The year of 1995 was no doubt a memorable one for Ma Xiaochun 9-dan, who became the first Chinese player to win a world championship -- and he did it twice in the same year. First he won the Tongyang Securities Cup in Korea, then he came out on the top again in the Fujitsu Cup in Japan. The victories promoted him to the No. 1 spot in the world for the year 1995.
A couple of weeks ago, a Chinese article on Ma Xiaochun impressions (written after he won the Tongyang Securities Cup) was posted on rec.games.go. I took the pleasure to translate the text to English so that the English reading friends in the newsgroup can have a chance to look closer at this peaking double world champion. I'd like also take the opportunity to wish all my go friends a peaceful and prosperous year in 1996.
P.S. More than a dozen world-class go players' names appeared in the article, besides the two main characters, Ma Xiaochun and Nie Weiping. I listed them together at the end of the translation. I do not guarantee 100% accuracy of each note, as they are just for casual reference. Anyone is welcome to say more about these players. Thank you.
Ma Xiaochun is usually like air, floating, flowing, and hard to catch. He walks lightly and fast, like leaves carried by wind. He talks slowly and subtly, with clever words carefully selected. To interview him is a difficult assignment. Even after he captured the world championship, there were still very few reporters who were able to engage him in substantial conversations.
His answers make your questions stupid. His trace is somewhat mysterious. Players are playing or replaying in the study room, and he glances from a a few steps away. When you turn to glance in his direction, however, he is already gone. His style on the board gives people the same feeling. Some say it's light, some say it's airy, and some say it's ghosty! Yang Hui (3) would comment on a move of his, "Whoa, such a ghosty move!" While Liu Xiaoguang (4) would shake his head after losing to Ma, "How can a man beat a ghost?"
But Ma Xiaochun is also a tornado. He wraps you, swallows you, and throws you into the sky. You can solidly feel his existence and his power. Nowadays, no matter who, meeting him in a match is bad luck.
After beating Cho Hunhyun (5) in a three-game series [for the victory in one of the semi-finals of the 1995 Tongyang Securities Cup in Korea], Ma Xiaochun gained the feeling of at the top of mountains.
People were speculating the upcoming final matches between Ma and Nie. Some say whenever Nie met Ma, Nie would make less uncharacteristic moves, while Ma would show more weakness than usual. It was told that a physiognomist in Shanghai looked at the two and concluded that Nie had more king looking and was thus the favorite to win. Nie was born in a Year of Dragon, and so was Ma. I therefore said to my colleagues that they were "two dragons going after the pearl" and everything remained unpredictable. Ma and Nie had had over a decade of rivalry, and their records were about even. The balance sometimes leaned to one side, sometimes the other. Ma fully understood that these final matches of Tongyang Securities Cup staged a "battle of Waterloo"; whoever wins it would take the world. Coming up short twice, Nie had won two second-places in world championships. He would not let another golden opportunity slip away from his finger tips. Age wise, Nie did not have many years remaining, and this battle became especially crucial. Nie also valued heavily on who is the No. 1 in the world. Last year for the first time he was listed behind Ma in the national top-ten voting. He did not buy it at all, saying, "The fans are outsiders, but how could the experts not understand either?" Lo and behold, he defeated Ma in the Nie-Ma seven-game series, defending the crown he had held for years. Under special conditions, Nie could explode with an irresistible power.
Interestingly, the five-game Tongyang Securities Cup final matches overlapped with the five-game Tianyuan matches [Tengen in China, also between Nie and Ma], together a ten-game series. It was difficult to decide which one to emphasize. Ma told a reporter, "I will try to win as many games as I can, otherwise God would punish me." But later when he chatted with me, he said, "Maybe I shouldn't win all of them, otherwise God would punish me." It was obvious that his mind was in a complicated state.
A company cheering for Nie held a small ceremony, during which each of them received a bottle of "Louis 13" [an imported alcohol]. I was present on that day, but only later I learned that Ma had seen good luck in this bottle of "Louis 13." Nie normally only drank white alcohols, seldom imported, while Ma, on the other hand, liked foreign alcohols only. Wasn't this bottle, therefore, a good sign? His mind had deeply sunk into the Nie-Ma battle.
The first game of Nie-Ma Tianyuan matches was held on April 13, in the special playing room of Chinese Go Association. Specially decorated with ancient taste, the room was crowded with a few other observers. The match thus did not look particularly serious, but it was the prelude of a magnificent symphony. Nie lost the game.
During the replay, Nie looked relaxed, joking around with other players. A shade of mystery crept into the matches.
"He did not play hard at all -- the sly old fox," returning to the dorm, Ma said to me. "He only spent 80 percent of his full strength."
Surprised, I turned to ask him, "Then how much did you spend?"
"60 percent." He sounded even more sly.
The next day they were heading to Seoul for the first two of the Tongyong Securities Cup final matches. I asked for his predictions. He said, "One apiece, I guess. If I am asked to sign for a result of 1 to 1, I would sign it right now."
"Why?" I asked. He said, "If I were to win both, there would be no way to watch the rest of the matches."
I was shocked by such a boast. He sounded as if the outcome had been totally controlled in his hands! His planning was actually deeper than that. It was impossible to lose all, but it was also difficult to win all. The key was that he was confident enough to "give up" a game. He understood Nie too well. A 2-0 score would push Nie against the wall, and who could imagine what kind of force Nie would then erupt? By losing a game, on the other hand, it would be possible to hang some pressure in Nie's mind. The author of the book, "Go and the 36 Strategies", Ma began to apply one of the strategies.
With a meaningful smile, he was gone in a cab.
Like Nie Weiping, Ma Xiaochun is extremely confident. When he wrote "Go and the 36 Strategies", for example, he said, "Only I could write a book of this type. What's so interesting about other go books? Any go player can write one." For another example, I wrote three years ago that Rui Naiwei (8) won a game from him. He was utterly angered, "I never lost to her!" But how could I remember wrong? Rui was so happy about the win that she cried in the room, and I was with the team at the time. Later I asked him to confirm, he smiled, "Now I remember. Well, that was not really a formal match, so I wasn't with my mind."
His confidence also showed in the fact that he was never hard on himself. A couple of years ago, people commented that he was "an insider [winner] for games inside [domestic], and an outsider [loser] for games outside [international]." He argued, "Isn't just that I lost three 0-2's [annual Mingren-Meijin duel matches] to Kobayashi Koichi (9)? But do not forget that I stopped his five-game winning streak in the [China-Japan] Supergo. Kobayashi being stronger than me was a historical result, but history has also given me the advantage of age. Sooner or later this will show!"
Some said that his desire for victory was not strong enough. He replied with a sneer, "Playing go is no melee. Fighting without knowing when to give up is hopeless."
Some others said that he didn't work hard enough, playing too much music and games. He counterattacked, "People knowing only one road to Rome have no merit to give advices."
He's not just confident; he's also superstitious. The dates of matches and the number of hotel rooms are all God's hints to him. He invented a whole set of theories of omens, such as "single-[numbered-]year is lucky, but double-year is unlucky" and "a losing streak would follow a winning streak." The [Communist] party head for the Chinese Go Association, Mr. Nian, often led teams to international tournaments in which the players suffered losses. To Ma, "party head" is the same as "losing games." [In Chinese, the word for "party head" is "shu ji," while the word for "losing games" is "shu qi;" the two words sound similar. :-)] Once Ma went a few minutes late for a game on purpose, in the hope to avoid Mr. Nian. To his surprise, Mr. Nian was waiting for him at the door and greeted him, "Good luck for the game!" Ma thought, oh shoot, bad luck! And it was indeed so.
On the way to the semi-finals of Tongyang Securities Cup, the team leader was Mr. Luo. Ma requested a change of the team leader on the ground that teams led by Mr. Luo often lost in international matches. It was actually no longer valid after Cao Dayuan (10) winning in Shanghai, but Ma still insisted so. After beating Cho Hunhyun in Seoul, he couldn't hold such a belief anymore. Some players shouted, "Justice for Mr. Luo!" Some other shouted, "Justice for Mr. Nian!"
Among these jokes, his student Luo Xihe (11) revealed the key, "He was just looking for some spiritual support."
Ma is a believer in tactics. Tactics have helped him, but tactics have also got him before. During the seven-game serise against Nie, the score was tied 3-3. Ma was then tricked terribly in the seventh game. Midway through the game, a relaxed Nie was happily smoking and drinking water. Ma thought, Nie must be leading! But the actual leader was Ma himself. He overplayed the rest of the way, ending up losing the game. When the referee announced a half-point loss for Ma, he was stunned in silence.
More than a decade ago on a train from Hangzhou to Hefei [both cities locate in eastern China], people were telling Chen Zude (12), "There is an incredible kid here." Chen played the boy a handicapped game. When he played, the boy's eyes looked upward, circling around. His play showed a profound understanding of the game. Chen later wrote to Zhejiang [Ma's home province] Sports Committee, "Don't forget to raise Ma Xiaochun."
About the same time, Fujisawa Shuko (13) was also deeply impressed by Ma's talent. He wrote a special article to introduce him to the Japanese go world. But when the two met in the first Ing Cup [in 1989], it took Shuko the old man only a few dozens of moves to settle the game. Shuko commented after the game, "Ma doesn't work hard enough, and he doesn't improve fast."
Chen Zude had the same feeling. He later told me, "I have been disappointed by him. If he again fails to win a championship this time, he deserves a spank on the butt."
The first two games of the five-game series [Tongyang final matches] indeed turned out a draw. In the first game played on April 17, Ma held black and won by resignation. According to his comments after the game, "I would not want to win quickly." He therefore played patiently, waiting for Nie to make mistakes in the second half of the game. And he got what he waited for. The problem was the second game played on April 18, in which he held white. Under a favorable situation, he made an incomprehensible move that turned the game sharply. Upon receiving the moves, the players in the Chinese Go Association commented that they "could not understand" Ma's play anymore.
After they returned from Seoul, some said to Ma, "It was a pity to lose the second game." I asked him if it was a "planned loss." He said, "Losing is not necessarily bad, and winning is not necessarily good." Go figure.
He was frequently on trips those days, at a time in his life to face the busiest playing schedule. In Shanghai, he finally defeated Nie by 3-1, claiming the Tianyuan title. Again in Shanghai, he outdueled the new Tengen from Japan, Ryu Shikun (14), by a score of 2-0 in the Tianyuan-Tengen matches. Ma's confidence was growing with the battles.
During his Tianyuan matches against Nie, he learned on the phone from a friend in Beijing that folks were betting on the matches. He advised, "Go ahead and bet -- bet on me."
"Are you so sure? Well I will just bet on Nie instead." said the friend.
"Then you will lose money for sure."
Ryu Shikun, on the other hand, was a rising star in Japan after beating Rin Kaiho (15) 2-0 to take the Tengen crown. But Ma said, "He is still a baby."
In the first game, Ma delivered a tremendous 50-point exchange on the board to take the game, shocking almost everyone. Ma had been known of his delicacy on the board, and to conduct an exchange of this size required no ordinary spirit. An expert commented, "Ma has changed his style. This game could well be a milestone."
The next day was a schedule break, and the Japanese players originally planned to go to Suzhou [a famous sightseeing city near Shanghai], departing at six o'clock in the morning. Ryu Shikun, however, became undecided the previous night. Losing the game, his relaxing mood was gone with the wind. The Japanese team leader had to decide to cancel the trip. When Ma entered the cafeteria for breakfast, he saw Ryu eating. He wondered, "How come you didn't go to Suzhou?"
Some told him of the cancelation of the trip. He said, "He still has chances to go." Seeing others confused, he added, "After he loses again tomorrow, he will have another day [for the trip] after that." He did not plan any wins for his opponent.
The second night after he returned from Seoul with the world championship trophy, Ma Xiaochun invited his family and friends to a feast at a Beijing restaurant. Holding a glass of "Louis 13", he spoke to the guests, "This glass is for Mr. Kobayashi Koichi. If it was not for him, I wouldn't have played till today."
Kobayashi was his most hated enemy, and Kobayashi was his most thanked friend.
One day at the end of 1991, the fourth China-Japan Mingren-Meijin duel matches were held in a hotel in Beijing. I went to see the games. Ma once again lost the matches with the same old score of 0-2. Sadness, perhaps even horror, covered the faces of the Chinese players who were observing. When it was time for replay, we entered the playing room. Sitting noble and straight, Kobayashi Koichi pointed at a few moves on the board before he got up and left in the style of a king. Facing the board, a stunned Ma seemed to have lost his senses.
Many fans had bought tickets to come to watch the game in the hotel. Two of them stopped Ma at the front door on his way out. "Couldn't you just win once -- or even just one game?!" said one of them.
"You just have to tell us clearly today," said another, "Are you capable of teaching Kobayashi a lesson? Is it problem with money? If I pay you 100,000 yuan, would you go ahead and win once?"
Speechless, Ma escaped from the fans and got onto a shuttle bus. Hua Yigang, one of the team leaders, stopped the two fans and said, "He's feeling more terribly than you!" On the shuttle bus, Ma hid his head under his clothes...A chilly scene.
Kobayashi Koichi, the thron in the eye to the Chinese players, was a go machine with the label "Made in Japan," nearly faultless. Regarding to Mingren-Meijin matches, he claimed, "If the Chinese player wins one game, I would accept the defeat [of the whole matches]." Nie Weiping had the record of defeating Kobayashi, so some people wrote to the Chinese Go Association and to Ma, asking him to yield the match seat to Nie. Chen Zude received the letter and tore it to pieces. Ma treated the letter insane and also threw it in the wastebasket. This was where Ma was special; he could overcome any frustration and humiliation. "I earned the match seat. If someone could not pass me, not much chance to face Kobayashi either." he said.
It was said that Ma would remain speechless a week after losing. Some players would lose themselves after losing games, but not Ma Xiaochun. He could always find a way out, keeping himself up. Facing Kobayashi, from losing by two points, to losing by one point, then to losing by half a point, he saw lights. The sparkles came from hits, and one morning, Ma's first thought after waking up was, he had found a way to beat Kobayashi!
December 18, 1992, in Tokyo, Ma Xiaochun charged through the thick wall, forcing Kobayashi Koichi to sign the defeat letter with a long awaited score of 2-1. The sky suddenly brightened.
Ma Xiaochun and Nie Weiping had known each other very well, but in a sense, Ma knew Nie more deeply. It was like a student knowing his teacher better than a teacher knowing one of his students.
Ma noticed that Nie often had trouble against Cho Hunhyun, so he studied the games record of Cho. (Previously against Cho, he had successfully learned from the play of Lee Changho (16).) He also found that Nie was not at his best handling invading stones -- unable to swallow, nor was he able to get rid of them. Nie often made muddle-headed moves later in the game, and based on Ma's understanding, a player's best ages are between 28 and 35, while Nie had passed the period -- muddle-headed moves was another way of saying declining strength. With these study results, Ma couldn't feel better to go to Seoul with Nie.
On May 22, Ma played black in the third game and won by resignation.
On May 24, Ma was victorious again with a 6 1/2-point margin in the final game to win the championship.
According to Chen Zude's saying, "He prepared too well against Nie." Especially the second game [actually the fourth and the final game], which was played out almost the same way as the first game of Tianyuan matches [in which Ma also defeated Nie]. Ma started out gaining plenty of territory, then lightly landed a move over Nie's big moyo. Nie could not plan a good counter attack, and he looked tired. Although he was still ambitiously moving forward his stones, and although he was able to gain the upper hand in the first halves of both games, mistakes were proven costly in both second halves. Approaching the endgame of the second game, Rin Kaiho and Wu Songsheng (17) calculated that if both sides played out the best sequence, Nie would post a close win. But he missed the opportunity. For both games, he said, "The loss was too strange."
Some had said, in the past Nie-Ma matches, whenever Nie let Ma taste some sweets, blind spots would surface in Ma's play. It was totally different this time.
Ma later said, "I knew I would make the world champion, but I did not expect to be the first [Chinese player to do so]."
The night after the final game, a friend called Nie from home, "Will you quit playing from now on?" Nie said, "No! Not only I will continue to play, I still have chances to win the world championship!"
A Korean reporter asked Ma, "Who will be your biggest opponent next?"
"Myself," replied Ma. Thinking closely, it was an answer too proud, yet very clever.
[Originally published on New Sports magazine, China, July 1995]
Notes on go players:
The author Li Chao can be reached via: firstname.lastname@example.org