▲ Kim Yong Chan is a quiet, calm teen who exudes a humble confidence. Photo by Jean K. Min
Baduk is unique among board games. Its simplicity is as mind-blowing as its complexity of strategies and underlying philosophy.
It is essentially a game of war, territory and spheres of influence. Maximum efficiency, elegance of play and creativity are key.
By some estimates, 15 percent of the Korean population plays baduk at some level. There is a cable TV channel here dedicated to it. Worldwide there are at least 100 million players, mostly in Asia.
Baduk, which originated in China, is thought to be 4,000 years old. The size of the board and the rules have changed over time, but amazingly, the rules of play can be summarized in one paragraph [see sidebar].
Jeju Island’s current best player in the discipline first started when he was just eight years old. Amateur 6-dan Kim Yong Chan, 18, won the 37th Jeju Wangwijeon just last month. The year before, he came second, and he made it to the semifinal when he was in just the second grade of middle school.
For the last decade he has spent most of his time in Seoul and China training for long hours, studying baduk’s art of war.
The Jeju Weekly spoke with him after his win last month.
When did you realize your interest in baduk for the first time? There was a baduk academy in [my] neighborhood when I was 8. I had a chance to watch a game, and it interested me. After studying for a year, I won First Prize in a baduk championship on Jeju. Then I went to Seoul for three years and learned baduk from a professional baduk player. I lived in a dorm at the house of my teacher. It made me feel that I am very good at baduk and become confident.
Why did you go to China after that? I thought it would be easier to learn it there. I went to Hangzhou in 2006 at the age of 14 to study to become a pro. I spent all day studying baduk and had no spare time. I learned a lot. People were kind. I felt no discrimination as a foreigner. However, it was too difficult for me to deal with communication [difficulties], food and living all by myself, so I came back after a year.
How did you deal with a regular academic program? In elementary school, I only took one class and went to a private baduk school. In order to concentrate on baduk, I did not attend middle and high school, but I passed the national exams.
Has baduk affected how you live your life outside of the game? I used to be a bit impatient, but playing baduk helped me to be calm and patient. Also I think I am smarter than before. I attained a long-term view to think further about many things.
What are your strengths and weaknesses? Except for counting [territory in the final stages of the game, when often a single point separates the players], people say I'm overall a good player.
What is it like sitting down in a final match in tournament? I have experienced lots of finals, so I do not feel that much stress anymore. I can handle the atmosphere and nerves. I enjoy it.
Did you exhibit any eccentric habits during tournaments? No. When I face difficulties, I keep reminding myself that I can win the games.
Are there any professional baduk players who you admire? Lee Chang Ho. [Born in 1975 in Jeonju, he is considered one of the strongest players in modern history.]
How many professionals have you played with? I have played with many, but I haven’t had a chance to play any star players.
How many professionals are there in Korea? About 200 are pro players. There are approximately 10 baduk schools in Seoul, and each school has about 70 to 80 students.
How would you characterize the differences between Chinese, Japanese and Korean players? The Chinese are very patient and tenacious. They never give up. Japanese are relatively easy to beat because they tend to stick to “how-to” manuals. I’m not very good at counting and reading moves, so it is hard for me to play against Koreans.
What are you looking forward to in 2011? My biggest challenge will be the test to become a first-level professional.
How many medals, prizes, trophies do you have at home? About 30 or 40.
Of all the baduk players on Jeju Island, where do you rank? I’m pretty sure nobody is better than me. I rank the first.
Apart from baduk, what are your immediate goals? I think it is a bit late for me to be a pro baduk player now. But I am planning to study Chinese language and baduk at Halla University. I believe that it will open up another great opportunity for me. I hope to be an interpreter or a construction engineer.
What about your military service? Will the army take advantage of your skill set? Since I’m 18 now, I’ll go next year. I don’t know if they will use my talents [in strategy, tactics], but I’d welcome it.
(This article was edited for clarity. Interpretation by Erin Ah-nam Kim)
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