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The Old Master

On a winter evening in the early forties, all the top go players of Korea gathered in the guest room of Lord Cho's compound to celebrate a visit by the Japanese professional go player, Kitani Minoru 8 dan, a master of the eighth rank. Although it was just a friendly visit, as the games preceded, the air in the rooms grew thick with the rivalry that had existed between the two countries for thousands of years. As thick as the air being constantly polluted by the incessant smoking of everyone old enough to puff.

But it didn't take long before any feeling of rivalry turned into one of embarassment, for they were one-sided contests, match after match. Even with two-stone handicaps, no Korean player could win a single game against the Japanese professional. This was quite understandable if one considers the history of how the game was treated in the two countries. In Japan, from about the 17th century on, the government had supported and developed professional go players and schools for go study. The Koreans had regarded go only as one of the leisurely games aristocrats enjoyed -- no effort toward developing or spreading the game outside the privileged classes had ever been attempted. It was, therefore, no wonder that the so-called top players of Korea were losing one after another, even in two-stone handicap games, against a top professional player whose country had been developing the game for centuries.

The Koreans in the room still unrealistically wanted to believe that at least one player could somehow manage a win against the Japanese master. But after the four top Koreans -- Ro, Yoon, Min, and Chae -- had each lost their share of games, nobody from the Korean side volunteered for the next game. As Lord Cho, the host, asked around the room, "Who would like to have the next game?" he was met with dead silence. Maybe they all had enough of this tonight. Well, what now? Should they have the wine and girls brought out? It was rather too early for that. Lord Cho felt somewhat bewildered. Then, as the silence was becoming another embarassment for the Koreans, a low but decisive voice rang out from the corner.

"Sir, may I have the honor of the next match?"

Byung-Wook Kwon: Master Kwon was a well known go player in Korea. Today, however, he was present not as a go player but as a journalist. In his younger days he had been considered as one of the best players in the country after a few famous matches with Master Ro, the top player of the era. But at sixty-five now, he was not actively playing serious games. He just wrote his go column in a daily newspaper, and was only here to write for the paper about the Japanese professional's visit to Lord Cho's house.

But he could not just sit and write about this cowardly silence! Yes, it was just cowardly not wanting to play for fear of losing. Why, if one tried, really tried, one should be able to beat this Japanese player. Not playing would not get a win. In this game of go, impossibilities could be overcome if one had enough dedication and discipline.

Master Kwon could not contain his competitive spirit, the same spirit that had won him many games against seemingly tougher opponents in his younger years.

Lord Cho, the host, welcomed the old master's brave offer to save the evening. But not one hundred percent. As the host he of course wanted the evening saved, but as a Korean he felt sick at the prospect of yet another certain defeat.

Lord Cho pondered a moment, then voiced a difficult request, almost apologetically.

"As two-stone handicap games have been too one-sided, would it be possible for Master Kwon to play this game with a three-stone handicap?"

A trace of desperation could be heard in his voice. He must have wanted a win of any kind by this time. But such a request was way out of line. Honor and pride were what these players valued more than anything else. A three-stone handicap was a teaching game, not a friendship match between the top players of two countries!

And what if Kwon lost even on three? He would never be able to call himself a master again. And the possible humiliation! Lord Cho had overdone it this time.

But it was Lord Cho, one of the most powerful men in the country. Nobody dared to voice a negative opinion of his suggestion.

Now it was up to Kwon whether to accept or to reject the offer. Everyone's eyes turned to Kwon. Eyes closed, Kown slowly began to speak, "As all of you here know, to play a three-stone handicap game would be inappropriate, for it would appear more as a teaching game than as an international friendship match. I, however, cannot turn down Lord Cho's request, for I have been one of the grateful recipients of his generous support and kindness both materially and spiritually...

Yes -- I will play this game as suggested. But I will also show you all how inappropriate the handicap is by winning the game surely and convincingly." The game thus duly started.

Kwon spent hardly any time on his moves. He played each move almost immediately after Kitani's stone touch the board. The sixty-five-year-old Kwon was truly belligerent and angry -- angry at the fact that he had to play this unreasonably assessed handicap game, angry at the Koreans who could not manage even a single victory against this Japanese player.

On the other hand, Kitani Minoru 8 dan played as professionally as expected, carefully spending time to come up with the most efficient move each turn. The game lasted over three hours, the Japanese player using most of the time.

A three-stone handicap game gave a considerable advantage to Kwon. As the game was nearing its end, Kwon's position was convincingly superior. But the Japanese master had not yet given up, and tried his best to close the gap inch by inch -- with some success.

It seemed, however, highly unlikely the game would turn around, for the gap was too wide to close at this late stage. Then it happened.

Overly confident, Kwon carelessly ignored a threat Kitani used in a rather insignificant ko fight. Ko, a Buddhist word meaning eternity, is a kind of fight in which each side must play an intervening move before continuing the fight, or the board position would endlessly repeat. It requires the ko fighter to play a "threatening" move to induce a response before returning to the ko. The ignored threat, in this case, brought about the death of one of Kwon's large groups. How could the master make such a mistake? None in the room could believe his eyes. The game was now decided: maybe unfairly, but surely.

The old master kept his eyes pinned on the lower right corner where his dead group lay, hoping to find some miraculous move to bring it back to life. There was no such move to be found.

After a few minutes of silence, he resigned. Formalities such as cleaning the stones off the board and exchanging post-match bows followed mechanically. He stood up slowly and left Lord Cho's compound alone.

Upon arriving home, he collapsed at the doorstep. The anger, betrayal, frustration, humiliation, and regrets whirling inside his head were too much for the body of a sixty-five-year-old man. From that day on he stayed in bed. He could never regain his strength.

Three months later the old master quietly passed away, his heart filled with every sorry emotion.

next chapter: The Hustler

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