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Looking Into the World of Professional Go Players

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扶桑第一峰
“Collecting Mulberries, Top Peak”
Cover of Kido, January 1967

Artist: Yokoo Shinrinjin

In 1964, Japan hosted the Summer Olympics (notably portrayed in the movie, “Walk, Don’t Run,” starring Cary Grant in his last major motion picture) making its debut on the international stage after the debacle of WWII. However, at heart it was still a natural, country-based culture. This cover illustrates touchingly how down-to-earth their focus was.

The following article gives fascinating insights about go from one of the greatest players of the game of all time.

Speaking Without Reservation

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From Kido, January 1967

Question and Answer Session with Go Seigen 9 Dan

Wearing the proletarian garb that we have become accustomed to, he sat down in a deliberately proper manner. And yet, his attitude was free and easy, and he came back with his answers promptly, reminiscent of the Go san of his youth, especially the way he laughed time after time. In facing the genius Go Seigen, no matter what question was posed, he responded with commonsense, making the questioner sit back and ponder. This was the quick-seeing [focusing on the position on a go board usually, but here used to characterize Go’s quick wit] Go san’s brilliant way of dealing with the matter at hand [again, the idiomatic “sabaki” is the word used here, touching on go vernacular].

1 It seems to me that go styles of play are related to national character or else ethnic character and reflect that. What do you think?

I do not think that, and there is no relationship, I must say.

2 Before playing tournament games, do you think about which opening [fuseki] to go with, and work out plans to carry out?

Go is different from painting or things like that since one is not able to solely act just as one likes. That is because it is based on mutual interaction, you know. Even if one draws up elaborate strategies, if the opponent does not fall into line, it comes to nothing. Therefore, I think that it is important to regularly study a wide range of representative openings [fuseki] as far as possible.

3 For you, to what degree is your first impression of a position the one that you give the greatest weight to?

I am the type of player who values the first impression greatly. At those times when I am playing in good form, there are four hours left over of the time limit allotted [9 hours usually or sometimes more], and that is due almost entirely to playing by way of the first impression [or intuitively]. But when I say the “first impression,” is this accurate or not? Kada Katsuji san and Hashimoto Shoji san regularly use up all their time on the clock by around the 60th move of their games. After that, they play every move within 60 seconds [read out by recorders at the official recording table]. This is the kind of thing that is the true “first impression” play, I must say.

4 Bad moves, or something like questionable moves, do they often come from first impressions, or are they often moves played outside of the boundaries of your first impression?

When getting a first impression, for the most part there are few bad moves. Besides that, fatal mistakes are rare, you know. And there are players who often think for an hour over a move and still come out with a mistake. For the most part, they think so long because the position is complex, and when the position is complex, to that extent there is a great chance that mistakes will be made. On the other hand, with the win in hand, getting confused and making overplays, or timidly backing down too much and losing happens quite often, you know. In regards to that, in short, an overabundance of feeling, an interference of the first impression, ends up being the cause, you know.

5 What is the meaning when professional go players say, “I do not have a feeling for the position,” or else, “I cannot guess what would be the precise move to play here.” [These are common questions posed to professional Japanese go players, but hard to render in English. Again, they deal with intuition.]

We [professional go players] have experience and study, so as far as that is concerned, we have all sorts of positions filed away in our heads. But when those thoughts confront new positions, the result is confusion, you know. In positions like that, it is easy to end up playing the worst move possible.

6 At times when you are able to read out the most moves possible, what is it exactly that you read out, and how many moves can you read out entirely?

This is a question that I am asked by a number of people, and I am always a little stuck for an answer. There is no general response that covers everything. I usually say that for one move I can read 30 moves ahead, but it is also okay not to read out anything. There are all kinds of possibilities, and lines branch out in all directions, so when there is even a single branch that cannot be read out, it can lead to a failure of reading out the whole line, and everything ends in failure. Even if one can read out dozens of moves, it means nothing, you know. Not only that, but judging which of those moves are good or not takes analysis of the reading. If the analysis is mistaken, no matter how many moves are read, it makes no difference.

7 For you personally, do you think that as a professional, being a go player is most suitable for you?

It is not very suitable. For myself, in general, I dislike competitive play. (Besides the commercial part of the go tournament structure.) Therefore I am a terrible tournament competitor. [Go Seigen had historic match play success in his career, beating all comers, but never won a modern era commercially sponsored title.]

8 If you were to chose a profession outside of go?

Go is based on winning and losing, so as might be expected, it would depend on fighting, I avoid fighting with other people, so I suppose for the time being I would just stop doing anything. I think that people should place peace above all else in their lives. In general, I am attracted to spiritual concerns, but I do not have the heart required to found a religion. I like being a student, but in that case paying out money is necessary, so that means that I would be no good at business, you know. (Laughs)

9 Do you think that you would like for your children to become professional go players?

If the one in question wanted to do it, I would give my consent. No matter what is desired to do, if there are no social minuses, that’s fine.

10 Do you think that following the path of go [kido = 棋道, the name of the magazine, although this is a legitimate use of the kanji = path, as it is used in other pursuits, like judo = 柔道 = path of flexibility; incidentally, in Chinese is pronounced Tao, the name of the ancient spiritual pursuit] builds character in individuals?

I think that in pursuing it steadfastly does so, but it will not happen immediately. Talking about a player becoming Meijin, after that happens, the person is not made complete as a human being. In the olden days, when there was competition for the position of Meijin-Godokoro and similar things, the ugly aspects of human beings were exposed, you know―Genjo and Chitoku competed cleanly, but… And yet, go requires things like inner calm and effort, those sorts of essential elements that train human beings, you know. On the other hand, from the reverse perspective, it is not the same as becoming strong through spiritual meditation… [座禅 = zazen = seated in spiritual meditation, and here the kanji = Zen, the same kanji as used for the Japanese spiritual pursuit.]

11 In terms of human intellectual ability, do you think that all of the possible variations in go will be eternally unsolved?

I do not think that they will ever be completely solved. That’s because the game is unlimited. If it was God, it would be different, but…

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When perceiving a first impression, is rarely a bad move, comparatively speaking.

12 In any given board position, if your eye is attracted to two or more playing methods, according to your taste or your personality, the selection will often be swayed by your will, but could this be called a wayward path? [Once again the kanji , is encountered, here in the form of 邪道, = jado, which means evil path.]

I think that it’s a good thing that a player has taste. When it is absolutely clear which way is correct, it can be sorted out, so things like personality or go playing style, that is, individual differences, do not play a part, you know. When you don’t know what to do, is that when your personal go style appears?

13 Within the context of go history, to what degree will the present level of play in the go world be considered as representative?

At the very top, I think. That’s because the sphere of research about the game is so great, you know. Players like Shusaku and Shuho [the 18th hereditary Honinbo, Murase Shuho (1838-1886) is not rated highly today among the great players of the past, but Go Seigen is speaking of players who ushered in the modern era; Shuho may be considered one of the first go players in Asia who introduced go to the West, since he treated the German, Oscar Korschelt with great courtesy, and the books that Korschelt wrote and published played a great role in popularizing go worldwide; they are still in print today] if they could be placed in confrontation, head to head, there is no way of telling which would be the strongest, but…

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In general, I dislike fighting.

14 Going through the past and present, who is the greatest genius?

Ogawa Doteki. [1669-1690, first heir designated by Honinbo Dosaku because of his prodigious talent, but he died young.] Game records have come down to us where he lost against the go saint, Honinbo Dosaku, by 1 point holding White, and winning by 1 point holding Black. But what is really startling is that at the age of 16 he was playing Dosaku at sen-ai-sen [Black-White-Black, that is, almost even against one of the greatest go players of all time]. Really. In regards to the content of the games, it is beyond fantastic. As the proverb goes, heaven takes geniuses young [= 天才夭折 = tensai, yosetsu].

15 In the past [1930s], the New Opening [新布石 = Shin Fuseki] was revolutionary, and it caused a reevaluation of the principals of the opening, but in the present era, the corner territory is valued greatly, and there is the possibility of an overturning of that opening method value, isn’t there?

The idea that the corner is big is one that never changes, I must say. A move at the center point [tengen] is a significant one, no doubt, but it is difficult to play, you know. In the past, Kubomatsu san [1894-1941, Kubomatsu Katsukiyo, known as the “Great Amateur,” eventually rising to the level of 7 dan professional] played all his first moves in the Oteai Ranking Tournament at the tengen center point as a matter of research, but in the end it was too complicated and he gave it up, according to his words. If the move is played on a side of the board, there is a relationship with a corner, so then playing in the corner gives a fully viable game, you know.

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I have a weak character, I must say.

16 For professional go players, what would be the ideal basis for living conditions?

Up to now, among professional players there were few who could support themselves solely through match play. However, in the past ten years there has been an increase in the number of tournament titles, and the payment for playing games in those tournaments have also grown great. Therefore, professional players who are strong can now support themselves by match play alone. This is obviously an ideal situation, you know.

17 As for time limits for games, what level of time limit is appropriate?

It is damaging to have to finish games completely within one day, you know. I think that 6 hours per player, making 12 hours for the game is appropriate. [In the Meijin league and title match, today the time limit is 9 hours per player.]

18 What is the most fulfilling time for you?

The time when I am playing go. [At this period, Go Seigen would occasionally play tournament games. His record, through November 1966 was 1-1. By way of comparison, his student, Rin Kaiho Meijin, had a record of 34-9. His great rival, Kitani Minoru, did not participate due to ill health, although he was still listed on the Nihon Ki-in roster. Go Seigen was never a member of the Nihon Ki-in.] In addition, my behavior is in keeping with social norms, human being norms, so it depends on how I can make some kind of a contribution. For example, when there is flooding or a natural disaster or the like, I donate at that time.

19 In regards to your go, were there periods when you changed your playing style greatly?

When I first came to Japan, after a little while I started playing 1, 3, 5. [The Shusaku Opening, which starts at the 3-4 point in the upper right corner, and continues clockwise at the lower right 3-4 point and lower left 3-4 point.] When I played Black, I seldom lost. When I became 5 dan, it was the star point (and rarely the 3-3 point) that I played. This continued for around twenty years―from 1933 to around 1955―the longest period in my career.

20 In what way is ban-go [such as juban-go = best of ten game match] different from games played in other tournaments from a psychological perspective?

In juban-go, every game is critical, so from that standpoint one is playing desperately, but when I am playing go I am completely absorbed in the game, and I am oblivious to anything else. That’s because I always play desperately, so there isn’t anything that can be done about it, you know. However, for me, whether it was the Yomiuri [Newspaper, sponsor of the juban-go matches that Go fought against a variety of opponents, starting with Kitani] ban-go losses or dropping out of the Meijin league [also sponsored by the Yomiuri], it was the same, you know. More than the human being who was my opponent, the position I was in was severely intense.

21 If you had to choose a game from your entire career, which game would you bring up?

The two stone game against Shusai Meijin. It was a test game to determine qualification to become a professional player, so it was literally a game that settled my destiny.

22 For you, what kind of method did you use to become strong?

When I was 13, over there [in China] I beat the strongest players with White, and it was within a period where the number of games [to reach that level] were countable. While I was in China, I played out on a board things like the games of the Hoensha New Method and “The Reverberations of Tapping Precious Stones” (one hundred games of Shusaku). In regards to that point, at the present time there are lots of books about joseki, or the opening, or instructional manuals, you know.

23 Say a few words about your own style of play.

I have a weak character, I must say. Fighting, in itself, is something that I do not like to do. Miyashita [Shuyo], Kajiwara [Takeo], Kitani and Fujisawa (Hosai) and the like, enjoy fighting, and so they seek out fights. But I am a different type of player, so in regards to that aspect, I am weak. My playing style is to a certain extent based on moving around the board on a rapid pace, I must say. In the olden days, there was no komi, and I often had to take White, so I had to play in such a way as to slowly gain advantages. Now, with komi, things are different.

Well, in terms of feeling, the times when I can play with composure, calm and collected, are the best.

24 It seems that you will be appearing in the upcoming Nikkei [Nihon Keizai Shinbun = Japan Economic Newspaper, the Japanese equivalent of the Wall Street Journal] Oza tournament and others, but does it worry you that you might tarnish the shining glory of the past, or your image in the minds of fans?

I am not too concerned with things like that. Besides that, I am not at retirement age, and for 40 years I have pursued match play single-mindedly, you know. My physical strength and intellectual power have declined, and young players have gotten strong, so those elements in combination would seem to indicate that achieving the success that I have had up to now will be difficult. But unless you try and see, there is no way of knowing. In the olden days, if you played against the Meijin and lost, it would affect your prestige, and you could not play anymore. But in the present age, things are different, you know. The fact is that you never know how a human being’s destiny will change, you know. Actually, Shuei [Tsuchiya Shuei (1852-1907) was adopted by the House of Hayashi, one of the four traditional Houses of go first supported by the Tokugawa Shogunate; became the 13th Hayashi at the age of 16, but returned to the Honinbo House of his birth to become 17th Honinbo (1884); ceded the position to Shuho, but upon the latter’s death, became 19th Honinbo (1886)] in his thirties was not a good player, but in his forties and fifties he became good.

(Questions = Ike Yoshiro)

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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