Japan's modest champion

Former insei Pieter Mioch has forged a new career as an interviewer. While we await some tv producer having the wit to start a go chat show for him, here is the latest in a series of notable one-on-ones. The other half in this case is Japan's representative in the imminent World Amateur Go Championship (WAGC) in Tokyo, Mori Hironobu. It is refreshing to hear such a modest player talk!

PM Mr Mori lives in Obu city, just outside Nagoya. On a sunny but windy Sunday morning one week before the 28th WAGC is set to start, I got on the train and after only a 20-minute ride met Mori-san in front of Obu station. While walking down to a neighbouring coffee shop, Japan's champion's confided: "I'm certainly starting to feel the pressure. At first winning the qualifying tournament wasn't such a big thing, I felt. But now that I'm often being asked for an interview I do start feeling the burden!"

When we found a seat and had ordered our 'hotto' in the coffee shop where smokers were still allowed, if only in half the place (the filled-to-capacity half), Mr Mori readily explained about himself and how he first learned the game.

Mori Hironobu MH I'm 32 and I learned how to play go when I was eight. There was this club in the neighbourhood where I was living in Handa city. The teacher, Mr Sugiura, was really strong and taught me a lot. Although Sugiura wasn't a pro or anything like that, he was quite a player, I think he could take on weaker professionals, too. I think that I loved go from the first move and it took me only two years to get to 6-dan. That in itself says a lot about my enthusiasm. So I started playing when I was in 3rd grade and could hold my own against most players by the time I got to 4th. I started winning tournaments in 5th grade and from there on I naturally entered national competitions for my age group.

For me, studying was, and actually still is, playing through pro games and just playing a lot of games whenever I had the chance. I didn't have any special preferences for studying pro games. It didn't matter to me who's games I was going through as long as they were pro games. I think that almost since the start of my go life I have spent well over four hours a day on it, sometimes much longer. I kept this up for the first three years and I think that that period of time has shaped me and made me the player I am today. You can say that I gained my 'core' go knowledge when I was still a grade school student. It may sound a bit odd but it is really true that I loved go from the start, literally from the first day. It seemed that every minute I spent doing it paid off directly and raised my level. You can imagine that that itself again was a big incentive to study some more. I don't think that after those first three years I ever learned so much or improved my level that dramatically.

PM In spite of his go obsession Mr Mori does not look especially high-strung or nervous or anything. As he sat opposite me, contentedly sipping his coffee and enjoying a cigarette you wouldn't know him from the next man. Mr Mori, however, is not at all the average person when you take into account his go level and the time he has spent on the game since childhood. Now, what kind of work does Mr. Mori do? Is he an scientist or system engineer, maybe a school teacher?

No, none of above. Mr Mori is one of the pillars modern Japan is built on, the famous 'salarymen.' This caste of chained-to-desk workers still exists. They are the cogs that make the machine run smoothly. Salarymen's working hours are horrendous and they are not supposed to have any kind of private life, nor are they supposed to possess any kind of special talent. If they do have any special ability, it is usually ignored - unless the company can profit directly from it, of course. All the same, the fact that Mori-san, in his spare time, has proved himself Japan's strongest amateur go player should earn him some special privileges, or so one would think...

MH No, not at all. The company I work for is not very understanding. Luckily we get one full week's holiday every five years (!) and this is the year my wife and I were planning to go and see something of the world. Now that I have to participate, though, we had to adjust our travelling plans.

PM At this point Mori's wife Miho joins us for coffee and some used smoke. Miho and Mr Mori met first as college students at the Aichi University of Education, in spite of the fact that Miho is a psychology major and Mori a maths graduate. When asked if she has a special mental training program for her husband to help him before important games she replied, "Nothing really serious, although I make a point of paying attention and just listening to him in everyday life. Mori tried to teach me how to play, too, you know, but it didn't work out. I suppose I have no talent. My big thing is the piano. I love playing. Mind you I'm not a pro or anything. I just love music and some day I'd like to see Vienna, the city of Mozart and Schubert."

Not to be rude, but back to go! Mr Mori: do you often play with professional players?

MH Not that much recently, but altogether I've played hundreds of games with a number of pros. Maybe more. When I was living in Tokyo I participated in one study group where young pros from the Nihon Ki-in played too. There I played many games with Kono Mitsuki 7-dan, Mizuma Toshifumi 7-dan, and Kubo Hideo 6-dan, to name a few. I love playing with stronger players and the nice thing about this group was that all players were still quite young. That is great, of course, when you can have sparring sessions with young talent. It's extremely stimulating. That was some time back, though.

PM During the interview it becomes clear that Mr Mori has time and again beaten lower ranking professional players. Now, having that much talent and skill at go why didn't Mori go pro?

MH I have never considered becoming a pro myself. Whenever some people suggested to me that I should perhaps try and be a pro, some major talent was around, people like Sakai Hideyuki and Takao Shinji. I knew that players like that were out of my league. I just wasn't that good. All the same, I never thought even for a moment that I didn't want to play go. Actually, I think that in that respect it helps that I am an amateur player and never had pro aspirations. Becoming an insei, and after that a pro, changes things very much. As an amateur player I have never experienced go as a burden or whatever. On the contrary, go is a lot of fun. If somebody can beat me, fine. I am tremendously stimulated by it. It's not that I enjoy losing, of course, but an opponent who beats me can teach me something for sure. In cases like that I try to learn as much as I can and see if I can beat him in a future match-up. That's a bit of a problem, though. I mean, if I were a pro there would be plenty of players around stronger than me. As an amateur it is more, if not way more, difficult to find an opponent who can force me to accept defeat. So, for me it's only natural that I welcome any chance I get to play a strong player. Amateur or pro doesn't matter to me.

PM Over the years the level of participants in the WAGC has been steadily increasing. Right from the first time the WAGC was held in 1979, however, the winners have always been pro level. A number of winners have actually turned pro immediately after winning the WAGC. This very high level seems, especially in the last couple of years, no longer to be the monopoly of the winner alone. In terms of playing strength it seems that among the top ten players, four to six can be regarded as pro level - maybe not title-winning top pros but pros all the same. As with Mr Mori, however, actually to make a career out of the game can be a difficult choice. So, as Mr Mori didn't think himself strong enough to be a successful pro when he was younger, how about now? If, thanks to his results in the 2007 WAGC, the Nihon Ki-in offered him a pro grade, what would he do?

MH I wouldn't be interested in becoming a pro now, even if it were possible somehow [the Nihon Ki-in has raised the age limit recently, but it is still 30]. The thing is, and let's be honest, I'm not going to win any titles as a pro. And being married and having to make a living and all that, as a go pro your income is not that attractive. From countless games and lots of study I believe I have a pretty good idea of how strong professionals really are, and how strong you have to be in order to have the chance of taking home a title. I'm just not that good.

PM But, looking at Sakai [Sakai Hideyuki 7-dan from the Kansai Ki-in], he's 4-1 in the Mejin League now and he is somebody like you could be who turned pro late in life, after winning the WAGC. I don't know whether he actually can lay his hands on a major title but he's not doing badly at all. Besides which, even as a semi-pro, touring all the amateur tournaments there are, couldn't you make a few yen winning amateur tournaments?

MH Ha, ha! I have had plenty games with Sakai. I know for a fact that ever since we were students he has been able to give me at least two stones. Even when I was beating professionals in official competition [the open Agon-Kiriyama Cup] when I was in college, my level just wasn't up there with Sakai's. Look at how hard it is for even as talented a player as Sakai! I have no chance at all of getting anywhere as a pro. No, I'm quite happy and content the way things are as an amateur.

As to making money as an amatuer, ha, ha, ha - that's a good one! It's not much, even if you were to win every amateur tournament there is in Japan. Believe me, it is not possible to make a living only by participating in amateur events. Yes, there is sometimes a little prize money, but no, it is by no means enough to support yourself, let alone a family.

PM By the way, could you give me the names of the pros you beat in the Agon-Kiriyama Cup?

MH Sorry, I think I'm going to pass on that one, if you don't mind. They were professionals at the Nagoya branch of the Nihon Ki-in. Let's just leave it at that.

PM Tell me when it is OK for me to put this interview up on the internet. I think I'd better sit on it until after the WAGC. I mean, if it went up right away, your opponents might go through it in order to try and find some kind of edge.

MH Oh, never mind that. You can put it up whenever you want. Do people actually do that? I have never even thought about it. Maybe I'm just being naive here. I know from shogi professionals that they will indeed try to find a kink in their opponent's armour and study up on his games before a match. You say that is the case with chess, too? Perhaps I should try it someday, but then again I can't really imagine actually finding something I might be able to put to good use! Now I think about it, I have never actually heard of anybody studying up on the opponent and gaining from it! I don't think go works that way. Westerners are very good at analysing stuff. Maybe that has something to do with it. In Japan nobody seems to take the trouble to sit down and analyse anything in depth. I wonder why westerners are so good at this analysing business… I know of this person from England who, through analysing, made some pretty impressive observations, I couldn't imagine doing that.

PM The games here will be quite a bit longer compared to what you are used to. Isn't that true? Also, last year the winner, Hiraoka Satoshi, dropped one game because he ran out of time without noticing. Aren't you worried about the time limits used for the WAGC?

MH I'm not worried about the duration of a game. I'm a quick player by nature but I don't mind long games at all. The reason why I play quickly, by the way, is that, as you know, in many amateur tournaments here you only have a 40-minute time allowance per person and sudden death if you run out. So, I've developed the habit of kind of rushing through some parts of a game, thus ensuring I can take some extra time for when it gets really difficult. When you clear the regionals and can appear in the national tournaments you get a bit more time, like 60 minutes per person as well as 30 seconds of byo-yomi. But even then I play as if I only have a 10-minute time allowance and really must hurry. I think it is a smart thing to do if you want to have some extra time when you need it.

Indeed, they do have this funny byo-yomi I'm not really used to. It bothers me a bit. Tournaments here do not use that kind of byo-yomi and, as you say, there is last year's incident where Hiraoka gave away a sure win when he accidentally let his time run out. I hope I'm going to be all right.

PM When I was talking to former representative Kikuchi Yasuro, he told me that the games were hard on him, and during the tournament you could tell from one look at his face at the end of the day that he was exhausted. But that's no problem for you then?

MH I love playing go, no matter what kind of game. Now you mention the duration, though, perhaps younger players with a lot of stamina have some kind of edge. I don't know. Speaking of which, did you see the age of the participants of other go countries - so young! It's a bit scary. Those youngsters must be quite something! A couple of years back in Nagoya I had the opportunity of playing with the representatives from Spain as well as a country in South America - I'm sorry but I forget where it was. I do remember that both of them were strong go players. I think that compared with strong players in Japan they could play on even terms with the district champions. Now you tell me that those countries usually do not finish in the top ten at the WAGC, I'm starting to get worried!

PM Have you ever appeared in international go tournaments before?

MH For me this huge international go event is a first. That is to say, I've appeared in a number of international tournaments but those were mainly between players from countries like Korea and China - nothing like the WAGC. To compete directly in a tournament against players from Europe, for example, is a new experience for me. I'm really looking forward to it. I am, I have to say again, a bit worried about this byo-yomi thing. The rules do resemble those used by Hane Yasumasa [father of Hane Naoki] 9-dan at his pro-am study group Taisekai, but unfortunately I do not go there much any more.

PM Did you do anything special to prepare yourself for the WAGC?

MH Yes, I certainly did. For perhaps the first time in my life I got serious about tsume go. I have of course done tsume go before, but never seriously. As I mentioned earlier, my study method is simplicity itself: (1) play through pro games Mori Hironobu several hours a day and (2) play lots of games. This time I bought the tsume go classic Igo Hatsuyoron and a tsume go collection by Cho U and got down to it. I've never been so focused on tsume go! There were shapes and solutions that were real eye openers. Those new shapes impressed me, but at the same time it got me worried about the WAGC as I imagined that the top contenders would most probably have known those problems for years already. This tsume go business is a direct result of me being conscious of representing my country. I feel very different compared to other tournaments I've participated in.

My own style? Hmmm. Well, 'no retreat' is maybe one way of putting it. There are a number of pro players whose games I love and admire. Yi Ch'ang-ho especially is terrific. Only, my own style is totally different and I could never even dream of imitating this go genius. He's just way beyond me. Another player I admire very much is Gu Li from China. Although he's obviously much stronger, I like to think that our styles have some similarities. Gu Li is great. The ease with which he just lets go of stones and sacrifices them! With the same seemingly effortless ease, however, he captures enemy stones. That's what I would like my own style to be like, and sometimes I feel I'm almost there.

PM Any other games you are interested in besides go?

MH I'm no good at any other games. Shogi or mah-jong, for example, I'm terrible at. I love all kinds of games but, unfortunately, I do not have time to get better at anything besides go. To relax a bit I like to play the computer game Sangokushi [Romance of the Three Kingdoms] now and then.

PM Well, I'm almost through my list of questions for you. I'd like to ask you one last question. Suppose you didn't have to worry about a thing and could study go under any professional of your liking anywhere in the world for, say, three months. Under whom would you like to study and where?"

MH No, I wouldn't like to study under any pro. What I really would like to do, though, is to go to Beijing for those three months and study there with the new talent, the Chinese insei. To immerse myself in so much talent and raw power must be a terrific experience. I cannot imagine any more stimulating way to study the game. Of course, the insei in Korea would be great too. If I could choose freely, however, I'd opt for China. It is there that new patterns and new moves are Mori Hironobu being discovered and put to the test first, I feel. I think also that the talent in China has a higher level of 'hungriness' compared to Japan.

If I look back on my own career, I can see several points at which my go improved and my game changed a bit. Every time this happened it was after a period of some big outside stimulation. I think that if I had the chance of playing with the insei in Beijing, I again would experience a spurt of growth. I wouldn't go there with the intention of becoming a professional player. I'd only want to play and learn as much as I could. Competing with so much talent with the intention of beating them all and making pro - the odds are that you would collapse mentally. The pressure must be enormous. I have no pro aspirations so I wouldn't be bothered in that way.

By the way, you didn't ask me about this but it might be interesting. I'm pretty sure that the biggest reason I could win the qualifying tournament was my games with Wang Shao from China and Hong Malk-eun Saem from Korea, it seems now that opponents of their level were just what I needed to get ahead. Besides playing me, Wang told me many things about China, This had a big influence on me and I feel that my way of thinking changed a bit because of it. What I just mentioned about the young talent in Beijing, coming up with new moves and so on, Wang too would have a surprise for me in almost every game we played. Until that day I was very much on the receiving end of new moves and had developed a knack of making the best of a, for me, unknown pattern. Playing and talking with Wang, however, changed that. I felt strongly that if I wanted to improve and get better at the game I love I'd better start thinking about making up new stuff myself and preparing myself for new developments my opponents may come up with. My 'roll with the punch' attitude had been sufficient but I felt that that alone was not enough and decided I had to change. And I think I succeeded in doing so. It's thanks to Hong but especially thanks to Wang that I owe my current level.

PM Wang, below left, might not be that well known outside Asia but he is a formidable Wang Shao amateur go player. Born in Nanjing, capital of Jiangsu Province, he learned go from his father when he was only six years old. He played go intensively and was Nanjing champion in his age group and later state champion. Instead of making go his job, though, Wang chose an academic career as an electrical engineer instead. At a go tournament in Japan, he met players from Aichi Prefecture, and these players helped him to become an intern at the Nagoya Institute for Technology specialising in photoelectric sensors. Wang terrorised amateur tournaments in central Japan before moving back to China to round off his studies.

Hong Malk-eun Saem, right, represented his country at the 22nd WAGC Hong Malk-eun Saem (where he finished third, losing to Sakai Hideyuki from Japan who won the tournament) and 24th WAGC (where he was runner-up, dropping his game against the winner from China, Li Fu). It was at the 24th WAGC in Takayama where he met his wife-to-be who was on that occasion a game recorder for the Nihon Ki-in.

After moving to Japan to get married, Hong investigated the possibility of becoming a pro at either the Nihon Ki-in or the Kansai Ki-in. After winning various tournaments, and beating a pro or two in the process, he decided to start his own go school in Tokyo.

After our interview, Mr. Mori, Miho and I chatted a bit about foreign countries. They would both like to visit a tropical place next time, if they have the chance. It would be such a shame if they have to wait another 5 years!

Next >>