American Go E-Journal

Pause the Clock: Reflections on Ryan Li’s historic victory

Thursday June 29, 2017

by Keith L. Arnold, hka2017.06.28_ryan-li

The American Go Association has come a long way since I first became active in 1985. In those days the place to be was on the East Coast with far more events and tournaments. But now, we have wonderful broadcasts of top professional games, and if you live on the East Coast, as I do, they don’t start until 1:30 in the morning, making the West Coast the place to be. Bleary-eyed bitterness aside, it is a great time to be a Western go fan, with access to world news, live streaming events and global opponents as close as your nearest screen.

Having just finished my Kickstarter download of “The Surrounding Game” documentary, which focuses its wonderful introduction to the world of go on the birth of our professional system, being confronted almost immediately with Ryan Li 1P’s victory over two-time world champion Chen Yaoye 9p last week was pure serendipity. There is a moment in the film where I express my skepticism about our pro system effort. I should explain, as I swallow some crow, that my main objection was always concern that we could not provide our new pros a living. I would sarcastically urge players to “keep your day job” at meetings when the topic came up, but I should confess that I also had concerns about how strong our pros would be.

Now, as we celebrate Ryan’s win, it’s a good time to take a moment to appreciate the route we have taken to get here, and why this is such an amazing accomplishment. Those of us used to the bullet train of the modern internet go world might benefit from a little history from the guy still riding the rusty bus several stops behind.

For decades, American players had no chance to play a professional at all, certainly not in a serious game. Apart from occasional, usually Japanese, pro tours, we could only look at their game records, on paper, received months after the games were played. We s2017.06.28_ryan-li-close-uptudied, and we played as much as we could – usually once a week at our local clubs.

The US Go Congress was the first change. Beginning in 1985, American go players, at least for a week, once a year, could grab a simul or three from professional go players. But this only made the gap seem all the more vast. In 1986 at the first Seattle Go Congress, our strongest player Charles Huh played Sakata 9 dan in a two stone one-on-one exhibition game. Sakata, one of the greatest players in history, was no longer at his peak form, yet Huh was helpless at two stones, and that was with Sakata outside most of the time on smoking breaks.

In the 1990s, Western players started to have chances to play professionals in serious matches during the annual Fujitsu Qualifiers. Still the gap seemed evident – as Michael Redmond 9P played for a decade without a loss to an amateur player. But the 1990s also brought the internet. Access to news, sgfs, opponents and unlimited chances to play began to increase the Western level of play. While I do not mean to diminish the efforts of our early professional teachers — Feng Yun, Yilun Yang, Zhujiu Jiang, Ming-jiu Jiang, James Kerwin and others — the steady shrinking of time and distance provided by the internet has broadened, amplified and, arguably, exceeded their efforts.

More and more opportunities to play pros arrived, and Western players started to win. On the one hand, I do not think this was a matter of percentages — more games does not guarantee more wins — I think we were actually getting stronger. However, the wins were often against non-active pros, certainly not against current top international players.

All that changed last week. In a serious international event, a Western pro defeated, not just a pro, not just a 9 dan, but a 9 dan world champion in his prime. It is an accomplishment for Western go that is simply unequaled. Before this week, I would argue that our greatest accomplishment was Eric Lui’s third place in the World Amateur Championship. We cannot forget the significant accomplishments of Michael Redmond 9P, but because he trained in Japan, I submit that Redmond’s success is the success of a Westerner, not the success of Western go.

Ryan Li 1P, homegrown and homemade, has announced to the world that we are more than a grateful recipient of support and a vacation opportunity; we are now a force to be reckoned with. We also owe an enormous debt of thanks to Myungwan Kim 9 dan.  Without his vision, help and guidance we would not have been able to put Ryan where he clearly deserved to be.

a western pebble
slung across the mighty seas
brings down a champion


photos courtesy Ryan Li

 

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