“Are you sure you don’t want a ride?”
Sara had made it clear at breakfast that she didn’t need her mother to drive us to the KBA, but Sara’s mother asked again as we were about to leave home.
“Yeah, don’t worry.”
“What about Hajin? Will she be okay?”
“Me? I am sure I will be fine.” I quickly responded. I had never used a subway before, but I trusted Sara and wanted to be on her side.
“It’s so nice you are coming with me today.”
Sara said on our walk to the subway station.
“I am excited too!”
“Have you been to the KBA before?” asked Sara.
“Once. But I only saw the Baduk TV studio.”
“Then maybe I can show you around today. By the way, how did the conversation go with Master Grimm?”
“I asked him if I could go with you on Saturday. He asked why. I told him I wanted to see the league, and he said okay. It was pretty short.”
“Cool. Honestly I was a little concerned that he would say no. Master Grimm is very strict about studying at the dojang unless you have a tournament or medical emergency.”
This remark reminded me of the day I feigned a headache because I didn’t feel like going to the baduk school.
“Did you ever pretend you were sick to skip the dojang for a day?”
“No, I prefer to be at the dojang over home. You saw my parents, right? I know they love me, but sometimes I just wish they would leave me alone.” I understood her point, but this conversation made me miss my parents.
The subway station was not fancy, but it was a nice change from the hot summer temperature to cooler underground air. Sara bought tickets for both of us, and told me we were both getting 50% discounts because we were under 12 years old. Our subway car was half-empty. We sat in one corner on a long bench seat. It was strange that the seats were facing inward, unlike on trains. Sara took out a silver cassette player and offered me one earbud of her earphones. Familiar pop songs were played and Sara lightly tapped her feet.
“Hello Mr. Kang!”
Sara happily greeted a janitor who was sitting by the main entrance of the KBA. He seemed to know Sara and said hello too. Now that I was visiting the KBA for the second time, I could observe the place in more detail. The gray building looked rather dull from the outside, but inside I could sense a subtle thrill and tension in the air.
“Is the second floor open?” asked Sara.
“Hajin hasn’t seen this place before. So, I wanted to show her.”
“Sure, Follow me.”
We walked up the stairs, and Mr. Kang opened a large gray metal door blocking the whole floor. When he opened the door, the first thing that caught my eyes was a huge white sheet on the wall – it was a preliminary tournament for a major professional title. There were numerous tournament brackets and the names of pro players. On the left side of each level of brackets were dates written in Chinese characters. I was surprised that the pro tournament games were so spread out, with only one game every two or three days. The tournaments I played in were often finished in one or two days, so we had to play several games each day. Then, Mr. Kang opened the first door for us. It was a large hall packed with tables, chairs, and baduk sets. I loved how the most of the outside walls were windows and gentle sunlight streamed in all over the place.
“Isn’t this nice? This place is mostly for professional preliminary tournaments, but sometimes there are amateur tournaments too. The qualification tournament for the league is often held here as well.”
I nodded. I couldn’t tell how soon I would be playing in the qualification, but I was already thrilled by the idea. I knew it was only a matter of time, and I had no doubt it would happen.
“Do you want see the main tournament room and the special match room too?”
Sara excitedly replied to Mr. Kang’s question, and we began to climb more stairs.
I asked, looking at the dark glass door on the third floor.
“It’s the administration office for the KBA. They only work on weekdays.”
Soon, we arrived on the fourth floor. This floor was different; it had an open space like a lounge, instead of narrow hallways and doors. In the center of the lounge, there was a black leather couch, a low, wooden table, and an antique standing clock. Mr. Kang walked around the couch and opened a door for us. Sara waved at me to come in, and said, “This is where pro players play their main round games.” This room was smaller, and had only four baduk sets. But instead of normal upright chairs, this room had very comfortable looking armchairs for each seat.
“I don’t think there is ever an amateur tournament here. So you gotta be a pro, and advance to the main round to play here.”
Sara’s voice carried a great deal of admiration for this room. Then, we continued to another room, which was located in the far corner of the floor.
“Now, this is a really special place. Only the title matches and the final rounds are played here.”
The room had only one baduk set – a beautiful board and slate-and-shell stones. There were expensive looking leather armchairs for the players, and the room was decorated with an eight-panel folding screen art and a few frames of calligraphy.
“It would be a dream come true to play an official match here one day,” said Sara.
“Good luck with your games today. I will go back to my office now.” We walked out of the room, and Mr. Kang locked the door again.
“Come, I will show you where we play the league.”
Sara grabbed my hand and led me to the stairs again.
The league room was on the fifth floor, which was more of a rooftop space than a proper floor. Sara opened the door, and I saw dozens of thick-legged baduk boards on the floor. There were several people there already, mostly meditating or quietly making tea. We took off our shoes and entered.
“From this main entrance door, the first row is for the first division. I am at the opposite end, because I am in the tenth division. Do you see this border here?” Sara pointed at the sliding door frame, but the doors were wide open.
“This border separates the first five divisions and the second five divisions. The first five, from the first to fifth, is referred as the first section, and the rest is the second section. It’s like your bigger-picture status in the league, since your division may be changing every month.”
“Anyway, let’s go back to that couch. I will sit with you until the league starts. Maybe I can even help you with your problemes a bit.”
We went back to the fourth floor and I took out my problem book. I knew I was not allowed to be in the league room while they play, so I brought it to look at while Sara’s playing.
“Hey, do you like McDonald’s?”
“There is one not far from here. Let’s go there for lunch after my first game.”
“I know my mom said we should go to a Korean restaurant. But, you are not going to tell my mother, right?”
I thought of all the pro rooms and the league room I saw today. It was exciting to picture myself playing in these places one day. But for now, I was just as excited to get a chocolate ice cream cone at McDonald’s in a few hours.