The Pieter Mioch interviews Go Seigen (part 3)

Birth of Shin Fuseki

Go Seigen and Pieter Mioch Go Seigen and Pieter Mioch

In the thirties a periodical called "Selected Games of Kitani Minoru" was published monthly by the Japanese Go Association (Nihon Ki-in). One of the contributors to this was Kawabata Yasunari, and he wrote the following in an article "The early days of Shin Fuseki."

"The period of Shin Fuseki was not only the period of the early days of two personable young men, Kitani Minoru and Go Seigen. It was without doubt also the period in which the foundations of modern go were laid. Shin Fuseki was the fresh wind that fanned the flames of enthusiastic, youthful creativity and adventure.

Shin Fuseki ensured, through its glittering appearance and staggering, sparkling content, that the whole go world underwent a rejuvenation. It is without a doubt true that there were among the generation of Kitani and Go other brilliant players. But among them there were none who had had such a marked influence on the go world as the newcomers, Kitani and Go. During the period of Shin Fuseki they revived the go world. The new opening theory of Kitani and Go became the symbol of the blooming of go in the 20th century."

Go: "I felt especially embarrassed by this fulsome text. This does not actually keep me from saying that the role Shin Fuseki played in the development of go today is well expressed in the above piece. I do not really think that go came to its highest possible level because of Shin Fuseki and the developments which it brought in its train.

The 'new opening' period was only a step on the way to the perfecting of go. I myself am very curious about developments in the 21st century. As I have already said, go should be played over the whole board. In that respect Shin Fuseki was an ideal style to stimulate the creativity of players beyond fixed josekis (corner patterns) and to broaden understanding of the game."

Nowadays, the term Shin Fuseki is usually associated with the style of top pros such as Takemiya and Sonoda. Both often choose to give up territory to build influence. In such a style of play, the stones are thus more oriented towards the centre than the edge. Because Shin Fuseki normally signifies "new opening," we could say, every time there is a new trend in the opening, that this is also Shin Fuseki.

What then is actually the difference between Shin Fuseki and today's new opening moves and trends? One difference is that Go and Kitani tackled things on a larger scale than happens today. Opening moves on hoshi (4-4) and tengen (10-10) were not new, but Go turned these into standard moves, as also with sanrensei (three handicap points in a row on one side). The opening move at 3-3, which is not directed towards influence, was actually also a revolutionary move in Shin Fuseki.

When Go and Kitani demonstrated that it was possible to win games with less conventional moves, and even moves considered bad, many pros unhesitatingly followed them en masse. Opening moves on 5-5, 10-6...suddenly any outrageous move one could think of was worthy of consideration and seen in actual play. The mode of play which had its beginnings with Kitani and Go had, at the time, an enormous influence on go-playing Japan. It was as if, for example, Cho Chikun played his first three moves in a title match at arbitrary points on the second line... and won!

In the first "wild years" everyone and his dog tried Shin Fuseki itself at least once, before the situation again cooled down a little. There had, it is true, always been a hard core of players who fought tooth and nail against Shin Fuseki and made their views on this known in books and newspapers. The point at issue died a natural death.

There was plainly nothing ultimately wrong with the traditional opening moves from before Shin Fuseki. The opening theories from the 19th century blended with the modern ideas from the start.

Go: "These developments brought the game of go nothing but good, and made the game, if possible, more attractive. I see in this also a fusion of Chinese and Japanese go theory."

Figure 1
Figure 1 (1-20)

White: Go Seigen, 5d
Black: Kosugi Tei, 4d
Date: October 1933
Result: White won without counting

Above is an example of how a game at the height of Shin Fuseki's popularity could develop.

Go: "When I look at this now, I do not understand where I got the courage from to place such a fantasy of an opening on the board with such effrontery."

It is naturally not the case that Shin Fuseki was suddenly discovered and came out of the blue without anyone getting wind of it. Several years before the name became official, clear signs were visible.

Go: "In the sixth year of Showa (1931), when I was 4-dan, I played on the 3-3 point, and in the year after, when I had meanwhile become 5-dan, I played the nirensei opening (two moves on 4-4 on the same side of the board) in a number of games."

This is the precursor of the sanrensei opening.

Go: "Once I became 5-dan, the number of games in which I had White increased. At the time, there was no komi, and if the old 3-4 josekis are insisted on, it is inevitable that White's way of playing is somewhat sluggish."

"The rule with josekis is that they should give a locally equal result, an exchange of moves whereby each player obtains 50 per cent. It is almost as if josekis are specially for Black, who, on account of the advantage of first move, naturally gets the most benefit from a tit-for-tat mode of play."

"One go player for whom I have much respect, Honinbo Shuei Meijin (1852-1907), very often played on hoshi with White. This chimes nicely with my way of playing, in which White must develop quickly. I was not satisfied with the slow way of playing based on komoku (3-4). The sansan (3-3) and hoshi (4-4) moves that I played are based on the idea of speed. They occupy the corner with just one move, whereas an asymmetrical corner move requires a follow-up move in order to secure the corner."

"It was and is a completely natural idea for me to put more emphasis on a quick development than on a corner enclosure with a shimari. Because it was actually at the time an unwritten law to play komoku and from there to enclose the corner with a shimari, my way of playing created something of a stir."

At the same time, when Go was beginning with his unorthodox fuseki, Kitani's style was characterised by low positioning of his stones and a rather orthodox way of playing. His results were actually not particularly convincing. The time was ripe to try higher positions oriented towards influence instead of low positions. It was a period of searching and experimenting with a style that attached greater weight than before to speed of development. In the spring of 1933, Go began a jubango with Kitani. It was during this match that the Shin Fuseki style of play came most plainly to the fore.

Jubango is described as the hardest and most debilitating form of competitive go. A direct encounter between two rivals in a match of at most ten games, including jigos. The match could be broken off if one of the two players was promoted and the dan grade was thus no longer the same (formerly, it was unimaginable for pros in Japan to play even against a player of one lower dan grade...) or if one of the players was forced to accept a handicap by virtue of the fact that he had fallen four games behind. If this happened, it normally betokened a serious blow to the career of the losing party.

Go's results in jubango are incredible. Imagine that in Japan today one player for more than two decades was able to challenge players such as Sakata Eio, Fujisawa Hideyuki, Cho Chikun, Kobayashi Koichi and Yoda Norimoto and, without exception, give them a handicap! And as if that were not enough, Go played by far the most of these games in his early years in Japan.

After the second world war, he played less often, by a long chalk, than the average pro. He was at this time very preoccupied with religion, specifically the Manji (Red Swastika) movement. Go once stopped General MacArthur's car on behalf of this international movement in order to hand over a folder. MacArthur eventually took the petition, but Go and his colleagues had to suffer interrogation by the police!

(Table of Go's Jubango results)

Did Go Seigen gradually become weaker or did he suddenly stop playing go? These are two good questions to which the answer is not so well known as you might think for a player of Go's stature. With the exception of the period during the second world war, Go's career was a model of stability. But in 1961, when he was 47, the career of the most sensational go player since Honinbo Shusaku came to an abrupt pause.

When Go, in August of that year, was in a rush and, against his usual custom, did not make use of a pedestrian crossing, he was hit by a motorcycle that came out of the shadows at high speed while overtaking a bus. Go was thrown up in the air, and then the same motorcycle ran hard into him once more, hitting him and dragging him along.

Twenty minutes later, when Go came to in the hospital, it seemed initially as if all was well. Go took the doctor who treated him at his word when he told him that he would soon be back on his feet. Actually, his right leg began to swell up a few days later and began to ache even more. When at last it was decided to take an x-ray, it was apparent there had been a grave mistake.

Go later had a great deal of dizziness and nausea, but that was not diagnosed at the time. One year later he had to be examined for a long time for this reason.

Two months after the accident, Go was at last discharged from the hospital. The gravity of the accident and the quality of the treatment Go experienced left their mark. Go no longer properly trusts western medicine and goes instead twice a month to an acupuncturist.

During Go's stay in the hospital, the Yomiuri newspaper had moved heaven and earth to interrupt the tournament for the Meijin title. This tournament was being played for the first time and they wanted to wait until Go was ready again. So just three months after his accident, Go sat behind the board, on a chair instead of a cushion on the floor, for the last game of the Meijin League. His opponent was no less than Sakata, a player who always gave Go a hard time. When Go and Sakata played each other, violent bare-knuckle fighting games always ensued; in terms of fighting spirit their games belong with the best of the 20th century.

Fujisawa Hideyuki, Sakata and Go all had 3 losses in the Meijin League. Fujisawa was actually in a clear lead and the winner of the Go-Sakata game was thus to play off against him in order to decide who was to be the first Meijin of the new era. With what must have been something of a superhuman effort by Go, he managed to bring the game to a jigo with White after all those watching had written him off.

A jigo with White meant victory for Go, but Fujisawa was declared the Meijin without a playoff! Although both Go and Fujisawa had scored 10-3, according to the rules Go's jigo was worth less than a "normal" victory.

After this episode, Go, because of his health, slowly but surely had to retire from the go world. Go still played, but in the longer games in particular he suffered the burden of dizziness and nausea.

Go Seigen still holds study sessions to which top pros such as O Rissei and Michael Redmond come. He is searching for the ideal way to play in the 21st century. His most recent book is even called "Go in the 21st century."

After the interview I spoke further with Go's manager Mr. Teramoto.

Teramoto: "The study meetings are pretty intensive. Go continuously tries different things and sometimes passes judgments difficult to comprehend. If we then, for example, go back a week later, he quietly says, 'Oh no, it is not at all true what I say, you know.' He is for ever on the move - standing still means going backwards and Go will never go backwards."
Pieter: "Is that so? What sort of things does Go sensei say then?"
Teramoto: "The last time, Go often said that sanrensei as we now know it is actually the worst sanrensei that is possible."
Pieter: "???"
Teramoto: "Much too concentrated on one side of the board. Diagram 2, according to Go, is the best sanrensei, and No. 2 is the formation in diagram 3.

Diagram 2 Diagram 2

Diagram 3 Diagram 3

When I stood up at this point to return home, I luckily realised that the most important question had not yet been put. So I said: "Go sensei, do you have a final comment for the Dutch go world?"

Go: "Certainly. Not just for the Dutch go world but for everyone in the whole world. It is impossible to foretell where a great new go talent will emerge in the 21st century. That could be anywhere, thanks to the Internet and the knowledge that a game of go is not decided by josekis but by the insight and the power that are necessary to consider and keep considering the whole board (this subject was plainly Go's hobby horse throughout the interview) and to handle proper evaluation of the different positions. As I said earlier, go in Japan addresses itself too much to corners and josekis. The most important reason why China and Korea were able to surpass Japan is that they are not so preoccupied with josekis. They address themselves rather to the whole board, and that is precisely where things are happening, that is what will be characteristic of go in the 21st century!"

[Part I] [Part II] [Part III]

This article appeared in "go" the bimonthly magazine of the Dutch Go Association, in two epsiodes: issue 36-5 and 36-6, October/December 1999. The first version English version appeared on the web, 3 March 2000 on the Mind Sports Online Go pages as a special in three parts.

Translated, with permission, by John Fairbairn from the magazine "go" of the Dutch Go Federation (Nederlandse Go Bond). Thanks are due to Theo van Ees for supplying this source material.

Pieter Mioch can be contacted at