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Hong Retains Amateur Meijin and Honinbo Titles

Hong Seok-ui (photo courtesy of Nihon Kiin)Hong Seok-ui (photo courtesy of Nihon Kiin)Hong Seok-ui, the Korean-born go player who moved to Japan in 2011 and promptly won the Japanese Amateur Meijin tournament, has now won his fourth straight Amateur Meijin title and his second straight Amateur Honinbo title. For good measure he also owns the Amateur Dragon Star title, making him a triple title-holder.

The Amateur Meijin was held in July. Since it is run on the challenger-defender system, Hong has lately been able to relax while the rest of the Japanese amateur go world competes for the right to challenge him. This year the challenger tournament came down to a game between two 21-year-olds: Ka Hyo and Tsunoda Daisuke, both of whom had formerly trained for pro careers. The game between them was a thriller that Tsunoda won by half a point on July 21.

Tsunoda, who is now studying for his university entrance exams, thus got to take on Hong in a best-of-three title match, played in high style at a hot-spring resort southwest of Tokyo. Hong, who has never dropped a game in Amateur Meijin competition, won the match 2-0. He took the first game on July 26 by killing a large group, and the second game on July 27 by outfighting Tsunoda in the opening. 'I tried to play aggressively, but it didn't work,' Tsunoda said after losing. 'I have no regrets. I just wasn't strong enough.'

Four weeks later Hong journeyed to Tokyo to compete in the Amateur Honinbo tournament at the Nihon Kiin. This is not a defender-challenger affair; Hong was seeded into the round of thirty-two, and would have to win five straight games to keep his title.

In his first game he defeated Tanaka Masato, who won the Amateur Honinbo twice in the 1990s. Beaten by resignation on the board but unconquered in spirit, Tanaka immediately starting a lengthy and vociferous post-mortem discussion.

In his second game Hong defeated Iba Yuji by resignation. Hong and Iba both work as instructors at first-class go clubs, Hong at the Ranka club in Osaka, Iba at the Shusaku club in Tokyo.

2014 Japan Amateur Honinbo. From the left: Nakazono, Hong, Hiraoka and Emura (photo courtesy of Nihon Kiin)2014 Japan Amateur Honinbo. From the left: Nakazono, Hong, Hiraoka and Emura (photo courtesy of Nihon Kiin)Hong's quarter-final opponent was Ka Hyo, the challenger he just missed facing in the Amateur Meijin. Again Hong won by resignation.

In the semifinal round Hong was paired against Emura Kiko, who represented Japan in the last two World Amateur Go Championships. Emura played tenaciously and the game was close, but Hong won by a point and a half.

In the final round, Hong faced Hiraoka Satoshi, World Amateur Champion in 1994 and 2006 and Amateur Honinbo in 2005, 2009, and 2012. Chang Hsu (Cho U), who was professional Honinbo and Meijin ten years ago, gave a public commentary on the game. Chang mentioned that he had recently played Hong in the Agon-Kiriyama tournament, which is open to amateurs as well as pros. Before encountering Chang, Hong had beaten seven straight professional opponents, including two nine-dans. 'The amateur go world is no place for him,' Chang said.

Although Hong lost to Chang, he justified Chang's praise in his game with Hiraoka. The pace of play was fast, both players avoiding pitched life-and-death struggles. After fifty moves Chang thought that white (Hong) had a commanding position, and the rest of the game bore him out. Hong managed his stones expertly and won by 12.5 points (here is the game record in sgf format).

In a smiling post-victory interview, Hong said, 'It was just luck that I came out on top, because I played badly in most of my games. In the final it wasn't until the endgame that I realized that I was ahead. I'm still working every day to improve my skills in go, and my language skills.'

The third-place playoff was won by six-time Amateur Honinbo Nakazono Seizo, who defeated Emura Kiko by 3.5 points.

This fall, viewers of Japan's Go/Shogi TV channel will get to see how Hong does against further professional opposition in the Dragon Star Open. Already, he has beaten four pros in the preliminary rounds.

- James Davies