He Xie 9P furrows his brow as though studying an especially knotty life and death problem. He cocks his head slightly, thinking. The seconds tick by, the silence stretches out nearly a minute. I’ve asked him his favorite thing about the game of go and now I see why his playing style has been described as “calm and cool like water.” Finally, he says, “The rules are very simple but the variations, starting from an empty board, are immense. Cosmic.”
Born in Qingdao, China in 1984, Xie – one of the strongest players in China today — learned go at the age of 6 from his father, improving so rapidly “that my dad could not beat me,” Xie said in an interview Monday afternoon at the US Go Congress, where he’s a visiting professional. Xie turned professional at 11 in 1995, and was promoted to 9P in 2012. Well-known for an intense work ethic when it comes to studying, Xie stressed the “crucial importance of the fundamentals” to improving, including studying life and death and endgame.
“These are the core techniques of go. Only after you’ve mastered the fundamentals can you think about the middle game,” Xie said quietly but firmly. “You cannot be weak in any part of your game. At the same time, you must study and research the opening. There are many new variations in the opening” that need to be explored. Then comes playing games, “and it’s extremely important to review your games.” Online go has made it easier than ever to get a game but Xie doesn’t play online much himself, although he says that it’s given players around the world more access to a “treasure trove” of go resources, from game records to live broadcasts of professional games. “It’s a good thing,” he says, that’s contributing to a much faster spread of new ideas about the game. Go Seigen himself, the master go player who just celebrated his 100th birthday recently, “has always stressed the importance of trying new ideas, of experimenting.”
While professionals “realize they must spend time on all aspects of the game,” Xie said there are many amateurs who play “simply because they enjoy the game; they play for the love of the game.” For such players, it’s enough to “focus on studying the part of the game that interests you the most.” But for those amateurs who really want to improve, Xie said that studying life and death problems is the surest way to get stronger. Studying endgame is also key, he said, although there are not as many books or other resources on the subject.
Asked about the future of go in the United States, Xie, who’s visiting this country for the first time, said that while go has thousands of years of history in China, Japan and Korea, “the United States has been catching up quickly, thanks to online go spreading information so much more quickly,” adding that he’s happy to see the recent increase in interest in the US and Europe. Asked about whether computer go will ever attain professional strength, he smiled and said “It’s possible,” although he noted that while programs have done well at 9×9 the increase in complexity to 13×13 and 19×19 “is exponential.”
- Chris Garlock; photo by Phil Straus; translation by Daniel Chou