Filip Marek is the president of the Czech Shogi Association (CAS). AIS interviewed him today to find out how, with his determination and ideas, he has become the father of a forward-looking cultural project that combines entrepreneurship, gaming and overcoming cultural barriers.

Hello Filip, thank you for your willingness to be interviewed. Let’s start by talking about yourself: when did you first approach shōgi and under what circumstances?

Hi Francesco, also thank you for the invitation. I got into shogi by accident in 2010. I was studying IT at school at the time and I was interested in all IT news in the world. One report was about the milestone of artificial intelligence, when the computer first managed to beat a man at that time very difficult to play combinatorics. It was just a shogi game, so I found out that there wasn’t just European chess, I immediately studied the rules and I was immediately interested in shogi. No one around me knew the game and I couldn’t even find anyone on the internet with whom I would try to play the game. Of course, there may have been some shogi playing servers at the time, but I didn’t know that…

Did you also play other board games before becoming involved in shōgi? If so, which ones in particular?

Ha ha. Not much, only some basic games. You know like classic chess, monopoly, some cards games etc. On the contrary, I started playing board games after I started playing shogi. Me and my girlfriend Pavlina, now my wife, started promoting shogi at game board festivals. There we just discovered that exists a huge of board games. But shogi is still top for me. 

In Europe unfortunately we have many difficulties in studying shōgi because of the few books in English that have been published at the moment: how did you take your first steps to improve your playing style and technique?

That’s true with books. But I started differently. Over time, I found several Czech players who were more experienced than me, and I learned from them the basic principles of strategies and techniques. As a complete rookie, I went to ESC / WOSC 2014 to Hungary. It was like a no-swimmer jumping from a boat in the middle of a lake, but it was fun and I improved and learned a lot during the tournament.

You graduated in Cognitive Informatics at the University of Economics in Prague: how did your studies influence your approach to shōgi? In particular, what do you think about artificial intelligence applied to the study of shōgi? Do you think it can be an asset for the improvement of the game or do you prefer practice with human opponents?

I think that for some higher class players are good plays with artificial intelligence because it can have positive results. But I prefer to play with a human because after the game I always like to develop a debate about the game with my opponent.

Your entrepreneurial activity in shōgi is linked to the invention of simplified koma (available at this link), which combines tradition (the use of kanji) with innovation (the use of directional arrows): when did you come up with this idea and how did the kickstarter experience you started go?

When I discovered shogi, I wanted to buy the game, but at that time it was not possible to buy it anywhere. So I thought I’d make one set out of paper. But when it comes to labeling pieces, kanji was really hell for me. So I searched the internet for more signs and eventually, I found an international sign with a letter and an arrow. The game lost its oriental charm for me, so I thought of keeping arrows and kanji too. That was in 2011 and Kickstarter was 8 years later. That production was, and still is, such a hobby. The beginnings were really hard. The first year I sold only 2 sets and I was really happy from that. In the meantime, I also improved the set several times. In fact, we currently have 4 versions of the set.

As for Kickstarter, it was a completely different experience. One thinks that just presses the start button and then sits down with arms folded and just wait. But that’s not the case. Before the campaign, everything had to be carefully prepared in advance, including the video. During the campaign, we wrote to all possible reviewers and influencers, answered all questions, etc. to keep it moving.

In addition to the simplified koma, you have also designed a shogiban with alphanumeric coordinates, which is a great help for studying: can you tell us about other projects for the future?

Thank you, it made sense to me. I tried to design the record like the pieces. To make the whole set suitable for the Japanese as well as for us Westerners. Unfortunately I will disappoint you, I have no other ideas yet – It is perfect now, ha ha. We will see in future.

But one more interesting thing. People always like the colored stickers on the side of the pieces. For regular shogi players, it is useless, but this occurred to me as I promoted shogi and comes older people who could not see the game well. Because your pieces are not different in color from your opponent’s, it is hard to recognize with poorer eyesight. All pieces have a sticker and the player only sees his own marked pieces.

You are also a founder of the CAS (Czech Shōgi Association): in what year was the CAS born and how widespread is shōgi in Czech Republic today?

Yes, that’s true. I am one of the five founders and current directors’ association. You don’t think that I’m the best in management, just nobody voluntarily wanted to have that position. Ha ha. CAS was founded in 2014. We really needed an official institute for a better position in FESA and in the world, especially in Japan. Anyway, we are small association with a few members and 4 stable clubs. but sometimes it’s like on a swing. we already had more and less clubs. But we have a lot (not regular) shogi player. I know it, because we sold about 1500 our sets to Czech from all of time.

The COVID emergency and the security measures it imposes have led many associations and players’ groups to prefer online gaming to face-to-face gaming: has CAS also noticed this trend, or can you still meet up to play live?

Yes, unfortunately, we noticed, but rather than playing online, it “died” a little bit here. It is very sadly situation, but I believe in better beginnings after Covid.

What do you think the many European shōgi associations should do to help spread this beautiful game more and more in Europe?

They should definitely try our set at promotions events. Made of paper, it doesn’t matter. because I meet many players who are very conservative and do not admit that these sets make it easier to play and thus expand the games out of Japan. However, I have feedback, that everyone who has tried my set has been surprised that it works so well. You can explain the rules to random incoming players within 5 minutes and then just observe how they enjoy the game. That’s hard to do with classic sets.

I think shogi is one of the best games in the world, but the kanji barrier is a huge problem for expanding the game.

Would you like to make a wish to the Italian readers of the Italian Shōgi Association website?

Of course, I wish everyone a lot of patience in learning and playing with opponents. Good luck in the games and pleasant unforgettable experiences not only from the game but also from the atmosphere of various events and tournaments! I hope to see a big strong Italian team at ESC / WSOC in the future 🙂

Thank you, Filip, and see you soon!

Thank you too! I hope that we will meet someday at shogi board.