Carrying on the Task, a tribute to Hans Pietsch
This year, the Iberoamerican Go Federation organizes the 20th Iberoamerican Go Championship in memory of Hans Pietsch, who died tragically in 2003 during an official visit of Nihon Ki-In go players to Guatemala. As part of the tribute, we present below a text by Luciano Salerno, secretary of the Ibero-American Federation of Go
– By Luciano Salerno
To those of us who started playing Go in the 21st century, Hans Pietsch is like a shadow and an enigma. Hans’ figure goes through three radically different stages in the world of Go: Asia, Europe and Latin America, and in each one of them it takes on a different meaning. In Europe, he was a forerunner of professional Go, at a time when the level of play there was much lower than today. In Japan, he was one of the last examples of the great contributions of that country to Western Go during the 20th century. In Guatemala, he offered twofold evidence: of his own calling as a teacher and of the pitiful social condition of our continent.
Hans Pietsch was born in Bremen, Federal Republic of Germany, in 1968. He started playing Go when he was around 10. He made a little coordinate indicator that allowed him to play with a classmate sitting a bit apart. At 16, he began to study the game seriously. A year later he reached dan level and in three more years he was 5 dan.
With the help of Kobayashi Chizu 6-dan, in the late 80’s Hans got the opportunity to study as an insei at the Nihon Ki-in. When he was 22, at a much older age than most of his peers, he moved to Tokyo and started playing in the insei league, with an absolute commitment that was, for him, the only way to measure up to the standard of the little kids with whom he had to compete, and to make up for his “late arrival” to the race to become a professional.
“Doing things not related to my studies is an exception. At the end of the day, everything has to be related to Go”, said Hans in 1994, talking about how hard he was studying around that time.
As a student in Japan, even though his priority was always improving his game and pursuing his goal of becoming a pro, Hans had in mind that, ultimately, his role was not the same as that of the Asian players. In an interview for the Deutsche Go Zeitung magazine in 1994, Hans said that seeing him studying in Japan could motivate other Europeans to do the same, and he considered that to be his role at the time: an inspiration for other players to improve their level of play. His fellow insei Sorin Gherman recalls Hans’ plans to promote the game in countries with little or no Go development as part of that role.
In 1997, seven years after he started to study in Japan, Hans became professional 1 dan, and in 2000 he was promoted to 4 dan.
There are few records in English or Spanish of his activity as a professional between 1997 and 2003, after the heroic feat of reaching 1 dan as a result of his insei years. From his promotions we can assume that his career advanced promisingly after a historic victory, in his first year as a professional, over Yoda Norimoto 9-dan, and that by the year 2003, when he travelled to Guatemala, he had reached some of the goals he had set out to accomplish ten years before.
What did it mean for a German player to be an insei in Japan in the 90’s? What was it like to dedicate oneself absolutely to a game which, by then, generated little interest in the Western world? For the West, it is undoubtedly an outstanding milestone, that shortened in many ways the distance between two worlds, between the amateur Go club and the “variations in black and white that will exhaust all of time”, as the poem goes. According to Stephan Budig, Hans was “the best among us; our spearhead, our idol, and our delegate and link with Asia in regard to Go.”
For us, amateur players in Latin America, Hans’ career is a fantasy, an event utterly disconnected from reality. Here, reaching amateur 1 dan is a major breakthrough, and a player beyond 3 dan belongs to a group of mythical creatures whose numbers are quite limited across the continent. Hans’ experience proved to us that Go was reachable, even within a reality that often makes it look impossible.
I can’t help but feel surprised that Hans, after making a supreme effort to overcome the barriers of professional Go, made such a radical comeback to a part of the world where Go development was so clearly inferior. After setting off from Germany, where Go development is historically high, and being trained in Japan to pursue the world’s highest level, Hans went back to the West to teach in Latin America. He turned into a tangible reality something that was pure fantasy for all of us.
As soon as he arrived in Guatemala, Hans Pietsch, along with Nagahara Toshiaki 6 dan, found himself in a very familiar situation for any player in our region. At a demonstration and workshop organized at the National Palace of Antigua Guatemala, there were almost no attendees. Because of the lack of promotion on local media, few people were even aware of the event. We heard this little anecdote from Edgardo Cáceres, a player from Guatemala, and it illustrates the gap between our region and the world Hans came from at that time.
The activities continued, and three days after arriving at the country, Hans and his group were held up when they made a stop on their way to see the Guatemalan volcanoes. Hans was shot in the torso, and shortly thereafter he died at the Amatitlán Hospital. His body was flown to Germany and the Go world was in shock over such surrealistic news, as can be seen in the farewell messages to Hans on Go websites.
Fifteen years have passed since Hans’ death, and the world of Go has changed considerably. Now, there are professional systems in both Europe and the United States. Living in Asia is no longer necessary to reach pro status. The level of play and the spread of the game in the West are far higher. It does seem that Go is less and less an Asian thing. Japan never ceased to support Western Go, but it is no longer its patron. This role has not been taken up by any other Go superpower. Perhaps our half of the world can finally emancipate itself from Asia.
I said at the beginning that Hans’ figure appears to me as a shadow and an enigma. The “shadow” part is obvious; his death is one of the most traumatic events in the history of Go, and it happened in our continent, during an event that any of our countries could have organized.
The enigma, on the other hand, is the meaning of all this. The fact that a 34 year old professional player was murdered far from home, during a trip to spread the game, is a gigantic absurdity, capable of destroying anyone’s motivation to pursue a Go-related goal. It would not be logical to justify that absurdity on account of Hans’ passion. Undoubtedly, his career was the result of his immense love of the game and his fervent wish that more people would know and learn it, but we could hardly assume that he knew he was putting his life on the line.
Bringing fantasy to reality is, without any doubt, tantamount to putting two worlds in conflict. To spread an activity based on ideas and abstraction, far from any local cultural elements, in a region of the world were social reality is constantly pounding at the door, is an act of optimism; an attempt to directly improve the world we live in. In this act of optimism we can find a meaning, if not to the deplorable end of Hans’ life, maybe to its circumstances. And in this act of optimism we can also find a deep link between his endeavor and our own, as players and promoters of Go in Latin America.
Hopefully, the 2nd Latin American Go Congress, to be held in Guatemala 15 years after Hans’ passing, will be considered a bid in that direction. Going back to Guatemala and continuing an activity which was cut short by tragedy is not only a tribute, but also a reaffirmation that all the effort, and the path we have trodden, have not been in vain.
– Translated to English by Eduardo López Herrero. Revised by John Harriman.
Interview by Deutsche Go Zeitung (1994), and game records.
Hans Pietsch page on Sensei’s Library, including an account of his last days by Edgardo Cáceres.
Tribute to Hans by the Nihon Ki-in, including messages by his parents and acquaintances.
Hans Pietsch vs. Yoda Norimoto (1997), commented by Younggil An.