Hsieh Yi Min
A Taiwanese Triumphs in the Japanese World of Go
Eighteen-year-old Go prodigy Hsieh Yi Min has stunned Japan by winning several major Go tournaments. Her rise to the top is a story of perseverance in a fiercely competitive environment.
A Taiwanese Triumphs in the Japanese World of GoBy Sun Hsiao-ping
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 400 )
The scenery outside the moving car progressed scene by scene from Miaoli County's sleepy streets to Taichung's bustling boulevards. Inside the vehicle, oblivious to the changing faces of central Taiwan, was a young girl with Go pieces in hand, buried in concentration on a Go manual and her magnetic game board as she pondered how to unravel the challenge before her. It was as if the Go board, with the black and white pieces strewn around the grid, was her entire world.
Ten years later, this young woman has now become a star in Japan's professional Go ranks, setting one record after another as the youngest winner of some of that cloistered world's most prestigious competitions, including three of the four that comprise the women's Go grand slam: the Women's Honinbo, the Women's Meijin, and the Women's Saikyo.
This emerging star, seen as a prodigy in Taiwanese and Japanese Go circles, is Hsieh Yi Min, nicknamed "Whirlwind Hsieh" in Japan. In fact, her genius would most accurately be ascribed to countless hours of sheer hard work.
First studying Go alongside her older brother at four and a half years old, Hsieh quickly demonstrated a flair for the ancient board game, needing only a day or two to solve all the problems in an exercise book handed out by the Go teacher that took others a month to get through.
Not long after taking up the game, Hsieh won the top level of the national "Kapok Cup" Go competition. That convinced Yi Min's mother that she truly had a gift. With equal parts confidence and apprehension, her father Hsieh Rui-pin decided to have her sharpen her skills by apprenticing under a master.
Early Taste of Competition
While her classmates were still in class or playing after school, Hsieh spent much of her childhood traveling to Hsinchu, Taipei and Taichung two to three times a week to challenge players in those cities' Go associations, sometimes returning home in the early hours of the morning.
Hsieh also went overseas to improve her skills, studying Go in Hong Kong, China and South Korea. Her mother accompanied her to South Korea the first time she went, but later, at the age of 8, she went there on her own and stayed for a month, learning some Korean in the process.
Hsieh made a name for herself in local Go circles with a series of outstanding performances in prestigious events. She won the "Haifong Cup" junior Go competition as a second grader, vanquished all her opponents in a tournament comprising Go players from Taiwan, Japan and South Korea as a fourth grader, and finished runner-up at the World Youth Go Championship in Hawaii a year later. But with the fame she gained at such a young age also came heavy pressure.
Fighting for Respect
Hsieh's father, whose strict teaching methods in his cram school for mathematics students helped many of them earn admission to top high schools and universities, was equally tough on his daughter. There were times after Hsieh lost a game when her father would grill her and ask, "Do you really want to continue playing Go?" and even slap her to "teach her a lesson."
Hsieh's mother, Lin Mei-chen, recalls one of her friends once advising Hsieh, "Your father is so strict, just stop playing Go," only for Hsieh to answer: "All I have to do is play. Dad drives me all over the place to study the game, and he's also helping me find sponsors. He's the one who has it the hardest."
The friend, Lin says, could not hold back her tears when she heard Hsieh's words.
Going Pro in Japan
Just as Disney's clownfish Nemo was suddenly whisked away from his familiar barrier reef into the boundless ocean, Hsieh faced a major change when she went to Japan to pursue her career.
But this little fish had a clear purpose. "As long as I was in Japan, I wanted to become a professional Go player," she thought.
Every Monday and Friday, she would participate in study sessions with other professional Go players, while studying the strategies of other top players at home on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Thursdays were reserved for competitions at which the players learned from and observed one another, while on weekends she would go to the Japanese Go Association and play games with fellow students training there.
"There was practically no time to go out and have fun," she recalls.
Aside from improving her Go skills, Hsieh faced a problem that Japanese players didn't have to worry about – getting acclimated to the local culture and customs.
"To play one game, you have to kneel down and sit on your heels for three to four hours. It's really exhausting," explains Hsieh's empathetic mother. Yet despite her daughter's determination, she did not pass the exam to become a professional Go player on her first try.
Just how hard is it to join Japan's ranks of Go professionals? Extremely hard, to say the least.
First, boys and girls must enroll as "students" in the Japanese Go Association's professional Go training institute before they turn 14. Youths from around Japan who have been labeled as "geniuses" and "prodigies" become "students" at the institute, determined to perfect their skills. Only the top dozen or so even qualify to take the professional exam. Those who pass must before the age of 22 (recently changed from the age of 18) become pros, and then it is up to them to perform. With the incomes of Go professionals determined by appearance fees and prize money, if they don't win and improve their rankings, they can't increase their earnings.
As of November 2002, the Japanese Go Association, known as the "Nihon Ki-in" in Japanese, had 457 registered professionals, but only about the top 10 percent of them can support themselves with their winnings. The remainder are forced to buttress their incomes by teaching the game to amateurs.
Rewriting the Go Record Book
Despite facing such a competitive environment, Hsieh bounced back in her second year in Japan. In the nearly two-month-long round-robin qualifying competition for aspiring professionals, Hsieh lost her first two matches, an uninspiring start that usually meant elimination for most participants.
"I figured I was probably out of it, so I started to relax and just played my normal game. Surprisingly, I started winning and kept on winning," she recalls.
Hsieh eventually finished with a 13-4 record, placing second among 18 competitors and finally fulfilling her dream of joining the professional ranks.
At the age of 14 years and four months, Hsieh became the youngest Japanese female Go professional, and from that point on, there would be no stopping her in her pursuit of victory. She has repeatedly made Go history in the past two years, becoming the youngest woman to win a major Go tournament when she won the Women's Saikyo title at the age of 17 years, one month, in late 2006. In 2007, she became the first foreigner and youngest player to win the coveted Women's Honinbo title, and earlier this year, she became the youngest player to win the Women's Meijin title.
Hsieh quickly distinguished herself with her frequent comebacks, most notably at the 2006 Women's Saikyo, when a single move that has grown legendary in Japanese Go circles completely turned around what appeared to be certain defeat.
The 18-year-old now manages to find moments of escape from the conservative Go world. In the softly lit basement of a building in the Tokyo ward of Shibuya, Hsieh and four or five other young women can be seen dancing to fast-tempoed music.
Like many of her peers a big fan of entertainer Jay Chou, the 18-year-old Hsieh normally dresses in a trendy hip-hop style, donning a red warm-up jacket complemented by baggy pants with multiple zippers while sporting earphones playing the hit list of Korean singer BoA. But that relaxed look masks her determination to accomplish her main goal – win a world Go championship.
"Although I know it's hard to accomplish, it's still my goal," Hsieh says. "If I could actually win the title, my next goal would be to figure out how to raise my level to hold my rivals off. So I always have a goal."
No two Go games have been identical in the more than 2,000 years the board game has been played, so for Hsieh, every game is a completely new challenge. This fearless Taiwanese comeback artist is successfully conquering those challenges, paving her future course in the game one step at a time.
Translated from the Chinese by Luke Sabatier
Chinese Version: 黑白勝負 磨棋也磨心智