Sunjang baduk still has lessons for today

The traditional Korean form of go, sunjang baduk, is tolerably well known even though it is no longer played, except in exhibition games.

It is known chiefly for its unique starting position - as in the diagram below - and for its method of counting. At the end, prisoners are ignored but all dame are filled and then surplus stones inside territories are all removed, leaving the bare minimum encirclement so long as no stones are this left in atari. Then the empty points are counted up.

The initial arrangement in a sunjang baduk even game. However, the precise orientation is not fixed (both mirrored and rotated forms appear in game records). Strictly Black 1 is not part of the initial set-up but Black has to play there. The same set-up (with centre stone) is used for a one-stone handicap, Black again playing first, but obviously elsewhere.

Sunjang also has strong interest for go historians. It apparently sprang from nowhere around the 16th century, no-one is quite sure what the name means, very, very few game records remain, and there is an intriguing possible link with the famous Mokuga Shitan no Kikyoku board in the Shosoin, in Nara. This board, first inventoried in 756, almost certainly reached Japan from Korea, though may have been
Sunjang baduk board
A sunjang baduk board from the period 1890~1920. The flower points are still clearly evident. © Lee Sungwoo.
made in China and, further, was possibly made there by Korean artisans. Either way, it is the only other example known of a board with the same 17 "flower points" as the sunjang baduk board.

But despite all these fascinating aspects, there is one other, normally overlooked, that makes the few reamining game records worth intense study. It is the fact that the initial arrangement appears to make the old adage of 'corner, side then centre' for the opening break down.

That is far from obvious. Several Japanese masters, most notably Karigane Junichi, played sunjang baduk with experts who were considerably below their strength in normal go. Yet, judging by extant records, they could make a hash of things simply by trusting their instincts and preferring to play in the corners and along the sides. In contrast, the Korean experts, especially those of the 1930s for whom a decent number of games has now turned up, would concentrate their early plays in the centre.

Once you accept the possibility that go theory needs some re-appraisal in sunjang baduk, you may then be surprised to see that adding extra handicap stones in the centre, as is done in sunjang baduk, is not as devastating as you may expect.

Of course it may or may not be the case that a one-stone difference in sunjang baduk is worth more than one stone in normal go, but what we do know is that White can still get a very playable game in sunjang baduk even with several handicap stones clogging up the centre. And even then, good practice apparently was to start in the centre.

We know this mainly from a publication - the first Korean go magazine - called Sinjeong Gibo (Newly Compiled Go Records), published by the Seoul Go Research Institute in 1933. It suffered a split personality, because it covered both sunjang and Japanese style go, but sunjang baduk was clearly the junior partner. In fact, the bulk of the sunjang coverage was devoted to trying to popularise this version of the game. For that reason, it showed examples of play at most of the handicaps, and also an array of josekis, which differed somewhat from normal go.

Not long after this, a mock ceremony accompanied a declaration in the newspapers of the "death" of sunjang baduk. Japanese style was de rigueur.

That is not necessarily to be taken as meaning that Japanese style go was significantly better. Clearly the massive amount of literature on Japanese go dwarfed the nugatory writing on sunjang baduk, but there were also political factors. Japan then ruled Korea and imposed some harsh regulations, including not allowing Koreans to use Korean personal names in public - they had to have Japanese names, even in school. Obviously Koreans were quick to realise which side of their board was buttered.

It is unlikley that sunjang baduk will now ever resurrect itself as more than an interesting oddity, but insofar as study of it can shed light on ordinary go, it is worth a more thoughtful look than being a tournament sideshow.

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