I am absolutely crazy about Go.
I took it up at the end of 2001 for two reasons. First, a friend invited me to play. At that time, I was busy building a house in the mountains of Nagano, and a friend who lived nearby had suggested that we spend the evenings playing Go together. In fact, I did not have much idea about how I would spend my evenings in the mountains, so this planted a seed in my mind.
The other reason: I had turned 40. I wanted to do something to mark a complete departure from being in my thirties. The fact that my father had been a Go player also had an influence.
Work had slowed down a little, so I began learning how to play Go during the winter holidays. At first, I didn’t know what was going on. In fact, I was utterly clueless. I couldn’t make heads or tails of the game. The only thing to do was to plunge in and get familiar by actually playing instead of just studying it, so that’s what I did.
Even that approach took a lot of time.
First of all, you’ve got to get your head around the terminology. In Go, there are words like kosumi (diagonal move), tobi (jump), tsuke (contact play), keima (knight jump), kou (no repetition of the same shape), hiraki (extension), and shimari (corner enclosure). It took some time to get used to these terms, but there’s no way to avoid learning the language of the game.
Next, you need to pick up the basic concepts of Go. The rules are actually rather simple, but I had real trouble with the concepts. It took me a long time to understand “two eyes,” “match ending,” and what determines the life and death of stones, or even who wins and who loses.
Then there is the strategy for winning. Even if you’ve gotten the language and rules down, in order to win you must to acquire at the very least a basic foundation of knowledge. For example, at the absolute minimum, you have to pick up formulas like set sequences and critical moves, or be familiar with Go problems based on life-and-death and the tightening play. The only way to obtain this package of knowledge is by reading books.
I think I bought more than 30 of them.
At first, I read beginner books, then moved on to intermediate, and finally advanced level (first dan level), gradually taking on a higher degree of difficulty. It was kind of like studying for an entrance exam for university; I read them over and over again, marking an x with a red pen by the parts I couldn’t solve and coming back to them later.
“This is all about repetition and persistence,” I told myself and kept on studying.
During that period, I had almost given up all other reading, and the stack of books I intended to read later began filling up my shelves. The only books I took along on overseas business trips were those on Go. I’m used to reading books on history and economics and usually devour them in no time, but studying books about Go can take hours and hours.
Next, I began to get actual match experience to deepen my understanding of the game. This could only be done here and there, in between family and work commitments. It was very difficult to find the time.
A short time after starting Go, a female manager, one of my acquaintances, told me, “I started playing Go, and within a year and a half I made the first dan level.” This really got my goose, and my competitive spirit was fired up. I made up my mind that if she could get to the first dan level in 18 months, I could do it in a year. I even told others that this was my plan. My family responded by saying that if I didn’t make it, I would have to give up Go altogether. The pressure was on.
Over the summer, Go became my entire life. I must have played some 50 matches in a month. Family time shifted to the back burner, as I was consumed by the game. Nevertheless, I still had work to do and finding the time was tough. I had to plan very carefully to make sure I was using the time I invested in Go as effectively as possible. So I started keeping a diary and went over each game, looking for mistakes, isolating problems and then striving to solve them. I started going to a Go salon, and learned by playing with an instructor.
Starting in September, fully prepared, I began to enter matches with an eye toward achieving the first dan level.
Victory completely eluded me. I lost five matches in a row. Little by little, my guts began to weaken. Losing at Go means crumbling until you are completely torn. It can be so miserable that you feel like crying.
Three weeks later, I tasted victory for the first time by winning my sixth match. I was so overjoyed by this first ever win that I could hardly contain myself. I was so thrilled that I invited all the students and staff in a GLOBIS Management School study session to go out drinking, and we ended up staying out till dawn.
Playing Go after this initial victory was all about ebbs and flows. Just when I thought I was winning, I would be defeated. However, I was definitely beginning to win more often.
Three months had passed since I initially attempted to gain the first dan level, and on the Beaujolais Nouveau release day in November, I took the afternoon off from work and went to an authorized Nihon Ki-in (Japan Go Association) tournament. Just one month was left in the year in which I had sworn that I would obtain the first dan. I pulled myself together and the tournament began.
I won my first match, and then my third. And that was it! I had actually succeeded in obtaining the first dan level of Go! I was higher than the moon.
Of course, as soon as the match was over I dived right into the Beaujolais Nouveau. Maybe it was the stress that had built up over such a long period of time, but that night I ended up drinking until five in the morning. I was really clobbered, but I felt great and refreshed.
A little while after I had reached the first dan level, I was at last able to calm down again mentally and focus on other things.