An interview with Ivan Detkov
Ivan Detkov (b. in 1960) was one of the strongest Go players in Russia in 80-90’s, till he moved to USA and stopped playing Go.
He was the first USSR Go champion and the first master, represented Russia on WAGC in Japan (World Amateur Go Championship).
On photo: Ivan Detkov (left) on WAGC-1986 in Japan
Did you have a plan to study Go in Asia, when you were younger?
I did not have such plans. I found the rules when I was 15 and was not interested in the game before 21. My level was about 6-kyu at the time.When I started my post graduate study in mathematics, I quickly realized that it was a mistake and pure mathematics is not for me. It created emptiness and a lot of free time. I spent next 3 years studying go keeping my mathematical studies on a minimally acceptable level. I never become a PhD, but I won the first Russian Championship instead, and it changed my life forever. The idea to study in Asia could not materialize in my Communist propaganda washed brains before 25 and then it was too late because I married and started to work as a software engineer.
How do you think, is it possible to reach pro level, while staying in Europe or USA?
To reach a professional level you normally should be a pro or have it as a career goal. The amount of time and efforts is humongous and there is no guarantee for success. A stream of money circulating in European and American go is a small creek. It does not provide enough incentives for people to spend enough efforts for study and it is cannot support a critical mass necessary to create a professional league that will make support and production of professionals self-sustainable. I do not see how it could change in a visible future. It is a lack of interest because of lack of money and a lack of money because of deficit of interest.There are a very few exceptions like Ilya Shikshin. I know his father, who had emerged as a great children trainer after I left Russia. Ilya started very early. He and his dad worked hard for many years. Ilya studied in Korea for less than a year, which probably is not that important, and he definitely has a professional level. Somehow he is still improving. Where Ilya takes time and inspiration for go, university studies, and active participation in a political life is beyond me. You better ask him. Here is a reverse example. History knows just a couple of Japanese professionals with a good education but it is not an impossible feat. Everything is possible. The question is what you are ready to sacrifice for it.
What was the biggest Go prize you won?
I do not remember my biggest price. It was probably something like $1000. Even modest price of $300 was big money in Russia around 1990. One could live for a half of a year on it. For many years I was semi-professional making more from go than from my permanent job as a software engineer. It started to change closer to 1996 when I moved to US.
In 80’s and early 90’s we had lot of Russians travelling from one European Go tournament to another. Nowadays Russians attend mainly EGC and some tournaments in Finland, just because it’s very close. How do you explain such changes?
The reason of changes in attitude of Russian players is purely economical. The value of a foreign currency was totally different in Russia in 80’s and early 90’s and there were not many chances to prosper. The World is now open for Russia and people have more opportunities. Many talents decided to spend their time doing something else in 21-st century. When I saw a chance to make a career in US in 1996, I went for it without second thought. It is pretty much impossible to do two things on a very high level when you are approaching 40. As painful as it was, I dropped go. I could not even imagine I can do it just months before it actually happened. If I grew in Russia today, I would hardly be a strong go player. I am giving you very straight answers here and sorry if it sounds too discouraging.
You represented Russia several times on WAGC. What do you think about the tournament system, where pro-level amateurs and double digit kyu players compete in the same group (with equal chances at the start of the competition)?
I am praying for the tournament survival after the last unfortunate events in Japan. I keep memories about my trips to Japan deeply in my heart as one of the best things that happened in my life. It was always a holiday. Surely, I am not alone. Those tournaments always were a huge stimulus for me to study go and to play better. The system does not matter. Just like a pair go championship, it is not a great tournament from a purely sportive point of view. I do not care. It is a precious cultural phenomenon that promotes go and build dreams all over the World.
I heard that you meet Chang Hao in one of such tournaments. Was it clear for you, that he will become World top pro in future?
I remember a very small Chinese boy who had beaten everybody on WAGC in 1990 in Hiroshima very well. He was 13 and his head was just above the table when he was playing. Looking from my 190 cm, I was wondering how he can see a position. Time to time a little hand emerged from under the table and put a stone on the board. It was looking pretty funny. There was a press conference after the tournament. Somebody was wondering how it is possible to get such an overwhelming power for such a young child. The answer was unforgettable. Chang Hao said that it is nothing special and he is learning go in a peloton of other young players like him. There was a very dense silence in the room for a few seconds after this answer. It was humble, it was scary, and as we all know now, it was very much true. Was it clear for me if he can be a World top pro in future? He definitely had everything for it but this is a very competitive sport.
Your story is very similar to the story of Ronald Schlemper, who stopped to play Go being one of the strongest Go players in Europe. Did you play him before and what do you think about his Go level and Go talent?
I am flattered by this comparison. I have played with Ronald 2 or 3 times and lost all games if I remember correctly. His go level was close to a pro and I was a step behind. He is a former insei and his style was naturally inspired by Japan. If I define it in animal spirit terms, it created feeling of a boa constrictor. This is also what I like to think about my own style. I am just a bit smaller serpent. We both left our country to build a successful career and sacrificed go. I could play well several more years before new young stars took over but it become harder and harder to work and to play at the same time. I was always pushing myself to the limits. I believe it was a good timing for me; it was a nice tesuji.
Can you tell us about the famous story: your draw with Alexey Lazarev?
It was a New Year Grand Prix tournament in London. The organizers decided to do something special. They excluded 0.5 from the komi. A draw granted 0.5 of a point to each player, just like in chess. I was leading the tournament together with Alexey before the last game. A draw guaranteed our split win.We decided to make this result by several reasons. Our team had been discussing a possibility of such situation before the tournament and the conclusion was it is bad for the game. We did not like the rule and we were planning to demonstrate it to officials very clearly. Split win was also a great result for our team. The last but not least reason was challenge to our abilities to make a draw in a game that was very closely watched by public. Officials warned us about possible consequences, but we were in a bit of a hooligan mood.The game was developing very nicely. It had several mini-battles with complications, several small size ko-fights, and more. We were keeping the balance very close, calculating the territory pretty much after every move. The result was prearranged (within the limits of our abilities) but the game was not. There were no really bad moves in the game; just the level of risk was constrained. Our rivalry with Dutch players, who were still the best in Europe at this time, was on the peak. I do not remember the name of the guy who was the secretary of EGF. He participated in the tournament and he was very unhappy about this draw. A huge campaign started right at the tournament ended in our disqualification. We already could fight with Dutch on the board successfully but we were no match in politics.Whatever happened after the game, it was one of the moments in my life, which I am especially proud of. It was a truly professional level and it was done in a tournament under serious pressure. I am sure that many of you will have a totally different view of this story.
Yose was the strongest part of your Go. Please give advices to our readers, who would like to improve yose. Most of them think that studying the endgame book by Tomoko Ogawe is the only method available.
Many amateurs do not like yose. There is no fun to calculate territorial benefits of each move and pick the best, especially if you are already tired. Fuseki abstractions and middle game fight are more interesting for most players. This is true but things are different if you really care about the result. I like yose because I like to win.You study yose when you study go. The more time you spend the better. I did all kind of things including book reading, working on tests, and more but here is my main “secret”. It will work for everybody with a good visual memory. You should have a good visual memory to be a really strong player anyway. I am looking through as many different professional games as I can. I rarely try to analyze it deeply. It is more like series of beautiful pictures going through my vision and imprinting in memory. It builds up intuition because the brain is collecting a library that helps to chose candidate moves later. I guarantee you good results after ten thousand games.Be patient and look through all games to the last move. It is all about yose, right? You can do it quickly if nothing interesting is happening. While you are looking, try to feel a critical moment when the game shifts and predict a move. You can do it as often as you like. Try to check who is ahead regularly if it does not kill fun to watch. This process must be a pleasure or it will not work. If you see an unexpected interesting move, put a diagram in a notebook. I have collected hundreds of yose tesuji over the years. These tesuji are beautiful and they are so different from killer or cut placements!Knowledge of a good set of technical tricks and general understanding of miai and values in sente and gote make the job done if you add consistency and patience. If you want to improve further, you should know who is ahead all the time in the game in general and especially in yose. It helps to make a right decision when it comes to a level of acceptable risk. I confess that I was always too lazy to do it consistently enough.At some moment I realized that the whole game except an early fuseki is in fact preparation for yose. It seriously improved my skills. You should start to build your plans for yose very early been constantly aware about possible losses and gains on territorial borders when they are just emerging. How else you can correctly estimate territories? Notion of miai is an important key. Any pair of moves with the same or about the same properties could be thrown away, which helps to keep the process of analysis reasonably quick. The worst error is to realize that the yose already started when your partner is going full steam ahead. I always felt bad when I could not play this sweet first kosumi on the second line in sente.It would be interesting to ask Alexey Lazarev the same question. It was normally not a problem for me to turn -5 or even -10 points into a victory but not with him. If I was losing 5 points before yose, it was the game result. This is the main reason why he was the top player in Soviet and later Russian go for so many years.
Here is a short bonus story for those who are still reading this interview. It is about Maki Shimoda, amateur go player from Japan. He was a great teacher and supporter of Russian go for many years. He was also my big friend. During my rides in Tokyo subway, I could count all heads in the wagon. Mr. Shimoda was big; he could easily obscure a quarter of this wonderful view. Not really, he never used a subway. A solid Toyota Crown suited Shimoda’s position in the society much better. His 6-dan was rather 7. Shimoda-san definitely was playing on a professional level on his peak.Once upon a time in St Petersburg he approached to my game with Victor Bogdanov. We were playing very seriously despite it was not a tournament party. He looked at the position for a second or two, and told that I am winning Ѕ of a point. A move value was 4 or 5 points at the moment. There were lots of moves ahead even if yose was straightforward. We did not take it seriously. We both knew that the game is very close but that was it.Stunningly, the game ended with the predicted result. That time we were not making it up. I am still asking myself if Shimoda-san was just lucky or he indeed was able to calculate the result with such a precision in a second. Probably it was a bit of both. When we meet Shimoda-san after the game and congratulated him with an amazing achievement, he was ironical, taping Victor’s shoulder and saying, “You should always fight to the end. Never indulge thinking that Ѕ of a point is a small loss. The difference to lose Ѕ or 100 points is the same as the difference to die on a battlefield from one bullet or a hundred bullets.” That was something to remember forever and I am still very satisfied that I did not lose those game.Let me tell you another story before I am done. I had a hard time in go in 1986 and 1987 after many very successful tournaments, which put me at the top in Russia. I was trying to understand what went wrong and I could not. I was still working hard studying go and playing with extreme efforts and very bad results. It was pretty depressing. It took 1Ѕ years to realize that the business I am in is called game go. It is a game! That was a revelation! I started to take it easier when I was playing, seasoned in a bit more risk, started to have more fun, and my results improved immediately. I wish everybody to have fun when you are playing go and have a good game.
Finally, I am thanking Alexander Dinerchtein who initiated this interview and collected very interesting questions that helped me to remember a couple of bright moments in my life and live it through one more time.