Photo/IllutrationYoshiharu Habu at a news conference in Ibusuki, Kagoshima Prefecture, on Dec. 6 (Eiji Hori)

At 47, Yoshiharu Habu still flashes the same gentle and refreshing smile for which he became known after taking the nation by storm as a teenage “shogi” wunderkind and winning the hearts and minds of many Japanese.

Habu, already a legend of the chess-like Japanese strategy board game, added more luster to his marvelous career by winning this year’s Ryuo tournament on Dec. 5. With the victory, he became the first shogi player to hold the unique “eisei” (eternity) honor for all seven major titles.

Habu made his debut as a shogi player when he was a junior high school student and won his first major title at age 19. It was also the Ryuo championship.

Habu has been such a sensation in the shogi world that the history of the game is divided into the eras before and after his advent. His outstanding performance inspired many talented shogi players in the same generation and helped sharply raise the overall skill level of the game.

In recent years, however, Habu has gone through tough struggles. A new young breed of players has grabbed the spotlight, including 15-year-old Sota Fujii, who pulled off the feat of winning his first 29 official matches as a professional player. There has been a lot of chatter about a generational shift in the shogi world.

Progress in computer shogi programs has sharply shortened the cycle of obsolescence for new game strategies. Even Habu has faced an uphill battle in grappling with the difficulty of staying competitive in the shogi world, where progress is fast and radical.

One of the factors behind his successful efforts to stay ahead of the competitive curve has probably been his exceptional spirit of inquiry.

Even after the latest of his extraordinary achievements, he said with impressive humbleness, “I still don’t understand the essence of shogi.”

During his career, Habu has made a variety of comments that reflect a huge amount of trial and error.

“Decisions and risks always go together,” he once said. “You can learn many times more from actual playing than from thinking.” “Creations are born out of attempts that are considered ‘so absurd.’” “Discard all preconceived ideas.”

These remarks have struck a responsive chord in many people well beyond the shogi community.

Habu has also offered some intriguing insights into artificial intelligence that reflect his deep thoughts about the essential question of what it means to be human.

Computers far excel human players in the ability to consider and assess many strategic options quickly. How can human players possibly hold their own against such powerful opponents?

“The thing is how to try not to predict the opponent’s moves,” he said.

He meant that man’s main weapon against computers is the ability to make instinctive decisions based on broad perspectives on the spur of the moment without using logic.

Asked about how he remains competitive in his late 40s in a news conference after completing his quest to win his seventh and final “eisei” title, Habu said, “I think like subtraction instead of addition by avoiding wasting time on thinking about things when doing so is useless.”

This comment echoes his past remark saying, “Since experiences count (in this game), I value them.”

He has accepted the reality of aging, which is usually viewed as a disadvantage, and refused to lose hope on his potential.

He makes the most of what he has gained from his long years of experience and focuses his bold efforts on what he can do.

This flexibility is probably another key factor that has been supporting his competitive power for so long.

Habu prefers head-on fights with his opponents and often tries to beat them at their own game to expand the scope of his own skills and strategies.

His never-ending efforts to push the envelope will continue encouraging many people of all generations and social positions.

--The Asahi Shimbun, Dec. 8