Antti Törmänen as insei: Interview

Antti Törmänen is one of the teachers at the NGA, currently training as an insei (student trying to become a pro go player) in Japan. Since this past week he had holidays for the Golden Week in Japan, I grabbed the opportunity to ask him some questions about go, insei life and his plans.

Tea pause (picture by Antti Törmänen)

Ruben: Just 2 years ago your first insei period finished. You arrived at Japan by the end of September 2011, climbed from E class to C class in November and had to leave by May, just after reaching the first spot in the C class for April 2012. Now you entered directly into C class, and already tied for second place (but won’t promote this month). This means that, if anything, your go knowledge has kept its sharpness after 2 years.

Do you feel overall stronger than 2 years ago, or just more experienced?

Antti: Several people asked me this question recently. Before recently (May 1, 2014) I would have answered that I didn’t feel a big change whatsoever, as from my point of view, my results have been fairly steady since two years ago. What happened was that I got to watch my televised game against Fujisawa Rina from two years ago (her being a 1 dan professional back then), and I felt the game was quite horribly played on my part. It was not just that Fujisawa was strong and thus easily able to control the game, but I also now noticed several misconceptions on my part about what was important and what was not, which helped white quickly catch up with black’s advantage.

Ruben: Last time (as mentioned above and in your blog) you had to leave after just around 7 months of training.

Now that you have finished your studies in Finland (congrats, by the way!) and have a little more leeway in terms of available time, how long do you plan to spend in Japan for go related activities?

Antti: Thanks! The duration of my stay still depends on many factors, but I can say for sure that I will at least stay until December 2014. Continuing until August 2015 is relatively likely, too, but about after that I could not say now.

Ruben: There’s been some work here in Europe creating the figure of the European Go Professional, with the qualifying tournaments starting by the end of this month. There’s also plenty of tournaments (and the European Go Congress) in the coming months.

Do you plan to return to Europe temporarily for some of these “weekend tournaments”, or even for the European Go Congress?

Antti: The insei are not allowed to participate in amateur tournaments, and anyway, since most weekends are already full of insei training, taking time off to visit Europe would directly conflict with the reason why I came to Japan in the first place.

Ruben: Speaking of European players, there’s a lot of speculation about who will get one of these “pro” spots (I think there’s even a winner-picking pool about it!)

Who do you think stands a biggest chance of grabbing the title?

Antti: I would be surprised if Pavol Lisy didn’t qualify. As for the second spot, it is much harder to say; perhaps whoever gets on a good winning streak will get it.

Ruben: On a related note, you are one of the top-ranked players in Europe. At such high levels, playing ability is close enough that what decides a match is, well, just the match-up.

What European player is your “worst match”?

Antti: Looking from previous results, that would have to be Ilya Shikshin, I guess. Then again, almost anybody matches badly against him!

Ruben: It’s hard to imagine what being a full-time go professional (since you are one of the heads at the Nordic Go Academy, still doing lots of reviews and holding lectures) and go student feels like. Even though most of our followers and members are either employees (self or otherwise) or students, I find it hard to imagine what it’s like to spend all day doing things that have to actively improve my go abilities and I’m sure they do, too.

A tengu in Mount Takao (picture by Antti Törmänen)

Antti: My weekdays are still rather varied, and I didn’t establish a very fixed rhythm for what to do, so far. If there was nothing special happening, my average day would probably consist of self-studying by means of solving tsumego, memorizing professional games or possibly playing online.

After four or five hours of this, I would have had enough and would go out for either sightseeing or jogging. Depending on my mood, I would do NGA game reviews either in the morning or in the evening; more recently, my morning ritual has been to do a game review or two along with my morning tea. On Tuesday evenings I go to the English class, held at the Nihon Ki-in, where I receive professional comments to my insei games. After that, from time to time my teacher finds something for me to do, such as participating in and/or helping with one of her go classes.

From now on, I may join a go dojo where I would go study on some weekdays, but I don’t have a closer clue on that yet.

Ruben: Together with Juri Kuronen and Su Yang you founded the Nordic Go Academy 3 years ago. The academy is open for players all around the world, and so far has improved the level of play of a lot of its participants. With the second edition of the Summer Camp this year it has consolidated its presence in Europe as a good way to warm-up for the European Go Congress.

What drove you to create the Nordic Go Academy? Were you expecting it to grow as it has?

Antti: The exacts have gotten hazy by now, but I remember having thought that students playing in a closed league would provide for optimal offline game reviews in that one review would serve two students at the same time. When both students paid for the review, the pricing could be made quite reasonable for both. Then I also remember having discussed with Su Yang that it could be a good idea to establish an internet go school with a base of Nordic players, in order to help increase the general level of play in the Nordic countries. Add in Juri and the factor that we needed something to finance our own tournament travelling costs, being poor university students, and we get the Nordic Go Academy. I could say that reaching a student base of 20–30 people was within the bounds of my imagination, but any further big growth would be exceeding them.

2013 Nordic Go Academy Summer Camp

Ruben: It’s a pity (for us students!) that you will be away this year during the Summer Camp (it means I’ll have to bring my own AeroPress!).

Do you plan on holding any remote lecture for it?

Antti: The practicalities for it seem unnecessarily difficult, and I am anyway confident that Su Yang, Juri, Lukas and our Korean guest teacher (NB: Cho Mikyung 8p) can take care of everything. I will be helping from the background both before and during the camp by for example compiling tsumego packages.

Ruben: We all have strengths and weaknessess, something we share with even the best professional athlete. Rafa Nadal is weak in fast surfaces, Lebron James suffers with zonal defenses.

What do you think is your main weakness? What do you feel is your strongest area?

Antti: As of recently, my play seems to be somewhat too amai as the Japanese say, ie. I tend to play influence-oriented moves that are not quite severe or efficient enough, and which let the opponent get a territorial advantage. As for my strong area, according to my teacher my reading seems to be my current forte; not quite so far as in that I could solve difficult tsumego incredibly quickly, but in that when my game gets into close combat, I can fight it out well.

Ruben: Most (those not having reached still a mid-dan ranking, essentially) amateur go players, when studying for improvement, focus on just a few areas at a times. Some do many tsumego or tesuji problems, or study like crazy joseki variations. Others replay pro games until memorising them. But hardly any of them spreads the study into several areas.*

What do you do to make sure you work in all improvement areas (direction of play, positional judgement, reading, endgame, “shape sense”, for instance)

Antti: Currently my main training regime includes playing, game reviews, tsumego-solving and memorizing professional games. The importance of the first two is obvious enough; tsumego is important in keeping the mind sharp, allowing for quick and precise play, and the memorisation of professional games is meant to establish a general feel for the direction of play, and for finding the biggest area of the game board. In particular, figuring out why the professionals play their moves is key.

In addition to the previously mentioned four, I follow local go newspapers and magazines for a general coverage of recent professional games, which works as a way to get knowledge about new move ideas.

Fujisawa Shūkō Calligraphy (owned by Antti Törmänen)

Ruben: You still do plenty of tsumego as part of your normal training. Most players striving for improvement work through tsumego problems, some more often than others (and reading ability is highly correlated with go strength.)

What problems are you working on at the moment? How long does it take you to work on them?

Antti: Recently I’ve been doing the Kessaku Tsumego Jiten, ie. Collection of Tsumego Masterpieces, which contains many mid- and high-level tsumego. I avoid taking too long to solve a single problem, trying to solve them within a minute or so; if I fail to get the answer, I look at the solution and then go on. With three to four iterations of reading through the book, I will have memorized pretty much all of the shapes.

Aside from the previously mentioned book, I regularly go through classical tsumego collections such as Gokyō Shumyō, Gengen Gokyō and Kanzu Fu.

Ruben: On a somewhat related note, last year you were gifted the collected games by Fujisawa Shūkō by Mimura sensei. A wonderful present, and a lot of study material.

Is still Shūkō your favourite player? If you had to pick another “favourite player,” who would be?

Antti: Fujisawa Shūkō is still my favourite player, yes; nothing much seems to affect that. I previously also got a work of calligraphy of his from Mimura-sensei, and even took it back to Japan with me now to provide for additional motivation.

For a second favourite, I would probably pick Takemiya for his unique understanding of the game. In particular, I find the games he played with Fujisawa in the 80s and 90s to be incredibly interesting.

Ruben: Of course, the interview could go on and on, since you are in Japan, being an insei and learning with some of the best go players in the world: perfect material for an endless stream of questions. But better to leave it here, if our readers have any questions please tell us so via Facebook or Twitter and we will compile your questions for a future interview!