Jul 10, 2016

2016 Takara Go Contest

The day started early. I was first to arrived at the HakataMinami station and, while waiting for my two friends, I thought about Yoshihara Yukari, the female pro Go player who was going to be the senior official for the contest. I have been following her career since she first appeared on the NHK TV Go program about 20 years ago. I was hoping I might get a chance to see her up close.

My friends arrived one at a time. Ezaki-san who would be playing as a 7-kyu came first and then Irie-san, my teachers wife, who would play at 3-ku appeared. Go players are ranked in a system consisting of dan and kyu. Dan is the higher level and the highest possible rank is 9-dan and the lowest 1-dan or shodan as it is called. Below the dan level are the kyus. The strongest kyus are at the 1-kyu level and the weakest, those who have just learned the rules are 35-kyu. A difference of one level represents one stone in the handicapping system. By the way, I was going to play as a 2-kyu.

We took the train into Fukuoka city and then a taxi from the station to the contest site. An escalator brought us to the second floor where we register by showing a postcard.

After submitting an application, we had each received a postcard from the Nihon Kiin, the professional Go association. The card would function as our win/loss record during the day. We presented our cards and had them stamped at the reception desk where we paid the 2,500 yen (US$25) fee.

Irie-san knew many of the people who were waiting in the lobby. Her husband, my teacher, conducts kyu level classes at the Nihon Kiin and Irie-san acts as his assistant, so she was familiar with many people who play go at the Nihon Kiin facilities. A rather amusing event happened while we were waiting. Irie-san moved off to talk to some people and Ezaki-san and I stood waiting. As frequently happens to me, a stranger approached and started asking me the usual questions about where I was from and how long I have been in Japan. She started in broken English but switched to Japanese when I responded in that language rather than English. While we were chatting, Irie-san came up behind me and stood listening with Ezaki-san. The women soon moved off and the three of us started for our assigned playing room. As we walked, Irie-san asked me in a rather surprised tone if the woman had been a friend of mine. I said, 'No, she just walked up and started talking to me'. Irie-san was surprised and complained that no one ever walked up and just started talking to her. I told her that it happened to me all the time, especially when I was the only foreigner in a large crowd.

After locating our playing room, we moved to the large hall that was already full of people. It was time for the opening ceremony. I estimated that there were close to 500 players in the hall and I was the only foreigner who was registered.

 As is typical of this sort of function in Japan, there were a number of short speeches. The president of the Takara company spoke, encouraging everyone to enjoy themselves and partake of the free alcoholic drinks that were going to be provided. The Takara company makes Japanese sake, shochu (a ferment drink made from many different ingredients) and various liquids that are used in cooking. Next a representative of the Nihon Kiin spoke a bit about the contest, but mostly thanking the Takara company for sponsoring the event. Then the speech that I was waiting for.
 Yoshihara Yukari explained the basic rules. There would be three groups. The kyu level players would be in one room,  the dan levels in the hall we were in, and the very high dan level players, 6-dan and above, in yet another room. When she finished speaking, Ezaki-san and I left without hearing the rest of the speeches. Irie-san had not come with us because she has been to this contest, which is held yearly, many times and has heard it all before.
 There was free coffee in our room so while we waited for the starting time for our first match we drank coffee and chatted with people. We also turned in our postcards at the desk at the front of the room. The staff for our room consisted for four young men who were low ranking professional players. They acted as organizers and referees. For the first match we were randomly paired with another person of the same rank.

My first game: My opponent was someone who played in a completely different way than anyone I have ever played. Usually each play makes four to six groups with an average of around 10 points per group and no group containing much more than 20 points. My opponent, however, made only two groups and one of them was worth more than 80 points. I managed to counter this with a group of about 50 and three small corner groups. However, it was not enough and I lost by 8.5 points. I was not terribly disappointed and felt that I had gained a lot of experience.

Game two: The dan level players rankings are pretty much accurate but at the kyu level we are allowed to just set our rank wherever we want. My teacher had suggested that I play as a 5-kyu if I wanted to win a lot of games, but I felt this was cheating and did not want to do it. However, it seemed as if my opponent had set his rank much too low. I felt that he was a lot stronger than me but he was a 3-kyu to my 2-kyu, which meant that he got a handicap in his favor. In spite of this I was doing pretty well, thinking that I had a chance to win or at least that it would be another close game. However, I made a dumb mistake, the kind that I frequently make. I did not notice a potential play. My opponent saw it and punished me by taking ten points and preventing me from reducing at least that number or more from one of his areas. I estimated that the mistake cost me about 30 points. In the end I lost by around 20 points. While we were playing Yoshihara Yukari can through the room and smiled at me as she passed by me.

Lunch time arrived and when we had the results of our second games certified and entered on our postcards, we were given a box lunch and a can of tea. The three of us sat together, eating our lunches and talking about our games. We also filed out the quiz forms. The questions covered both sides of a sheet of paper. I did not submit the paper because the prizes were bottles of booze and I no longer drink. I would not have won anything anyway since I was only able to answer two of the four questions on the Go portion of the quiz. The rest of the question were about Takata products and I doubt if I could have gotten many of those correct, either. I did, however, take the form back to the hall and submit it at a booth where just for completing the form I got a couple of cans of highballs, Takara company products. I gave these to Irie-san to give to her husband, my teacher.
 In the area where I got the canned drinks, these three booths were also in operation. They were all serving alcoholic drinks for free. I understand that a lot of the players who had lost their first two games drank quite a bit.
 Back in our game room, I posed by the quiz questions and then chatted with people while waiting for game three to start.

While we were waiting, Yoshihara Yukari came to our room and she posed with me for a picture. Then it was time to get back to the real business at hand, playing Go.

Game three: They were pairing us with people who had the same record so I was playing a man who had also lost the first two games. I played a good game, made no serious mistakes and won by 12 points.

Game four: I played with a young woman, a 4-kyu and we had a real battle which in the end she won by four points. I was quite satisfied with my game so I did not feel (too) bad about losing.

Game five: My record for the day was now one win and three loses. When I applied for the contest, I thought that one win against four loses would be a minimally acceptable record, so even if I lost this game, the day would be a success. My opponent was a college student and he was playing as a 2-kyu. This was one of those times when I was completely on top of my game. Every stone I put on the board added points for me and took away points from him at the same time. When it become completely obvious that there was no possible way for him to win, he resigned.

The three of us friends got together and compared records. Irie-san was 3-2, I was 2-3 and Ezaki-san was 1-4, so we all had reasonably good days. We took our postcards down to the reception desk and received prizes. Irie-san got a bottle of sake and two containers of cooking liquids.  I got two containers of cooking liquids and  Ezaki-san got two small bottles of sake. As we were leaving, the woman I had played in game four saw me and rushed over to ask it I would pose with her for a picture. Once that was taken, the three of us decided not to wait for the closing ceremony but to head for home. There were no taxis and we had to walk for about a kilometer before one came by. When we arrived at the train station I saw something unusual.
These people were waiting in line for a bus which is not unusual. However, the mist that is being sprayed on them from above is something I have only seen in summer marathons. This is outdoors and the midday temperatures can be really high, so this has been provided to prevent heat stroke.

We had a twenty minute wait for the next train and then I was home by five. It had been a very long but interesting and satisfying day. I am definitely planning to play again next year.