While five outstanding Korean professional go players were competing for medals at the World Mind Games in Beijing last month, 136 outstanding Korean amateurs competed in Seoul for the Amateur Guksu (or Kuksu) title, and the right to represent Korea at the next World Amateur Go Championship in Thailand. The competitors included some who are training in hopes of winning professional credentials in Korea’s tough insei league, so the Guksu tournament was also viewed as a contest between this elite group and Korea’s large general amateur population.
A double-elimination preliminary qualifier held on December 13 reduced the field from 136 to 64, who then competed in a six-round knockout on December 14 and 15. After four of the six rounds, three of the four survivors were insei: Kim Changhoon, Park Jaegeun (winner of the 2013 Korea Prime Minister Cup), and Song Jihoon. Song also won one of the two semifinal games, greatly improving on his performance the year before, when he had been retired in the first knockout round. But insei dominance was not complete. The winner of the other semifinal game was Hong Moojin, who ranked No. 2 in the junior (U40) tier of Korean amateurs, second only to 2013 Guksu and 2014 KPMC winner Wei Taewoong. Song, for his part, ranked No. 3 among the insei.
Could the third best insei beat the second best general amateur? The answer to that question, after a 247 move thriller in the final round, was yes — by half a point. In a post-game interview Song Jihoon described his Guksu triumph as follows:
‘I was lucky to win. All my games were tough, especially my second-round game against Song Hongsuk [who was 2009 amateur Guksu and 2010 world amateur champion] and the final game against Hong Moojin. The final game was a struggle all the way, with the lead constantly shifting back and forth, but Hong made the last mistake.’
Aged seventeen, Song Jihoon is regarded as a rising star among the insei. In October he and Kim Changhoon competed alongside pros in the Samsung Cup. His style of play is often compared to that of Lee Sedol, whom he hopes to emulate. To quote him again, ‘I’m now preparing for the professional qualifying tournament by working on my opening, which is my weak point. Now that I’ve won the Guksu, I’m determined to win the world amateur championship and get the 40 professional qualification points that will be worth. Then I’ll try to win a professional world title within five years of making pro.’
In the meantime, to further his training he has the ₩2-million Guksu first prize (roughly $1800 or €1500). Hong Moojin, who has already amassed 90 of the 100 points needed to qualify as a pro, received ₩700,000 as runner-up, and took over the No. 1 amateur rank, pushing Wei Taewoong down to No. 2. Last year Wei narrowly missed being world amateur champion. Can a different Korean do better this year? That question will be answered in Bangkok next June.
Postscript: Song Jihoon made pro in February 2015. The Korean player at the next World Amateur Go Championship will be someone else, currently undecided.
– James Davies