Foreign students study go in Korea
They had no ghost for inspiration, but five foreign go, or baduk, players now attending Myongji University were mesmerized enough by the game to journey from their homes to this small land, just to toss tiny stones around a table against some of the world’s best players.
The growing population of Western go players in Korea illustrates a phenomenon that has occurred with many other cultural icons once taken abroad; Eastern traditions fascinate the West just as Western culture fascinates the East. While go is considered an old-fashioned game by young Koreans, it is attracting increasing attention throughout Europe.
“I don’t get bored by it at all,” says Jans Hanker, 26, from Germany, one of the foreign students at Myongji, the only university in the world with a Department of Baduk, or go.
“They say it shows your personality. It’s true. I play between calm and aggressive. That’s also in my character,” said Mr. Hanker.
The go community has reached Europe over the last 12 years through international tournaments. Until a few years ago, Japan was recognized as the Mecca of the game, even though most of the top Southeast Asian players headed to China for extensive training. It’s only recently that European players have looked to Korea as a training option.
The rising fame of Lee Chang-ho, who is one of the world’s top 10 players and considered “a Mozart of Baduk,” helped raise the profile of Korean baduk. A current saying hints at the game’s growing reputation with strategists ― “Chess is a battle, but baduk is a war.”
The foreign players at Myongji have in common that they majored in science prior to becoming go players and all first learned the game from their parents.
Diana Koszegi, a chatty young woman from Hungary, said her father was a professional chess player who turned to baduk. Daniela Trinks from Germany remembers her mother’s stories of visiting go clubs in Berlin. In 2006, Ms. Trinks became the fourth female go champion in Germany.
“My father refused to teach me how to play the game for a while,” says Ms. Koszegi, an ambitious professional player who first came to Korea in 2003 at age 19 to take part in a world championship. “Instead, he taught it to my brother. He thought it wasn’t appropriate for girls to play the game. If I hadn’t begged and played so well, he would never have taught me.”
Both Mr. Hanker and Chris Kirschner, from France, majored in computer science. Ms. Trinks studied environmental engineering.
Not all, though, play the game using calculus skills they developed at school. Mr. Hanker, whose father is also a professional player, is an enthusiast for all kinds of board games. Apidet Jirasophin, 19, from Thailand, has played since he was a young boy, like many Korean players, who often start as early as five.
Mr. Jirasophin came to Korea intending to become a professional player, backed by a Thai syndicate of go enthusiasts. Mr. Kirschner, 35, joined the Myongji University program for the sake of enjoying the game itself.
When asked to pick the strongest player in the group, all, almost simultaneously, pointed at Ms. Koszegi.
“Yan blushes red when he plays,” Ms. Koszegi said. “He tries to hide his feelings, but you can see him sweating before placing his next stone.”
Ms. Koszegi’s style is often described as “militant” by her fellow players; in contrast, Ms. Trinks admits to some weakness in battles. This is one reason she fears “Sunjang Baduk,” an aggressive style of go, in which rivalry is unavoidable.
“There is a certain chemistry depending on who you play the game with,” Mr. Henker said. “I am happy to lose a good game [to a competent player].”
Mr. Kirschner said, “There are players with all kinds of habits. Some make strange noises, distracting you. Some have to drink Coke while they play; others tell you not to drink, saying it’s against the rules.”
The complexity of go has long made the game a byword for intellectual sports.
There are hundreds of old Korean proverbs based on the philosophy of the game. (Some examples are: “Defend while attacking;” “Don’t give up key stones;” “Don’t make empty triangles;” “Don’t create only one large territory;” “Don’t touch stones you want to attack;” “Don’t try to surround an area with an open skirt;” and “Give up worthless stones.”)
“I learned the game from a German teacher back home,” Ms. Trinks said. “You need to trust your instinct when you are lost, but I think the best way to improve is through repetition.”
Ms. Koszegi, however, is more interested in the game’s dynamics.
“In baduk you need creativity in building your house,” she says. “That’s very different from playing chess, where you follow the rules. It’s more like life; you have more freedom in moving around.”
by Park Soo-mee