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Go Wizardry

All About the Many Aspects of Go
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Becoming a Professional Go Player

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A few weeks ago, I got a text message from a friend who was playing go at the Royal Cup Cafe in Long Beach. Every Tuesday evening, from around 5:00 to 9:00 pm, he acts as the host of a go group there, welcoming all comers. For the most part, those are beginners or people who want to learn how to play the game, but from time to time quite strong players appear. He promotes the activity online, and as a result those who know nothing about where the go clubs are located in the Japanese, Korean and Chinese areas of Los Angeles get an idea of how to find a place where go players gather.

"There is a former insei from the Nihon Ki-in here right now playing," my friend texted me. (An "insei" is a student apprenticed to a master at any craft in Japan, and the "Nihon Ki-in" is the Japanese Go Association.) "His name is Rintaro. I am going to bring him to the New Gardena Hotel next Saturday." (The hotel, located at 1641 W. Redondo Beach Blvd., Gardena, CA 90247; tel. 310-327-5757, has a go club on a lower floor where approximately 15 members meet to play every Saturday afternoon from 1:30 to 6:00 pm.) I replied that I looked forward to meeting the insei there.

My friend added that the insei, Mitsuishi Rintaro, offered to play simultaneous games against the members. I replied that this would not be a good idea. We have some strong players who attend the club, and the insei would not find them easy to play against at the same time.

The top player in our club is Tony Emsenhuber, and attaché with the Austrian consulate in Los Angeles. He spent a few years in Tokyo honing his skills against full-fledged professional go players. In the most recent Cotsen Open, Tony recorded a 3-2 record, not bad considering that he was playing in the highest band of competitors. One of his losses was against a 2 dan professional Chinese player. He lost to her by 1 1/2 points. Nothing to be ashamed of there.

On the other hand, I have played against many insei over the years, and have always found that they are simply very strong amateurs. (I also consider low level professionals the same way. For instance, the professional Chinese 2 dan. She is no more than a very good amateur player. Years ago, there was a top amateur named Yasunaga Hajime. He was famous for giving young 2 and 3 dan professional players handicaps of two or three stones and defeating them. Eventually, the Nihon Ki-in acknowledged his ability and awarded him a professional ranking of 6 dan. By the way, Hasunaga is the one who popularized the Chinese Opening. He took amateurs on a tour of China where they played that opening. So the actual origin of the Chinese Opening was Japan; it just came to the attention of the go world as a result of this tour.) Consequently, I knew that Rintaro would have an unpleasant experience if he underestimated the members of our club.

When I showed up at the club at the usual time, Rintaro was already there. I greeted him and pointed out various things around the playing room. In particular, the cross table of the tournament our club is currently running. Everyone in the club plays three or four games against every other player. Those participants’ wins and losses are listed there, including the rating number that they are assigned in the club. (This is a numerical rating unrelated to any other system. My rating is 233, which is equivalent to 3 dan. I used to play at an even level with Tony, but due to a series of unfortunate events I was forced to stop plying go for ten years. During that time, I got very rusty and I am just beginning the long climb back to my previous level of play.) I was careful to point out Tony’s record, and also a photograph of him playing the Chinese woman at the Cotsen Open that was posted on the bulletin board.

Before long, Tony entered the club and Rintaro was introduced to him. They talked for a bit and then decided to play a game. When asked what kind of handicap should be giving, Tony said that he would play at two stones.

"Ha-ha!" I thought to myself, "Tony really wants to win the game."

The game followed an orthodox course, with Black playing solidly and conservatively. By the time that the middlegame was in full swing, White had whittled down Black’s advantage, but it was still around a dozen points.

Both players viewed the board dispassionately. The game proceeded without any discernable mistakes on either side. By the time the endgame was reached, Black was less than ten points ahead. All Tony needed to do was to play carefully to ensure the win.

I watched intently as Rintaro played all-out in the endgame to take profit here and there. In the end, Tony just won the game by 1 point!

"Would you like to play yourself?" Tony asked as he got up from the board.

I sat down and took the same two stone handicap. I set up my game well in the opening and took my advantage into the middlegame. But then I made a completely idiotic mistake, overlooking a simple fencing-in move. I immediately resigned. This is the kind of stupid mistake that I continually make these days. I do not like to play games these days before having a chance to get warmed up by playing other games first.

Yamaguchi san, another strong player in the club played next, taking a four-stone handicap. I actually take Black against him since his rating is higher than mine, but the difference in our strength, despite my propensity for blundering, is negligible.

However, in that game with Rintaro, Yamaguchi san committed one mistake after another. He ended by losing by 11 points. Quite surprising.

The other members of the club crowded around, asking Rintaro various questions. It turns out that his Sensei, or mentor/teacher, is Yoda Norimoto 9 dan, a former Meijin, which is impressive. Rintaro also had an impressive record in amateur tournament games, winning several top junior titles.

Unfortunately, one of the members of our club is a bit insensitive. "Are you a former insei?" he asked.

"No," replied Rintaro, clearly embarrassed. He went on to say that he was still working to attain professional status. But Rintaro is 21 years old, and the rules of the Nihon Ki-in stipulate that the cutoff age for becoming a professional go player is 23.

By this time, it was after 5:00 pm and there was no time for another long game, so we called it a day.

About a week later, I got another text message from my friend. "I am taking Rin to the Korean go club in Garden Grove. Do you want to come along?"

Of course, I did, and in a couple of hours we were on our way down the freeway. In less than 45 minutes we were pulling into the parking lot of a shopping center.

"The New Go Club" is written on the door, but the proprietor of the club gave me a business card later on which was printed, "Hanguk Kiwon" (Korean Ki-in) in hangul. Directly below that were the words (again in hangul) Club Manager, Baduk 5 dan, Kim Seongcheon. Here is the rest of the information on the card:

9738 Garden Grove Blvd., #6

Garden Grove, CA 92844

Bus. 714.530.5121

Cell: 714.788.4525

My friend apparently has been visiting the club for some time because Mr. Kim, the owner of the club, welcomed him effusively. Rintaro was introduced and quickly a game was set up between him and a player who was one of the strongest there. It became clear over the course of our visit that this was a test game to assess Rintaro’s strength.

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Rintaro’s opponent was named Choi. He had a thin face and a confident attitude. He took the Black stones, accepting that Rintaro was a superior player. Then he quickly made his first move.

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The game proceeded at a steady pace. In the beginning, it seemed as though Mr. Choi was holding his own. In fact, even halfway into the middlegame Black appeared to have an acceptable game. But White kept making steady inroads, and in the early endgame Mr. Choi placed a couple of Black stones on Rintaro’s side of the board, indicating his resignation.

Mr. Kim bustled up and congratulated Rintaro. Then he sat down at the place where Mr. Choi had departed from. He settled in with a determined attitude and grabbed a handful of stones from the Black bowl. He placed his fist on the board, and looked at Rintaro questioningly. This was his first challenge to his opponent’s strength. He was indicating that he believed that his strength was equal to Rintaro’s.

Rintaro placed a single White stone on the board. Mr. Kim opened his hand, and divided the stones by twos on the board. It turned out that there were an equal number of them. So Mr. Kim got the Black stones.

In the beginning of the game, I thought that Rintaro had built a big advantage. White’s walls dominated the center of the board. A couple of stones on opposite sides of the board were floating within White’s thick and strong position. Black had made territory in the corners and sides, but that seemed completely inadequate to White’s position.

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But then Mr. Kim moved out with his stones. First, he put in a motion a couple of stones that appeared to be trapped deeply inside White powerful sphere of influence. I could not understand what he was doing. It seemed to be suicide to me.

And yet, as move after move was played on the board, the Black stones somehow managed to probe weaknesses in White’s position to find a way out of trouble. In the process, White converted that thickness into territory. That made the board easier to count, and I calculated that White was actually 10 points ahead.

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Mr. Kim had a worried look on his face as the game went on. I glanced at Rintaro, and his face had a little perspiration on it. He also seemed to have a feverish expression. I wondered if he was all right.

As they entered the endgame, the players took the expected points, but it appeared that White was getting the better of it. And then, inexplicitly, Rintaro ignored an atari on three of his stones. Startled, Mr. Kim pointed to the stones and asked, "Do you want to take that move back?"

"Go ahead," answered Rintaro with a sweep of his hand over the board in dismissal. "Take them."

Mr. Kim eagerly took the stones off the board, and to add insult to injury, Rintaro had to add another stone to the position there to prevent further losses.

Within twenty minutes, the game was over. White was ahead by 2 points in the end. No komi had been given in the game. Mr. Kim thanked Rintaro for the game and shook his hand.

As we left the club, Rintaro turned to me, still with the slightly perspired, feverish look on his face, and sadly commented, "I lost that game." I guessed he was shocked at having overlooked the capture of his stones in such a simple way.

We offered to take Rintaro to other go clubs around the city to meet strong players, but he has declined. It makes me sad to think that he did not have a better time visiting California.

Those who wish to comment on the opinions expressed here may send their thoughts to info@GoWizardry.com. The most interesting responses will be addressed in future postings.

Robert J. Terry

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