[FORUM]A baduk lesson in winning ugly

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[FORUM]A baduk lesson in winning ugly

The Japanese style of playing the board game baduk ― also known as “go” ―once seemed invincible. But one day, out of a blue sky, it was overwhelmingly defeated by the Korean style. How on earth did that happen?
As late as the early 1980s, Korean baduk players treated the Japanese style, with its more than 30,000 accepted moves, as though it were a doctrine. Japanese baduk seemed to exist on an almost metaphysical plane, far above the material world. But this lofty Japanese baduk, a symbol of aesthetics, was reduced to ashes by the lower-class Korean style baduk, or hangukryu. Korean-style baduk swept its Japanese competitors away like Mongols sweeping over the Great Wall of China.
A symbolic showdown took place in 1993. Korea’s Seo Bong-soo and Japan’s Otake Hideo faced off in the final game of the Ing Cup World Championship. Seo Bong-soo was a “master of the weeds,” a player who’d learned all kinds of ugly tricks in the marketplaces. Mr. Otake was a symbol of the aesthetically pleasing Japanese style, the kind whose philosophy was, “Even if it costs me the game, I can’t make an ugly move.” The score was tied at 2 to 2, and the final match to decide the championship was held in Singapore.
As the game proceeded, things began to look very good indeed for Mr. Otake, and Seo Bong-soo’s situation was becoming more and more desperate.
But then something mysterious began to happen. It was as though Seo Bong-soo, covered with wounds and driven to the edge of the cliff, had gone mad, because he suddenly started to dash against his opponent. Confronted with the desperate force of this attack, Mr. Otake started making more and more mistakes, as though possessed by an evil spirit. Finally, he allowed his “big horse” to be killed. By a very close call, the game was reversed.
Mr. Seo’s victory was apparently due to luck. At the same time, his play had an unstoppable vitality. The term “hangukryu,” coined in China, at first meant violent and unrefined skills ―a ferocious deployment of so-called “ugly” moves.
This was in complete contrast to the long-standing Japanese tradition that held that the essence of baduk is efficiency; that what is efficient is beautiful, and what is inefficient is ugly. People soon began to realize that on the battlefield that is the baduk board, trying to make distinctions between beauty and ugliness is nothing but a shackle.
Hangukryu didn’t overwhelm the Japanese style immediately. Until the arrival of Lee Chang-ho, Korea’s victories in world tournaments were scattered, and often seemed miraculous. Cho Hoon-hyun was like an action-movie hero who stays alive despite a hail of bullets. He pulled off so many miraculous comeback wins that he earned the nickname “Helped-by-the-devil Cho Hoon-hyun.” His victories were so mysterious that we used to wonder whether Korea was the beneficiary of a great wave of luck.
But there is no denying that the driving force behind Korea’s conquest of the baduk world was its unique vitality. The Japanese aesthetic style is strong when the winds are favorable, but weak in a crisis. The wild Korean baduk only gets more powerful in a crisis.
Japanese baduk was established by Toyotomi Hideyoshi, who invaded the Korean Peninsula in 1592, and by Tokugawa Ieyasu, who unified Japan. Mr. Ieyasu was the first to enter the Japanese Baduk Association Hall of Fame. According to a Japanese record, Lee Yaksa, the baduk master of the Joseon dynasty, played against the first Japanese master, Sansa, with a three-stone handicap and lost the game. That happened 400 years ago. In the centuries since, Japanese baduk rose in prominence, only to peak in the 1980s, after which it was soon toppled by the Korean style.
Watching the Dokdo dispute makes me think of Japanese baduk. The Japanese style drifted toward its obsolescence by choosing to narrow its own range of movement. Likewise, I think, the more Japan tries to beautify its past without setting itself free from the fetters of its past misdeeds, the narrower its scope of action will inevitably become. A well-constructed framework is strong, but one is even stronger when one is free of it. That, at any rate, is how Korea conquered the baduk board.

* The writer is a staff writer on Baduk of the JoongAng Ilbo.


by Park Chi-moon
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