Chairman of the boardBiting on his fingernails, Park Young-hoon stares at a pattern of white and black stones on a wooden board. To the untrained eye, the pattern formed by these tiny stones means nothing. But to Park the pattern of this baduk, or go, game board represents a life or death struggle.
"Looks like I have to throw my stone," says the high school student with a sigh. "I can't solve this problem."
In the obscure world of Korean go, Park is a hotshot. He belongs to an elite group of players called gisa, which is similar to a grand master in chess.
Gisa are registered pro players who live and die by the rules of go. According to the Korea Baduk Association, South Korea has 189 professional players, of whom about 30 are high school students. Within this rarefied group, Park Young-hoon ranks fourth overall, and third among students. Domestically, gisa build their reputation at 18 tournaments annually and select from another 10 meets overseas.
To hone his ability, Park, 18, spends upwards of five hours a day at the association's offices, in a nondescript concrete building in Wangsimni, eastern Seoul. Like chess players, he analyzes moves from past games to help him solve problems at future competitions. "I like to keep my touch with the stones. It helps me mentally," he says.
Park turned pro in1999 when he attained his 1-dan, the lowest level of proficiency. He has since elevated himself to a 3-dan player. All told, there are nine levels of dan, but only 21 players have reached the god-like top level in Korea. Amateur players must first pass 18 levels, collectively called geup, just to reach the amateur-level first dan. The highest amateur level is a 7-dan.
Besides his string of tournament victories, Park boasts one longstanding record: he won an amateur championship at age 11, the youngest person ever to do so. And since 2001, he has piled up an impressive record of 159 wins and 53 losses. His winning percentage of 75 percent is the fourth highest during this period.
Such success comes at a price. The bespectacled teen attends school only two or three times a month. Hence, his buddies mainly consist of other accomplished gisa whose second home is go headquarters. But Park's interests do span wider than the ancient board game.
"When I am not playing, I go bowling or play table tennis," says Park. "Sometimes I rent videotapes because I don't have time to go to the theaters." His training does not end at the association; he practices at home with his father, a 5-dan amateur player who has coached Park since he was 7 years old.
The young master shrugs off the sacrifices he must make to keep his edge. "When I touch the stones I am just thrilled. I think it is the mental challenge that keeps me going," he says. The term mental challenge may be an understatement since he must always think 20 to 30 moves ahead.
Go may be unfamiliar to many, but it's quite familiar in Northeast Asia. The three kingdoms of the go world are China, Korea and Japan, with the latter two nations claiming an estimated 10 million players and China commanding a pool twice that size. The region has 10 competitions annually, with prize money ranging from 50 million won to 300 million won per event ($42,000-252,000).
On Tuesday, Cho Hoon-hyun, a 9- dan player, won the 7th Samsung Cup World Open Baduk Championship in Beijing. It was Cho's second consecutive win. His victory extended Korea's streak of world championship victories to 18.
For the past decade, Korea has held the dominant position in the go world. Although official support has slackened somewhat lately, Korean go players have enjoyed government support since 1984. During the 1980s, gisa were assured jobs at Korean companies under the premise that stable work helped them concentrate better. Nowadays, however, that job guarantee has been less common.
Among go enthusiasts, players like the legendary 9-dan player Lee Chang-ho enjoy celebrity status akin to Tiger Woods for golfers. Lee, who has won 111 major titles since entering the professional go world in 1986, appears regularly in cable TV and print ads.
Park Young-hoon considers himself a Lee protege, and aspires to become such an icon. Speaking in a tone of admiration and respect, the high schooler says of Lee , "He is a god to me. I don't know if I ever can be like him. Even just being half as good as him would be nice."
Although in chess, computers already exist that can beat top-ranked world players such as Gary Kasparov －－ a chess legend defeated by a computer in 1997 －－ so far machines remain behind humans in the go world. Currently, go computer games pose a challenge only to low level amateurs.
Computers' inadequacy in go probably stems from the vast number of possible moves on the 19-by-19 grid, exceeding even the millions of moves on a chess board, which is played on an 8-by-8 square board.
"In go, a move might be helpful immediately but it may hurt in the big picture," says Jeong Soo-hyun, a professor of go at Myungji University who is a 9-dan player. "For a computer to see that big picture is almost impossible." The professor points out that existing go computer games at best mimic the seven geup level, thus providing no real challenge to professional gamers.
Jeong notes that all professional players can see at least 30 moves ahead regardless of their dan level. According to the professor it takes a good player about a year to jump to a higher dan level. As the dan level rises, it takes more time to reach the next level. All in all, a good player must commit a decade or more to rise to go's highest level.
Park says he has not yet decided if he wants to spend so much time to reach the pinnacle of the go world. "First I want to go to the college," he says. "After that I'll think about it. Right now, I am playing only for fun."
His mother, Park Eun-gyu, only recently picked up a baduk textbook to learn what drives her son and husband to stare motionless at a wooden board for countless hours. She thinks the fun factor is the game's biggest asset.
"I guess I am not there yet. I haven't figured out what it is," says the mother. "But my son has fun and I think that's why he'll go far."
Territory imperative in this game
Go is an ancient game thought to originate in China. Although the exact year of go's creation is not known, it is considered to be approximately 4,000 years old.
In go, two players take turns placing a white or a black stone on the board. Stones are laid on the lines, not inside the squares.
The game's objective is to surround a territory, and the winner is the person who captures the largest amount of territory. A territory is considered one's own if it is completely surrounded by one's own stones.
As in golf, there is a handicap system so that players of different levels can compete against each other. This means that a lower -level player can place stones on the board before the the game begins that will help him during the course of the action.
by Brian Lee