thoughts about and reviews of particular games

A Chess Player Learning Shogi

I have played chess for close to twenty years now, and along the way I’ve picked up quite a number of chess variants. One of the most exciting and popular chess variants is called bughouse. Bughouse is essentially 2 v. 2 team chess in which each player feeds the pieces they’ve captured to their teammate who can then place them on their board instead of making a move.

Bughouse Chess Variant - Chess Terms -
A game of bughouse

Because pieces cycle back onto the board after being captured the games are often very double-edged with many more sacrificial attacking combinations than regular chess. These tactics plus the distinctive team dynamics (communicating with your partner about which piece trades are advantageous or disadvantageous and coordinating your time management) make bughouse a fascinating chess variant. It perfectly satisfies the two competing criteria for game variants:

  1. A variant should retain some of the soul of the original game.
  2. A variant should also be different in interesting ways from the original game; it should enable new experiences that aren’t possible in the original.

In other words, a game variant has to feel partly like the same game and partly like something new. The best variants produce this nice mix of familiarity and novelty, like bughouse.

After encountering bughouse at my local chess club, I learned that there was another chess variant with the same ‘cycling piece’ mechanic but without teams. This variant, called crazyhouse, requires two chess sets to play over the board, since when you capture, for example, a black knight from your opponent you have to switch it for a white knight to be able to put it on the board as your own. Crazyhouse produces a lot of the same sacrificial attacking play that bughouse does, but unlike bughouse there is a sense in which everything is under your control, just as it is in a ordinary chess game. If you lose, for instance, there is no one to blame except yourself since you had all the information you needed to do better. This aspect of crazyhouse makes it feel very different than bughouse, (better than bughouse for certain temperaments or moods, worse for others).

I really enjoy both variants but I have always found it clumsy that crazyhouse requires two sets of chess pieces. This sometimes bothers me a bit even when I play online where the computer automatically switch the color of the captured piece. There is something artificial about it in a way that there isn’t anything artificial about the piece cycling in bughouse. This artificiality is mostly covered up in online play, but regardless of the extent to which this cover-up is successful, there is something non-ideal about a chess variant that for the most part can only be enjoyably played online. (I searched for images of people playing crazyhouse over the board and could not find any, but I found plently of images of people playing online.)

Given that there is a lot that works well about crazyhouse as a chess variant you can imagine how excited I was when I realized the same piece cycling mechanic could be implemented without the two-piece-set clumsiness of over-the-board crazyhouse. Not only was this possible, but it had already been done, hundreds of years ago in fact!

Shogi, initial position

The above image shows the initial position in a game of shogi. Shogi and chess are similar in various respects. The different kinds of pieces move differently, and the goal is to checkmate the opponents king. The king moves the same way it does in chess, one square in any direction, and there are also rooks (orthogonal movement) and bishops (diagonal movement). You will even find shogi being called a “chess variant” although it is not a chess variant as I have been using that phase. Crazyhouse and bughouse were invented after chess by a process of intentional modification of its rules, but shogi is not related to chess in this way. The similarities they bear to one another are due to a common ancestor: an ancient Indian strategy game called Chaturanga.

Krishna and Radha playing chaturanga on an 8×8 ashtāpada

Chess and shogi evolved along very different paths, however. In shogi, the two different armies are not identified by color but by shape, (a five-sided arrow-like shape pointing toward the opponent,) which allows for the captured pieces to be cycled back onto the board without any swapping with a secondary set. In other words, shogi is a much better version of crazyhouse.

A shogi game in progress. The captured pieces wait on the piece stands before they are put back in the fray, now fighting for the other side. Apparently the practice of placing captured pieces was inspired by captured 15th century mercinaries who chose to fight for their captors instead of being killed.

However, besides allowing for the placement of captured pieces like crazyhouse, there are a number of features that make it a quite different (and arguably richer) game.

  1. The shogi board is 9×9; the chess board is 8×8.
  2. Shogi has five pieces with no counterpart in chess: the gold and silver generals, the lance, the promoted rook and the promoted bishop. Chess has one piece with no counterpart in shogi: the queen. The knight’s move in shogi is much more restricted than in chess (only 2 out of the 8 knight’s moves in chess are legal). Pieces in shogi generally have a much smaller range of movement than in chess.
  3. The initial position in shogi is different than that of chess. It takes up three ranks instead of two with the middle rank being mostly empty. Since there is no queen in shogi, the 1st rank of the initial position is entirely symmetrical with the king in the center.
  4. In shogi, all pieces except the gold general and the king can promote, but only to one kind of piece. Promotion is easier in shogi because the promotion zone is closer to the starting position of the pieces (especially pawns). In chess, only the pawn can promote, but it can promote to any other piece except the king. This more expansive promotion is really fun, and each piece that promotes has its promoted value inscribed on its reverse side. Flipping the piece over is really delightful!
  5. There is no special castling move in shogi. The term “castle” is used in shogi to denote a defensive formation consisting of (usually) three generals which protect the king. There are many such castles (about 40 or so have names) and they will be better or worse based on the overall strategic situation. This makes consideration of how to best defend your king more interesting in shogi than it is in chess or crazyhouse.
  6. In shogi, pawns capture the same way they move. There is no initial two-space pawn move and hence no en-passant captures. In chess, pawns capture only diagonally which means that opposing pawns can block each other. This difference is especially hard to internalize as a chess player.
The pawns are the smallest pieces. As in chess, they are the most common and least valuable pieces on the board. They all have the same inscription. Can you find the 13 pawns in this picture? (Hint: 2 are partially cut off).

The pawn in the center of the frame looks to the chess-playing shogi beginner as if it is defended by each of the two pawns diagonally behind it. It also may look like it cannot move forward because of the opponent’s pawn in its way. In fact, neither thing is true. It is not defended by any pawns (though it is defended by a knight) and it can capture the pawn in front of it (or vice versa, depending on who’s turn it is).

In general, the pawn structure in shogi is much less static (really, much less of a structure).

As challenging as the pawns have been for me, keeping track of the pieces while I’m still familiarizing myself with the characters has been even more difficult. It makes playing shogi feel a lot like playing blindfold chess for me at this stage. When I’m not able to immediately recognize a piece for what it is, I have to rely more on my memory of where that piece started and what moves its made.

But the challenge has been incredibly rewarding so far, and I’m looking forward to playing more games and learning more strategy!

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