Hoen Shinpo

THIS IS the successor to our column The Go Consultants. It is very different but shares an important element: it demonstrates how a supreme go player of a past age thought about the game.

In this case, however, the player was also the author, and his concern was not just with discussing moves but with engaging with the public.

Hoen Shinpo Honinbo Shuho (1838 ~ 1886), right, although himself a product of the traditional iemoto (family head) system in the latter stages of the Tokugawa shogunate, was the first top player who had to deal with the PR side of go and securing new patrons. He succeeded brilliantly. As teacher of Oscar Korschelt he might even be dubbed the father of western go. His most notable achievements, however, were founding Hoensha, which eventually led to the Nihon Ki-in, Hoensha's magazine Igo Shinpo, and the book Hoen Shinpo (New Methods in Go) published in 1882.

The full story of Shuho and Hoensha is described on the GoGoD CD. What we are presenting here is a translation of the book.

Hoen Shinpo is regarded as a classic and as such is often quoted. Invariably, however, it is the game commentaries of Book 2, and especially those at the end against opponents such as Shuwa, that are quoted. With good reason, of course. But that traduces the original work. Shuho filled his Book 1 with commentaries on handicap openings. He obviously had a reason for starting that way. He does not state the reason, but a reasonable first guess is that he wanted to engage with readers of average strength straightaway. The very tone of the commentaries encourages that estimate. Black's moves are praised and the word 'good' seems to appear in almost every sentence. These openings are not cited as being from actual games. Indeed, it is possible that Shuho devised them himself, and if so he was praising his own moves. But that does not detract from the positive and engaging tone he sets up from Page 1. There is plenty of other evidence that suggests Shuho was a warm and benign man, though it should be said that his early lifestyle created detractors and he was also capable of the odd put-down.

As we proceed to add instalments, we may well intersperse some of these extraneous elements. We may also add comments about go terminology or presentational aspects. Though we take it for granted nowadays, the best way to make comments and the easiest, clearest and cheapest ways of producing go diagrams were important problems that someone had to solve for the first time. This was still an age of experimentation. It is fascinating to see how they approached these problems.

In this case, for example, the star points are marked with a small x rather then dots or circles. Coordinates are not marked but on-board symbols - triangles and egg-timers - are used. The most unusual choice, however, seems to be for the text. The preface is in Chinese. That was de rigueur, as was the fact that it was not by the author but by a friend or patron (whose very first sentence shows how concerned Shuho was with presentation). But Shuho's own text is entirely in katakana. Western students of Japanese often regard katakana as the easier of the two syllabaries, but in those days Japanese of elementary education were familiar with hiragana but had trouble reading katakana.

Why that choice was made is unclear. Perhaps it was an oblique way of joining the current craze for novelty, usually meaning something imported from the west. As we have mentioned there were western players in Japan at that time and they frequented Shuho's salons. Apart from Korschelt, a German chemist who helped the Japanese brewing industry among other things, another notable visitor to Hoensha was the British diplomat Sir Harry Parkes.

It is interesting that Korschelt, in his work translated into English as The Theory & Practice of Go, complained even then about the iceberg-style of commentary (8/9ths below the surface) that was usual in Japanese books. He regretted the lack of "systematic and abstract" manuals such as existed for chess. There he may have Hoen Shinpo remained stuck had it not been for a long illness which he used to overcome what he called the "tedious" elementary stages, by which time he was able to take personal instruction from Shuho and finally come to understand more of the depth of go via the Japanese route. By the time he left he was able to take six stones from Shuho, apparently.

This stimulated him on his return to Leipzig to write a book aimed specifically at a western audience. In this he makes very extensive use of Shuho's Hoen Shinpo. He explained that Shuho kindly allowed him to use his diagrams even before they were published in Japan. You might assume, therefore, that Korschelt's book pre-empts what we are doing here. Far from it. Korschelt's comments appear to be his own, and certainly bear virtually no relation to Shuho's commentary. Korschelt usually comments on moves that Shuho does not mention, and vice versa. The differences are so extreme that it is of interest to compare the two just to see how far apart a western amateur of about 1-dan strength and a Japanese Meijin can be in thinking about a game. We will try to cross-refer positions here to Korschelt's work and for that we will use the still available English edition rather than the German original, in other words The Theory & Practice of Go published by Tuttle: ISBN 0-8048-1660-3 (1991 printing). If anyone cares to compile an equivalent cross-reference list for Arthur Smith's The Game of Go, which was largely derived from Korschelt's work, we will gladly include that.

Korschelt admitted to "exceptional pleasure" when studying Shuho's openings, and we have already said that the book is still esteemed in Japan. If you are prepared to meet it on its own terms, we believe you will share that esteem. When Korschelt wrote he was aiming at complete beginners. If we add that to his own cultural background and scientific training, it is no surprise he insisted on concentrating on the substance of a comment and fretting about lack of explanation of something and so ended up highlighting moves the Meijin ignored. However, the western go audience nowadays is probably at a level comparable with Shuho's own original audience in Japan, and so it is possible to make a plea to meet him now on his own terms. That essentially means trying to remember always to ask yourself why Shuho picked such and such a move to comment on and why he might have ignored another. This is, after all, a chance to melt the iceberg and see inside the mind of a Meijin.

The greyed-out items are being made available only on the GoGoD CD.

Book 1

Book 2


© John Fairbairn & T Mark Hall (GoGoD), London 2008.