Tales From the Crypt

by Janice Kim on January 4, 2012

Concerning last week’s post, I thought to wait another week to give everyone the chance to hit upon the answer to the logic puzzle. In the meantime, I offer the following, courtesy of Dr. Seuss:

“Come, come,” said the King impatiently. “Sir Alaric, what do you make of all this nonsense?”
“Very serious nonsense, Your Majesty,” answered Sir Alaric. “I advise you to call in an expert on hats.”

Since I still haven’t gone through all my email (that was, um, a bit more of a response than I expected) I thought this week I’d resurrect one of my “Life in B League” articles, which I was stunned to discover is almost old enough to vote at this point.

I’ve left the few comments on the games in the body of the article, rather than put any in the game record itself. I’m pretty sure that not only I, but everyone else, is stronger now than I was then. Unfortunately, however, the exact same situations have not occurred since, so I have been unable to demonstrate to my dad that it’s not just the lab rats—I, too, can learn.

Life In B League

On December 1st last year I received a fax from my teacher Jeong Soo-hyun 7 dan. The Education Broadcast System, a new television network in Korea, was sponsoring a speed tournament for women professionals and asked if I would participate. I was nervous about playing a speed tournament on television, especially when I heard that I needed to be in Seoul on the 3rd to draw for the first pairing. In my usual fashion I decided to leave it up to fate and called the airlines, expecting to be laughed at when I explained that I needed a ticket the next day at a reasonable price. Evidently the Fates had decided I would play. I found myself on the plane headed for Seoul with no time for cram sessions or ginseng infusions.

This is the kind of thing my parents call “running around,” as in “Janice, you shouldn’t be running around like this.” Clearly, they are not impressed by fate’s role in these matters.

It is always a mystery to me why people smile indulgently when I talk about how old I feel. Whereas just a few years ago I could regard a trans-Pacific flight as an opportunity to catch a few movies, I now stumble off planes with the lower back pain of a forty-year-old car mechanic. Coupled with the accommodations in Seoul (my grandmother actually uses a ceramic headrest instead of a pillow) I appeared at the Korean Go Association’s main building at 10:00 a.m. the next day with the cheesy smile plastered to my face that I reserve for being informed that I have submitted the winning number in the Publisher’s Clearing House Sweepstakes, but have forgotten to paste the gold seal on my entry.

At the same time as the EBS Cup, the women’s Guksoo title was being held, so it was determined that I would play in the league. I drew the pole position and found myself playing the first round at 10:30. Photographers were snapping pictures wildly as I sat down to face my first opponent, a girl who hadn’t started playing Go when I became a professional in 1987. I was completely taken aback by the calm and decisive way she snapped the stones down. With three hours per player, I didn’t even make it to lunch.

I found out later how it was the young woman had become so strong so quickly: Mr. Gwon’s Go Training Camp, termed by a friend of mine the Golag for reasons I was yet to discover. That evening I was enrolled as a temporary inmate of the Camp, with fifty-odd professional and strong amateur members, equally divided between girls and boys, average age fourteen. There are no ranks, however: everyone plays even games, and even Yoo Chang-hyuk, winner of the Fujitsu Cup, gets a friendly challenge to solve a home-cooked problem from a laughing twelve-year-old boy. I played two games and found myself (where else?) in B League.

I draw the tenth position in the EBS Cup, so I don’t have to play for quite a while. I watch the opening rounds, the older women visibly shaking and muttering and the Go Camp members expressionlessly watching their namecards go up the ladder. The tournament is a very serious affair, with prize money equaling or exceeding some other titles held by such luminaries as Lee Chang-ho. All the contestants are presented with two inch solid kaya boards in plastic shopping bags. At the Camp, the bags flutter like giant confetti around the playing room.

My first game in the EBS Cup is against Cho Young-suk, the first woman to become a professional in Korea. I’ve played twice with her, once winning in my professional promotion and losing in an exhibition game later. At the time of my loss Jimmy Cha said, “She’s quite strong, isn’t she?” At the Camp, Jimmy Cha himself is playing with Yoon Young-sun, the favorite to win both women’s titles this year. He has just lost his big corner territory by a rather clever invasion on Young-sun’s part. She is a tall, older-looking junior high schooler with a deep voice and a cheerful, outgoing manner—I like her immediately.

Jimmy regales the groups that go out for dinner with funny stories and tales from the American Go hinterlands. He explains how in America, they don’t understand the nature of handicap play, or just how big no-komi or reverse-komi handicaps are. So when he comes to Korea sometimes he forgets and tries to play White and give reverse komi with Korean amateurs and gets trounced. I reflect that this is not really saying how strong Korean players are but saying something about Go itself, that as Black in handicap play one may, if inspired enough by winning yet chilled enough to pull it off, adopt virtually risk-free strategies that result in micro losses (i.e. the ones we discard in even games as “unfavorable”) for a virtually risk-free win. Young-sun plays very hard, refusing to accept even a small loss in the last fight even though she is ahead. Eventually she resigns and they review. Things that make you go hmm, indeed.

Jujo Jiang 9 dan, who is in town, sits patiently during these long dinners in which every word goes down in Korean. He’s just finished playing with Lee Sang-hoon 3 dan, who I saw last when he was eleven years old and who is now one of the top young players in Korea. Sang-hoon was one of the special insei who by character and/or exploit earned a nickname (it’s a pun that fails in translation). I (another former nicknamed insei, “Dosirak” or “Lunchbox”) was so impressed by his skill in this game (on which Sang-hoon made no comment and Jujo mentioned in disgust they both made a poor showing in the horrifically bloody opening) that I followed him around asking to play and review my games, causing some disturbance. He was very gracious about it, so when I left, in addition to giving small presents to the girls at the Camp, I gave him a fancy lighter that I bought on the street. I bought another one as a gift for the manager of the Go Institute, but discovered later that it was sans a crucial part of the mechanism.

I win the game against Cho young-suk. I must with some embarrassment transmit what my kind of Go playing is called: “genius Go.” This is not really a compliment. It essentially means that I daydream while playing, relying on what I know rather than on hard analysis. This flaw seemed to be working to my advantage in the EBS Cup, since the time limit of thirty seconds per move eliminated some of the advantage the other players had in actually thinking about what they were doing. I didn’t figure this out until later, I was just faintly surprised to find myself advancing in the tournament.

What is it like to play in a tournament on television? What things crossed my mind? Cho Nam-chul 9 dan, in the opening remarks, admonished us not to think of the “eight million people watching,” but I wondered what would happen if one suddenly, desperately had to go to the bathroom, cluck like a chicken, etc. Answer: You don’t. You are paralyzed by the lights. Go truism: it is hard to win and easy to lose, and losing gets easier and easier as one gets better. So getting better at Go is about making it easier to lose, until not even a small mistake, but a less than perfect move is all it takes to drop into the abyss. One glides toward the axis of losing, until one is infinitesimally close.

I must play with all the other members of B League in order to enter A League. By this time I am recovered sufficiently to hold off my pre-teen competition. Everyone says I have improved radically by being entered in the Camp. I have trouble accepting the idea that I have improved a stone in a week, but who knows. I periodically suggest that I am struggling to keep it together, but my sunny roommate assures me that this is true of everyone. This strikes me as being similar in logic to feeling better about having a brain tumor because all my co-workers have one too. There must be some psychological component because whereas each one of my victories in B League seems hard fought, when Yoo Chang-hyuk stops by I win my game in eleven minutes. I am showing off.

There is a very cute little boy from Taiwan who is staying in Mr. Gwon’s house, who is one of the top players in A League. Mr. Gwon gives each student in the house a 1000 won bill and we play a straight knock-out tournament, with the winner to take the proceeds. I feel guilty about corrupting minors and even worse about being unable to defeat this boy, whose name sounds very similar to “Johnny O.” For the first time Johnny O and I play in the final round and I emerge the victor. I buy French fries with my prize for everyone at the Camp, and Young-sun is startled to hear where the money came from. “Won the tournament?” She pauses, disconcerted. “Even games?” This is spurious, as they are always even games. My friend John Lee says, “It’s really weird how everyone thinks you’re so weak, Jan.” My Jungian totemic analysis of the situation is that everyone thinks I am a prairie dog, but actually I am a hawk. Giggle if you will.

I defeat Young-sun in the EBS Cup, I advance to the final round. I walk in to the Kiwon and am immediately enveloped in good vibrations. “You must have gotten stronger,” Baek Sung-ho 8 dan breaks from his game to say to me. “Just lucky,” I smile back. Players are stopping, nodding and smiling. This is fun, I could get used to this. Reporters are asking questions, photographers are taking photos. I am selected to play the New Year’s Game on television, which I play in a traditional costume designed for someone weighing, say, 78 pounds easily. The producer isn’t aware that I can play Go at all. My former arch nemesis as an insei is the game recorder and sends death messages telepathically. I’m informed that the ratings jumped and they’d like to thank me for appearing and the Korean IRS will be taking my playing fee. The inane quotes attributed to me in the papers make me embarrassed. A journalist calls to harangue me about missing an interview I knew nothing about. I feel somewhat lonely and surprisingly bored in those little “in-between” moments. It would be disingenuous for me to suggest that I study Go at times like this. I really only like to play and review, or failing that, go to lunch (now you know the origin of my nickname, perhaps). Nevertheless this kind of fame is interesting. Sang-hoon laughs and says, “So that’s it. You don’t care for better or worse, only that life must be interesting.”

“How much did you win by?” a girl at the Camp asks.

“Half a point,” I reply.

Her eyes widen. “Big sister Young-sun must have been so mad!”

Mad? I think, surprised. I have yet to see the Campsters evoke any emotion before, during, or after a game.

I find them perfect in equanimity.

[sgfPrepared id=”10″]

Time limit: 30 seconds per move
EBS Studios, Seoul, Korea

Young-sun deserves her reputation as the strongest woman player in Korea. Except for the questionable large knight’s move at 22 (playing just the knight’s move would have made my obvious approach move more difficult) all the mistakes in the opening are mine, starting with not taking sente with 33 (just pushing straight out is better here), the horrible jump at 55 (this should at least be at A), and the deathly slow 77 (Black should play at 78). By the time I invaded at 81, I had probably lost by more than ten points.

The trouble came when she played too hard by fighting with 82 instead of just playing on top and letting me connect underneath. One has to admire the spirit of always playing what one believes is the strongest response, but it gave me a chance to live in White’s territory. Allowing me to take the vital point at 93 should have been the finishing blow, Black can kill the whole White group in the bottom right. I let that go by, connecting at 103 instead of coming down at 104. White needs to play at 104 instead of 102 to get a ko for life.

According to the review led by Mr.Gwon, Black 113 is pretty good. That was enlightening, because at the time I was unhappy with how ugly and transparent it looked. I seem to gravitate towards pointless subtleties. On the other hand, I felt all right playing my “attack” starting with 115, but Mr. Gwon just shook his head. Black 127 is a mistake: usually one can’t capture the cutting stone when there is a stone at 82, but in this case I can connect my corner stones to 81 if I have to. There’s an example of “knowing” instead of thinking. White’s plan with 148 is in error: Black 151 breaks into the White territory quite a bit. White 174 is not as big as Black 175—Black should win with this move. I lost quite a few points, however, chasing a phantom with 197. Perhaps I was upset about letting the White group live in the bottom right, so I was trying to cut off the group in the lower left, hacking through essentially neutral points. She scooped the meat out of the side and made a second eye easily.

No other issues, except for after the game. Mr. Gwon asked Young-sun to make him an extra record, and apparently a ko threat was switched and the 215-216 exchange was accidentally inserted just before 231. Mr. Gwon correctly points out that if that had been the case, White should take some points by playing at 231 and duke it out over the ko for life, as White has more ko threats. Luckily, I’m hip to the idea of not playing pointless sente. Mr. Gwon also mentioned that she should have connected at 26 instead of taking with 218. This is also a valid point, because technically it’s a half-point loss, since if I get 246 she has to connect inside her territory. In this case it doesn’t matter because I can never play 246 and win the ko at 245, because again she has more ko threats. So Mr. Gwon’s conclusion was that there was no way for White to win after I took the huge endgame at 175. There’s another example of “genius Go”—this move is a product of the “This looks big, I think I’ll play here” phenomenon—I had completely given up on logical reasoning. If you approach Go this way, you are very very lucky if you win. More evidence that I was a flake in this game: she knew that she had lost by half a point long in advance of the conclusion. I thought I had lost by this margin, and so I was taking the endgame in a rather cavalier fashion. Any reputation I may have gained for confidence by my behavior is, as I’m beginning to suspect is always the case, based on being blissfully unaware of the true situation.

Now in the tale a number of plot twists occur, and it appears that I’ll either have to forfeit the rest of my games or schedule them all on the same day. This is not so bad, because I am close, so very close, to a title, my lovely Mecca, shining Cibola…

Because of the structure and my position as “winner’s finalist” in the tournament, I only needed to win one of the games that day.

My desert mirage.

[sgfPrepared id=”11″]

Same players, opposite colors. Yoon Young-sun battled all the way up the loser’s tournament ladder to win the EBS Cup anyway. She also won the Guksoo league and eventually the title. This is not a girl with any of the common teenage angst—her mother was fairly perturbed at the studio that she hadn’t washed her hair or put on nice clothes, but Young-sun coolly replied, “It’s a bother.” In my game with her where I was White, she went confidently for the kill and I resigned. Notice one curiosity: I’ve played a few questionable moves in the opening, but I saw a startling sequence emerging after the natural cap at 41. Black 49 is an overplay. I can pick off her stones in the center, winning the game right there, by playing at 61 instead of 58. She didn’t know it until I pointed it out to her at the end of the game. I sensed something momentous behind her closed face. I am learning.

There was mixed reaction in the pro room—the dull cloud formed by my opening play, silence culminating in a sudden warm laugh from Suh Bong-soo at 56 (here, here is Nirvana), and finally puzzlement why after doing the hard part I missed the easy capture. Jeong Soo-hyun says, “That’s a good lesson,” as if (if only!) having identified my tendency to have a brain spike, I could do something about it. Young-sun goes on to play in the World Women’s Championship and wins a tremendous victory over China. She has her paper-mache likeness on the cover of Baduk magazine. I never finish the last few games I needed to play at Camp to escape from B League. But reflecting on it now, this tale seems to me not a tragedy, but a comedy—not the high brought low, but my foolishness, for a moment, exalted.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

joe walters January 4, 2012 at 7:36 pm

Thanks for that wonderful look into the Korean Professional go community. You have a very entertaining way of story telling. Great Go Professional, professional poker player, and wonderful story teller. What a package!


Devin Flake January 5, 2012 at 10:02 am

Great article – I especially enjoyed your Go truism about winning and losing :)


jenj January 5, 2012 at 4:51 pm

Agree with joe walters — you great storyteller!

I’m your fan now :)

Btw, thanks for “First Kyu” translation



David January 8, 2012 at 3:12 pm

Thanks for the entertaining read Janice. Great story :).


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