Taiwan Review

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Sports

Getting the Go-ahead

  • Byline:PAT GAO
  • Publication Date:07/01/2007
Getting the Go-ahead

Champion Chou Chun-hsun (second from right) and second prize winner Hu Yaoyu of China, at the 2007 LG Cup Go competition (Courtesy of Taiwan Chi-Yuan Culture Foundation)

With its first Go world champion, Taiwan has to work out how to nurture its budding talents in this most complex of games.

In March this year, 27-year-old Chou Chun-hsun defeated his Chinese rival by the narrowest possible margin in the third final game to win the top prize of about US$266,000 in the LG Cup Go competition held in Seoul. Two other Taiwan-born players had also won this championship--Wang Li-cheng in 1997 and Cho U in 2005. But, while they went to the game as Japanese players, Chou became the first-ever contestant competing as a Taiwanese national to win one of the most coveted titles in the strategy board game world. The world of professional Go is dominated by the East Asian countries of China, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, where professional leagues and competition systems for the game have been developed.

While China's players have been challenging South Korea's world leadership in recent years, Taiwan's top players have come close to rivaling their Japanese counterparts, according to Chou and Chen Kuo-hsin, secretary-general of the Taiwan Chi-Yuan Culture Foundation (TCCF). This organization was formed in 2000 and funded by Bob Wong, chairman of CMC Magnetics Corp., a leading manufacturer of optical storage products, to promote Taiwan's strength in professional Go. Out of around 50 professional Go players in Taiwan, Chou now ranks number one both in the number of games won and total prize winnings. Next month, the TCCF will hold its third international Go contest in the Taipei 101 building, the world's tallest. With a first prize of NT$2 million (US$60,000), the TCCF contest is now one of the major events of its kind.

Taiwan's professional Go system emerged in the early 1980s through the efforts of what is now the Chinese Taipei Go Association (CTGA). Led by Ing Chang-ki (1917-1997), a banker and entrepreneur who founded the first major international professional Go tournament in 1988 in Beijing, this association made the earliest efforts to promote the board game in Taiwan after some advanced or enthusiastic players like Ing himself came from China in the late 1940s when the Kuomintang regime fled the mainland. "In the past when there was no Internet or regular Go classrooms, players could just go to a few places where people of all walks of life smoked, drank and played board or card games," says Yang Yu-chia, secretary-general of the CTGA, where Chou started learning Go at the age of about seven.

One goal TCCF set at the time of its founding was to help produce a Taiwanese world champion in a decade. "And we achieved that goal in just seven years," Chen says proudly. Now Chou heads a TCCF research team for the exchange of strategic concepts and skills among its Go players. "Playing this game needs logical, pictorial thinking and a lot of patience," Chou says. "In addition to refining the skills, one must learn to play under a lot of pressure."

Game or Sport?

Since Chou became world champion, there have been calls for the transfer of the management of Go affairs from the central government's Council for Cultural Affairs to the National Council on Physical Fitness and Sports. Chen Kuo-hsin agrees with the Chinese and Korean model, which defines the board game as a sport. "It's a sport for the brain," he says. And indeed, just like any other regular sport, it demands considerable physical strength. As a Go contest usually takes seven to eight hours, "sometimes you feel that your brain lacks oxygen in the afternoon," Chou says. Since his introduction to the board game by his father, a Go enthusiast, he has been a habitual runner along the tracks on his school's sports ground--often covering more than 10,000 meters.

 Getting the Go-ahead-2

The Chinese Taipei Go Association offers classes for children. (Photo by Chang Su-ching)

Chen Kuo-hsin hopes to see Taiwanese Go players win in the Asian Games that will be held in 2010 in China's Guangzhou. Following chess, which entered the Doha Asian Games last year, the traditional Chinese board game will be played at the Guangzhou games for the first time. As for participation in the Olympic Games, Chen says South Korea is making a major effort to form an international Go organization that will negotiate with the International Olympic Committee on relevant matters.

One of the first things that such an organization would need to do would be to reach an agreement on a common name for the board game and a set of common rules. Currently, there are several slightly different sets of rules and the game's different names are used, though the Japanese name of Go has the highest recognition. "Japan is recognized as the most active promoter of this game," says Chen, who has attended some international discussions on this topic. "However, its origins and most of its history are in China, while its best competition players--at least in recent years--are South Korean." In Korea the game is called baduk, in Mandarin weiqi. Even writing about the game, at least in English can be complicated since the similarity of Japanese name Go to the English verb means that the game's name is generally capitalized despite its not being a proper name, but this convention is far from being universally adopted.

The origin of the game is lost in legend. One tale tells of its invention by a mythological Chinese king more than 4,000 years ago as a method of instruction for his son. Some historians think it was used as training in military strategy, while others think it originally had a divinatory purpose. In China's long cultural history, the board game was considered one of the four major subjects of intellectual pursuit throughout one's life, along with playing a musical instrument, calligraphy and ink painting. Today, Go is perhaps the oldest game in the world that is still played in its ancient, original form.

Computers Can't Compete

It is a game for two players, played on a grid of 19 horizontal and 19 vertical lines. The game is played with counters or small stones, usually white and black, which are placed on any of the 361 intersections of the gridlines. The aim is to claim territory by surrounding the pieces of one's opponent while placing one's own pieces in such a way as they mark off territory and cannot be captured. The rules are simple but the number of possible moves is astronomical. Some say that learning to play is somewhat like learning a language or a musical instrument. While computer programmers have written software that can outwit the best human players of international chess or its Chinese variety, the strongest Go software has yet to beat a player of even average competence. "The best software is about on a par with a kid who has been learning the game for a couple of years," Yang Yu-chia says. "Go skills have been widely recognized as one of the most exacting challenges for artificial intelligence." Future efforts by programmers to raise the standard of computer game-play could be an indicator of technological achievement, he says. "Go is much more than just calculation," Chou says. "A computer can hardly defeat the human brain unless it has its own capacity for thought."

 Getting the Go-ahead-3

The Taiwan Chi-Yuan Culture Foundation offers online services for playing games and broadcasting competitions. (Photo by Chang Su-ching)

When Chou was 11 years old, he went to China for advanced study. At that time, he had almost no equal among Taiwan's amateur players after several years of nearly full-time devotion to studying the game and joining competitions. Mocked since his early schooldays because of a birthmark that covered half of his face, Chou found solace in Go. He also adopted a traditional apprenticeship model of learning. Based on an agreement with his school, he dropped a part of the regular curriculum and spent a lot of time closely following Go masters in Taiwan and China. At the age of 14, he became Taiwan's youngest professional Go player after winning the requisite CTGA-awarded contest titles.

Immediately after Chou's career as a professional player began, he met with a slump by winning only about 10 percent of the more than 50 competitions he entered in his first year. "The Go game is just about itself and I'm not sure how its reasoning or theories could come close to philosophies of life," Chou says. "Yet I think that the process of taking a step backward to make a new breakthrough is perhaps a significant part in both playing the game and living one's life." In 1998 and 2000, he was recognized by both the CTGA and the TCCF as a professional player at the highest level in accordance with the nine-level system of Go competence evaluation.

In 2001, Chou represented Taiwan to compete in Japan's Fujitsu Cup, a major international Go tournament that picked players from American and European countries in addition to those from the four world Go powers. He beat one top player after another and went on to the semifinal together with Rin Kaiho, one of his tutors and a highest-level professional Japanese player who still maintains his Taiwanese citizenship. Since then, Chou has been one of the strongest presences on the international Go scene.

Nurturing Talent

Chou's latest world championship has fuelled discussion about restructuring the relevant management and educational systems in addition to the possible redefinition of Go as a sport. In 2003, Cho U's winning of Japan's prestigious Honinbo title helped win young Taiwanese Go talents the right to substitute study of the game in the TCCF for regular military service. "If a 20-year-old player spends one and a half years in the army," Chen Kuo-hsin says, "when he comes out he needs three times that time--more than four years--to regain his previous level of competence."

The Ministry of Education (MOE) is now considering revision to relevant regulations that will help more students with a greater range of special gifts, including Go skills, gain access to higher educational institutions. "The current programs for gifted young students focus on developing future athletes, scientists, musicians or dancers," says Luo Cing-shuei, an executive secretary in the MOE's Division of Special Education. "Currently, educational policy is shifting toward the recognition of subtler distinctions and more diverse abilities among students." He points out that the adoption of Go performance as a recruitment criterion by the Affiliated High School of National Chengchi University in Taipei can be a model for future policy development.

According to a survey carried out on behalf of the TCCF, Taiwanese people who have some knowledge or experience of Go rose 10-fold between 2000 and 2006. Among other things, game classes have emerged as a strong alternative to artistic, musical or sport courses in children's extracurricular learning. One major factor has been the popularity of a Japanese TV cartoon series, Hikaru no Go, about a boy who meets and learns from a Go master's spirit that resides in an ancient game board. "In the past, only universities had Go clubs," Chen Kuo-hsin says. "Now they've been formed at schools of all levels." He hopes that Go departments could also be established in Taiwan's universities--as in two universities in South Korea--to build a bank of talent, teaching and research. Yang Yu-chia points out that, for the time being, the best way to promote the game among the younger generation is the training of schoolteachers who can then offer classes for interested students.

More significantly, Chen hopes to see more support from the public and private sectors which, among other things, can organize and fund more competitions for professional players, whose cost of living is largely funded from appearance fees from each game they attend as well as possible cash prizes if they win. In amateur circles, Chou hopes that the government can help foster a consistent standard of competence evaluation, which can serve as a reliable link with and a sound basis for the professional system. "The government plays the leading role in Go development," he says. That way an entire Go sector, rather than just a single genius like Chou, could emerge to take on the game's other three world powers.

Write to Pat Gao at pat@mail.gio.gov.tw