In the tradition-bound world of Go, Kim still is a strange kid. Though the game claims nearly 10,000 devotees in the U.S., only two other American-born players have ever reached professional status. Both are men. About 10% of the 400 professional players in Japan are women, and of the 90 players granted professional status by the Korean Go Association, only three are female. "I was like a talking dog or a white goldfish," Kim says of her first exposure to the Far East. "When I first went to Korea, they thought it was odd that this little American person—who was not a guy—could play Go. Relatively speaking, I wasn't even a very strong player then."
In order to hone her talents and fully develop her tactical skills, her father encouraged her to study in Korea. ("I always thought that my father had this secret wish to be a competitive Go player," says Kim.) After spending a few summers in Seoul studying with a private instructor, Kim moved there in 1984 to enter the Hankook Kiwon, the Korean Go Academy, a special school where talented youngsters can study the game full-time in lieu of attending high school. She was the only girl among the 25 students in her class. "At first I was a novelty, and I got a lot of attention, especially from the press," she says. "Korean teen magazines ran articles screaming things about the 'blonde-haired, blue-eyed barbarian [foreigner]. [Kim has brown hair and brown eyes.] It was kind of fun, at first."
But as the novelty began to wear off, her situation became increasingly uncomfortable. "No one takes you seriously," says Kim. "People even told me that women are mentally incapable of playing Go at a competitive level." When she won an amateur women's title, the tournament directors awarded her a stove. The winner of the men's competition received a car.
During that time, the hostility she faced at school grew. "When the other kids lost to me, they would get teased a lot," she says. "So they would play against me twice as hard. The little ones cried when they lost. One boy even hit his head against the wall. Some concentrated so hard during games that they would tremble uncontrollably and get nosebleeds."
Kim's own game began to suffer. Accused of "playing like a girl," she adopted a rational, defensive style of play that avoided direct engagements and unpredictable attacks. "It made for pretty patterns on the board, but it wasn't very aggressive," she says now. Her development, and confidence, faltered. "For a while, whenever I lost, I would lock myself in the bathroom and play my Walkman really loud, usually something depressing. Considering how I was playing then, I'm convinced that I've permanently lost part of my hearing."
Finally, after another student pointed out to her that she wasn't getting anywhere with her game, she reached a turning point. "He was right," she says. "People told me I wouldn't make it, and it got me really angry, but I was still losing." She revamped her strategy, forgot about the perpetual gibes of her classmates, and within three months her wins came with increasing frequency. Last year she successfully completed the school's yearlong period of tournament play, an achievement that put her into the professional ranks.
Kim returned to the U.S. last August and currently lives with a family of Go fanatics in Chappaqua, N.Y., as their teenage son's personal Go tutor. By giving private Go lessons in New York City and playing exhibition matches she earns extra money. To support herself as a player, however, she will have to return to Korea and the professional circuit.
Kim, who has been accepted by several colleges in the U.S., doesn't yet know just when she'll be leaving for Korea or how long she'll stay. One thing is certain, though. Once she's there, she doesn't plan on throwing any games.