Leaving Korea


Someone told me a professional player speaks by her results. It’s true. A player won’t survive if she can’t win. Even if she keeps winning, she won’t survive if there are no events or tournaments for her to play, or baduk lovers who are eager to watch her play. That’s why, though a professional player shines when she reaches the top, not every professional player’s roles is to pursue the highest rankings. In this essay there are professional players, but you won’t find any tense, do-or-die moves or precise calculation. Instead, there is a warm story wherein a group of baduk players bond over the game. It is beyond nationality, age, or strength, but it is about players who come together to have a wonderful summertime in beautiful Santa Barbara.


The US Go Congress is the biggest baduk event in North America, and it takes place either in the last week of July or the first week of August for a little longer than a week. Though it’s not short, players may plan ahead for it easily because the committee usually announces the exact date one year in advance. Over the years, It has been healthy and successful without any big accidents, and is turning 27 years old this summer. The venue of the congress gets decided by AGA. This year, LA or Southern California hosted the congress for the first time. About 480 players registered, and 19 professional players came including the hero of American players, Michael Redmond 9P, and the two big teachers of US baduk stars, Feng Yun 9P and Mingjiu Jiang 7P. KBA sent Neong-wook Seo 9P, who was one of the top players in Korea in the 90’s, and me.


It has been already 5 years since I first went abroad to promote baduk. I visited a few European countries and attended three Korean Ambassador’s Cups in Germany, France and the Netherlands. It was the spring of 2006. At first I thought it was fun to travel around and get attention from Western players. However, Prof. Hahn, who took me to Europe the first time, taught me not only English but the responsibility as a professional player from Korea and the importance of promoting baduk. Since then I have had some more chances to go to Europe or America, and I am now better equipped with the English language, a sense of responsibility and experience. Thinking back, I was very fortunate to go to Europe with Prof. Hahn in the first place.


USA


In the morning of July 27th, Korea was suffering a severe rainstorm which caused avalanches and floods in many cities. Though, luckily, my city didn’t have much rain, Seo 9P had to come to the airport by taxi because the limousine bus stopped operating due to the heavy rain. (He showed up at the airport an hour late). KBA also seemed worried about cancellation of our plane. Fortunately, the plane took off as planned, and after 16 hours’ journey including the transfer in Taipei, we safely arrived in LA.


My last trip to the States was in 2009, so I came back after 2 years. Speaking of  time, I am realizing that it has a mystical aspect. When I am sitting in a long class, time tends to crawl. If you reminisce about an event that happened 2 years ago, however, it feels as if the 2 years flew by like a jet plane. Time feels even faster when you look back 5 or 10 years. That’s probably why people say time goes faster as you get older. Wait. Does that mean we may keep time slow by not looking back the past?


The Congress Location


Santa Barbara is a small beautiful city in California. It attracts many tourists with beautiful beaches and fantastic weather all year round. Buildings sit like ladies fixing their dark orange colored hair and soft apricot color dresses. Tall, straight palm trees shield a little bit of bright sun rays and smile to welcome. Colorful flowers chit-chat with bees and butterflies and grizzled, wide streets yawn as if they don’t care whether their territory is taken or not.


Andy (Andrew Okun) told me that the Congress committee originally planned to use the UCLA campus. Because the price was too high and nonnegotiable, they decided to have the congress in UCSB instead. Though UCLA would have been more convenient location, I liked Santa Barbara a lot. It’s peaceful and beautiful. Besides, the campus was right by a beach. One thing that surprised me, though, was that the campus had so many students already. 2 years ago when the congress was held at George Mason University, the campus was almost empty aside from the congress participants. Later I found out that Santa Barbara campus was very popular for summer classes and camps.


Opening Ceremony


The opening ceremony was short and simple. There were Andrew Okun’s (the chairman of the board of AGA) welcome greeting, an introduction of the visiting professional players, AGA President Allan Abramson’s updates on AGA, and both co-directors’ greetings and announcements. The most interesting thing about the ceremony was the AGA’s declaration of launching a professional system in collaboration with KBA. I know some people think it’s immature considering the gap between top American players and World’s top players. Yet, I will root for AGA in this regard. When KBA first selected its professional players, those players were much weaker than Japanese professional players. Yet, because KBA started, Korean players could have a base to catch up. Therefore I think it’s important to start the process anyway. Though there wasn’t anything special in the ceremony, I liked the way that it felt natural and practical.


A typical day at the UGC is like this: players have breakfast freely at the cafeteria, and play the US Open from 9 am. There are 6 rounds in the Open tournament, and each player has 1.5 hours and 30 seconds countdown 5 times. (4D and above have 2 hours). After lunch at the nearby cafeteria, there are lectures, game reviews, and simultaneous games by professional players. Because there were many professional players this year, participants could enjoy the variety. From 7 o’clock, there is the Ing Masters Cup tournament, and event tournaments such as the 9X9, 13X13, Pair-Go, and Crazy Go. Also, there was a live commentary of the first board of the Ing Cup in the main playing room. The real fun part of the evening, though, was the mini bar that offered a few kinds of beer and wine from 7pm in the main playing room.                 


Schedule


Unlike my first congress, in which I was assigned 10 or 11 simultaneous games out of 12 official scheduled events, this year I received 6 lectures, 3 commentaries and 3 simultaneous games. Though playing simultaneous games allows me to interact with the players directly, there is a limitation on the number of players that can participate, and little room to talk and communicate. Therefore, I generally prefer to have a lecture or a commentary over playing simultaneous games. I wouldn’t want to have lectures without preparation time, though. Anyway, it was exciting and stressful at the same time to have my first lectures and commentaries in a Congress. I tried to be confident, but couldn’t help wondering whether players wanted to listen to  what I had to say. Thankfully, many players came to my lectures and commentaries, and encouraged me a lot by telling me that they enjoyed the time. Speaking of the lectures, I would like to thank Andrew Jackson and Lisa Scott for helping me with the equipment. I just assumed it would be easy to use a projector and screen.


Pair-Go Tournament


On Tuesday, the 4th day of the congress, there was a Pair-Go tournament in the evening. Before going to the Congress, I thought I would not play this tournament, mainly because I had a commentary scheduled at the same time. That evening, Lisa told me she could easily move my schedule to some other time, and I teamed up with Matthew at the last minute. When I ran to the registration desk to sign up, the sheet had already gone to be paired. I rushed to the office, and Todd, the pair-go tournament director generously accepted my team.


Playing Pair-Go is very interesting, especially when you have no countdown. You don’t want to spend too much time, but you also don’t want to mess things up. Despite the fact that there were some tough situations in that regard, we managed them very well. I wonder if having known each other for some years helped it. Anyway, I once again won the first board, and remained undefeated in the US Pair-Go Open :P


Off-day


Wednesday was the off-day. Ever since I arrived in Santa Barbara, I was looking for something fun and interesting to do for the free day. Universal Studios and Disney Land seemed a bit costly, and the winery tour wasn’t new to me. I have experienced in horseback riding in Poland, and the Channel Islands were pretty far for a day trip. One day, I noticed a trip to Santa Barbara downtown, which included “August Days Festival” among the off-day programs the Congress offered. I asked a few people if they knew anything about the festival, but no one knew about it except my wisest friend, Google. Of course, he knows everything. It turned out an old Spanish culture festival wherein you can find Spanish handcrafts, costumes and street foods. It certainly sounded interesting, but another problem arose. The tour bus was scheduled to come back at 6:50 to the campus, and I had to be back by 5:30 for the Pro-dinner. Luckily, Andy Okun turned out to be the off-day savior. His program got canceled due to insufficient applicants, and he agreed to drive me downtown. Later Matthew and Jay joined us to the trip, so we made a nice team for the day trip.


Good company, nice weather, and beautiful streets--everything was exactly how you would like it to be for your holiday. Even the parking lot was very close to the main street we wanted to see. The festival touched the downtown like a wand of a happy witch, and made whole streets and all the people lively and cheerful. We had fancy iced coffee not far from an amazing painting of David Alfaro Sequieros, and wandered around the magical streets. Then we ate a Hawaiian lunch and had an ice cream cone while we watched some Latin dance performances. Then a nice walk to the harbor followed as if a great scheduling-chef had come up with an exquisite happiness-course meal. I felt sad that we had to go back for the Pro-dinner, but on the other hand my mind was already full of pleasure.


Pro-dinner


Professional players in baduk tournaments are like tomatoes in burgers. You don’t have to have a tomato to make a burger, but a piece of fresh tomato adds more flavor, nutrition and color (though I am not a picky eater, I always want a tomato in my burger). Fortunately, through unsurprisingly, the US Go Congress is as popular to professional players as it is to American players. It is true that domestic players get paid for coming and teaching, while Korean, Chinese, Japanese players are usually supported by their associations, but there also are professional players who come to the Congress just because they like to be there. To appreciate all the professional players’ presence, it is customary for AGA and the Congress committee to host a Pro-dinner during a Congress.


This year, however, they could relax a little bit in that regard, because there was a volunteer who firmly insisted on hosting the dinner by himself. The owner of LA Korean baduk club (Na-sung-ki-won), Mr. Kunho Choi is the one. Mr. Choi is well-known to LA baduk players for his baduk club, which has been welcoming all baduk players for a few decades. Unlike typical baduk players, who like the indoors, Mr. Choi is an outdoor person. He enjoys hiking, camping and fishing a lot. Also, he is admired for his high respect for professional players. His willingness to host the Pro-dinner may have come from the same values.


The Pro-dinner was a fantastic Korean barbecue party at a beach. Mr. Choi found and booked a place with a huge charcoal grill and three long wooden tables that could seat more than 40 people. For the food, he delivered a truck full of meats, vegetables, kimchi, rice, chicken, and many more Korean style side dishes from LA. Of course, there was lots of beer and soda as well. Looking back, it was the only Korean meal I had in this trip to California. Anyway, the food was amazingly good, and I could tell that everyone had a delightful time there.


People


The US Go Congress is the meeting place of American baduk players. Attendees motivation for going to the Congress seems to be as much about meeting baduk friends from other states or countries as it is about playing baduk freely. Thinking about it, I was excited to go to the Congress for the same reason. As a result of my three American trips, I had some local American friends with whom I kept in touch online. Also, making a new friends always thrills me.


The first person I want to introduce is Andrew Okun. He drove to the airport for me twice, once to pick me up, and once to drop me off.  He let me stay in his daughter’s room (who happened to be out of town) while we were waiting for the Congress to start.  He showed me around the LA area to anywhere I wanted to see, and so forth. He was a wonderful conversationalist, and was so welcoming and caring. I also enjoyed meeting another Andrew, Andrew Jackson, and Lisa Scott.  They were great people who I’d met at my previous Congress as well. Sadly, they were too busy conducting the Congress to spend too much time hanging out together, but they were always so kind and helpful to me. Also I had so much fun hanging out with Greg, Gus and Nick. We played fooseball, pool and rengo together. I laughed a lot, and felt as comfortable as if I was with good friends that I’ve known for a long time.


Korean food, Korean language and Korean culture is very different from that of other countries, especially when it comes to Western places. Thus, many Korean people experience homesickness when they travel for a long-term or live abroad. Although I am relatively strong in this regard (I survive well without Korean food), it still makes me feel comfortable to have Korean people around. It was a pity that Myoung-wan couldn’t make it, but Ju-yong from Vancouver, Danny from LA, and Mr. Kim from Virginia came to the Congress. They were all very strong at baduk, pleasant, and kind. With Seo 9P, we sometimes had breakfast together, beer at night and enjoyed conversations in our mother tongue.


Closing Ceremony - Banquet


Just like any other vacation, one week at the Congress passed as fast as a two-hour-movie. Then there is a final event, the banquet. Having a banquet with a closing ceremony is one of the traditions of US Go Congress. Players would get out of the Congress shirts and dress up like non-baduk players. A little bit of alcohol, fancy food, various prizes, applause, photos and smiles are the main ingredients, but they are not sweet enough to cover a hint of bitterness from the impending farewells.


This year the Congress committee prepared an outdoor banquet. The venue was very nice with a small pond and a big bell tower right next to it, and the weather was perfect like every other day during the Congress. Also, I liked the fact that even the ones who didn’t pay for the banquet could come round and see the ceremony. One downside of it, though, was that the time was very limited. Because of that, Andy, the MC of the ceremony, had to be very tight on time. Other than that, I think everything went quite well, and the banquet was successful.


The End             


Ever since I chose baduk for my career, each game of baduk was like a war to me. Dense fog was laid on a broad plain, and I would be all alone feeling very sharp and tense. After having started teaching baduk, however, I am discovering another side of the game. It also can be fun. Winning is good, but you don’t have to win. I don’t have to win. Looking at the baduk players at the congress, who seemed to love playing baduk so much, I couldn’t help feeling a little bit of jealous. Yet I, as a professional baduk player, also found hope and courage in them. After all, there is no professional player without the baduk lovers.