The Seattle Go Center Wishes You a Happy New Year

            I was astonished. I was about to say, “Today is New Year’s Eve. If we started a game now, it would go into the New Year.” But the words did not leave my mouth. My teacher was quite serious. His wife Tsuna (professional 3-dan) at his side just grinned.

            In an ordinary household playing go on New Year’s Eve, especially playing all night, would be regarded as an act of insanity. The mistress of the household would be sure to object. Surely it was a little exceptional even in a go player’s household.

            9 p.m.: sitting with his back to the alcove was Suzuki Goro 6-dan. He had an aura of unapproachable dignity. Facing him: Nakayama Noriyuki, no dan, exceedingly lacking in dignity. Beside them, Suzuki Tsuna 3-dan, going to waste as spectator and tea-server.

            Tradition has it that a go player plays with his teacher only twice in his lifetime. Once is when he is formally adopted as a disciple; the other is when he comes professional shodan. In some cases there is another occasion, the meaning of which is supposedly to say to the pupil: “There is no hope of your becoming a professional. It’s time for you to go back home. This game is to be your farewell present.”

            I had not yet made professional. Presumably, therefore, this game was to commemorate my becoming Suzuki’s disciple. It seems possible that Suzuki had noticed how hard I was studying and wanted to encourage me. Consequently, I consider that I formally became his disciple not in 1953 but on 31 December 1959.

            I made a bow, then timorously asked how many stones I was to place. I wanted to know whether the handicap was to be two or three stones.

            There was one precedent that I knew of. In 1956, Tozawa, a pupil of Kitani Minoru, had qualified as a shodan. In order to wish him luck for the future, Kitani had requested Suzuki Goro, who came from the same part of Hokkaido as Tozawa, to play a commemorative game with him. The handicap then had been two stones (Tozawa won by just two points). This game had brought home to me the awesome strength of an experienced professional.

            My teacher’s reply took me by surprise. “Take black.” What had I got into? I probably would not last a hundred moves. But losing in too clumsy a fashion would be a poor return for Suzuki’s kindness in playing me. Winning was of course out of the question, but I made up my mind to land at least one punch. I concentrated all my energies on carrying out this resolution.

4 a.m.: it was already New Year’s morning. On the board a miracle was taking place. Black had an overwhelming lead. The game was entering the early endgame and Black looked like winning by about 15 points. Wait — this was dangerous. How many times in the qualifying tournament had I had my lead upset in positions like this? And today my opponent was no insei. He was a prominent player who had won a place in the Honinbo league and who had also been awarded the Prince Takamatsu Prize.

            With mingled emotions of joy and anxiety, I stole a look at my teacher’s face. His expression was frightening. He seemed to be telling me that when you play go, you have to assume this frightening expression and glare at the opponent.

            With a start, I looked at the bottom half of the go board. I could not see the top half. From that point to the end of the game I was unable to look at my teacher’s face.

            I have heard a story about how Shimamura Toshihiro 9-dan, on seeing a photograph of himself playing a game asked: “Who is this looking so fierce?” The usually mild-mannered Shimamura was unable to credit that his face could be transformed into that of a demon.

A cold-water bath in mid-winter –

     Even a bodhisattva

Sometimes take on the face of a devil.


            An unprecedented resignation

            5 a.m.: my teacher had exhausted even his formidable resources. He thought of resigning, but his pupil kept his gaze resolutely down-ward. He was perplexed. How to convey his resignation? Usually you just say “I’ve lost,” and place some captured stones on the board. But here the opponent was a disciple who was barely more than an apprentice. Suzuki Goro, a veteran of tournament go, a stalwart warrior nicknamed “the North Sea bear,” could hardly say “I’ve lost” to a new disciple.

            My teacher stretched his short neck out over the board and peered up into his disciple’s face. Like a child trying to outstare another child in a game. He was grinning all over. Startled, his disciple shrank back into himself. Looking serious again, Suzuki spoke one word: “Right.”

            It was like a resignation in a kendo or fencing bout. The pupil’s sword, wielded with unconscious skill, had scored a splendid hit on the teacher’s face.

            I was in a trance. If this was a dream, I didn’t want to wake up. Somehow it did not seem to be a dream. By the time Suzuki had given a short commentary, it was already light outside. Despite having played go all night, I felt no fatigue. It might be a fluke, but I had won against my 6-dan teacher. How could those inseis be any problem now? This was going to be my year.

            The first sunrise of the year was the most beautiful I had ever seen.

(Translated by John Power)


Nakayama became professional shodan the following year, in 1962.