In the last part of the Catalin Taranu story the chief protagonist mainly has the floor. Except for the first section on Japan I have hardly added any comments and the text is an fairly literal transcription of Catalin's words.
Catalin 'fresh 5-dan' Taranu, 10th of June 2002, Nagoya, Japan
For the sake of good order I present a timeline of Catalin Taranu go facts:
- March, born in the town of Gura in Rumania
- April, Catalin played his first game of go
- October, his first tournament, a perfect score as a 6-kyu
- September, as a 4-kyu beat his first 4-dan (!)
- to Bucharest for studies, playing with Christian Pop a lot
- with a score of 7 out of 10 obtained 6th place in EGC at Prague
- to Nagoya, Japan, at the invitation of Saijo 8p
- reached 1p, shortly after 2p, won 5th Fujitsu
- reached 3p, won 6th Fujitsu
- reached 4p, won 7th Fujitsu
- June, admission to the 'strong' pros by attaining professional 5-dan ranking
Living in Japan isn't easy. This is especially true when it involves a foreigner resident in the country of sumo wrestling and pachinko. One hears sometimes that Japan is a close society, and that it is very hard to penetrate. 'Either the person in question goes native, or he/she will never feel at ease amidst Japanese,' is a fairly generally accepted opinion.
Apart from the conventional wisdom above it often seems
Japan watchers stumble over one another to sell best
the same dubious but well sounding platitudes in a
taking (book) form. So a bit of an explanation of this
is called for.
Vice versa offering and accepting sometimes the rawest emotions is a custom current in many societies. Japan definitely does not belong to these. Morals do slacken a bit due to a rampant unemployment, but compared to inhabitants of other countries the Japanese are still strict and controlled. This doesn't affect foreigners very much because the impression the average Japanese has of countries overseas and their inhabitants comprises among other things a kind of unlimited freedom. This more or less licenses the 'gaijin' (foreigners) not to take much notice of social rules and agreements. As a rule the Japanese are very friendly towards foreigners, whether they know the language or not. For foreigners that want to feel a little more at ease, learning the language and acquiring the local customs form the first challenge.
The surprise in store for the serious student of Japanese after a couple of years of studying his head off is that even mastering the Japanese language well one gets nowhere fast with one's customary standards concerning the contents of a conversation!
a colorful gamut of emotions combined with revealing
personal secrets, which always works nicely to get to
know new people in the West, is utterly useless here.
So as a good gaijin with the best of intentions you
come away with a flea in your ear for a couple of times
and get looked at as if you come from Mars, before you
learn that in Japan 'doing something' together is the
social cement that builds and maintains friendships,
and that words and emotions can almost be dismissed as
The stranger who has succeeded in making Japan his/her home will the other way round have a very hard time moving about freely in a foreign society again, where you can laugh, cry, and say strange things in season and out of season. When Catalin came to Japan he knew neither the language nor social standards. Still he had quite an edge over the run-of-the-mill foreigner: he did have something he could do together with Japanese.
When I first came to Japan I was very proud of myself
and of my go achievements. I had that attitude of 'look,
I may come here to learn but really I already know
After my arrival I could join the insei league in Nagoya. Finishing first there over a year's period was the only way to be recognized as a professional. Saijo took very good care of me and I really owe him everything.
My attitude originally only made me unbelievably stupid.
Saturdays and Sundays I used to play my insei games
and I showed them to Saijo at home afterwards. I kept
talking all the time, I showed Saijo everything and told
him exactly what was the case and what I thought with
every move. Time and time again I was holding a post
mortem all by myself as if crying out: 'Look how strong
I am, see how clever!'
And there was Saijo on the other
side of the board, looking on patiently with every once
in a while a smile on his face. Sometimes also he made
a funny face or stared into nothingness a bit bored.
But he was always very, very patient with me and never
After a while it dawned upon me that it was a bit strange that I was using my games to tell Saijo what the game was all about while he never spoke. It still hurts when I recall the realization when I finally caught on to how unbelievably stupid I was carrying on.
So from that moment on I tried and restrained myself. I talked less and less and but for an incidental question I didn't speak much more. And, lo and behold, Saijo sensei started explaining and commenting more and more. Now the proper learning really started. I finally had access to his enormous knowledge of the game and realized once again how dumb I had been not to give him more room before. Nevertheless I couldn't restrain myself completely and every once in a while I fished for a compliment. When Saijo showed me something, I would say: 'Yes, yes, I've been thinking of that; I ended up not playing it but I have given it a lot of thought'. At which Saijo regularly answered: 'Very good, very good'. Although I think I didn't really deserve it he always was very friendly.
So little by little first my pride and then my conceit
went overboard. For you know, we have a lot of
superfluous pride, such a tremendous lot. I just said
that Saijo was friendly but in the first place this
really concerns didactic technique and not friendship.
It goes to show that Saijo is a first rate teacher.
What I mean is this. You can try to tell someone something in a manner like: 'You must do it this or that way', but this will almost inherently cause a reverse reaction. If as a teacher you try to force an idea upon the pupil chances are that this doesn't work and that the idea will be rejected. Then the teacher can of course try and face the pupil down and press home vigorously that he knows what he is talking about, but Saijo knows as no other that mostly the result is that both parties use up a lot of energy without making any progress. So he waited for me, abundantly clearly being of the opinion that the pupil must ask for knowledge of his own accord.
That Saijo dodged a direct teacher pupil confrontation is what helped me most on the road to being a pro, I think. It lasted about two months before I quieted down a little. Having a teacher like Saijo is really a must to climb the ladder. I understood from stories of foreign insei in Tokyo that a teacher doesn't have to be on such terms with the students. For that reason alone becoming a pro there seems to me to be very difficult.
Although my interest and training in mathematics
originally came in handy with learning go, I don't
think a mathematical approach is the key to top
level go. Like I said before, the right attitude is in
my opinion much more important. I don't exactly know
about intelligence and talent. Every once in a while
people compliment me that I must be very clever to be
such a good go player. Only that is not true at all.
Also, I don't really excel at other games; the only
one I play fairly well next to go is the computer game
of civilization. There are so many things you have to
take into account in this game and you have an enormous
liberty to make decisions; it is definitely a bit
similar to go. But all right, talent for playing go has
nothing to do with cleverness in daily life. Therefore
it is not my aim to become more clever but to improve my
attitude. This has already made considerable progress
but probably not enough yet.
I think it is more important to overcome your own weak points (=attitude) than of beating the strong points of your opponent. Confidence, of course, has a great deal to do with that. As long as before playing a game against a 9-dan I have the idea that I can't expect to win, losing seems to be almost the only option open. When I played a couple of games on the Internet Go Server against Yamashiro 9p we won the same number of games. But I only found out it was him the next day. If I had known before that my opponent was a strong 9-dan pro I probably wouldn't have been able to win a single game.
With confidence everybody can exploit his own strong points to get further as a go player. I don't know whether that will do you any good in daily life. I know a handful of pros that are a bit strange socially and that also reflects on the go board a little. But if you have a good look how strong they play they demonstrate a terrible force in a less conventional approach. I think there are many ways for a human being to make peace with yourself, being satisfied in a positive way with who you are and what you do. Some do yoga exercises or a religion, others play go. One time I got into conversation with Go Seigen he also spoke of religion a lot. I felt strongly that for him the game of go was closely related to religion.
It is funny that my technique hasn't really changed or
improved much in recent years. Digging into difficult
joseki or studying tesuji is not what made me grow
stronger. Today more than ever, by the way, joseki study
has come to be seen in an entirely different light. So
many breakthroughs have been made; and countless corner
patterns have been unsettled. The situation seems to
be that a lot of joseki books have become out of date.
One thing is for certain: so many complicated moves are
possible that it will take some time before clarity can
be brought about.
During my years in Japan I have experienced a kind of mental growth and that is of the utmost importance for climbing higher up. For that matter, it is in no way perfect; sometimes I have little control of myself in a game and lose in a very unprofessional way.
For the Fujitsu Cup in 2000 for instance I played against Florescu and I was properly taken in. After the opening my position was good, no, I thought it was even great. Thinking too much of this is a danger in itself, of course. Well, I thought I could easily wind up the game and didn't pay the proper attention for a moment. Florescu got a chance and he exploited it in a masterly fashion. For once the fighting gets on its way it is just like a struggle for life or death between two cyclops that don't really see what's going on but make up for that with fighting spirit and power.
Once you have ended up in such a phase of exchanging right hooks and left straights it is very dangerous. Top players in Europe are fidgeting to use this raw power on the board and go for it all the way. They have an unbelievable fighting spirit. That is why it is very important to respect your opponent at all times and never to think that winning the game will be a piece of cake. This attitude is attained with the mental power every strong go player has.
Respect is important but on the other hand you need to
learn and handle unrestrained avidity of the opponent. I
have a good example from a couple of weeks back. In the
morning I went shopping on foot and when I returned I
saw that my bike had been pinched. I had owned it for a
couple of years so this really p-put me in a bad mood.
Just when I was going to open my front door my neighbor
came out with a bike on the shoulders. I had another
good look and it actually was my trusty bike, minus the
lock then. I addressed the neighbor: 'Say, that looks a
lot like my bike.'
And the man says without giving a wink: 'Is that so? Well here you have it back.' And he makes some small talk without offering an apology and acts like nothing has happened. At a moment like that you feel as if your opponent keeps playing tenuki while his stones are on the verge of death. A sort of a mixture of rage and indignation. Staying calm and considering carefully are of course the best things you can do but to demonstrate that self control isn't always easy. The bike incident with my sticky handed neighbor finally ended before it began. However, on the go board it happens all too often that your opponent leaves you no choice but seriously to go for his stones and catch them.
This goes especially for games I play on the Internet.
Even top players who should know better keep on playing
thin moves and simply ask to be taken advantage of. The
trouble is that in lightning games this (playing too
thinly) isn't a bad idea at all. Under time pressure it
isn't easy to find the only correct sequence of moves
that catches all the stones.
A week or so back I played against Nakao Jungo, a 7-dan pro from Nagoya. That guy is really unbelievable; he seemed to play honte (the proper, honest move) every move; it was solid through and through and there wasn't a cinch in his armour! This way of playing may be a bit typically Japanese style. People here sometimes seem to prefer losing with playing thick moves over winning with a sequence of thin moves.
Anyway, it is absolutely wrong to lose your patience with your opponent and feel anger, although every once in a while this really is understandable. Definitely, when your opponent simply forces you to try and catch his stones, it often gives a bad feeling. Of course it is a legitimate and possible way of playing: 'Ha ha, I'm not going to defend, I just keep taking away your territory and if you want to win this game you're going to have to finish off my big group for a start.' In a game where the players are approximately of equal strength this isn't easy at all. Particularly with little time the 'thin player' will even get away with it. Countless times on the Internet Go Server I knew for gospel truth: if only I had five extra minutes I would certainly be able to catch his stones. Ah well, you don't have that time and you fail, you lose, opponent happy.
In my view mental power is at least half of your playing
strength. It is a kind of superconfidence, perhaps a
combination of experience, knowledge of the game, and
tenacity. When I played against the Japanese top pro
I encountered this. Through some cause or another
Otake wasn't at his best and he wanted a little too
much. I managed to take advantage of that neatly and
when I later spoke with pros who had been following the
game I was told that through my successful action the
game should have been over and Otake should have lost.
What happened then during the game, I will not forget
easily. I simply felt Otake's mental power press down
on my brain. I think you must have been in a similar
situation to understand what I am talking about.
All top players have this capacity to nail someone down and make him feel, as if hypnotized, that he is nothing but a victim who doesn't stand a chance, seemingly with the power of the will alone. In Nagoya I had a similar experience in a game with Baba 9p. I fear I still have a lot of work to do before I can keep myself together enough and have a chance against go greats. The will to win can help here of course but Saijo once addressed me seriously about this. He told me that wanting to win at all costs reduces your chances of winning rather than enlarges them.
The mental power I just mentioned and things like 'kiai' (fighting spirit), and the will to win all are important and at times necessary to play a good game. But a fine line separates exaggerating things from honest confidence.
But this apart, I really, and I mean really, was bent on winning the game for my promotion to 5-dan. Never before in my whole go career I had been so strongly determined to win a game. I had been preparing for this game mentally for a while already and among other things I had been talking seriously with Nakane 7p about how he had done it. Some pros need three or four tries to reach 5-dan, others never make it. You might compare it with toppling domino tiles. You need time to get so far that one more victory will bring you promotion. Lose that game and everything collapses and you can start all over again. For a lot of pros it takes some time before they have gotten over it.
I also use the opening of this game often on the Internet Go Server. By the way, my opponent Tsutsui 4-dan visibly also had in mind giving it all he had. He left a weak group for what it was in the bottom right and kept playing big points. I didn't feel at ease and I got behind visibly. The problem is, Tsutsui's group may be not so strong but usually it is impossible to actually get hold of those stones. But White doesn't have enough territory by far and I was seriously worried. I had to think of something!
One time during the interview Catalin starts to gaze into thin air and he says half to himself: 'I would like to give Okumura something to thank him, but what?' This is about the teacher that has been next to Saijo by far the most important for him. Okumura Hideo is 7p and teacher and coach to the insei's in Nagoya. Catalin has had the privilege to know him just before Okumura cashed his chips and turned to teaching the young in Kuwana, where he lives. He shows a severe face and a tight bearing: you could easily take him for a Regimental Sergeant-Major.
He plays extremely fast, whether it is a training game or for the pro league. Also he is close friends with Kobayashi, Koichi. 'Although he doesn't talk a lot he was always friendly. Just before I was going to be promoted he started talking with me a little more and he even invited me to drop by at his house. For my promotion he even gave me an expensive present.'
My favorite pro is Saijo, of course; I have learned so much from him, both about go and wisdom. We also get along fine, go out for a meal or play some backgammon every once in a while.
Furthermore I put up with six (!) years of going to karaoke, almost every Monday. It's just that at the moment I have had my fill of it. Not that I don't like singing, but my repertoire isn't that extensive and after a number of years it isn't as much fun as it used to be, you can imagine.
For going over his games I used to think Takemiya wonderful, as a matter of fact I still do. If I look at Takemiya's go it really makes me feel good. His way of playing is natural and straightforward, there is so much basic wisdom in it which you can pick up, really fantastic. Sometimes it seems simplicity itself but you can make a bad mistake there. All that Takemiya reads out is very, very much, and what you end up seeing is only a fraction of this. In the past and now still I enjoyed going over his games because of the positive it emanates. I think Takemiya is very close to a kind of 'ultimate truth' of the game, closer than other top players.
Some time ago I played against Ogawa Tomoko, a 6-dan pro from Tokyo you may know. I played a new joseki Takemiya had developed and it went smoothly. I soon grabbed the lead and could win the game easily. Sometimes moves of Takemiya's don't look very convincing but there's more to them than meets the eye.
The future? Well, now that I have been promoted to
5-dan I get to play on Thursdays when the pros of 5-dan
through 9-dan have their games. As a 4-dan I would only
incidentally play against higher ranking dan level
players but very little. Now that becomes regular and of
course the chance to enter the ring against players like
I just don't think I want to spend the rest of my life in Japan. Sometimes I am taken back to the fantastic atmosphere of the little go circle in Rumania. That time was really marvellous and I don't really have something like that here. I have now been to China twice to play and once to Korea but the best experiences I have really gained in China. Especially the second time when I was in Shanghai it strongly reminded me of the country of my birth. It is definitely not my favorite political system but after all I was raised under communism in Rumania. That made me feel at home in China right away.
The people in the street, the organizers, and the players, everybody was extraordinarily open and friendly. When I arrived in Korea the organization was spotless and everything was official and regulated tightly. Not a bad word about that, of course, but in Korea I felt very lonely and ill-at-ease. Although I could have stayed on a bit I took the first opportunity to go back. Japan and Korea resemble each other a bit in that respect being very official and making it hard to make contact with people.
Like I said, at the moment I can't say 'no' to the chance to enter the ring against really strong players. But after some two or three years I will probably want to leave Japan. Only back to Rumania is probably not an option, outside of Asia it won't be easy making a living playing go, and in Rumania that is, I think, not an option at all. Now I am considering France or the Netherlands. The Chinese former pro Guo Juan, 5p, has seen to things in the Netherlands, I heard. Leaving Japan is going to be a bit of a problem. There are so many reasons for which I ought to remain here, and work is of course one of them. Perhaps I'll try and start up an Internet go class; I heard there are unexpectedly many people, especially in America, who would be interested in that. Now after all I also teach amateurs, and although that wasn't too easy for me at first I have now grown fully used to it.
Why that was difficult? Under my pupils here I count
many people whose main goal is to hear how strong they
are and what clever moves they play. A perfect likeness
to myself when I just arrived here. When I had just
become a pro I didn't know very well how to handle this.
I mean, I study go intensively and it is my profession
so I can estimate with fair accuracy how strong someone
actually is. For me the most important thing was always
that the pupil was bent on improvement and progress. It
is great seeing people with a similar attitude growing
stronger before your eyes.
This attitude is unprofessional, as I soon found out. By attaching expectations to your student you also build up a certain pressure and that is not right. Go is just a game and by far the most important is that a player does it for fun and enjoys it. If pressure from the teacher interferes with this it's a nono. But for professionals among one another the pursuit of improvement is indispensable; this leads to a completely different view of the game.
Some of my students tell they started to play go because it helps against the mental deterioration that may come with old age. I think there are more games that stimulate the grey matter in a positive way. A difference with any other game is just that go isn't exclusively practical and straightforward.
Go is a bit of fantasy
[part I] [part II] [part III]