Finnish go professional has all the right moves

by Magdalena Osumi

Staff Writer

Antti Tormanen, a native of Finland, was 12 when he developed a passion for the ancient board game of go after reading the Japanese manga “Hikaru no Go.”

“I got hooked,” Tormanen said of the story, which follows the fortunes of a young go player named Hikaru.

Originating in China, go spread to Japan and Korea centuries ago and gradually to other parts of Asia. In it, players take turns placing black and white stones on the vacant intersections of a grid. The object is to surround the most territory when all is said and done.

Although go is traditionally an Asian game, the case of Tormanen, who sat down for an interview with The Japan Times, proves talent exists in unexpected places, just waiting for a chance to flourish.

The 26-year-old has been granted official membership in the Japan Go Association, the nation’s main organizing body for tournaments, and he became the first professional player from outside Asia in 19 years. He will make his debut in April.

When he first started playing in his hometown of Oulu, it was purely for leisure. But after he started winning tournaments in Finland, then at the global level, Tormanen thought he would try making a living out of it.

He came to Japan in 2014 to go pro, registering as an apprentice at JGA. Within two years, he had received first dan, the lowest rank in professional go, which granted him official membership in the association.

To become a professional player in Japan, young apprentices need to achieve positive results in a monthlong series of league duels.

But an exception is made for Western players, who are required to win more than 50 percent of their matches within a specified period. They must also pass through the association’s screening process.

“You need to be strong enough to be in the highest league,” Tormanen said. “Your manners have to be really good and your Japanese skills, too.”

In Europe, for instance, it is acceptable to make a little noise while moving a stone or shifting around in a chair. But in Japan, the stone is not touched until the move itself is decided, he explained. “If you are a professional player in Japan, you are supposed to be someone to look up to for amateur players, so you have to also act like one.”

But the art lies in a player’s ability to sense the flow of the contest.

Tormanen’s teacher encourages him to “find his own way” through meditation at a temple or by deepening his cultural experiences. He believes such guidance helps him learn different perspectives and understand the “mood of thinking” needed in the competition.

Those who are familiar with the game sometimes refer to it with the Japanese term shudan — a combination of two kanji, meaning hand and conversation. It encapsulates the feel of the game — a wordless dialogue carried out with the hands.

Tormanen, too, likens the game to a form of communication between two people who inform each other of their own understanding of the game, deciphering the opponent’s intentions and rejoining.

If both players are good, the play can be quite even, he said, adding that technically the game could continue indefinitely.

Tormanen’s skills will now be put to the test.

The Finn hopes to reach the rank of third dan, which requires 50 wins, and beyond.

Japan’s association has so far accepted only four Western professionals. The last was Romanian Catalin Taranu, 42, who currently resides in his home country.

Tormanen is the only European professional player at present and is aware of his role — “a symbol of hope” — for other Europeans.

In Finland, for instance, there are about 200 active players.

The Finn, who teaches aspiring players at home and abroad, plans to publish his own book on go’s rules in English, as few books on the game are available in foreign languages. Tormanen speaks fluent English, German and Japanese. In 20 or 30 years, he wants to return to Europe to further spread the game.

“But for the time being, I’d like to stay in Japan, because I got here after all, and would like to make the most of it.”