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The American Go World

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「風薫る」 “Fragrant Wind” Cover of Kido, May 1981

Artist: 三上正寿 Mikami Masatoshi

Ayame [Japanese Iris] Garden was planted in olden times, and today it is in the Meiji Jingu Shrine, central Tokyo.

In advance of my going to Japan shortly, I have been translating a lot of material for GoWizardry so as to make sure there is something new every week for visitors to the site. I am now at least a month and a half ahead. Consequently, I have not been translating much in the past week or so. However, I found a remarkable piece of writing just yesterday that begs for translation. Every American go player will surely be as fascinated as I am by it.

The writer was not only not a professional player, he was not even a particularly strong player! Nor was he a writer! From what I can gather, he was a businessman posted to New York in the 1970s. This was not unique. Japanese companies often sent their employees all around the world to gain international experience and still do. In the case of executives, they often have a choice of assignments. Apparently this man chose New York.

The piece of writing that follows is not even an article! It was sent to Kido as a letter and the editors thought it was so significant that they gave it a full two pages in the Readers’ Letters Section. The title at the top here is the original title at the top of the first page in Kido. The writer uses very literate and at times poetic language that I hope that I can convey with my translation.

Finally, there are American names given in Japanese that I cannot be sure of translating correctly. Readers are asked to forgive me if I mistranslate any of them.

The Ossification Phenomenon

Writer: Horiguchi Kofu

(NY Branch Head = NY Club President, Adviser to the American Go Association)

From Kido, February 1974

American go displays the ossification phenomenon.

In regards to American go, which is viewed as generally still being in its infancy, in saying that it already displays the ossification phenomenon, the comment might be made, “Who is this absurd character and what is he blathering?” This doubts my commonsense.

What I want to say is that American go has insufficient nourishment. What I want to say is that despite its being small, despite its young age, it has insufficient fertilization, insufficient watering, and as a consequence, it is withering away.

I have received a 5 dan ranking [presumably in the form of a certification from the Nihon Ki-in = Japanese Go Association], so when I came to America, any number of people, when they heard that I was a go aficionado, sought out teaching from me. For the most part, I would give these players four- or five-stone and up to nine-stone handicaps. I would make sure that the handicap was not too great, and then have as my target, “Okay, I’m going to kill a big group of stones.” I was adopting a Dunkirk strategy of complete annihilation. [Note: This is a precise translation! It is unrelated to the current hit movie, “Dunkirk.” Remember that this was written in 1974.] Because of this, I was given the nickname of “Swindler” (Petenshi).

I still play with most of this gang who have become 5 dan or the equivalent of 5 dan. Among them, there are those who became 5 dan ten years ago, but no matter how you look at it, none can be said to have surpassed me in strength. Perhaps after ten years and a day, I will take White one day, and give White the next.

As the saying goes, it is a comparison of acorns back to back [donguri no sei-kurabe, i.e., no difference between equals], since no improvement can be seen. The strongest American go players reach the 5 dan class, but then make no further progress. At the Eastern Branch [as opposed to the Western Branch, where the first go club in the United States was opened in San Francisco, and in the 1970s the Los Angeles club was the largest in the country], there are Professor Robert Ryder (present AGA president), Paul Anderson (former AGA president), Edward Andrerose, Gene Castro, Harry Gonshor, Robert McLister, Ralph Fokkus, Gerald Rogers, Al Holdess, John Steibunson, Larry Brauner and John Rose as well as others.

Besides this, there are many Japanese, Chinese and Korean players in the 5 dan class. [Note: In Los Angeles at the time, the strongest players were 6 dan, like Shig Matsuhara at the Rafu Ki-in = Los Angeles Ki-in, and Hyomyung Kim and others at numerous Korean clubs. Nothing in Chinatown. Also, in San Francisco there was a Korean player named Kim Kyung who was close to professional strength. It is interesting that the writer does not mention the American Honinbo title match, which Shig played for but never won.] It seems that these players have stagnated at an average level of strength, and have become old timers [direct translation] whose enthusiasm for the game of go has waned. The above mentioned Anderson, who up to two or three years ago used to often come to my home to play go has recently not come at all. His face has not been seen at tournaments, either, so I called him up. It appears that he is now consumed with amateur theatrical events and is too busy. I think that he has reached as far as he can go in the game and become bored.

Gene Castro was one player I met and viewed with hope. But he disappeared. I called him up the other day and [jovially] asked, “Hey, how about coming once in a while to pay homage to Emperor Horiguchi?” He just said that he was busy with work and quickly hung up. But during the conversation, it became apparent that his former Japanese go opponents had taught him Mahjongg, and he was caught up in playing that [gambling] game.

Hopes for the Future

I have great hopes for go in America in the future. I believe that no matter what, this is one of the most hopeful prospect countries for the development of go in the world. However, what I worry about is that lack of advancing beyond the level that I have reached. [I agree. My targets to reach as a go player were amateur 5 and 6 dan. When I reached that level, I tapered off. Being busy at work beside, I had no target to aim at. And no advanced study material to use. GoWizardry is my attempt to rectify this problem.] Could this be evidence of disillusionment? [Genmetsu; typical Japanese perception. Perhaps “boredom” or “distraction” would be a better translation?] I imagine that they get to an advanced level of play and then opponents catch up to them and in the bitterness of defeat they lose interest.

What I say is that all American players are tengu. [Tengu are imaginary creatures with long noses.

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Translation from Obunsha Japanese Dictionary (above), standard for students.

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Tengu (Noun)

1. Living in the rear of mountains, with a long nose and a red face, holding a fan made of feathers, this monster can hover at will in the air.

2. A boastful person (tengu ni naru).

What this means is that American go players are boastful without merit. That is, in an imaginary sense.

To the extent that they are tengu, go is interesting, but when these old timers get caught by others and the tengu’s nose is yanked, in the same way it is no longer interesting. It is best to look at this as being a matter of go no longer being go. The other day, an amateur 6 dan appeared at my office and when I suggested that Mr. Gonshor play him taking Black, his eyes lit up and they played two games. Those two games were effective in rekindling his tengu consciousness to an unbecoming extent, and for a while he resumed coming to my home twice a week to act as my opponent, and I suppose making his wife a go widow

If one climbs the same peak countless times, the attraction of the challenge fades. Today in America, there is no next mountain summit to aspire to. It is no exaggeration to say that although in a striking way go is still young, it displays the ossification phenomenon. These days, occasionally Iino Seiho 6 dan of the Kansai Ki-in [Western Japan – centered in Osaka – Go Association] stays for a while in New York. He is kind enough to offer teaching games. [Note: Playing for free; in Japan professional players charge substantial fees for teaching.] This truly feels like a sprinkling of rain in a parched land, and for that I am certainly grateful. I was often able to receive one or two teaching games a week from him. The other day Sensei [Iino 6 dan] went to Bell Telephone Research Center. The next day I received a telephone call from Professor Ryder [who must have been employed at Bell] during which he said, “After the game was over, we went over it, and I was disgusted to learn the extent to which my moves were stupid.” In the spirit of commiseration, I told him, “For the time being, I must not display my tengu side, either!” I’ll just conclude with the remark that it was no consolation.

America needs [professional] guidance. A sensei is needed who can provide a view of the next mountain summit. But depending on one who is on the verge of becoming a senior citizen [and therefore would have the leisure time for the task] would not be the method to turn the American go world young again. [In California, the appearance of professionals living permanently here, such as Jimmy Cha 4 dan – Cha Minsu – in the 1980s, followed by Yang Yilun 7 dan and then other Chinese professionals, enlivened the go scene quite a bit. Today it is the internet that is giving birth to American-born players of low professional class. Entrepreneur Eric Cotsen should also be credited for supporting professional efforts financially, as well as organizing first class go tournaments for decades.]

Here as a teacher, a professional of around 3 or 4 dan in strength would be best, or even an amateur just outside of the best ten [juketsu – at that time there was a tournament called the Amateur Best Ten modeled on the Pro Best Ten Tournament. The top amateurs were the equivalent of the professionals, with whom they played in a separate tournament. The top amateur would play the top professional taking only Black, although receiving a komi of 3½ points. That would be equivalent to a 4 or 5 dan professional.] and that would be sufficient to give a view of the next mountain summit.

In my opinion, in regards to players giving teaching games to beginners, such as nursery school children, it would be a waste having college professors do it. On the contrary, college professors teaching young children is surely difficult. At the present time, teaching beginners is done, as it always has, within the country [with no foreigners involved]. My New York branch does this to a significant extent. Officers of the club or club members volunteer on a set schedule to conduct these sessions several times every week. Shodan players are shown the next mountain summit, 5 or 6 dan, while those taking a 9-stone handicap are shown the next mountain summit, 3 or 4 kyu. [Note: The Portland Go Club has hired at its own expense a local teacher of go as well as chess who visits a number of schools every week. The go community in Los Angeles is too far-flung to do the same thing right now.]

One other thing is that teaching beginners requires language, English is required. This is essential. For people who do not know how to walk, teaching them to walk must be done first. To teach conquering the mountain summit, it is the same as instruction in the testing of the horns of the bull [as a matador] to kill it. At the present time, it is regrettable but although the American go world would like to invite a teacher, it cannot do so. The AGA has debated this question, but that is a dream tale [monogatari] of a flower on a lofty peak [takane no hana = unattainable object]. This is different from the atmosphere that surrounds go in Japan. In America, companies and banks are not media sponsors of entertainment and friendship events. At this time, the large city of New York has only one go club. [Los Angeles has never had a go club created and managed by Americans, but it has a Japanese club, several Korean clubs and a Chinese club. However, many universities have go clubs, all across the state, plus cafes, etc., where players gather.] In regards to go, I personally have been hauled on television several times. The theme has been “an unusual game.” In America, there are no national newspapers like the Asahi Newspaper [sponsor of the Meijin tournament], or the Yomiuri Newspaper [sponsor of the Kisei tournament], or the Mainichi Newspaper [sponsor of the Honinbo tournament]. [Note: At the time, the Wall Street Journal was a national newspaper as it still is and had published articles about go. And, of course, USA Today is national. Plus, newspapers like the New York Times are available online today.] In New York City there are only newspapers published in small editions that cover small areas. Consequently, there is no single area with a substantial readership that could be focused on to build the subscriber base. [Note: Chess columns in the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times have been discontinued in recent years. This is particularly sad in the case of the New York Times because the writer of the column for a long time was Robert Byrne, who competed at the highest levels in the chess world.] However, if 1/100 of the population was interested, these small area newspapers would have to address the issue whether they liked it or not. The former publisher of the New York Times, Mr. Salzburger, told me that, “The New York Times is a newspaper that puts the emphasis on the needs of the citizens of the city. Only occasionally, for the sake of publicity, are articles with an international focus written.”

This has gone on for a long length, but I think that my conclusion cannot be doubted. “In order to promote go in America, whether high ranked U.S. players appear or not is dependent on whether teachers appear or not.” When it comes to books, this year the Nihon Ki-in has published a small volume aimed at being used with beginners, and things like this are truly appreciated. At the NY Go Club, we make full use of it.

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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