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3 Jun 2002 (updated 3 Jun 2002 at 19:07 UTC) »

PIETER MIOCH INTERVIEWS GO SEIGEN Go Seigen is one of the greatest go players of all time. Although he is getting on in years, he is still active as commentator and teacher. Pieter Mioch had the privilege of being able to interview him, and uses the opportunity to illuminate at the same time a slice of modern go history. Pieter, 31, has studied go at the local branch of the Nihon Ki-in in central Japan. He lives with his family in Kasugai City, near Nagoya. He is a steady contributor of articles about the Japanese go scene for the Dutch go association.
On 26 June 1999, after two months of preparation, telephone calls, house calls, submission of personal details and so on, I was able to visit a living legend: Go Seigen. "He is one of three go players who will still be famous several hundred years from now. The other two are Dosaku (1677-1702) and Shusaku (1829-62)." This is Mr. Teramoto, Go's manager, expressing an opinion that is accepted generally, not just in Japan. "Players such as Cho Chikun and Kobayashi Koichi, for example, will be quickly forgotten when other top players come and go. But Go Seigen has left too great a trail in the history of the game of go to be forgotten," the gold bespectacled manager goes on to explain. With deep respect and a slight feeling that by shaking hands with Go Seigen I was sure to become two stones stronger, I began the interview with the father of modern go. Two and a half hours later I was richer by an especially fascinating experience, but also thoroughly bewildered. Despite his 85 years, Go Seigen is still remarkably energetic and, after the first few minutes of the interview he resolutely took the reins in his hands. I was rushed at lightning speed on a tour through Chinese philosophy, various religions, Japanese and Chinese culture, experiences from his time before the war, and much else. I have therefore chosen to use material from Go's autobiography "Ibun Kaiyu" (published in 1997) as my lodestar. Go Seigen is the Japanese pronunciation of the Chinese name Wu Qingyuan. In this article I will continue to stick with the name Go Seigen. Go was born on 19 May 1914 as the third son in a family that had earlier made a fortune in salt commerce. Go's father was actually an official and had merely a modest income. Because it was a turbulent time, things began to go downhill for Go's family after he was born. When it became apparent that Go's talent for go was so special that they could earn a healthy salary with it, this was most welcome. Go's father, who had enjoyed go lessons from Honinbo Murase Shuho when he was studying in Japan, passed away in 1925 when Go was eleven years old. Go was "discovered" a year later by Iwamoto Kaoru when he was visiting China. In 1928, Go came to Japan at the invitation of Baron Okura (a rich man who was behind the foundation of the Nihon Ki-in) and an important politician, minister Inukai Tsuyoshi. When I asked Go what he thought was the most memorable experience of his career, he answered without hesitation:

"The invitation to come to Japan from two of the top people in Japan. I am still very proud of the fact that these important figures in Japan came to ask a Chinese boy, would you believe, whether he wanted to come to Japan one day. Many people do not know that and think that I came to Japan off my own bat. I came here at the time as a guest, and several highly placed people in the go world, including Honinbo Shusai Meijin, came specially to Tokyo to welcome me." When Go spoke of his arrival in Japan, his look became noticeably sharper. Although it is more than 70 years ago, he can apparently still recall the day like yesterday. "It was a vessel of 2,500 tonnes on which we then came to Kobe, after which there was a long journey to Tokyo. We spent several days on it." Immediately after Go arrived in Japan, he fulfilled the high expectations of him in spectacular fashion by winning three games in a row against established pros. Apart from Go himself, this surely must have been a relief for Segoe Kensaku, a top Japanese pro who was Go's teacher and who was held responsible lock, stock and barrel by Baron Okura for Go in the go world. The pity was that, because of his weak constitution, Go was forced to take it easy and his first year was not spent full-time. In 1930 he started properly in the Oteai, the professional grading tournament and at the time the most important event. His results were frighteningly good, and anyone who had doubted his talent could now no longer do other than to admit that Go was the most sensational player of the moment. In 1932 he became 5-dan. By today's standards that is not so special, but in those days they were not so lavish with promotions, and a 5-dan then belonged to the elite. There was only a handful of players with a higher grade. [33]Table of Go's Oteai results In the period from 1930 to 1961, Go was a dominant force in the go world. But occasionally he had to take time out to regain his strength and then he played less. His health was not robust, and during and after the second world war he found himself in a difficult position because of his Chinese origins. It is an incontrovertible fact that Go, in a series of matches over ten games, proved to be the strongest go player in the world. In addition to his brilliant style of play, he is known above all for a series of novelties in the opening.

Another famous episode in the career of Go Seigen is his game against Honinbo Shusai. In order to make plain what was so special about this game, first a little bit of go history. The start of professional go in Japan was approximately contemporaneous with the battle of Nieuwpoort, around 1600, and it began with the Buddhist monk Nikkai. Nikkai was the first head of the Honinbo go school. In 1612, the authorities began officially to sponsor the four greatest go schools: Honinbo, Yasui, Inoue and Hayashi. The Honinbo school had the leading position, thanks to the overwhelming strength of Nikkai. In 1588 he was able to win a tournament organised by the government. It brought him a fixed annual income, paid by the Shogun. The name Honinbo, incidentally, comes from a pavilion on the land of a temple in Kyoto where Nikkai lived. When the capital was moved to Tokyo in 1603, Nikkai had to go along. Once arrived there, he made a title of the name Honinbo and changed his name to Honinbo Sansa. He is best known by this name. In Tokyo he received an established post and he was, amongst other things, responsible for the spread of go in Japan. He took this very seriously. It is Honinbo Sansa and his school that Japan must thank a great deal for the level at which go is played at present.

The supremacy of the Honinbo school was off and on in danger, but even when the authorities stopped sponsoring go in 1868, the Honinbo school still supplied the strongest go players. This was in spite of the problems and reverses, the lack of income and accommodation. It seems that later there was talk of a certain sclerosis of playing techniques precisely because the Honinbo school always stood at the top. Dogmas arose: specific opening moves, for instance, were marked down as good or bad. Moves rejected by the Honinbo school normally never appeared on the board in professional games. When Go arrived in Japan, the Honinbo school was still the leader of the go world. The prestige of the head of the school, Honinbo Shusai, was enormous - the more so because Shusai had acquired, in addition to the title of Honinbo, the highest possible of Meijin (master). Through his position, Shusai represented centuries of go wisdom and tradition. Go Seigen was unintentionally to be cast in the role of braggart and rebel - a role which by no means suits this especially friendly and mild-mannered man, and which he himself had never knowingly sought. The game between Go Seigen and Honinbo Shusai, which at the time was regarded by everyone (and by some still is) as the game of the century , began on 16 October 1933 and lasted almost three months. The actual playing time, the time that both participants actually sat at the board, was 14 days. the newspapers had considered that it would be good for circulation to publicise this game widely as a confrontation between Japan and China. As a result, Go was often troubled by nationalists and the windows of his house were smashed in. "I have never taken much part in politics or the like. This was not the first time that I was an accessory to events in which emotions ran very high." Go had to put up with this inimical atmosphere for three months. As nominally the stronger player, Shusai had the privilege of deciding whenever the game should be adjourned. Because, at the time, there was no sealing of moves, it meant that the player whose turn it was to move could continue to study the position leisurely at home. Shusai made shameless use of this privilege. Thus it came about that, at the resumption of play on the eighth day, Shusai played first, Go answered within two minutes, and Shusai then thought for three and a half hours, only to adjourn the game. Go was thus at a particular disadvantage. It is therefore not surprising that, whenever the ideal duration of a game comes up for discussion, Go has a very forthright opinion. A game must, one way or another, be completed in one day. "Cho Chikun lost yesterday because he had selected a large-scale, difficult joseki," said Go, by way of explanation. "That is precisely what is wrong with go in Japan today. They are too attached to corner patterns (josekis). Go ought to be played on the whole board. And why Cho is using all is time on one joseki in a game with three hours thinking time is a mystery to me."

Go's unorthodox style attracted much attention. He was the darling of the newspapers, which recorded top sales during the match between Go and Shusai. His opening move at 3-3 was unheard of for a professional. Go: "Everyone said a move on the 3-3 point was bad and could not be played. I simply did not understand that, and wanted to see for myself why it was supposed to be bad." In the end, Shusai won the game by two points. But there is yet another remarkable story attached to the game. It is on account of White 1 in Diagram 1, a brilliant move that made a significant contribution to Shusai's victory. It was an open secret that Go in fact had to take on the whole Honinbo clique at the same time. Whenever Shusai had adjourned the game, he studied the position with his students to find the best move together. The story is that White 1 in Diagram 1 was a brilliant discovery by one of Shusai's pupils: none other than Maeda Nobuaki, who became famous for his books on tsume-go (go problems). This move, which at a stroke brings White back into the game, was therefore apparently not thought of by Shusai himself. Go's teacher, Segoe Kensaku, let drop years later, according to what he assumed was an "off-the-record" conversation in a bar, that White 1 was a move by Maeda and not by Shusai. When this pronouncement appeared in a newspaper the next day, the whole Honinbo school was furious, and Segoe had to bear a very heavy burden. Every day he received threatening letters , and a band of supporters of the Honinbo school bent on revenge even posted themselves in front of his house. Eventually he had to give up his post on the board of the Ki-in and make a public apology. "I am very sorry that there were some things I did not realise until later," said Go. " Honinbo Shusai and my teacher were definitely not bosom pals, but that went totally over my head."In an interview in the 1980s, he said,"Only years later did I come to know that Segoe had made that statement, and that he therefore had to endure so much." The game to one side, Go had the following to say on Shusai in the interview: "Was Honinbo Shusai a villain? He was a scoundrel! How the Ki-in manages to deify this person of all people is unbelievable!" He goes quiet for a moment, then suddenly he declares in a surprisingly loud voice and with much agitation: "A villain. He was a villain! He is now praised to the skies by the Ki-in and depicted as one of the heroes of this century, yet - mark you well - he sold his title to the newspapers for mere lucre and bought with it a fair-sized piece of land in Tokyo without giving one cent to the Ki-in or the go world." And so he goes on...

In the thirties a periodical called "Selected Games of Kitani Minoru" was published monthly by the Japanese Go Association (Nihon Ki-in). One of the contributors to this was Kawabata Yasunari, and he wrote the following in an article "The early days of Shin Fuseki."

"The period of Shin Fuseki was not only the period of the early days of two personable young men, Kitani Minoru and Go Seigen. It was without doubt also the period in which the foundations of modern go were laid. Shin Fuseki was the fresh wind that fanned the flames of enthusiastic, youthful creativity and adventure.

Shin Fuseki ensured, through its glittering appearance and staggering, sparkling content, that the whole go world underwent a rejuvenation. It is without a doubt true that there were among the generation of Kitani and Go other brilliant players. But among them there were none who had had such a marked influence on the go world as the newcomers, Kitani and Go. During the period of Shin Fuseki they revived the go world. The new opening theory of Kitani and Go became the symbol of the blooming of go in the 20th century."

Go: "I felt especially embarrassed by this fulsome text. This does not actually keep me from saying that the role Shin Fuseki played in the development of go today is well expressed in the above piece. I do not really think that go came to its highest possible level because of Shin Fuseki and the developments which it brought in its train. The 'new opening' period was only a step on the way to the perfecting of go. I myself am very curious about developments in the 21st century. As I have already said, go should be played over the whole board. In that respect Shin Fuseki was an ideal style to stimulate the creativity of players beyond fixed josekis (corner patterns) and to broaden understanding of the game." Nowadays, the term Shin Fuseki is usually associated with the style of top pros such as Takemiya and Sonoda. Both often choose to give up territory to build influence. In such a style of play, the stones are thus more oriented towards the centre than the edge. Because Shin Fuseki normally signifies "new opening," we could say, every time there is a new trend in the opening, that this is also Shin Fuseki. What then is actually the difference between Shin Fuseki and today's new opening moves and trends? One difference is that Go and Kitani tackled things on a larger scale than happens today. Opening moves on hoshi (4-4) and tengen (10-10) were not new, but Go turned these into standard moves, as also with sanrensei (three handicap points in a row on one side). The opening move at 3-3, which is not directed towards influence, was actually also a revolutionary move in Shin Fuseki. When Go and Kitani demonstrated that it was possible to win games with less conventional moves, and even moves considered bad, many pros unhesitatingly followed them en masse. Opening moves on 5-5, 10-6...suddenly any outrageous move one could think of was worthy of consideration and seen in actual play. The mode of play which had its beginnings with Kitani and Go had, at the time, an enormous influence on go-playing Japan. It was as if, for example, Cho Chikun played his first three moves in a title match at arbitrary points on the second line... and won!

In the first "wild years" everyone and his dog tried Shin Fuseki itself at least once, before the situation again cooled down a little. There had, it is true, always been a hard core of players who fought tooth and nail against Shin Fuseki and made their views on this known in books and newspapers. The point at issue died a natural death. There was plainly nothing ultimately wrong with the traditional opening moves from before Shin Fuseki. The opening theories from the 19th century blended with the modern ideas from the start. Go: "These developments brought the game of go nothing but good, and made the game, if possible, more attractive. I see in this also a fusion of Chinese and Japanese go theory." Figure 1 (1-20) W: Go Seigen 5d vs. B: Kosugi Tei 4d, October 1933 W won without counting Above is an example of how a game at the height of Shin Fuseki's popularity could develop. Go: "When I look at this now, I do not understand where I got the courage from to place such a fantasy of an opening on the board with such effrontery." It is naturally not the case that Shin Fuseki was suddenly discovered and came out of the blue without anyone getting wind of it. Several years before the name became official, clear signs were visible. Go: "In the sixth year of Showa (1931), when I was 4-dan, I played on the 3-3 point, and in the year after, when I had meanwhile become 5-dan, I played the nirensei opening (two moves on 4-4 on the same side of the board) in a number of games." This is the precursor of the sanrensei opening.

"Once I became 5-dan, the number of games in which I had White increased. At the time, there was no komi, and if the old 3-4 josekis are insisted on, it is inevitable that White's way of playing is somewhat sluggish." "The rule with josekis is that they should give a locally equal result, an exchange of moves whereby each player obtains 50 per cent. It is almost as if josekis are specially for Black, who, on account of the advantage of first move, naturally gets the most benefit from a tit-for-tat mode of play." "One go player for whom I have much respect, Honinbo Shuei Meijin (1852-1907), very often played on hoshi with White. This chimes nicely with my way of playing, in which White must develop quickly. I was not satisfied with the slow way of playing based on komoku (3-4). The sansan (3-3) and hoshi (4-4) moves that I played are based on the idea of speed. They occupy the corner with just one move, whereas an asymmetrical corner move requires a follow-up move in order to secure the corner." "It was and is a completely natural idea for me to put more emphasis on a quick development than on a corner enclosure with a shimari. Because it was actually at the time an unwritten law to play komoku and from there to enclose the corner with a shimari, my way of playing created something of a stir."

At the same time, when Go was beginning with his unorthodox fuseki, Kitani's style was characterised by low positioning of his stones and a rather orthodox way of playing. His results were actually not particularly convincing. The time was ripe to try higher positions oriented towards influence instead of low positions. It was a period of searching and experimenting with a style that attached greater weight than before to speed of development. In the spring of 1933, Go began a jubango with Kitani. It was during this match that the Shin Fuseki style of play came most plainly to the fore. Jubango is described as the hardest and most debilitating form of competitive go. A direct encounter between two rivals in a match of at most ten games, including jigos. The match could be broken off if one of the two players was promoted and the dan grade was thus no longer the same (formerly, it was unimaginable for pros in Japan to play even against a player of one lower dan grade...) or if one of the players was forced to accept a handicap by virtue of the fact that he had fallen four games behind. If this happened, it normally betokened a serious blow to the career of the losing party. Go's results in jubango are incredible. Imagine that in Japan today one player for more than two decades was able to challenge players such as Sakata Eio, Fujisawa Hideyuki, Cho Chikun, Kobayashi Koichi and Yoda Norimoto and, without exception, give them a handicap! And as if that were not enough, Go played by far the most of these games in his early years in Japan. After the second world war, he played less often, by a long chalk, than the average pro. He was at this time very preoccupied with religion, specifically the Manji (Red Swastika) movement. Go once stopped General MacArthur's car on behalf of this international movement in order to hand over a folder. MacArthur eventually took the petition, but Go and his colleagues had to suffer interrogation by the police!

Did Go Seigen gradually become weaker or did he suddenly stop playing go? These are two good questions to which the answer is not so well known as you might think for a player of Go's stature. With the exception of the period during the second world war, Go's career was a model of stability. But in 1961, when he was 47, the career of the most sensational go player since Honinbo Shusaku came to an abrupt pause. When Go, in August of that year, was in a rush and, against his usual custom, did not make use of a pedestrian crossing, he was hit by a motorcycle that came out of the shadows at high speed while overtaking a bus. Go was thrown up in the air, and then the same motorcycle ran hard into him once more, hitting him and dragging him along. Twenty minutes later, when Go came to in the hospital, it seemed initially as if all was well. Go took the doctor who treated him at his word when he told him that he would soon be back on his feet. Actually, his right leg began to swell up a few days later and began to ache even more. When at last it was decided to take an x-ray, it was apparent there had been a grave mistake. Go later had a great deal of dizziness and nausea, but that was not diagnosed at the time. One year later he had to be examined for a long time for this reason. Two months after the accident, Go was at last discharged from the hospital. The gravity of the accident and the quality of the treatment Go experienced left their mark. Go no longer properly trusts western medicine and goes instead twice a month to an acupuncturist. During Go's stay in the hospital, the Yomiuri newspaper had moved heaven and earth to interrupt the tournament for the Meijin title. This tournament was being played for the first time and they wanted to wait until Go was ready again. So just three months after his accident, Go sat behind the board, on a chair instead of a cushion on the floor, for the last game of the Meijin League. His opponent was no less than Sakata, a player who always gave Go a hard time. When Go and Sakata played each other, violent bare-knuckle fighting games always ensued; in terms of fighting spirit their games belong with the best of the 20th century. Fujisawa Hideyuki, Sakata and Go all had 3 losses in the Meijin League. Fujisawa was actually in a clear lead and the winner of the Go-Sakata game was thus to play off against him in order to decide who was to be the first Meijin of the new era. With what must have been something of a superhuman effort by Go, he managed to bring the game to a jigo with White after all those watching had written him off. A jigo with White meant victory for Go, but Fujisawa was declared the Meijin without a playoff! Although both Go and Fujisawa had scored 10-3, according to the rules Go's jigo was worth less than a "normal" victory. After this episode, Go, because of his health, slowly but surely had to retire from the go world. Go still played, but in the longer games in particular he suffered the burden of dizziness and nausea. Go Seigen still holds study sessions to which top pros such as O Rissei and Michael Redmond come. He is searching for the ideal way to play in the 21st century. His most recent book is even called "Go in the 21st century." After the interview I spoke further with Go's manager Mr. Teramoto. Teramoto: "The study meetings are pretty intensive. Go continuously tries different things and sometimes passes judgments difficult to comprehend. If we then, for example, go back a week later, he quietly says, 'Oh no, it is not at all true what I say, you know.' He is for ever on the move - standing still means going backwards and Go will never go backwards." Pieter: "Is that so? What sort of things does Go sensei say then?" Teramoto: "The last time, Go often said that sanrensei as we now know it is actually the worst sanrensei that is possible." Pieter: "???" Teramoto: "Much too concentrated on one side of the board. This (Diagram 2), according to Go, is the best sanrensei, and No. 2 is this formation (Diagram 3). Diagram 2 Diagram 3

When I stood up at this point to return home, I luckily realised that the most important question had not yet been put. So I said: "Go sensei, do you have a final comment for the Dutch go world?" Go:

"Certainly. Not just for the Dutch go world but for everyone in the whole world. It is impossible to foretell where a great new go talent will emerge in the 21st century. That could be anywhere, thanks to the Internet and the knowledge that a game of go is not decided by josekis but by the insight and the power that are necessary to consider and keep considering the whole board (this subject was plainly Go's hobby horse throughout the interview) and to handle proper evaluation of the different positions. As I said earlier, go in Japan addresses itself too much to corners and josekis. The most important reason why China and Korea were able to surpass Japan is that they are not so preoccupied with josekis. They address themselves rather to the whole board, and that is precisely where things are happening, that is what will be characteristic of go in the 21st century!"


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  • 16 May 2002 (updated 16 May 2002 at 17:46 UTC) »

    Treasured Words

  • "Whoever holds a shinai is a friend of mine." --Rod Nobuto Omoto
  • "Any one thing in the creation is sufficient to demonstrate a Providence to a humble and grateful mind." --Epictetus
  • "There is no security on this earth; there is only opportunity." --Douglas MacArthur
  • "Only as a warrior can one withstand the path of knowledge. A warrior cannot complain or regret anything. Life is an endless challenge, and challenges cannot possibly be good or bad. Challenges are simply challenges. The basic difference between an ordinary person and a warrior is that a warrior takes everything as a challenge, while an ordinary person takes everything either as a blessing or as a curse." --Carlos Castaneda
  • "If we knew what it was we were doing, it would not be called research, would it?" -- Albert Einstein (1879-1955)
  • "'Why should a poet be sentenced to death simply for writing poems?' A reasonable question, no doubt... but as I listened to these young people, so sure of themselves as they repeated their slogans, I found myself thinking--yes, but isn't it more logical for a poet to be sentenced to death for writing poems than for doing anything else?" --Oe Kenzaburo

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