May 12–19 2019 saw the first edition of the IMSA World Masters Championship. A total of 160 players of bridge, chess, draughts, go, and xiangqi (Chinese chess) made their way to Hengshui, China, hometown of the Chinese ’go saint’ Nie Weiping. In addition to the players, dozens of officials of the international bridge, chess, draughts, go, and xiangqi associations were also present, and a total of three hotels were fully reserved for the events.
The IMSA, or International Mind Sports Association, has been known so far for the World Mind Sports Games, held in 2008 in Beijing and in 2012 in Lille (France). Also, from 2011 to 2014, they also held the SportAccord World Mind Games annually. The IMSA World Masters Championship is the first large-scale event by IMSA since 2014.
The Chinese organising committee of the event made a special effort to make the event look as professional and large-scale as possible, themselves calling it an ’A-class international mind sports event.’ Just the opening ceremony in itself was of impressive scale, held at the Poly Theatre in central Hengshui, with nine separate groups of artists performing various kinds of music and dance shows. In the intermissions between performances, and also for example during the athletes’ oath, music by famous international artists was also played from the loudspeakers – I recognised Conquest of Paradise by Vangelis and the guitar riff from She Is My Sin by Nightwish.
I arrived at the Beijing airport around noon on May 12 together with the Japanese team of go players. Waiting at the airport were organisers of the event who ushered participants into buses which would take them to the event venue in Hengshui. It took a five-hour ride to reach the goal, including one break along the way. I had been to Beijing twice before to study go, but this was my first time to see the Chinese countryside; save for the occasional sight of huge Chinese blocks of flats, the view was more tranquil than I would have expected. Every once in a while there was a police checkpoint, which slowed down the otherwise smooth journey. At the hotel, everybody got assigned to their hotel rooms – luxurious as expected – and the first day was over.
The following day, there was nothing to do in the morning, and only a tournament rules meeting and the opening ceremony in the evening. This was a good opportunity to get more familiar with Chinese culture. However, there was little reason to leave the hotel as it was located away from the city centre and had no particular points of interest nearby – and while the local weather was beautiful throughout the event, the 30-degree temperature never encouraged a stroll outside. Inside the hotel there was little more to do than talk with other people, read books, or browse the internet with the very personal wi-fi provided by the hotel. With most of the sites that I frequent (e.g., Reddit and Wikipedia) being blocked by the Great Firewall of China, I eventually turned my attention to books.
The rules meeting, as the name implies, was for communicating the tournament rules to the players. Most participants were already familiar with Chinese rules and counting, so probably the main content of the meeting was to establish rules for mishaps with the gaming clocks used: somehow, the tournament organisation had gotten their hands on Ing gaming clocks (second edition). With these clocks, a player can see the opponent’s remaining time only by pressing a button on the clock, and many times it has happened that a player has accidentally pressed the wrong button on their turn, indicating a pass when the player only wanted to see the opponent’s remaining time. Having heard that Chinese go tournaments are strict on their rules – for example, one cannot pause the clock under any circumstances, even when having to remove a big number of captured stones – I sensed that the Ing clocks could potentially cause a scandal, and so brought the topic to the organisers’ attention. After some consultation, the organisers decided that accidentally passing would not cause a pass, but a two-point penalty would have to be paid. Three such penalties would lose a game. The same penalty system would be used if players didn’t manage to remove captured stones in time.
After the penalties were made clear, there was a lottery for the pairings of both the men’s and women’s team tournaments as well as the pair go tournament. The decision to completely randomise the positions in the pair go tournament bracket was met with some controversy, as it increases the effect of luck in the final results. As a result, China and Korea ended up meeting on the first round, causing one of the top pairs not to make it to top four; and Europe and America also met on the first round, letting one of the lower-end pairs in the top four.
After the rules meeting, there was the grandiose opening ceremony which lasted a full two hours with various speeches and the nine artist performances. Beside the visual glamour, the tournament organisers wanted to emphasise that China wants to develop the international mind games scene, seeing that mind games are an important addition to human knowledge and also provide a ’wondrous sensation of tacit understanding’. A few of the performances were also robot-themed, echoing the recent developments in go AI.
Aside from the pair go pairing issue mentioned above, the tournaments proceeded smoothly. There was only one Ing clock mishap, and that got resolved in a most satisfactory way. In the game between Ilya Shikshin of Russia and Ida Atsushi of Japan, there was a scenario where the clock started its last overtime countdown on Ida’s turn, and Ida, surprised at his time so quickly running out, did not manage to make his move in time. The referee came over, and it turned out that Shikshin’s pressing of the clock was not registered: therefore, Shikshin should have lost the game on time. After a brief exchange, however, the players and the referee decided that the game would be resumed. Ida was commended for his sportsmanlike conduct, and many observers also appreciated the referee’s flexible ruling. However, after this mishap the organisers decided that if something similar should occur, the time loss should stand.
Starting from the second round, the China Central Television set up a small corner studio in the main playing hall where the Chinese men’s team’s captain’s (i.e., Ke Jie’s) games would get recorded. First up was the classic Ke Jie vs Park Junghwan matchup, which was the highest-level game in the whole go event. The European and American captains also got broadcasted in this fashion on later rounds, a small moment of fame for western go in China.
Along the go tournaments, there was an extra source of drama from the European and American teams’ presence: slightly before the IMSA event, there had been a problem in the Transatlantic Professional Go Team Championship online tournament. There, the European Mateusz Surma had lost a game to Eric Lui of the American team due to lag, and the result had been appealed first by the European team, and then also by the American team. Since the both players involved, other team members, and even the team leaders were present at the IMSA event, this was deemed the best opportunity to sort out the situation. Unfortunately, even then the two teams could not find a compromise, and the time loss stood.
For me, one of the highlights of the men’s tournament was the Japan-Taiwan match on the last round. This match was to decide the third place, with the first place set to go to China and the second place to Korea. Japan perhaps had the stronger team on paper, but Taiwan got off into a good start with the third-board player, Hsu Hao-Hung defeating Motoki Katsuya, and with the captain Wang Yuan-Jyun killing a big group from Murakawa Daisuke in the first half of the game. Murakawa managed to fight his way back into the game and finally won by 2.5, even though the situation looked all but hopeless in the middle game. With a 2–1 result, Japan took third place.
No doubt the biggest upset in the whole go event was when the captain of the Japanese women’s team, Mukai Chiaki 5 dan, defeated the Korean women’s captain, Choi Jeong 9 dan. There was no big reversal in this game, and Mukai in fact made very few mistakes altogether. The game could well be called one of her masterpieces, and she made it at a perfect timing: thanks to this win, Japan also got the third place in the women’s team tournament. In the meantime, the Korean women’s team proceeded to win all the other games and won the tournament.
In the pair go tournament, which was played last, Korea defeated China on the first round, dropping China to the 5th place. Also on the first round, Europe’s pair of Natalia Kovaleva and Ilya Shikshin defeated the American pair of Lin Xuefen and Eric Lui, and therefore the European pair made it to the fourth place, a rare sight in intercontinental tournaments.
After the pair go tournament concluded, all participants were hauled to yet another convention centre for the closing ceremony where a lavish dinner awaited. The organising team had put together an impressively high-quality video from footage that was shot during the event, with every player getting their moment in the limelight. The prize-giving ceremony for the tournaments had taken place earlier at a different venue, and now it was time for the awarding of prizes for sponsors and partner organisations, showing that the event was not made only for the players.
For me, it was nice to see that China takes mind sports very seriously. The opening ceremony’s grandioseness was something more befitting a Eurovision-level event, and certainly not something I ever expected to see in a go tournament. Perhaps with more events of this scale, traditional board games could start to (re)claim some of the cultural recognition that they should be due.
Report by Antti Törmänen
Pictures courtesy of the Japanese Weekly Go newspaper