27 November 2008

Following the game of Go

Baduk (바둑) is a national obsession in South Korea. Of course, English speakers refer to the game by its Japanese name of Go. Go was originally a Chinese game, but it's the Japanese who developed it into its modern form and spread it around the world, so modern international games all follow (at least mostly) Japanese rules and concepts. Back in China, there are separate Go rules, but they are normally not followed internationally. In Korea, there used to be another local set of rules for Go, but it pretty much died out during the Japanese occupation, and Japanese rules are used today, as modern Go had to be pretty much re-imported back from Japan over the past several decades.

For the past two weeks, I couldn't watch any Baduk TV, because I was on the road, and no hotels would show it. But now I am in a residence and able to watch it again, and while at it, able to observe some trends in Go.

As mentioned before, Japan was where the modern Go theories were developed and refined. Until recently, Japan yielded the best players in the world, and the bright Go minds of China and Korea had to go to Japan, and Japanize their names, to pick up those advanced concepts. One of them is the legendary player, Cho Chikun, who was born in Busan as Cho Chi-hun but has lived in Japan since early childhood. Cho elevated the game to new heights in both Japan and South Korea, and was a major inspiration for aspiring Go players back here in South Korea.

For the past few decades, South Korea has led the way in Go. Two older players with well-defined personal styles are Cho Hun-hyeon and Seo Bong-su; both are still active today. However, the current champs tend to be in their mid-20s, such as Lee Se-dol, the best player in the world; Lee Chang-ho, considered the second best in the world, but with some key strengths that Lee Se-dol doesn't possess; and Kang Dong-yun, who is especially strong in international matches. I feel very privileged to be able to follow Lee Se-dol's trademark out-of-the-box aggressive style on a daily basis, through Baduk TV.

China has suffered for decades under Mao Zedong, whose Cultural Revolution turned Go into a capital offense, due to its territorial (read: capitalist) nature. But now, that's history. China has some very strong players. Right now, South Korea's Nongshim (a major ramen manufacturing company) is sponsoring the tenth annual three-nation battle, and China was last year's winner. (Japan won in 2005, while South Korea won the other seven times.) And given the huge pool of players in China today, things can only look up from now on.

China also leads the way in women's Go. The best female players are from China, where aggressive, assertive women doing traditionally male activities are considered positive. By contrast, in South Korea, women have been discouraged from playing Go for decades. But South Korea now also has a sizable female Go population, and the players' levels are constantly improving. As I watch some children's matches within South Korea, I notice that some of the best grade school-level players are girls; I hope they will conquer the world in another ten years.

I am also noticing that fuseki (opening) and joseki (sequence), two very important concepts in Go, ebb and flow with time. Young players are using some strange joseki that would have been completely unacceptable 10-20 years ago. As new joseki are developed, old, overused ones that have been well countered over the past few years fall out of use in turn. This reminds me that I need to keep watching as many current games as possible, just to stay updated on the newest trends.

I am also noticing some regulations for tournament play. Common South Korean regulations stipulate that each side is given a small amount of thinking time - 5 or 10 minutes, kept in track by a chess clock. Once the initial time runs out, the player enters the countdown phase; s/he must make a move within an allotted timeframe, say 30 or 40 seconds. A female referee will audibly count the final ten seconds of the timeframe. Going over the timeframe is allowed a certain number of times (3, 5, or 10 times are common), at which time the countdown begins again. Exhausting these overtime allowances loses the game, however. International matches appear to be using similar regulations, though countdown is not done audibly (partly because it has to be done in some mutually agreeable language).

Japanese domestic games, however, have been notorious for lengthy initial thinking times - traditionally up to six hours per side. Starting a match at 10AM, the two sides exhaust their thinking times, adding up to 12 hours. There are one-hour lunch and dinner breaks. And of course there are the countdown stage moves. It is common for a game to end at 2AM the next day, and after analysis, it may be 3 or 4AM. With no mass transit running at that time of the day, and with exorbitant Japanese taxi fares, it makes sense to rest until 5AM and take the first subway train home. I don't think I can pull that off.

Lastly, Baduk TV has American-style commercial breaks, though they are mercifully short. However, they are also able to give me another look into Korean culture. Apparently, funeral funds are a big business in this Confucian society. For a monthly deposit of about 30,000 won over ten years, I can have the services of six funeral directors, a limousine, and a few mourners' buses, when a parent passes away. I must pay for renting a mortuary and feeding the guests, as well as the actual cemetery plot or crematorium, but everything else, including taking care of all the headaches, is included. The funeral directors will provide me and my parents with ideas on how to make the funeral a special experience; my parents can probably pre-record a video will that can be played at the funeral. Doesn't sound too bad, really - I only need to sink a small amount per month, and hope that my parents will stay alive for ten years, until after I am done depositing. Good to think about this stuff, after having visited the graves of three of my four grandparents - and being very well aware that my parents don't have much time left either. (My paternal grandfather is buried somewhere in the northern fringes of Busan, but he was so hated that my grandmother specifically asked to be buried as far away from him as possible, and that neither my father nor his siblings even remember where exactly he is buried, much less visit the grave.)