Just before Catalin defeated a Rumanian top player in The Romanian Cup of 1990 as a 4-kyu, he had been playing an international tournament. This was in Prague the same year. He tells what things were like at the time in Rumania, the country once known under the name of Dacia and constituting a province of the great Roman Empire.
At the time it was a golden age for the Rumanian go federation, because we were always assigned a sizeable amount by the government. This grant was among other things used to sponsor players and have them play in tournaments. Originally I was meant to participate in the youth world championship in Prague, but I discovered on the spot that I was already too old for that. I was still seventeen all right, but my eighteenth birthday was before the date the tournament was going to be held. Tough! I comforted myself by playing the regular tournament and did not bad in it, 4 out of 5 I believe, but it may also have been 5 out of 6.
After that it was the Romanian Cup, after which (at last) I was promoted to 1-dan immediately. Promotions come a little faster now, but then they were quite slow. The Ing Cup tournament in Amsterdam, held in March of 1991, was my first tournament 'really' out of the country, out of Eastern Europe. It was in a period of revolutions and great changes in all kinds of respects, not only on the map of Europe. The stable support the Rumanian go world had enjoyed, threatened to disappear, and to top it all off the secretary and great support of the federation, Georgi Stihi, stepped down. He was the one who made things actually happen, and without him chaos threatened. Entering the West with Eastern European currency is not much of an option, and it looked like nobody cared any more whether participation of Rumanian talent in tournaments out of the country was still sponsored. I then first accosted Stihi myself. Unfortunately he was so frustrated with certain people in our little go circle, that in spite of a few promises nothing happened. There was nothing else to do but try with the bureau that was occupied with federations and mind sports. I don't exactly know who it was I met, but I think it was even a secretary of state, someone who had been a very famous handball player once. I arranged that a few phone calls were made and soon after everything was settled. Though it was a pity all formalities took some extra time and I ended up missing the first round, which brought me a loss by default.
The go circle in Rumania and the adjoining countries was an almost ideal surrounding to become stronger. Most people knew each other, and because usually the government arranged accommodation for the participants, at night we also were together to play go and to study. It was an extremely pleasant surrounding, that fitted very well with my go madness. In Amsterdam this was quite different; I knew nobody and didn't feel at home; I clearly didn't belong there. All the same I jumped at the chance to compare strengths with others in the West. I always got along fine with my math friends or my Rumanian go acquaintances, but basically I was (and am) a bit shy and don't start a chat with a total stranger that easily. One time Guo walked over to me and started a conversation and was very friendly, but I just stood there. After all I was fairly isolated in Amsterdam, and although staying over I still enjoyed the Amsterdam hospitality, I didn't really make new friends, that was only later.
Catalin didn't play very well in the third Ing Cup, he ended sixteenth, but he did beat Ralph Spiegl (5-dan, Austria) and Rudi Verhagen (then still 4-dan). Not at all bad for a recently promoted 4-dan, especially considering Catalin only played the game for less than two years. What can you do but jealously shake your head and once more take a book of life-and-death problems from the dustiest shelf and open it?
To rub it in once more, a quote from one of Catalin's Rumanian go friends, Radu Baciu: 'We once were a small group of Rumanian go players at the Belgrade Grand Prix tournament. Among us, we were all of 4- to 5-dan strength and we also had a freshly promoted 1-dan named Catalin Taranu. He achieved the best result by just winning the tournament. In Rumania we didn't trifle at all with promoting people at the time. That's why his convincing result only brought him a 2-dan diploma. There was nobody in our group who doubted that Catalin was a go prodigy. All we wondered about was how much he would accomplish and how long it would take him. By the time we were back in Bucharest, Catalin didn't allow any doubt about what things were like. Within a few months he was promoted to 3- and then to 4-dan. Catalin performed a feat nobody in Rumania had ever yet managed: steaming from kyu level to 4-dan within a year.'
I grew stronger by leaps and because at the time (early nineties) the strongest player in Rumania was a 4-dan, I often played among the top boards in tournaments. I remember well that Sorin Gherman was regarded as by far the strongest Rumanian player; he was the first to be promoted to 5-dan. When I played him as a 2-dan in his first tournament after the promotion, I creamed him up. But that shouldn't make you think I could win every game I played; most of the time I had reasonable results, but for example the two times I entered the Romanian Cup, I only scored 3 out of 6. I lost to Robert Mateescu, whom I had beaten only a year before. I also was no match for Mihai and Chattar. Weeks after those games I still met them in my dreams or remembered them suddenly in the daytime, far from a nice experience!
In 1991 Catalin left Vatra Dornei for Bucharest to study information theory. (Part I has wrongly that Catalin lived in Vatra Dornei till 1995.) Until then his parents hadn't paid much attention to their son's go fanaticism, but gradually they started to worry about Catalin's academic achievements. They had ample reason to do so. Catalin only grew more fanatical, with his mathematical interest for the first victim. After 1990 he played in every tournament he could get to and at university with Cristian Pop for a room mate it was also go that came first. There was a small go club there with a number of fanatical players. So Catalin spent his time excellently, albeit not at university.
When I had to double a year at university my parents didn't like it. They worried what should become of me. I must say though that both my father and my mother never asked me to give up go or tried to force me to do so. By the way, I also was the strongest chess player of my age in the vicinity of Vatra Dornei. I even played in a few tournaments and got reasonable results without any study of openings and the like. But my chess was never serious and once I started playing go it was over.
Saijo Sensei is a fairly well known figure in the international go world. This good-humoured 8-dan pro seems to be most content if he can tell about the game of go, is given a chance to teach beginners the rules, or can give advanced players a few pointers about shape and tesuji. Catalin met Saijo for the first time in Prague at the 1993 European championship. Catalin played here as a 5-dan and with 7 out of 10 earned sixth place. His results and opponents were, in that order:
All in all a convincing result. In Prague however a possible position as a candidate professional in Japan wasn't brought up yet. This only came about the year after in Maastricht. 'Saijo sensei has always been very nice, but he was certainly not a talent scout who picked out people that appealed to him. One moment I gathered my courage and accosted him to ask the direct question. His answer was a diplomatic: 'Hmm, that might be difficult, but I'll have a look.' So much for that approach.'
Though Catalin didn't play so strongly in Maastricht and had to settle for fourteenth place, he did well in a two stone handicap game against Saijo. He got the better of Saijo and at the same time could convince him of his dedication to go.
How well Catalin had succeeded in this appeared rapidly:
You can imagine what I felt like when shortly after Maastricht I got a message that I was welcome in Japan, and that Saijo had arranged a spot for me as an insei!