A travelogue from the Go World
Championship for amateurs 1996
(by Pål Sannes)

It is May 17 and I am on the airport of Amsterdam. It is the first stage on the long journey to Japan where I am to take part in the 18th Go World Championship for amateurs. There is still some time left before the departure, and as usual on occasions like this I start studying a book containing Go problems. A bearded man has obviously observed what I am reading. He comes over and introduces himself as Cesar Sanchez Munoz: Representative of Spain. Vi compare our air tickets just to discover that we are sitting next to each other! I just got the first evidence of the Japanese's extraordinary ability to organize. In the invitation for the World Championship we had been asked to pick our day of arrival as well as the route to Tokyo ourselves. Cesar had solved this in the following way: Since the Japanese (i.e., Japan Airlines) covered his traveling expenses, they where free to set up his route just as long as he arrived on May 18. So somebody had obviously found out that the representative of Norway had picked a flight nobody else had chosen, and then booked the representative of Spain in on a flight to Japan via Amsterdam so that we could keep ourselves company on the way to Japan!

When I arrived at the hotel in Tokyo I discovered that a lot of the participants had come several days in advance in order to get used to the time difference (7 hours in my case). Maybe that was not so stupid: I did not get any sleep on the plane. Quite exhausted by the journey I went to bed at 10pm the first night in Japan, only to find out that I was not able to sleep any longer than 3am. It took two or three days of hard work to get used to the difference.

On May 19 all the participants traveled by bus to the place where the championship was to be held: Omachi, a small mountain town with about 15000 citizens. It is not so far from the place where the Winter Olympics are to be held in 1998. The reason for picking this place was that the mayor there is a passionate Go player, and he has even declared Omachi as `Go village'. As a consequence of this all teachers in the kindergartens of Omachi have been given basic training in Go so that they can teach it to the kids.

I will never forget the welcome we received in Omachi. The bus stopped at the town's main street. We went up to a podium where we were introduced one by one while the crowd were applauding - there were lots of people. Then we were led to carpets which had been laid out on the street. On each carpet there were eight to ten children at about the age of five, each one having a 9x9 board in front of them. The purpose was for us to play simultaneous atari-Go with them. I had never heard about this kind of Go before, but we had been given a short briefing on the way to Omachi: The rules where the same as in ordinary Go, except from the fact that the first one to capture an enemy stone would win. Obviously some of these children had really grasped the essence of this game, and two of them even managed to win against me. It was fun to see how happy and excited they got. In any case, this was an enormous contrast to the fairly anonymous position of Go in Norway.

After this remarkable welcome we were taken by bus to a hotel some kilometers outside town. It was a hotel de luxe! So now I finally experienced how it must be to be a millionaire for a couple of days. I think the food alone was worth the trip to Japan. Each course was a work of art, and it was almost a shame to `ruin' it. The other participants got a good laugh when I brought my camera to get a picture of each of the six courses the meal were made up of. Unfortunately the chemist back in in Norway managed to fuss up the film, and it was impossible for me to show family and friends what a `typical' Japanese dinner looks like...

Next day was set off for a friendship match between the `World Championship team' and a team of local Go players. I was uncertain of what to wear, but fortunately I decided to put on my dinner jacket: All the Japanese where wearing suits. We later received a letter from EGF requesting all future participants to dress suitably, even in the friendship match, which I cannot say everybody did the year I took part.
My opponent was a grave looking man [3 dan] from a local company. He did not speak a word of English, but he took a lot of pictures of me after the game (which I won, as did most of the other from the World Championship team).

In the evening it was time for drawing of the first round. My opponent was Herrero from Argentine, a 6 dan who had been living in Japan for a couple of years where he was working as an interpreter between Japanese, English and Spanish. Ulf Olsson (Sweden) who was sitting next to me had a very appropriate comment: "At least you will get lots of SOS points...". But he was wrong. Herrero ended up with a total of only three points after the eight rounds, although he was the one with most SOS points of all those who got three points. I think this says a lot about how hard the competition was. However, as was criticized later, it may also have showed that the computer program that drew round 2 to 8 simply was not good enough. This was the first time that the drawing was not done manually. Nevertheless, the drawing was the only part of the event that was criticized. From the list of participants I learned that only 4 of the other 45 were rated lower than my 2 dan. However, as a result of this I think I was a bit more relaxed than many of my competitors, since I did not expect any top position anyway.

Round 1: As expected I did not stand a chance.

Round 2: Here I meet Poliak who is a 5 dan from Slovakia. This sounds like a hard game, but he politely tells me that the ratings in Eastern Europe are usually `kinder' than in Western Europe. In the Netherlands or in Germany he would probably be a strong 3 dan. Encouraged by this I start on the game in a good spirit. After a very interesting start my opponent has a small lead as we enter the end of the middle game. Then he invades to deeply, at least so I think. I try as hard as I can to kill the invading group, and in fact, I succeed in doing so. However, there was a small fly in the ointment. In the course of doing so, I had overlooked that he could cut off one of my own groups, and it was impossible to save it. It did not exactly cheer up when he later showed me how I could have trapped his group in a way which assured the connection for my own groups. Anyway, tactically it may not have been so bad to lose the first two games. That would give me weaker opponents later, and the chance to get more points would be better.

Round 3: I am to play against the representative from Venezuela. This is the weakest player in the tournament. He is rated as 2 kyu, but he seems considerably weaker than this. I quickly establish a solid lead, and I prefer to walk around studying other more interesting games while my opponent is thinking. I then make two really bad moves which bring one of my big groups into difficulties. For a short while I am afraid I have made a real fool of myself. Fortunately for me, my opponent once again demonstrates that he is probably overrated and he resigns, making our game the first one to get finished in round two. It was a bit annoying that this game was the one that was written down (to save money, the Nihon-Kiin has stopped writing down all the games, and they only make a selection during each round.)

Round 4: Here I meet a 3 dan player from Mexico and win by 5.5 points.

Round 5: I meet another 3 dan. This time it is Neville Smythe from Australia, who is a very nice and likeable player. We talked a lot later. This game was commented by Kobayashi Satoru (at this time he was both Kisei and Gosei) who was also the main referee in the tournament. He was also present each evening in a room at the hotel set off to simultaneous play between professional players (Michael Redmond among others) and those of us amateurs that still had some left after two hard rounds each day. Kobayashi made a solid impression with his always cheerful and kind way of being. He only commented 2 or 3 moves for each of us in his usual friendly way. If this was so because there were no other bad moves in the game or if it was some underlying pedagogical idea behind making few comments I still do not know. When we were to enter the endgame Kobayashi asked me how I estimated my position. "I thought I was a little ahead", I replied. He sent a questioning look at my opponent who replied "I also thought I was a little ahead!" Kobayashi smilingly drew his conclusion: "Probably the game is even!", giving the other viewers that had gathered around our board a good laugh. A very appropriate time to stop commenting. Just a few moves later my opponent overlooked a few things, and I got my third win in a row.

Round 6: Colmez, a strong 5 dan from France. During the entire game I have the feeling of playing a much stronger opponent. I have to resign early.

Round 7: Suzuki, Brazilian 5 dan. He and I had played an informal game just after the arrival at the hotel in Omachi. I did in fact win that game so I knew I had a chance here. I played black and used the opportunity to use my special opening at that time: The first two stones at the 5-3 points on the same side. It quickly develops into a moyo game. My opponent invades very deep, and for quite some time I have the feeling that I can decide this game. But after some misreading in a somewhat complicated situation my opponent slips away. Still, the game is not yet decided, and I have a confident feeling of being ahead. The fact that I lose by 0.5 points comes as a shock.

Round 8: I meet Kyle Jones, 5 dan from New Zealand. Kyle later tells me that he intends to spend another six months in Japan with only one purpose: To play and study Go. He has spent a lot of time working and saving up money for this. He seems very keen on getting his fourth win here, and he enters byo-yomi early. He continues to play safe and strong, and I just have to realize that he is too good.

Consequently I end up with 3 points which in fact was my ambition for the tournament. But with bad SOS I only become 40 of 46. However, if I had been more lucky in round 7 I would have become no worse than 29. World Champion this year was Jun Liu from China who won all his games. Number two was last year's winner, Hirata (69 years old!) from Japan. He lost to Gilles van Eden in the second round and that caused quite some commotion. The best European was Bogdanov who ended up as number eight.

There is another thing from the tournament that I must add to this. In the break between the games on the second and third day they had put up "Cheering ceremonies" in the program. Just like most other participants I wondered what this was going to be. The first day it turned out to be lots of children from local kindergartens who took us along for a lesson of folk-dance. After that we got lots of paper swans, and it seemed like all Japanese children were masters of origami. The second day children from various levels of elementary school were singing Japanese rhymes, stilts acrobatics, and entertained us in several other ways out in the open air. I think one should have worked really hard to come up with a better way for the organizers to make us relax more between the games.

In the evening there was a wonderful closing ceremony. After that we were all invited to a party in Omachi. Here I slip away. I prefer to take a bath in the hot spring of the the hotel (another Japanese specialty - the effect is the same as the traditional sauna but it is much more comfortable) and go to bed early. I do not regret that when I next day learn from my room-mate Matti Siivola (Finland) that the bus back from the party returned at 6 am...

The next day is set off for sight seeing and after that we return to Tokyo. Now the sponsored part of the journey has come to its end, but I have granted myself one more week in Japan. I first spend two days in Kyoto which is the old capital of the emperor. However, I get tired of watching temples and spend one day in Hiroshima in order to see the peace memorial signs there. A strong experience!. Then I go to Kanazawa, Takayama and finally I return to Tokyo where I spend the last day. Here I also pay the Nihon-Kiin main quarters a visit. This is a big eight floor building almost entirely devoted to Go activities.

At the end I would like to mention two experiences I had during this last week on my own. The first one is when I just have arrived in Kyoto and got to the English speaking information desk. Here I wanted to seek advice on accommodation. The friendly man here asks me what I am doing in Japan, and then it turns out that he is a 3 dan Go-player. After a pleasant conversation I am guided to a very simple place offering accommodation, just 15 minutes's walk away from the station. Some 30 minutes after I get there there is a telephone call for me. It is the man from the information desk who is wondering if I am interested in a game of Go. I expect he will take me to the place where he lives, but I am wrong. From a locker in `the cheapest accommodation' in Kyoto they come up with 15cm thick Go board with legs. Who would have expected this...

The other experience I would like to mention very well shows the kind attention I met everywhere I went. On the first evening in Kyoto I just walk along on random to see what the atmosphere is like. After a few hours of walking I have to admit that I am lost and do not know how to get back. I ask a middle aged couple who fortunately understands some English. After having pointed out the direction to Kyoto Station they discuss for a short while in Japanese before they ask me: "Walk?" I nod confirmingly, and they discuss some more. To my great surprise the man stops a cab, `pushes' me in whereupon he takes the seat next to me. I feel slightly embarrassed, but when I take up my wallet to pay the taxi driver he shakes his head: He pays! I thank him and is left on the station with a good feeling inside. Would something like this have happened in Norway?

Copyright © 1996 Go in Norway, November 21, 1996.