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INTERVIEW/Breaking the wall: Pro Go player Hsu Ching-en eyes top spot in Taiwan

03/29/2024 12:01 PM
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Pro Go player Hsu Ching-en. CNA photo March 27, 2024
Pro Go player Hsu Ching-en. CNA photo March 27, 2024

By Chao Yen-hsiang, CNA staff writer

Ask most people in Taiwan to name an active pro Go player and they are more than likely to say Hsu Hao-hung (許皓鋐).

After securing the Hangzhou Asian Games title in September 2023, Hsu's name went viral on the internet, with veteran commentator Liou Yao-wen (劉耀文) arguing that he had solidified his place at the top of Taiwan Go's all-time greats.

However, few people realized that just as the 22-year-old 9-dan pro was making his mark on the international stage, another young phenom was setting his sights on challenging Hsu's dominance.

His name? Hsu Ching-en (徐靖恩).

Born in late 2006, Hsu Ching-en was the youngest member of the country's men's team in Hangzhou last year, and became the youngest ever to top the Speed Go Championship two months after returning to Taiwan.

The Speed Go Championship was his first victory in the nine major domestic events. In addition, he finished runner-up at the HaiFong Go Tournament and the Taiwan UMC Tournament in the same year, the other two major domestic tourneys, while winning the "King of Newcomers" title in June.

The progress the younger Hsu made in 2023 was such that 9-dan pro Wang Yuan-jyun (王元均) told CNA, "the new era of Go players born after 2000 has arrived."

Go your own way

Hsu Ching-en takes an interview with CNA at the HaiFong Go Association in Taipei on Wednesday. CNA photo March 27, 2024
Hsu Ching-en takes an interview with CNA at the HaiFong Go Association in Taipei on Wednesday. CNA photo March 27, 2024

Hsu Ching-en's father introduced him to the board game at the age of 6, he told CNA in a recent interview.

Nevertheless, it was not until he attended classes held by Chang Yuan-hsi (張遠錫), father of Cho U (張栩), a Taiwanese Go legend who made a name for himself in Japan, in New Taipei's Sanxia District, that he began to develop an interest in the sport.

In those classes Hsu learned about other board games like chess, checkers and Chinese chess, which he discovered "belonged to a different world" and found confidence in Go.

That encounter with Cho's father indirectly led him to become one of three disciples learning with Cho and his wife Izumi Kobayashi, also a pro Go player in Japan, for 13 months during their stay in Taiwan from 2015 to 2016.

Despite the rare opportunity, Hsu said he nearly gave up on Go as a fourth-grader when he failed the test for the Taipei-based HaiFong Go Association Go school, where gifted children receive training to pass the pro Go exam.

"I once heard a Go teacher say you better turn pro by the age of 12 to stand a better chance [of being successful], so I thought I might have little chance," Hsu said, adding that he might have pursued a career in AI-related jobs if he had not made it.

Hsu joined the Go school two months later after passing an interview following a recommendation from an unidentified Go teacher. Since then, he has stopped attending the school and prefers self-study.

In 2017, Hsu became the second protégé of the 9-dan "red-face Go master" Chou Chun-hsun (周俊勳), the only Go player representing Taiwan to lift a trophy in a top global tournament, before starting his pro career on Jan. 1, 2019.

The spice of life

Hsu Ching-en. CNA photo March 27, 2024
Hsu Ching-en. CNA photo March 27, 2024

Instead of stunning the pro world immediately, Hsu had a sluggish start in his first two years despite his dedication to training.

One day, he found he needed to make changes after sustaining a period of lows between 2021 and 2022.

"I used to believe that the only way to get better was to train as hard as I could, but I found that what I needed was something other than Go because it involves so many aspects of one's capabilities," Hsu explained, saying that elevating one's Go skills alone is not enough.

Hsu started to read books and watch YouTube channels featuring knowledge sharing, which he said helped him to become more mentally and spiritually prepared in the face of pressure.

One of his muses is a YouTuber's introduction to "The Art of War" (孫子兵法) by Sun Tzu, whose idea of "Know your enemy and know yourself" inspired him to study his opponents rather than focus solely on his own training as he had previously done.

"If I know I'm going to play against someone, I will study their games beforehand and try to capitalize on their weaknesses," Hsu said.

"The Champion's Mind" by Jim Afremow is the latest book he has finished.

He enjoys playing table tennis and badminton to relieve stress as well, especially after sitting in front of the board for an entire day. "Sometimes after sitting for a whole day, I feel I can barely stand it anymore," Hsu laughed.

Breaking the wall

Hangzhou Asian Games gold medalist Hsu Hao-hung. CNA file photo Oct. 14, 2023
Hangzhou Asian Games gold medalist Hsu Hao-hung. CNA file photo Oct. 14, 2023

Asked to comment on his ranking among the domestic pros, Hsu reflected for a few seconds and said with apparent reserve that he is "top five in Taiwan," despite making it to the final or one step away from it in the first three major local tournaments this year.

It seems that the biggest obstacle between him and his second major title is none other than Hsu Hao-hung, who has swept him 2-0 this year in the HaiFong Go Tournament final series and the semifinal series of the Taiwan Meijin.

"I don't know why, but I feel that I can't perform at 100 percent whenever I play him. He's like a wall," Hsu Ching-en said.

Compared with other Go players, Hsu Ching-en said Hsu Hao-hung "is always full of energy and displays an air of confidence in each move he makes," a characteristic he observes is shared by all the top-tier Go players.

"I think Hsu Hao-hung is in very good condition this year, and unlike me he's very consistent in form. He's the wall I'm trying to break now," Hsu analyzed, saying that confidence and stability are what he most lacks right now.

Hsu Ching-en. CNA photo March 27, 2024
Hsu Ching-en. CNA photo March 27, 2024

However, he also believes that he will gain confidence if he keeps reaching the semifinal or better in the major tourneys, and hopes he secures wins in at least two of the top 9 domestic events in 2024 to better his record last year.

At the ongoing Taiwan Tengen, he is just one win away from his third series match against the Asian Games champion this year. The winner between the two 8-dan pros -- Chen Chi-jui (陳祈睿) and Lin Shih-hsun (林士勛) -- will have an extra game with Hsu Ching-en on April 1 to vie for the berth in the best-of-seven series.

Meanwhile, Hsu Ching-en looks set to follow in the footsteps of his master, Chou, on the international stage, having participated in the Asian Games and gained a glimpse of the world.

"The pandemic is over, so many international tourneys have resumed. I will try my best to secure slots and gain experience," he said.


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