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"Victory or defeat, I will go my way until I die."
Cho Hun-hyun, 54, once the invincible world champion of Go (baduk), marked the 50th year of his career. In the game dominated by teenage champions, Cho remains a formidable contender in any international match. His presence itself is considered a threat, when most players in their 20s already start to be pushed aside. Among those in their 30s, only Lee Chang-ho, another 9-dan player known by the nickname "Stone Buddha," maintains the upper hand and very few players in their 40s or older remain active. However, Cho, who lifted Korean Go to world level, is still gallantly confronting champions in their teens and 20s. Thus he gives much hope to middle-aged Koreans. I met him at the Korean Go Association in Hongik-dong, Seongdong-gu, Seoul on November 26 to hear about his views on Go and on his life.
Cho is a reserved man. Unless he is asked he seldom starts to talk. And he usually answers in his famous hard-boiled style. As swift as a swallow on the Go board, Cho as an interviewee is a huge challenge. Sometimes appeasing and sometimes instigating, I conducted the interview with worries that it might turn out to be dull and boring. His answers were simple and brief, apparently nonchalant but nevertheless inspiring.
Q. How are you doing these days?
A. After I get up, I walk around my neighborhood with my dog, if I have nothing particular to do. Sometimes I play golf, climb a nearby mountain, search the internet, or listen to music.
Q. You seem to have gained some weight, belying your nickname, "Swallow Cho." Do you exercise?
A. I have had a little free time since last year. After looking for a pastime with my wife, we began playing golf.
Q. What is your score?
A. About 100. Women like this score. (He said with a grin. Probably the ice has been broken.)
Q. You are good at all kinds of games, and even betting. You are known to have won the first poker game you played in Las Vegas. And you are famous for your "swallow style" mountain climbing, too.
A. Learning to play golf (when you are) over 50 you can score 80 at best. You are lucky if you get 90. Like in Go game, you can never become a professional golfer unless you begin when you are very young. Is there any pro golfer who started playing past 50? No. You don't have strong motivation to play well.
Q. It seems you are no longer a fierce fighter.
A. In the past I was strong at all kinds of games. I used to play all night, quite a lot. But I don't have such physical strength now. These days it's difficult to play 50 games a year. Young players are strong, you know. Many professional games are played in tournaments. Sometimes I must withdraw after a single game. It's why I have more free time these days.
Q. But your name still frightens many Go players. Playing 50 games a year doesn't sound too bad, considering you played 100 games during your peak years.
A. Yes, there was such a time. But you can't beat your age. I'm a kind of underdog, now, playing in preliminaries not finals.
Q. (Tongue-tied by his honesty) Are young players so strong? Is the gap so big?
A. Young players have grown strong. It's crucial because it's not two or three points but a half point that determines the winner. You play half of the game with your skill and the other half with your mental and physical strength. I lag in this. So I make more mistakes these days. At times your skill level hardly shows.
Q. But experience is important in Go games.
A. Let's say you finished 100 meters in 10 seconds when you were in your teens and 20s. You can't keep that record at 80. You can't help it. They say Go games need a good brain but your physical and mental strength cannot but count when a half point makes the winner. Especially, young players these days turn pro after learning everything. And they only think of Go, nothing else, around the clock. But those in their 30s are not like them. They drink and meet girlfriends. It's hard to win even if you are 100 percent concentrated. Putting in only 80 or 90 percent of your energy, you can't win, of course.