American Go E-Journal

The Janice Kim Files: On Ranks

Monday April 9, 2018

by Janice Kim 3P2018.04.08-janiceKim

When I was a student at the Korean Baduk Academy, I was firmly ensconced in the “B League” at 6 “gup”, or “kyu”. The way the ranking system worked is that a 6 kyu would give a 5 kyu only three points of komi for White, rather than 5.5 or 6.5 points. It then went no komi, 3 points reverse komi, then 6 points, then 9 points reverse komi. The two-stone handicap gap was considered so big, you didn’t get there until a 6 kyu was playing against a 1 dan (that’s 1 dan pro). Clearly one rank did not equal one stone.

The general go-playing population, even in Korea, didn’t know or use this kind of system. At best, you’d see the strongest players say something about being “1 gup.” There was whispering that there was such a thing as an amateur dan, but it was hard to confirm the rumor, unless you met someone who had “Amateur 4 Dan” or something like that printed on a business card. This was a signal that this person might do something completely bizarre in Korean society, like sit in a seat of honor at a banquet. Also that this person had no intention of ever exceeding this rank. Or else his family owned the banquet hall, and was paying for the whole shebang.

That’s why “gup” doesn’t exactly translate to “kyu.” Basically, strap in to your seat if the person says he or she is any “gup”. This is reminding me of when I was introduced as a “Korean 3 dan pro” to Yoda 9 dan at a banquet. He looked mildly interested, perhaps concerned, until someone whispered, “Not one of those Korean 3 dan pros.” Note that being female had nothing to do with it, it just had to be established I was not Lee Sedol, who was also 3 dan pro at the time.

On my visa renewal application, there’s a question in English, “What is your purpose for being in Korea?” I painstakingly write out “Professional Baduk researcher” in my childish Korean script. My aunt sees this, scowls, and crosses it out. Then, in her easy way, she fits in a neat sentence that I’m learning how to play. I’m almost incapable of saying or writing anything in Korean now. This is an utter disaster when anyone, naturally, assumes that I can communicate or translate from Korean to English or vice-versa. Imagine translating this into Korean. You’d have to cross the whole thing out, and say “She’s struggling to explain an existential crisis.”

It was so hard, during the peak of the AlphaGo phenomenon, to talk about things. For example, one did not want to tearfully start screaming, “You don’t understand how big a two-stone handicap gap is, that’s not even something we ever did!” when somebody started suggesting handicaps for pros against AlphaGo. Don’t get me started on winning percentages, like people of a certain skill level couldn’t just be relied on to calculate their reverse komi or whatever in a game, and play sub-optimally to win. Or like AlphaGo had invented something novel in not caring about the size of the win, or altering the strategy depending on the situation.

So there I am on the bus, which could preface a significant chunk of my entire waking life in Korea. Somebody is looking at me with my nose in my life and death book, and announces, “That’s easy.” I’m startled. Is it possible that I’m missing something obvious? I thought it was really hard. “Black lives”, my seat mate says. Well, yes. It says that right on the problem. But how?

Sensing my confusion, my seat mate starts turning pages. “Black lives. Black lives. White lives.” Then he hits one of my game records stuck in the pages of the book, where I’ve dutifully recorded my rank as “6 gup”. He smiles, looking at the shape of the finished game, which now suddenly looks pretty silly, with large territories like empty continents on a flat earth. “Black loses.”

I’m suddenly furious. When we get to my stop, I insist, practically pulling on the man’s sleeves, that he get off at the same stop, and accompany me to the Korean Baduk Association building. There I crush him in a game, in the most stupid and mindless way possible. He apologies profusely, and runs, literally runs, for the door.

The 6 gup, full of ego and self-doubt, crushes this nice man, guilty of nothing more than trying to be helpful to the young girl looking at a go book on the bus. The 3 dan teaches this man how to play go, but he already knows how. There is a game-changing difference between them. Like a 2-stone handicap.

Here’s a link to the Blue Oyster Cult song “Shooting Shark.” The lyrics are funny, especially if viewed entirely in a go context. I picked a video that didn’t have inappropriate content, although G-d knows anyone can write anything in the comments.

Categories: The Janice Kim Files