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Janice Kim was confused. The 11-year-old girl was in Seoul for a summer visit, and she had astounded a group of Koreans with her skill at Go, the ancient Chinese board game that is an obsession in many Asian countries. Kim didn't understand the commotion; after all, she was only playing a game that she had learned back home in New Mexico from her father, a Korean �migr�. But several players at the Korean Go Association had found her amusing, and they had arranged a game between her and the Minister of Transportation, an avid amateur player. When it became clear that Kim was winning the game against the minister, one of the spectators whispered to her that she ought to let her opponent win.
"I thought he was kidding," she says now. "I wasn't about to throw the game." They had gaped and stared at her, and had brought her to this stranger's house for a game. Now they were telling her to lose?
At the time, Kim had no idea of Go's importance in Korea. Though it is played worldwide, in Asia it is enormously popular. In Korea, Japan and China, it is a national pastime and more; there is even a professional tournament circuit that offers as much as $400,000 in prize money for a single event. Newspapers run game columns daily, and important professional matches are televised. Top Go pros are celebrities, in much the same way that pro tennis players and golfers are in America. Not surprisingly, the best Go players in the world are all native Asians.
The game itself seems simple. Two players take turns placing black and white "stones," quarter-sized counters, on a square board ruled with a grid of 19 horizontal and 19 vertical lines. The object is to capture enemy stones and crucial board positions by surrounding both with your pieces. Since your opponent is trying to do the same thing, strategy becomes increasingly complex as the game progresses and chains of stones begin to interact. Before long, the board develops into a shifting web of multiple fronts and convoluted shapes.
"The top players," says Chen-dao Lin, the Eastern vice-president of the American Go Association, "excel in abstraction. They read shapes and seek forms." Lin points out that the best players have well-developed analytical skills and plenty of imagination. "Go requires both patience and philosophy," he says. "It's a matter of gaining insight and learning to recognize specific situations. As you reach different levels of skill, you acquire different points of view."
Kim knew little of this as she played the Minister of Transportation. Nor had she heard the story of the Go player who was challenged to a match by a high-ranking Korean general. The ingenuous player, eager to impress his opponent, killed several of the general's key territories, ignoring the muttered warnings of the spectators. When the match was over, the disgruntled general threw his conqueror into prison for seven years. When the player finally emerged from jail, his spirit was broken and his competitive skills were ruined.
All Kim knew about the game back then was how to play, and so play she did. Ignoring the hushed words of caution and gentle kicks under the table, she beat the Minister of Transportation. She was not sentenced to prison. "He thanked me for playing and then took me out to dinner," she recalls.
Since that first trip to Korea seven years ago, she has won quite a few more games and several more dinners. In 1984, at the age of 14, she won the Korean women's amateur title in Seoul, and the following year she finished second in a daunting international field at the World Youth Amateur Championships in Taipei. Last August the Korean Go Association granted Kim professional status. Today, Kim, a worldly 18, is the best female Go player in the U.S. and one of the strongest American players ever.
"I enjoy the order of the game," she says, "and being in control. I'm pretty good at seeing 'good shape' on the board and recognizing bad formations. It's hard to explain what it is, but I know it when I see it."
Kim was born in Rolling Meadows, Ill., a suburb of Chicago. The family later moved to New Mexico, where her father, a strong amateur player, went to work at the Los Alamos National Laboratory. "I always knew about Go, since my father played a lot," she says. "He tried to teach my sister and me when we were little. She hated it and I liked it. Even as a child, I liked to be able to see the order of things. I guess I was a strange kid."