FEATURE/Miracle man: Stoic Hsu Hao-hung stuns Go world, social media
By Chao Yen-hsiang, CNA staff writer
When professional Go player Hsu Hao-hung (許皓鋐) told CNA in December 2022 that his next goal was to win an Asian Games title in Hangzhou in 2023, he was facing a brick wall in his career.
Though dominant at home in Taiwan, he was going nowhere overseas. In the China Go Cities League A, the top professional Go league in the world, Hsu lost all four matches he played in August and September 2022 and then lost his last match of the season on Feb. 5, 2023.
In his three appearances in 2022 at top international tournaments, usually referred to as "world cups," Hsu recorded only one win and advanced no further than the round of 16.
So what happened in Hangzhou at the Asian Games in late September was hard to fathom, even for Hsu himself.
A miraculous journey
Hsu's performance in the qualifying round, a 4-2 record securing him a quarterfinal berth, was not completely unexpected.
Three of the four wins came against lower-ranked players from Malaysia, Macau, and Hong Kong, while the two losses came to world No. 1 Shin Jin-seo of South Korea and world No. 8 Yang Dingxin of China.
Then came the completely unexpected. Hsu shocked world No. 2 Park Jeong-hwan of South Korea in the quarters, took revenge on Shin in the semifinals, and won gold by overcoming world No. 3 Ke Jie (柯潔) of China.
In an interview with CNA at the HaiFong Go Association in Taipei on Oct. 13, Hsu described the entire journey as "unbelievable."
"They are all the best players in the world, so beating any one of them was like a miracle," he said, admitting to lacking confidence entering the Asian Games due to his poor showings on the international stage in 2022 and 2023.
Ironically, the key to Hsu's reversal in fortune may have been his loss to Shin in the qualifying round, in which he lost huge territories to the Korean within 200 moves.
"I didn't perform well in that match. I figured I couldn't do any worse than that no matter what, so I just went for it in every match afterward," he said.
His greatest satisfaction in Hangzhou, he said, was eventually having the conviction to play the way he wanted to, in particular when he gave up two potential territories worth nearly 80 points combined to Park in exchange for a greater one.
That conviction meant defying AI and believing in himself.
Go players spend plenty of time practicing with AI to determine the best strategies in different situations, but they can sometimes put too much trust in the solutions AI provides and use them in games, Hsu said, something he avoided in Hangzhou.
"We can't fully understand AI's thoughts and can get lost if we follow it blindly," he said.
"When I sacrificed the second territory against Park Jeong-hwan, for example, my winning probability definitely dropped according to AI, but I would play it the same way if I were to play it again."
Hsu's gold drew plenty of attention in Taiwan, but it was his expressionless demeanor in Hangzhou that had people talking.
From the moment he defeated Ke to when he stepped on the podium to receive the gold medal, his lips barely moved, and that stone face was turned into memes and comics by netizens to hail his triumph.
The self-effacing Hsu attributed his outward lack of emotion mainly to having to play the men's team event the next day and also to having to wait for judges to confirm the result of the final match before he could celebrate.
Neither of those explanations are terribly convincing. According to 6-dan veteran Liou Yao-wen (劉耀文), a veteran commentator of the HaiFong Go Association, Hsu's stoicism was more the result of the young phenom's extreme composure, a mindset that Liou compared to "still water."
"Hao-hung secured a minor advantage against Shin Jin-seo right near the end. It's quite common for we Go players to lose our poise when we know we have the chance to beat a formidable opponent, but Hao-hung remained calm through the ups and downs, even after he beat Ke Jie," Liou said.
Leave the spotlight to Taiwan Go
Hsu's inner calm that guided him through his big moments in Hangzhou has given way to discomfort with all the attention he has received back home, in large part because he sees the gold medal as being bigger than him -- as the culmination of the achievements of those who have come before him in the Go world.
He is hoping people will pay more attention to Taiwan Go and other pro players, such as his Asian Games teammate Lai Jyun-fu (賴均輔), who lost narrowly to Shin in the quarterfinals of the event Hsu won at the Asian Games.
"The stimulation Jyun-fu has given me this year is something I didn't expect ... and he is doing great in world cups," Hsu said.
On May 5, Lai upset Ke in the first round of the inaugural Quzhou-Lanke Cup World Go Open, a tournament in which Hsu was eliminated after the first round.
Sixteen-year-old Hsu Ching-en (徐靖恩) is also a name to watch, Hsu said.
Kindling new interest in Go
Hsu may not crave the attention his exploits have earned him, but they have done wonders for interest in the board game in Taiwan.
Lin Keng-ping (林耕平), CEO of Sslinsgo (小小林圍棋), which tutors children in the game of Go, told CNA that he is typically turned down when trying to sell outside cram schools or cultural centers on the idea of hiring his teachers to teach Go at their institutions.
Since Hsu won the gold medal, however, Lin has signed more than 10 deals, he said.
Similarly, the number of buyers of pro Go player Joanne Missingham's (黑嘉嘉) online course has grown 20-fold on a week-to-week basis, with the sales of child/parent courses increasing by more than 40-fold.
There are typically 30-50 people who register for courses in a week, but there were about 700 who registered from Oct. 4-11, Yoyo Wang (王之佑), CMO of Goer Tech. Inc., revealed.
Leaving a legacy
The gold medal will also leave a longer-term legacy in Taiwan, with Liou contending that Hsu is now at the top of Taiwan Go's all-time greats, even ahead of the "red-faced Go master" Chou Chun-hsun (周俊勳).
Chou, a 43-year-old Go legend who lifted the LG Cup in 2007, is so far the only Go player who represented Taiwan to snag a world-cup level title.
Liou argued, however, that Hsu's performance at the Asian Games was "too wild" a run because no one has ever rolled past Ke and Shin in the same tournament to win a title, to the best of his knowledge.
Hsu would not be drawn into the debate, instead saying that the tournament format at the Asian Games made his upset victory more likely.
In world cup events, there are no qualifying rounds, so one loss and it is game over, and finals can be best two out of three games, reducing the odds of an upset. Those events with their higher barriers are what Hsu is targeting next.
"The influence of Asian Games may be greater, but in terms of Go I think world cups are still the most important events," Hsu said.
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