Our baduk school was empty. I went home. No one was there. I began feeling worried. Maybe I will call mom. I picked up the phone, and I remembered that there were some extra numbers I had to add to call Korea. Wait, where am I?
As I half opened my eyes, I saw the other girls were already up. There were four girls in our room including Sara and me. The rest of the group was all boys, and they were split among three rooms. The room was clean, and the tatami floor was smooth and gentle. There was no kitchen, but we had a mini fridge and a baduk set. I waited under my blanket until the bathroom was available, trying not to fall asleep again.
The breakfast was at the dining hall downstairs, with the other students and masters. I said hello to Colin, who was busy talking with other boys. When everyone was there, we were served with a beautiful dark wooden tray. Inside the tray were a small plate of fruit, a small bread roll, a small plate of pickled vegetables, and a bowl of white rice porridge with some sesame and dried seaweed on top. Master Grimm waited until everyone was served, then called for attention.
“Today and tomorrow, you will be playing six rounds, three games each day. I expect you to be stronger than most Japanese students you will be playing this weekend. But, don’t ever underestimate your opponent. Always be polite. Display any unacceptable manners, and you will have to find your own way back to Korea. Find the best move each time until the game is actually over. Learn as much as you can.”
The students were all silent.
“Have a good breakfast.”
With that I had my first spoonful of porridge. It was warm and tasty.
“Hajin, did you sleep well?”
My baduk teacher came over to me as we were finishing up the breakfast.
I gave him a short answer with a small nod. I knew he was asking if I was okay without my family. I did feel a bit strange last night, but didn’t want to admit that.
“She was totally fine! We are friends now.”
Sara told my teacher, smiling at me.
The venue for this friendship match was a conference room inside an office building. The building was gray and nondescript. Looking around the building, I reminded myself that I should never go anywhere alone.
My first opponent was a boy who looked like one of the characters from a Japanese TV animation. He also seemed a few years older than me. I wasn’t afraid, though, because there were many older boys in my baduk school whom I could easily defeat. The color was already decided by the match system, and I was black. This luck made me feel good because I prefer to play black in general, and I could use my favorite opening.
The game seemed to be going well in the beginning. My opponent was being rather predictable, and I felt like I was getting everything I wanted. I got to build a nice moyo in the lower side, and the territory in the upper right corner wasn’t bad either. In the meantime, white just had two corners on the right side and neither of them was as big as mine. My confidence grew over time, and I got excited by the idea of winning the first game. Maybe I can even win all three games today and call my parents tonight. Sara mentioned that she knew how to do that. It seemed like my opponent was feeling anxious. He was playing several probing moves, asking if I wanted to fight. Feeling ahead, I had no interest in making the game complicated. I would respond safely to his moves, and the game was getting into the endgame. When the borders were all settled, I counted again to make sure I was still winning. Surprisingly, however, the game was very close. Plus, it was not even my turn. He began making endgame moves in a way that I would always need to respond, and he managed to take most of the big points. When it was finally my turn to do something, I had a cold feeling that I had already lost. There was nothing I could do.
After the first game, all students were directed to the next conference room, where there were stacks of nice lunch boxes and canned drinks. There, I learned that we were twenty students, and only two of us lost, including me. Colin and Sara both won their first game. I felt terrible. How did I lose my game? I thought I was going to win. The lunch box was tasty, though.
My second opponent was a boy again, still a few years older than me. I was white this time, and I didn’t like how the opening worked out, because his area got too big too quickly. I invaded his moyo and managed to live dramatically. I got excited when I found a way to live, but soon realized that I was still behind because his influence was so strong all over the board, and I didn’t have much territory at all.
In the second round, Colin and I were the only ones that lost in our group. Colin told me to cheer up, and he said we will both win the next round.
I was sitting at my seat, the last table located in a corner. I was the youngest and weakest in our group of Korean students. We all had our own seats, while Japanese students seemed to be assigned to different tables each time. There were 3 or 4 times more Japanese students than our group in this event. A few minutes before the last game was to begin, a girl sat in front of me. She said something in Japanese, and offered me a small bag. In the bag was a key holder with a cute and shiny hello kitty charm. I looked around for help, and the translator – a young man in his 20’s – came to us. I said, “She gave it to me. Is this a gift?” After some conversation with the girl, he said, “Yes, she brought some gifts for all her opponents today. She is also asking how old you are.” I told him my age. Turned out the girl was three years older than me, and has played baduk for three years, same as me.
We soon began our game. Seeing her moves in the opening, I got a feeling that she was not as strong as the other boys I played earlier. This time, I carefully balanced my moves so that my opponent didn’t get a huge territory. Her moves were somewhat careful too, and we ended up playing a very peaceful game. As the game entered the endgame, I sensed that it was close. I spent a lot of time calculating the value of each endgame spot over and over again to find a way to maximize gains. I had a feeling that I was ahead, but I didn’t know I won until we actually finished the game. I won by a half point.
On the way back to our hotel, Sara told me how she couldn’t believe she lost her last game. She said she must have had at least five chances to win. Then at some point she asked me if I wanted to call my parents. She said she was planning to call her family after dinner. I thought about it, and said no. When Sara asked me why, I just said, “Maybe I will call them tomorrow.” In fact, I wasn’t proud of my one win and two losses, and thinking maybe I will manage to win two games tomorrow and tell them I had 3 wins and 3 losses. Of course, I had no idea that my baduk teacher was already reporting to my parents.