Monday, June 14, 2010

150th Anniversary 'East Meets West' Chess Event, Philadelphia, June 5 2010

In 1860, following two centuries of cultural and economic isolation, Japan dispatched its first ever diplomatic delegation to the U.S. In June 1860 the Japanese delegation arrived in Philadelphia, and some members were invited to visit the Philadelphia Chess Club. The Japanese turned up in full samurai regalia and proceeded to demonstrate the hitherto unknown Japanese version of chess, or Shogi, to the city's top chess players. The encounter was reported in detail by the New York Times, and by the Philadelphia Daily Bulletin, which included the following description: 

"The delegation that visited the Philadelphia Chess Club consisted of eight of the soldiers, each carrying his long, heavy sword in one hand, and some of them a light fan in the other. After a few minutes spent in salutations, two of them took their seats at the table which had been prepared for them, and the first game of Japanese Chess ever played in a Christian land was begun."

To mark the 150th anniversary of this historic meeting of the Eastern and Western forms of chess, I decided to organize an event at the Athenaeum of Philadelphia on Saturday June 5 that brought together Shogi experts and prominent representatives of the Philadelphia chess community.

The Athenaeum of Philadelphia

The Athenaeum is a historical library, built in 1845, that was home to the main chess club in Philadelphia in the mid-19th Century. Various chess-related books and equipment from the Athenaeum collection were on display during the event.

A shogi board set up for play in the Upper Reading Room of the Philadelphia Athenaeum

The day began with a brief introductory tour of the Athenaeum and its collections, by Curator of Architecture Bruce Laverty

The tour included a visit to the Athenaeum's 'Chess Room', which is furnished with chess-related items and pictures, including an original 19th-century chess table.

Following the tour, the main part of the event began. Below is a description of the original event from the New York Times, June 16th 1860:

This morning, I strolled up Chestnut Street to the rooms of the Philadelphia Chess Club. Announcing myself as a stranger from New York, I was courteously received, and proposed to spend a leisure hour among the devotees of Caissa. But, even here the Japanese furore had extended, for I found that a delegation was momentarily expected to afford the Club an opportunity to view the Japanese chess, or sho-ho-ye. The members of the Club dropped in one by one. They were not kept long waiting, for the distinguished visitors soon arrived, accompanied by those well-known chess-players, Messrs. Montgomery, Wells and Miles, who after sundry failures had prevailed upon four or five of the under officials to accompany them. After a general handshaking the Japanese were shown the sho-ho-ye men which had been kindly furnished for the occasion from the Athenaeum Japanese collection. The board, which has eighty-one squares instead of sixty-four like our own, was improvised from a sheet of white paper divided into the requisite number of squares By the aid of a list of the men, and a description of their powers furnished from the Athenaeum, and by an extensive use of all the English the visitors could command, the proper position, and power of each piece was determined, and two of the Japanese were prevailed upon to play. The game, as most of our chess readers will have learned from the recent description in the New York Times, is much more intricate than our chess. There are seventeen more squares, and eight more pieces. The powers of certain pieces may be increased or diminished during the game; an opponent's pieces which have been removed may be replaced on the board, and there are other peculiarities which make the game one of great intricacy, and much more difficult than our game of chess.

Despite the intricacy, the Japanese played with considerable rapidity, and astonished our natives with the celerity of their moves. They also evinced much interest and great intelligence in learning our game of chess. ... During the visit, the Japanese were understood to intimate that in Japan the Government employs teachers to impart the knowledge of sho-ho-ye to the people, who are extensively familiar with it."

My plan was to recreate two aspects of the original event. The first was to stage an exhibition game of shogi between two Japanese players in traditional dress. Here I was helped by Josh Onishi and Ken Shimizu, both members of the New York Shogi Club, who managed to locate (and work out how to put on!) two very striking outfits.

The start of the exhibition game between Mr. Onishi and Mr. Shimizu

Fans at the ready

Overhead shot: notice the samurai sword on the right hand side!

The second aspect of the original event that I wanted to recreate was the introduction of the game of shogi to local Philadelphia chess experts. The chess experts in attendance included 2-time U.S. women’s champion (and Woman Grandmaster) Jennifer Shahade, 7-times Delaware state champion David Gertler, and chess author and organizer Dan Heisman.

However I also wanted to go beyond the original event by giving the chess experts, and other guests, the opportunity to actually play some shogi, and not just watch an exhibition game. With the help of a demo shogi board provided by the New York Shogi Club, I gave an introduction to the rules of shogi. Then the chess-players were paired up with experienced shogi players to play handicap games of shogi.

Dave Gertler vs. Hisanori Isoda

Alex Trotter vs. Robert Colanzi

Christian Morrow vs. Shigetaka Ogihara

Alan Baker vs. Jennifer Shahade

I played Jennifer at 2-piece handicap in our battle which pitted the 2008 U.S. Shogi Champion against the 2002 and 2004 U.S. Women's Chess Champion. I eventually won an exciting game, but Jennifer had several dangerous chances of her own in the middlegame.

Shahade, Baker

Baker, Onishi, Shahade, Shimizu

The success of this 150th Anniversary celebration was helped enormously by the generosity of the Athenaeum of Philadelphia in providing the historic venue and by the logistical support and participation of members of the New York Shogi Club (pictured below).

Shigetaka Ogihara, Koji Kajiura, Ken Shimizu, Alan Baker, Hisanori Isoda, Alex Trotter, Minoru Hayashi, Josh Onishi

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