Lee Se-dol aims to be a baduk legendIt is hard to find traces of a level-headed strategist in the face of Lee Se-dol, a professional baduk player. Even at 30, he still looks like a high school student.
In the world of professional baduk, or the game of Go, however, Lee is undeniably the strongest player. He recently achieved 1,000 wins and became the sixth Korean baduk player to hold such an honor. He has been the highest-paid baduk player and kept his No. 1 title over the past three years, putting him at the top of the world.
Since his professional debut at the age of 13, Lee has earned a reputation as a talented yet geeky competitor with a few quirks. He didn’t often show up for awards ceremonies and once took a six-month leave.
Nevertheless, baduk fans love Lee for his aggressive and nimble strategies.
Most recently, though, Lee shocked his fans with plans for retirement in three years to launch a baduk business overseas.
Amid the declining baduk industry, Lee has a lot to say about the game and how it is taught. He has been critical of baduk education.
“These baduk private institutes used to teach us how to realize the world of baduk by ourselves, but most of them only focus on teaching tricks and easy ways to win games these days,” Lee told local media recently. “With this kind of education, Korea can’t stay No. 1 for much longer.”
The JoongAng Ilbo recently sat down with Lee and asked him questions on a range of issues from his future plans to his most unforgettable defeat.
Q. You have mentioned retirement. Does this mean we will see you as a businessman and not as a baduk player in three years?
A. I recently opened a Web site called go9dan with some of my companions. The Web server is located in the United States because the main purpose is promotion of baduk there. As far as I know, many professional baduk players frequently visit such Web sites, and I wanted to create a platform for them. Through the Web site, baduk fans are able to play games with high-ranking professional players and can learn from experts. It will benefit both professionals and amateurs, and I believe it is one way to revitalize this industry.
Do you think your business model will gain a footing in the States? The baduk industry is going downhill, and it’s such a foreign board game to most Americans after all.
I know it won’t be easy, but I think it is better to start off in a foreign country rather than trying to rejuvenate the declining game in Korea. In addition, it’s a bit hard for me to take over the helm of a baduk business in Korea because there are many industry insiders with their own interests, but I can take control of a project overseas.
Do you see the project as your next source of income after your retirement from baduk?
Baseball players have many choices after retirement. They can work as a commentator, coach or manager, but there is just one path for baduk players: commentator. Personally, I don’t want to earn money except by playing games. My initial goal with the Web site is promoting baduk overseas. Making money with the Web site comes second.
Why did you give up on becoming a commentator? Is it because of your voice?
The job doesn’t suit me. I was extremely stressed out when I was 14 after my debut and I developed aphasia because some of my nerves were paralyzed back then. My parents were in Bigeum Island, South Jeolla, and I was living with my older brother, but he was in the Army. There was no one who cared for me. I didn’t even have a chance to go through a proper medical checkup.
You have been the highest-paid baduk player over the past three years. You earned 720 million won [$662,000] last year alone. How do you manage your prize money? Have you ever invested in businesses?
I don’t know how to manage my money. I lost money a couple of times, too. As far as I know, there are few professional baduk players who succeed in investing.
Have you ever been scammed?
I think almost all people have been scammed once or twice in their lifetimes. That’s why I don’t really care. If you experience it once, you won’t be fooled the next time.
Rumor has it that you are only after competitions with handsome prize money.
Of course I care about prize money the most. Prize money is the same as pride for professional baduk players. It is problematic if one puts priority on money in everyday life, but professional players should care about it. Look at professional baseball or football players. They go through rounds of salary negotiations with their agents. Does that mean they are all money-hungry?
Does prize money affect your attitude?
I try not to neglect competitions with smaller prizes, but it eventually affects my attitude, I think. If there are two competitions, one with 200 million won of prize money and the other with 30 million won, I naturally find myself attracted to the former.
But you haven’t won the Ing Cup of Taiwan that offers the largest prize - $400,000.
Right! I was always eliminated in the early stages. [Laughs] The competition is quite unique because it takes place every four years. I couldn’t get used to certain rules of the competition, especially the time limit. But there is still one more chance for me three years from now.
Just as students make notes about incorrect answers, professional baduk players reproduce games they lose. Isn’t that hard?
Not at all. When I fail, I really want to know why I was defeated. We think of baduk as one genre of art. When potters end up creating something that’s not right, they review the temperature of kiln and duration of baking time. They can make better porcelain only if they know what mistakes they have made. That is why we reproduce every game we’ve lost to become better performers.
What about practice matches for baduk fans and students?
I don’t like them. I enjoy every baduk game even if we’re playing for jjajangmyeon (noodles with black bean sauce), but writing down practice scenarios is difficult because I have to imagine two different people’s thoughts and intentions.
Then what is your style?
I always think about baduk. There is a baduk board in my head. When I come up with new strategies, I place stones on the board in my head even when I drink, watch dramas or play billiards. But it’s quite hard to come up with novel strategies these days. It was hard to obtain strategies from experts in the past, but it is totally different now. After each game, people analyze my strategies on the Web and instantly share it with hundreds or thousands of others. I feel like it’s copyright infringement.
Isn’t it hard to stay focused on a game for hours?
Sometimes my mind wanders even during an important game. I think about my lunch or my clothes for the day. Or if it is Friday, I worry about a traffic jam on my way back home. Of course, I pay attention to important moments, but it is hard to stay focused all throughout the game because I’m a human. It is especially hard to stay focused in the very beginning of the game when my counterpart thinks for a long time before making his next move.
If you have to pick one failure of your life, what would it be?
It was back in 2001 when I played a game with Lee Chang-ho of 9-dan rank. I already won two games in a row against him, and I was overly confident. After the two wins, I lost three games in a row against Lee. Twelve years have already passed, but my memories are still vivid.
Have you ever felt that you’ve failed at life?
No. I’ve been taking an elite path, and I have never been overshadowed by someone. There were some hard times, but I think I’ve been staying on top among professional baduk players of my age.
You were a little boy who was born and raised on a small island who dreamed of becoming a professional baduk player. You’ve achieved your dream. What’s next?
I want to remain a living legend. I want to be the first person people associate with baduk. I want my games to remain pieces of art. I also want to succeed in the baduk business by setting a good example and showing people that a person like me can do well in baduk and also in other professions.
By Chae Yoon-kyung [email@example.com]
Lee Se-dol Professional baduk player of 9-dan rank
Born March 2, 1983
Debuted as a pro in 1995 at age 13
Career and honors
-No. 1 professional baduk player in March
-Achieved 1,000 wins in January, the sixth baduk player to hold such an honor
-Won HighOne Resort Myungin Cup in January
-Named MVP three times at Korean Baduk Awards from 2010 to 2012