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 èmigrè. 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."
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.
Albert Kim, a reporter for "Sports Illustrated, "is no kin to Janice Kim.