Shogi And Football: The Japanese Version of Chess And Its Copious Parallels to The Beautiful Game

Article by Ben Griffis

We widely use chess as a metaphor for soccer tactics, and the mere idea of a person playing chess invokes a romantic air of strategy and wisdom. Recently, Louis Vuitton ran an ad featuring Messi and Ronaldo playing chess—likening their careers to that of a chess match, where each player is trying to cement themselves as the single greatest of all time.

The Athletic published an article on Christian Pulisic’s transformation into a chess player, generating parallels between his early-career play style and current, more mature, wise, and calculated style. A low-scoring match with two tactically strong teams is often described as a chess match.

The game of chess itself has many parallels to football tactics: opening the match with your own plan, attempting to predict how the opponent will play and effectively setting up a strategy to counter their tactic; making tweaks, sometimes minor, sometimes major, to your strategy in response to the opponent’s moves; and much more.

Another strategy game, chess’s Japanese brother Shogi, deserves its place in the football-tactics-as-a-game sun. The game is not only very similar to chess, but the game play itself might be more aligned with football tactics than chess. I’m not trying to dismiss any chess-soccer parallels, but rather share how shogi and soccer are intertwined (and, in my mind, to a higher degree than chess). Here, I’ll introduce shogi for any who haven’t heard of it before, and while I’ll place football parallels throughout, I’ll of course have a dedicated section for more specific parallels. While mainly popular in Japan, shogi’s popularity has been growing both domestically and abroad since the 2020.

A Shogi board. Note the pieces are the same color… the direction the piece’s tip faces tells us whose piece it is

INTRO TO SHOGI

Shogi is very popular in Japan, with countless apps to play on, streamers to watch (some for high-end instruction, some for pure entertainment, and everything in between), and even a fully professional league for both men and women. The man who topped the earnings chart in 2020 won over $700,000. Shogi is even played in Naruto, and shogi is the focus of the Manga (and Anime adaption of) Shion no Ō.

Shogi was “invented” in the Heian period of Japan, c. 1200. Much like chess (and the Chinese version, Xiangqi, and Korean version, Janggi), shogi branched off from an Indian game, Chaturanga. The general concept and gameplay are, naturally, very similar to chess. Two players control their pieces, attempting to either take down the opponent’s king or put the king in a situation where they have no moves they can make without losing (checkmate). Pieces have distinct movements, functions, and typical responsibilities.

Some pieces are typically used to defend the king—drawing parallels to defenders and goalkeepers in soccer—and some are used more to attack the opponent, like wingers and strikers. Chess and shogi have many pieces that move in the same or a very similar manner to each other. Pawns exist in both games, as do rooks and bishops (although shogi only has one rook and one bishop instead of two, like in chess). Outside of these three pieces plus the king, shogi and chess have similar pieces but with important differences. This brings us to the rules of shogi.

Perhaps the third-biggest difference between shogi and chess (I’ll get to the two biggest differences soon) is the relative emphasis on forward movement in shogi. The shogi equivalent of chess’ knight can only move forward: two squares up, and one to the left or right. They cannot move back once they move forward, and they cannot move sideways. It also can jump a piece in front of it.

Shogi also has a piece called a “lance”, which can only move forward; as many spaces forward in one move as it likes (without jumping pieces). They sit on the far right and left flanks, and since they can’t move sideways, stay there.

The final two piece types are the Silver General and Gold General (usually called simply, silver and gold, respectively, in English). The silver is more attacking, and the gold used more for defense, although these are not hard and fast practices and different players will use them differently. They can each only move one space at a time. The gold can move one space laterally, forward or backward, or diagonally forward. But it cannot move diagonally backward. The silver can move diagonally backward, but not laterally or straight back. Silver can also move straight or diagonally forward one space. People tend to use the gold for defense more frequently, as it can pounce in front of it or sideways, but is much more difficult to retreat than the silver. Thus, the gold and silver can be seen as midfielders, with the gold more akin to a deep-lying midfielder shielding the defense and supporting attackers, and the silver a more attacking midfielder heavily involved in any attacking sequence.

While chess has 6 total piece types, and is symmetric outside the queen and king, shogi has eight piece types, and is asymmetric (one rook, one bishop) as well as having no queen. Given the added pieces and more restricted movement, shogi games can have an extra layer of complexity. The board is 9×9, compared to 8×8 for chess, and players have 20 pieces to start, compared to chess’s 16: nine pawns, two lances, two knights, two golds, two silvers, one bishop, one rook, and one king. This image below shows the board with chess-like pieces (the gold generals are next to the king, with suns above them, and the silvers have moons; lances are on the flanks in the back rows).

A Shogi board with chess piece equivalents.

Now let’s move into one of the two biggest differences between shogi and chess: piece promotion. In shogi, once any piece (excluding the king and gold general) reaches the opponent’s final three spaces, they earn a promotion, which changes their movement. This promotion is optional. Rooks and bishops earn one movement in the direction they normally can’t move (one space diagonally for rooks, one space orthogonally for bishops), whereas pawns, knights, lances, and silvers promote into gold generals. The pieces keep promotions if they move out of the final third.

This promotion adds another layer of complexity to shogi that chess doesn’t have. Pawns, of course, can be promoted in chess, but must reach the very end of the board first. Pawns in shogi only need to reach the final third, and basically every other piece can be promoted as well—it’s not restricted to pawns.

The legal moves of shogi pieces & their promotions. Source: BoardGameGeek

Now let’s talk about the most important difference from chess: zombie pieces. That’s right, in shogi, you can bring pieces back from the dead. Unlike in chess, where the pieces you capture are killed, shogi’s capturing system means you take the captured piece and can drop it onto the board as your own as one of your moves (with some restrictions I won’t detail much, like you can legally only have one pawn on a file).

This means that if I capture your bishop, I’m then able to place that bishop anywhere on the board as one of my turns. This adds a large layer of complexity and dynamic nature to each game. Shogi games often seem to ebb and flow much more frequently, and differently, than in chess. If one player loses a few pieces, they’re able to get them back. When you take an opponent out of the game, you’re able to turn that to your advantage more than in chess.

From a mathematical complexity standpoint, shogi is more complex than chess. More pieces, a bigger board, piece stealing-and-dropping, more promotions, etc. Games with two decent players may take up to 140 moves to complete compared to 80 in chess for these reasons. However, many shogi teachers try to have their students focus on making quick moves as they learn in order to give them a better ability to adapt to the very dynamic game and to create a dynamic game at that.

I hope this overview gives good insight into the game of shogi and its rules. The Wikipedia article is very good at going into more depth, so please read that if you’re curious. So now, let’s dive into the shogi-football parallels. Again, I’m not trying to say that we should never use chess for this, but illustrate the many (and sometimes different) parallels shogi has to the sport.

SPECIFIC SHOGI-FOOTBALL PARALLELS

Just like with chess, and any other strategy board game, the general preparation of your personal strategy and then tweaking to respond to opponent moves is very similar to football. However, the added complexity of shogi because of promotions and piece drops creates a much more dynamic game than chess. While chess can be dynamic, once a piece is gone, it’s gone. In shogi, the constant change of pieces and addition of pieces back onto the board create a constantly changing game, much like in football.

We could think of promoting a silver (to a gold) as substituting a defensive-minded midfielder on for an attacking midfielder. While both midfielders, the defensive-minded midfielder will change the system slightly, and also can change how the opponent plays against you.

Capturing players and putting them on your side of the board means that you’re benefitting twice from taking a player out of the game. Similarly, in football, if you beat your man and keep up the pace you take them out of the game and turn that to your advantage… But that player can recover, and in shogi, your opponent could take one of your own pieces and drop them on the board to defend against your piece in the final third.

That brings me to another parallel between football and shogi: the lance and fullback. In shogi, you start with a lance on the flank, which can only move directly forward, much like the fullbacks. When they get to the final third, lances can promote into golds, allowing them to cut inside and attack central areas, supporting other pieces. They could also skip the promotion and instead put pressure on the opposing lance if your other pieces in the area get taken.

The final third of the shogi board draws many parallels to the final third in football. As Thierry Henry said of Pep Guardiola’s tactics, “He puts everything in place to get the ball up to the final third of the pitch and then trusts his team to finish the job in the only area of the field that can’t be planned for”. In shogi, once you get pieces into the final third, you can fully change what they do and the strategy behind many attacks is to get into the final third to change players before using several pieces to deliver the final blow (either an attempt on the king, or even just grabbing an important piece like a lance, rook, bishop, or silver).

Pawns in shogi are used much more like true “pawns” in every sense of the word than in chess. Since you can take opponent pawns (often easily), they are often incredibly sacrificial. Their main purpose is to protect more dangerous pieces behind them, leading them out for an attack. Drawing parallels to soccer, pawns are effectively dummy runners. They aim to create that space for an attacker to run into, even if they are taken out of the game, their moves can be successful. And then you can take an opponent’s pawn to put them right back in position, just like how a dummy runner in football can rejoin the attack.

Outside of specific pieces, the dynamic nature of shogi is, in my opinion, much more realistic to football than chess. While chess matches are often quite dynamic, the ebb and flow in shogi is much more frequent. It’s much more difficult, in my experience, to come back from poor situations in chess than in shogi, mainly due to the ability to capture and drop opponent pieces as your own, effectively bringing your players back into the match. Often, players will even sacrifice one of their strongest pieces if it means capturing a specific, weaker piece for an exact attacking purpose—think of a talisman striker making a move and taking multiple defenders with them. This takes that striker out of that attacking movement but can open up space for another player to exploit and possibly score.

The shifts in momentum in a shogi game are also much more frequent than what I experience in chess. While chess may have a relatively shorter opening/piece development phase than shogi, shogi’s middle game tends to involve many piece exchanges, attacking forays, and drops. Players, knowing that they can bring pieces back into play if they capture them, will often try little pokes and prods of the opponent defense, sacrificing pieces in the process. In chess, any sacrificial piece would be fully out of play. But in shogi, much like in football, a player running at the opposition might lose possession but with good movement (i.e. in shogi, capturing an opponent’s piece, even a pawn) they can come back to recover.

There are also parallels in the defensive structure of many shogi “castles” which you use to defend the king. A group of pieces such as a lance, knight, and the golds form a structure to defend the king against attacks. And typically, the castles have pieces like the bishop or a silver at the top or side of the structure that will proactively defend any opponent pieces coming near. Compare that to a mid-block with pressing triggers for players to push out and engage the opponent. The silver or bishop may let rook advance, for example, if there is no immediate danger, but may attack a pawn that’s leading an opposing silver into attack, trying to bait the opponent into either retreat or an early attack.

SHOGI, CHESS, AND FOOTBALL

The study and practice of any strategy game, particularly a complex one like chess or shogi (or other chess variants), will help people with other strategic games, such as football tactics. Planning your own approach to a game, recognizing the tactics your opponent is using, and making adjustments to increase your chance of winning are all aspects of shogi/chess and football. Both games have plenty of parallels to football and playing either should help someone wanting to increase their capacity for strategic thinking.

I personally love shogi as a game, and much more than chess. The more I play, the more comparisons to football I see. Many of these comparisons are the same as chess, and many are different. Chess also has comparisons that I’m sure shogi does not have. But the metaphors between chess and football can often be made with shogi, and sometimes greater parallels given the unique piece movements and rules compared to chess.

If you have gotten this far, I appreciate you reading this. If you’ve never played shogi or even heard of it before, I highly recommend it if you are looking for something else to flex your brain with. As a lover of football tactics, you will certainly find some takeaways from shogi, much like you will from chess. Perhaps one day we’ll see shogi being used to invoke a sense of reverence in football!

If this article sparked your interest in shogi, 81Dojo is a great place to play online (against humans) and lishogi is pretty good for AI play. Shogi Wars is also incredibly popular for both humans and AI. You can find plenty of English-language resources online, but sadly, there are relatively few compared to most games. Shogi has a huge presence on YouTube (mostly in Japanese though), and Hidetchi is my favorite channel for learning, and he has an introduction series in English.

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