Lee lost game, but won hearts

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Lee lost game, but won hearts


Lee Se-dol. [NEWSIS]

Enthusiasm for Lee Se-dol, the 33-year-old Go master who faced Google’s computer program AlphaGo in a five-game series, has reached such epic proportions it now has a name: “God Se-dol Syndrome.”

Lee’s name was the most-searched keyword Tuesday among single men and women on Naver, Korea’s top portal site. On Sunday, it became the most-searched keyword by women in an Internet portal website.

Lee won his fourth game on Sunday in the five-game series against AlphaGo, Google’s Go analog to Deep Blue. But even before his win, Lee had won the public’s adoration with his unrelenting pluck and refusal to blame others after he’d lost.

“This isn’t a defeat for humans,” he said after his third loss on Saturday, “but only for Lee Se-dol.”

God Se-dol Syndrome takes its name from “GodphaGo,” which Korean Internet users named the AI program after witnessing its brutal faculty for outstripping the opposition in game one of the series, leaving spectators in silent awe of its prowess.

The church of God Se-dol now has his own scripture too, “Lee Se-dol Quotes,” a collection of comments Lee has made throughout his career that’s been circulating on online blogs and portal websites.

Despite the monicker, what really drew the public close to him wasn’t his God-like grasp of the game, but his humanity. Specifically, his all too human moments of vulnerability.

After his second and third losses, Lee remained in the arena replaying the games. He was determined to understand AlphaGo’s system. Even after winning the fourth game, when lesser players might have spent the night in celebration, Lee’s resolve was never dimmed; he stayed behind after that game too, perched in silent study.

“The AI program is equipped with infinite amount of data. The aptitude and quick response Lee showed was possible because of his perseverance,” said Seo Bong-soo, a 9-dan Go player.

Female netizens, many of whom are typically indifferent toward the game of Go, commented in droves after a photo of Lee was posted online showing him smoking after a game. One woman said he reminded her of Choi Taek, a young heartthrob who stars in the TV series “Reply 1988” (2015). The photo of Lee smoking quickly went viral.

“I think Lee’s soft voice also stirs up a protective instinct in women,” said Kim Hye-jung, a 32-year-old working woman. “I find his sincerity and maturity quite attractive.”

Others took to Lee Se-dol for his honesty. When he lost, he wasn’t shy about telling everyone how he felt.

“I’m quite shocked. I didn’t think I was going to lose,” Lee told the press after his first defeat. “AlphaGo played perfectly.”

But when he won, he wasn’t afraid to reveal his joy either: “I’m really, really happy for winning for the first time after three losses,” he said after his fourth match victory.

“Lee didn’t blame anyone after losing, and cleanly admitted defeat. I admire that level of honesty,” said Kim Hae-na, a 23-year-old university student.

Lee wasn’t always this popular.

Before the Go series, he was often criticized by others for his ego, which came through in some of his comments toward other Go players or before upcoming matches. He’d reply to reporters’ questions on other players’ skills with snarky answers such as “I’ve never studied his way of playing, so I don’t know,” or “I don’t even know that player’s name, so how should I know his style?”

But his doggedness in the Go series against AlphaGo has changed some of his adversaries’ attitudes toward him.

“There was something that cracked within me when I saw Lee push on throughout these games,” said Kim Chang-sun, a 44-year-old businessman. “When people saw Lee Se-dol fighting an unfeeling AI program, they saw the contrast between that and a human being facing a world increasingly occupied by cold mechanical efficiency,” said Lee Na-young, a professor of sociology at Chung-Ang University.

God Se-dol may be a God-like figure to some Koreans, but he’s just an ordinary father and husband in the eyes of his beloved wife. Lee traveled to Jeju Island with his family today. They will be looking together for a school for his daughter, Lee Hye-rim, now 11 years old.

BY SOHN GUK-HEE, ESTHER CHUNG [chung.juhee@joongang.co.kr]
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