The Aesthetics of Winning
Professional Go Player Talanu Catalin


Cataline is a devoted student of go, often spending hours in his room studying the arrangement of stones.(Photos by Masatsugu Yokoyama)
"The stones have a life of their own," says 24-year-old Talanu Catalin, a Romanian who in April 1997 became the first European professional go player to be registered with the Central Japan Headquarters of the Nihon Ki-in, Japan's national go organization. "When you make a bad move," he remarks, "the stone weeps".

Catalin claims that his affinity with go is an emotional one that transcends reason. "Some people ask me why I like go," he continues. "It's like asking why you love someone. It's very difficult to explain".

Catalin's first encounter with go came at age 16, when he was growing up in a small town some 10 hours by train from the Romanian capital of Bucharest. A young math teacher at his high school introduced his students to the board game played with black and white stones, and Catalin and his classmates became hooked. The more they learned about the board game--which evolved in China around 3,000 years ago and was a favorite pastime of Japanese aristocrats and samurai--the more they became immersed in it.

Catalin continued to hone his go-playing skills as a computer science major at Bucharest University, and at 21 he became Romania's national champion. The following year he was scouted by Masataka Saijo, an eighth dan (grade) go player from Aichi, who was in Europe for the European go championships. Catalin decided to interrupt his university studies and came to Aichi in April 1995 as a student of Saijo's.

Catalin, who lives in Chikusa-ku in Nagoya, is now second dan (the highest rank in professional go being ninth dan), and his aim is to reach the upper ranks of fifth dan or higher. Catalin says his understanding of the game has deepened since coming to Japan. "I used to think that the purpose of go was to capture your opponent's stones," he recalls. This was before Saijo pointed out that his style was too aggressive. "Gradually I came to understand the importance of a balanced approach, defending while you're attacking and attacking while you're defending. Once you reach this level of understanding, you finally begin to appreciate how fascinating the game really is".

Unlike Europeans, the Japanese attach great importance to how one wins. Catalin says he now adheres to this aesthetic as well in seeking "impeccable" victories. Although he says it is sometimes hard to win "when you have to think about your style", he is obviously becoming more conversant with the cultural and psychological underpinnings of the game.

When he is not involved in professional competition, Catalin teaches go to local enthusiasts. Playing with older men who love the game gives him a chance to brush up not only on go but also on Japanese language conversation, enabling him to make the most of his life in Aichi. When he goes home, Catalin often loses himself for hours playing against his personal computer. A confessed go addict, he says he loves every minute of it. "I'm doing what I like," he says, "and I couldn't be happier".

Catalin feels he is at a stage where he needs to immerse himself in the game to gain full mastery over it. But this does not mean he has no time for other activities. In his free time, he enjoys visiting jazz bars with friends, and he also likes skateboarding, something he took up in high school. "I haven't had much chance to use this lately", he says ruefully, taking up his board. He does not seem to have lost his touch, though, riding around with great skill, with his long hair blowing in the breeze. The carefree and playful expression he wears, moreover, is something he rarely shows when in front of a go board. He occasionally makes trips to the park adjacent to Nagoya Castle to skateboard around the paved square.

Catalin has had no trouble adjusting to life in Aichi. "Nagoya is a great place to live", he says, "although I sometimes miss the countryside of my hometown". He says he also wants to travel and devote more time to sports. "But only after I become stronger at go", he adds, showing his professional dedication to his chosen vocation.

Catalin has dreams of popularizing go in Europe and establishing a system of go professionals there. Since there are no professionals now in Romania and other European countries, there is a limit to how much skills can be polished. If a player wants to master the game, their only choice is to study abroad, like Catalin. His wish now is to show youngsters back home how rich and rewarding go can be.