While the utility of studying master games for weaker players is often hotly debated among amateurs, I’m firmly in the camp that believes doing so cannot hurt your game. For all the profound reading present in a professional game record, they also contain a multitude of moves well within the grasp of anyone dedicated to the game. In the engrossing Baduk novel First Kyu (which I’ll talk about in more detail in another post) Nak, a failed insei, tells Wook, a talented player with professional aspirations, that theory and tsumego books are for entertainment, and the game records of masters are the real subject worthy of study. While I’m but a lowly single digit kyu, I think there’s a grain of truth here.

Unfortunately, as I’ve mentioned elsewhere, the pickings are somewhat slim when it comes to game record collections with commentaries in English. Fortunately what is available tends to be of very high quality. If you’ve been playing Go since around AlphaGo there’s a fair chance you have Relentless in your library. If you’ve been playing Go for more than a year you might have heard mention of Invincible: The Games of Shusaku in venerated tones. If you avidly follow contemporary Go, Lee Sedol’s Commented Games may grace your collection. If you’re a sucker for history like myself there’s little doubt a couple of John Fairbairn’s collected commentaries on Go Seigen’s jubangos reside upon your shelves.

But in all the commented game recommendations I have encountered online I never once heard mentioned Cho Hun-hyun: Life and Master Games. A quick search on Life in 19x19 brought up exactly one post about the book with no replies. The book was originally published in Japan in 1995 with the title So Kungen Igo Meikyoku-Shu as part of a series covering contemporary masters from outside of Japan. Now that I have this book in my possession, it feels like I’ve found a real treasure and I’d like to describe it detail. While it’s out of print it shouldn’t be too hard to get your hands on a used copy if you like what you hear.

The book consists of twenty commented games. The first twelve are from Cho’s time as a newly minted professional of the Nihon Ki-in. The later eight are from Cho’s brilliant international career. Cho’s crowning achievement was defeating Nie Weiping in the very first Ing Cup. The Ing Cup is often to referred to as the “Olympics” of Go due to it’s occurrence only once every four years. Cho returned to Korea from the Ing Cup a national hero. This was after Cho had held all Korean titles three times (1980, 1982, 1986). In fact, if not for the meteoric rise of his student, Yi Ch’ang-ho (Lee Chang-ho, aka The Stone Bhudda), one can easily believe that Cho would have continued to accrue titles in Korea and internationally for another decade.

In addition to the game commentary the book ends with some excellent material describing the history as well as the then contemporary state of Go in Korea (1990s). In the span of 50 years, top Korean players went from needing to take two stones from visiting Japanese professionals (also mentioned in First Kyu) to pretty much dominating the international tournament circuit for two decades. For me, this book is a critical missing puzzle piece in understanding how today’s Go came to be.

The Life of Cho Hun-hyeon

Identified as a prodigy at young age, Cho was sent from Korea to Japan to study with the best. Cho came under the tutelage of Segoe Kensaku. Yes, the very same Segoe Kensaku that took in a young Chinese prodigy some thirty-five years earlier who later became known as Go Seigen. For more information about that I highly recommend Fairbairn’s Kamakura.

After a steller performance in Japan, Cho had to return to Korea for the mandatory military service. And after his service, unlike the legendary Cho Chikun, Cho Hun-hyeon decided to stake his professional career in his homeland. Perhaps, one could say that Cho Hun-hyeon in some ways fused the deep lessons from Japan with the fighting spirit that characterizes the Korean style? I don’t have the qualifications to make such a claim, but that’s the general vibe I’ve ascertained so far.

The Games

In terms of commentary the style is more like Lee Sedol’s commented games. This gives the games a personal touch and a sense of drama usually missing from third party commentary. Unlike Lee Sedol’s book, however, Cho doesn’t drill down into a ton of variations. Like Invincible, Cho only talks about a few critical things leaving much up to the reader. To be honest, that’s perfectly fine by me. My approach to memorizing Go games is to replay them numerous times from start to finish. Each time through the game I pick different points to pause and enjoy the scenery, so to speak. This scenery appreciation usually take the form of questions - why can’t we cut? why is this sente? why is this life and death? and so on.

I’ll only mention the first two games as they are the only ones I got around to studying in any depth so far.

For example, the first game in the book is young Cho Hun-hyeon against a young player you’ve probably never heard of, Takemiya Masaki. It’s an Oteai Ranking Tournament game (you may recall this being referenced in Hikaru No Go). After an overplay, Cho loses control of the game but not without some spectacular fireworks.

Abe (black) is in trouble!

The second game is between Cho and Abe Yoshiteru 9 dan. Like the Shusaku Ear-Reddening game this is a tale of winning what appears to be a lost game. While it’s always inspiring to see raw power on display, it’s the winning of that lost game that’s easiest to relate with. In Go, patience and tenacity cannot be undervalued.

The format of the commentaries is consistent. Cho always starts with a description of the conditions of the game along with illuminating stories that place the opponent in context with the greater flow of Go at the time. Other notable opponents you’ll encounter in this volume include Kobayashi Koichi, Kato Masao, Nie Weiping, Rin Kaiho, and Yi Ch’ang-ho.

Go Seigen’s Thoughts on Cho

The book ends with a series of brief but rich appendices.

The last appendix of the book is written by the editor of the Japanese edition, Shirakawa Masayoshi. He describes the research done prior to beginning the project. He spoke to many people to gain insight into the kind of person and player that Cho Hun-hyeon was. The following are excerpts from a series of interviews that occurred between the editor and Go Seigen:

Shirakawa: In Korea since the young genius Lee Changho has come to the fore, go has become tremendously popular, and in particular among children and teenagers there has been a go boom developing.

The teacher of that young genius Lee Changho is Cho Hunhyun of course.

Go: Right. Cho Hunhyun is a genius himself.

In a later interview about Go giving Cho a 2 stone teaching game when the young Cho was 2 dan:

Shirakawa: Previously you have described Cho Hunhyun as being a genius. May I ask what your impression of him was after playing that game?

Go: His game was full of power and he had a good intuitive sense of the board. Genius level. His game contained no vestiges of the old style of playing.