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Lee HongReal

Episode 2: Cho HoonHyun Returns


He was 47 years old. This was older than when Sakata forever lost his throne to Rin Kaiho, Cho Chikun to Wang Licheng, and Kobayashi to Yamashita. At this "supposed-to-be" anticlimactic stage of one's career, Cho HoonHyun serenely added yet another world championship to his illustrious career by winning the Fujitsu Cup in 2000. Cho accomplished this feat in a competition that featured the world's best including the formidable Lee Chang Ho 9 dan.

In 2001, despite having pulled the "miracle" a year before, people thought this old soldier's time was up. Cho disagreed. Cho went on to claim the prestigious Kuksu title and swept in three more international majors in the Fujitsu, Samsung, and TV Asia Championships. It was a rebellion against time. No Baduk player had ever come back this strong this late in his career.

Cho HoonHyun

Cho HoonHyun

Cho HoonHyun's booty list is filled with sheer ridiculousness. His total tournaments won surpass 155. He is the youngest qualifier ever to become a pro at age 9. He has collected more than 1300 wins in his career. He had defended a single title (the PaeWang) for 16 straight years, easily a world record. He is the only player ever to capture every domestic and international title at least once.

In the late summer of 2001, Cho endured a grueling six match stretch in less than 10 days. The result earned him the ticket to the final title match of the Wangwi tournament. At this highly-anticipated opening game, however, Cho was nowhere to be found. The reason for his AWOL was rather simple; he was just too tired to play. Even Cho was human. He had finally begun to succumb to the weight of time.

The forfeiture of a very important title game was also reflective of Cho's changing attitude towards Baduk at this late phase of his career. Cho realized that he could no longer take the punishment he routinely took in his earlier years. He had to sacrifice and concentrate his energy into matches selectively and strategically. Turning 50, this might as well be an inevitable move. But all the realization and strategic maneuvering of matches would be useless without his natural Baduk prowess that can effectively withstand the test of time as well as against diminishing physical capabilities. This powerful yet extraordinarily resilient Baduk mind was evident from the very beginning.

Cho first learned Baduk from watching his father play at age four. At five, his ability to memorize games was utterly unheard-of, which prompted his parents to take him to Seoul for serious training. Progressing at an absurd rate, he passed the notoriously difficult professional admissions test as a mere 9-year-old, which stands to this day as a world record. A Japanese businessman visiting Seoul at that time took a glance of this phenom and was very much interested in his potential. He carried the news to the Japanese Go Association, which in return sent Cho an invitation to study abroad. In 1963, the young Cho HoonHyun sailed east.

Three years later, Cho passed the Japanese Go admissions test to become a professional player in Japan, also. (Cho is the only player ever to hold certificates from two different major Baduk Associations.) While in Japan, Cho was a student under Segoe Kensaku 9 dan. After producing the legendary Wu Ching-Yuan and another powerhouse in Hashimoto Utaro, Segoe was about to raise a third genius with the brightest Baduk mind ever to come to the Baduk scene in more than a century.

An interesting story to note is that when he came to Japan, Cho was in fact supposed to enter the Kitani Minoru school, the most renowned training ground of Go at that time which would go on to produce such greats as Otake Hideo, Kobayashi Koich, and Cho Chikun 9 dans. But Kitani's rival Segoe had snatched Cho away from Kitani's reach swiftly after witnessing Cho's game in person. Kitani and his students were steadily increasing their influence over the Japanese Go scene and the next big project for them was Cho. Segoe, in fact, had ceased officially accepting students due to his old age many years ago. Thus, this was a strange act by semi-retired Segoe to steal a promising insei away from a fellow master. That irritated Kitani. For a long time, Kitani and Segoe maintained a chilly relationship because of this very incident.

While under the tutelage of Segoe, Cho still found enough practice opportunity against talented pupils from the Kitani school. This was when Cho was introduced to Fujisawa Shuko 9 dan, a Meijin and a Japanese powerhouse who instantly became Cho's practical coach, mentor, and friend. Fujisawa loved Cho's talent more than anything else in the world. Fujisawa taught and treated Cho as his most prized student. After Cho returned to Korea in order to fulfill his mandatory military service and then permanently settling there, Fujisawa, missing Cho, often flew to Seoul unannounced and armed with nothing but a visa and a bottle of sake. Even today when Cho is in Japan he makes it a priority to visit two people; Segoe's widow and the Fujisawa sensei.

Unable to dodge the mandatory military service required for most Korean males, Cho wasted two and a half years sweeping barracks and polishing fighter planes. (This long gap of time is usually fatal to young players but it hardly affected Cho, which again attests to his natural genius.) When he returned to the Korean Baduk scene, he was met with formidable challenge. Only in 1974 was he able to win his first title against the incumbent Kim In 7 dan (at the time) in the Choigowi tournament. But three months later, he was humbled by a surprising darkhouse named Seo BongSoo. Who would have thought this match was the prelude to the 20-year-war between these soon-to-be archrivals?

Cho began his quest to unify the Korean Baduk world under his feet, which he accomplished three different times by winning all domestic titles there. During this absolute dominance of a performance, Seo presented the only resisting force that kept Cho from accomplishing more. As of 2001, these two heroes have fought 354 times, 238 of which were claimed by Cho. Still, it was the best record anybody held against Cho during that period. Not many people knew then this Cho-Seo War would lay the cornerstone for the rise of Korean Baduk in the world for many more years to come.

If Seo BongSoo was always the biggest obstacle in Cho HoonHyun's career, the biggest measuring stick was Cho Chikun in Japan. From the get-go Chikun was always a step ahead of HoonHyun. Chikun, being three years younger than HoonHyun, flew to Japan in 1962, 14 months earlier than HoonHyun's departure, and became a pro in Japan as their youngest qualifier ever (11 years, 10 months). Before the highly anticipated rivalry between these two geniuses ever materialized, however, HoonHyun returned to Korea and Chikun remained in Japan. To HoonHyun, Japan was where he spent most of his youth studying and dreaming of becoming a star. Even after HoonHyun became the indisputable champion of Korean Baduk, he saw Chikun's success from the distance and felt strange jealousy and annoyance.

In 1980, the newly crowned Meijin Cho Chikun returned to Korea to receive the medal of honor for cultural excellence from the nation's president for his accomplishment in Japan. Chikun also agreed to play two matches with HoonHyun, Korea's finest, to commemorate their historic rendezvous as the representatives of two Baduk and Go powerhouses. HoonHyun lost both games. After that the two did not meet for a long time. During that period, HoonHyun's wound and inferiority complex remained deep. Despite being number one in Korea, HoonHyun had fallen forever behind the more polished, more popular, and more mythical Chikun and HoonHyun had seemingly no way of ever catching up with him.

With the flourish of international tournaments in the late 1980s, Cho finally got his chance in 1991. HoonHyun ran into Chikun in a preliminary of a major international tournament, and against popular prediction, he beat him. A year later in a similar setting, HoonHyun dominated Chikun again, which brought HoonHyun a completely new attitude in the rivalry. After 1992 HoonHyun and Chikun met five more times and HoonHyun has beaten him in all. Nobody considers HoonHyun inferior to Chikun any longer. The self-confident HoonHyun went on to win the inaugural Ing World Championship against Nie Weiping 9 dan of China and would add mind-boggling ten more international majors to his memorable career. The only man ever to win all international majors, Cho HoonHyun had successfully overcome Cho Chikun as the best player of his era, even though it had to take the form of a 10-year detour.

The biggest irony, however, is that this competitor of awesome talent and tenacity fell to none other than his own pupil, Lee Chang Ho 9 dan. Raising arguably the greatest player of the modern era was a tremendous accomplishment, yet losing to him while in his prime was cruelty at its worst. Lee was Cho's one and only student who lived and studied with Cho all throughout his younger years. This relationship coupled with Lee's success which came "ten years too early," created a very strange situation for all who was involved. Cho's wife once wrote to a woman's magazine looking back upon the experience many years later, "? when there was a match between the two there was a tremendous tension in the house? I drove them to the match in the morning, and then brought tem home for dinner at night. It was a mixed emotion. I was raising a lovely boy who was wounding my own husband and I didn't know how to explain or justify the situation? One morning after midnight I heard Chang Ho in his room still awake and studying so very hard? That sound of stones hitting the board was the weapon that was going to be used to destroy my husband. I don't know how many nights I stayed up unable to fall asleep after that realization?"

When Cho HoonHyun finally relinquished all his titles to Lee ChangHo, Cho decided to do the unthinkable; he quit smoking, he started climbing mountains, and he, for the first time, taught himself to accept defeats. When he was supposed to "retire," this was how he "came back." The once proud yet battered veteran learned to empty his mind. This mentality and his natural Baduk genius together helped create a player of great resiliency that could somehow withstand the weight of age and time.

Cho throughout the years has developed a habit of saying modest things like, "I gave up playing a long time ago," "I got lucky, as you all know," and "ChangHo let one slip for his old teacher." Those comments however do not reflect Cho's skills that have diminished. Just because he stopped playing to satisfy his desire to win, it doesn't mean he stopped playing the game the only way he knows how to play it; crush the opponent to the last piece. He is still the "God of War" that he is, and is always feared.

The finals of the 6th Samsung World Championship in 2001 is a great example of his unrelenting commitment to the game. Against Nie Weiping's 25-year-old protégé Chang Hao, along with the home field advantage set in his hometown of Shanghai, few experts gave Cho a viable chance. Especially after losing the first match by 0.5, it appeared as if the time for Cho's retirement had finally come. Against the odds, Cho got up and pulled the series even by winning the second match in a dramatic fashion, 0.5. It was a grand display of undiminished skills from a "washed-up veteran." Two days later, it was Chang Hao who was knocked out of the series.

Cho's career is far from over. Otake Hideo won his last world championship at 50 years and 3 months, which remains as the world record. Cho intends to break it. After that, he wouldn't mind becoming the world's best once again. For the "genius of the century" who also defies time, I just could not bet against him.

Author: Lee HongReal
Mr. Lee is one of the most respected Baduk journalists in Korea who is also a 5-dan amateur. Lee currently writes columns for the Chosun Ilbo, Baduk TV, and the LG World Championship, among others. He is a graduate of Yonsei University and holds a masters degree in Korean Literature from Hanyang University School of Journalism.

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