on this site). The comments are in Japanese, but the variants shown on the wallboard make the meaning quite understandable even for those who, like me, don’t know the language (here’s the link, for those interested in watching the whole game).

Example 3

The first interesting position for our argument is reached after move 26.

Toyoshima had black and Fujii white.

☗ B*82, but white would reply with 28. ☖ B*44, attacking rook and spear at the same time. Toyoshima then played 27. ☗ N-77, to close the diagonal 11-99. Now 29. ☗ B*82 is a real threat and Fujii, in turn, has prevented black from parachuting the bishop with 28.

Example 4

In this position, if Black plays 41. ☗ Px85 42. ☖ Nx85 43. ☗ T-84, White has the advantage with 44. ☖ Nxc3+ 45. ☗ Rx84 46. ☖ +Nx72, gaining two pieces in exchange for the rook, and having the promoted knight dangerously close to the black king.

Toyoshima played 41. ☗ G-79 42. ☖ Px86 43. ☗ P*85 Now, if the game follows the above variant, after ☖ Nx33+ Gold is no longer taken. 

Example 5

Black has just played 63. ☗ B-65, preventing 64. ☖ +P-92. The bishop move, however, also contains a threat.

Fujii, of course, realised that black was threatening 65. ☗ N*44 66. ☖ Px44 67. ☗ Bx32+ and played 64. ☖ K-41  

Example 6

In the last example, Toyoshima has just played 77. ☗ L*66, defending the Bishop and with the idea of playing ☗ +R88, capturing the white Rook.

Having realised the threat, Fujii played 78. ☖ +Bx65 79. ☗ Lx65 80. ☖ N*76 Now the knight controls 88 and attacks Silver on 68. Black, however, played 81. ☗ B*88 and, after 82. ☖ Nx68+ 83.

These few examples should be enough to give the reader an idea of the great importance of preventive thinking in the practical game.