Japan's youngest professional shogi player, 14-year-old Sota Fujii, saw his record winning streak snapped at 29 official matches on Sunday, as his road toward the all-time record for consecutive wins reignited popularity in the traditional board game.
The junior high school student, who holds the fourth "dan," or rank, fell to 22-year-old Yuki Sasaki, a fifth-dan player, during the second round of the prestigious Ryuo Championship finals at the Shogi Kaikan hall in Tokyo.
Unbeaten since his pro debut match in December, the shogi prodigy on June 26 won his 29th consecutive match and broke the record of 28 consecutive wins set in 1987 by Hiroshi Kamiya, a 56-year-old eighth-dan player.
Fujii's latest opponent, Sasaki, went pro in 2010 and is one of the promising young shogi players. Earlier he went as far as to compete in the deciding match to choose the challenger in the Kio tournament, one of the eight title matches contested by professional shogi players.
Fujii and Sasaki were competing for the Ryuo title, where either title holder Akira Watanabe, 33, or his challenger takes home the largest prize purse of the year, around 43.2 million yen ($384,000).
Sasaki was also at the hall to witness the historic match last week where Fujii defeated 19-year-old fourth-dan player Yasuhiro Masuda in the first round of the Ryuo finals.
Fujii has not yet won a title, and if he does, he will be the youngest ever, rewriting the record set by Nobuyuki Yashiki by winning a title in 1990 at the age of 18 years and 6 months. Today, Yashiki is a top-ranked, ninth-dan player.
Last October, Fujii became the youngest professional player ever at the age of 14 years and 2 months. Two months later, he beat Hifumi Kato, the 77-year-old oldest top-ranked player, in his professional debut.
The shogi star's success has sparked a level of interest in shogi not seen since 1996 when Yoshiharu Habu made a clean sweep to hold all seven top shogi titles at once. Habu, 46, a ninth dan, retains three of the titles and remains one of the most famous shogi players. There are now eight top shogi titles.
Fujii's winning streak has inspired brisk sales of books about shogi for children, and more young people to play the board game, commonly known as Japanese chess.
Fujii himself began playing shogi at age 5 after his grandmother gave him a children's version of the game. After his late grandfather became no match for him, the boy started attending shogi classes in his neighborhood.
Shogi can be more complicated than chess as players, given 20 pieces each, can reuse the pieces captured from their opponent and introduce them back into the game as their own. The game, in which players attempt to capture their opponent's king piece, is thought to have originated from the ancient Indian game of chaturanga.
The shogi world is highly competitive. An aspiring shogi player typically enters "shorei-kai," a society under the Japan Shogi Association aimed at training young aspiring players under the age of 26.
Only four new players can enter the professional ranks through attainment of fourth dan per year. In order to do so, they must finish first or second in the twice-yearly third-dan tournament.
Professionals are ranked between fourth dan, the lowest, and ninth dan, the highest, in a six-level system. There are around 200 active and retired professional shogi players, the association said.