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Japan in Depth

Japanese Chess Goes Global

Yuji Osawa

A Polish woman in Japan is making moves to become the first foreign professional player of shogi, also known as "Japanese chess." She's helping the game go global.

Karolina Styczynska has made Japanese chess history at the age of 24. She's the first-ever foreigner to turn professional in the 400-year old game's history.

Styczynska became interested in shogi at the age of 16 when she read about it in a Japanese comic.

"There is a ninja who played shogi," she says. "The dynamics of the game, taking pieces you can reuse, makes it more interesting."

She developed her skills by playing on the internet. She later won the European shogi championship.

Styczynska got the chance to come to Japan two years ago to study shogi in depth. She was invited by professional player Madoka Kitao, who's been trying to promote shogi overseas.

"I heard about a strong female foreign player, so I looked her up and found her enthusing about shogi on Facebook and Twitter," says Kitao. "I was really surprised to discover just how much she likes the game."

Turning pro was not easy. Styczynska had to beat other talented young players. "At first, I was like oh my god," she says. "There are kids moving, making noises and I couldn't get used to it. When I lost a game and I went home, of course it was difficult. Sometimes I cried, sometimes I was very depressed, but I like shogi and I had to continue."

An additional obstacle was the requirement to sit seiza-style, on her heels. Her struggle with it affected her concentration and remains a challenge.

Styczynska gets up at 6 every morning and studies shogi for more than 4 hours a day. She studied Japanese intensively, to help her read books on strategy.

It took her a year and a half to become the first foreigner to join professional shogi tournaments. In her debut, she lost a four-and-a-half-hour match that involved 92 moves.

"It was difficult for me," she says. "I did my best, but it was not enough, so I need to train more."

At present, Styczynska holds only a temporary professional qualification. If she fails to perform well enough in the next 2 years, she'll be demoted to trainee status.

"I am third-kyu now and I need to be second-kyu to be a real professional," she says. "Apart from that, I must learn more Japanese, so I can teach shogi to people and of course help promote shogi abroad."

About 30-thousand people play shogi outside Japan. There is also a junior trainee from China, hoping to turn professional like Styczynska.

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