Honinbo Shuei: Great talents mature late

Honinbo Shuei (ca. 1852-1907) has long been esteemed by other professionals, even outside Japan.

Honinbo Shuei

Honinbo Shuei

But who was Honinbo Shuei?

Phrases such as the ‘Meijin of Meijins’ are bandied about.

Takagawa Kaku even took up a professional career on the strength of having acquired a set of his collected games.

Yet it has never been quite to clear to amateurs why he is so highly regarded.

It’s to do with his style – that we know. But what is his style? Unlike Go Seigen, Shuei was not a joseki innovator. There is no ‘Shuei fuseki’. There is no famous book.

So teasing out the answer to that question became a little bit of an obsession for John Fairbairn – one half of the GoGoD (Games of Go on Disk) partnership he shares T Mark Hall.

While the GoGoD pro game database is their best known product, they’ve also recently collaborated on a wide range of books on Go history for Slate & Shell.

The Life of Honinbo Shuei

The Life, Games and Commentaries of Honinbo Shuei was meant to be part of that series, but the sheer size of the work proposed, combined with changes in the Go market, impelled them to try a Kindle e-book edition instead.

A fascinating new Go e-book: ‘The Life of Honinbo Shuei’.

The first part of the trilogy, ‘The Life’, appeared in May 2012.

Judging by initial reaction it’s filled a heartfelt gap for western Go players. But it’s not quite the book originally intended.

John told Go Game Guru:

“Aided, chivvied and even shamed by old friend Tom Koranda of the Czech Republic, I started gathering everything I had on Shuei – which was a lot – and then let it glare at me from a corner of the room.”

“Initially, the idea was to try to analyze Shuei’s style, which is something Tom and I had discussed on and off for years. In fact it was Tom who transcribed all of Shuei’s games for our database.”

“At last, once the baleful reminder of the pile of books became too much, I dived into them and was very soon astonished. Yes, there was good stuff on Shuei’s style, but the stuff on Shuei the man was breathtaking. It was nothing like the image most people have of him – some benign genius who lived at perhaps the wrong time.”

The real Shuei

“The real Shuei in fact is a person you might not like. He was the Meijin of stubbornness, and not always in a good way. He disappeared from the Go scene for years at a time. He could be kind but he could hate. He could be selfish but noble.”

“Part of his problem was that he was trying to uphold tradition in an era when Japan, and other Go players, wanted new ideas from the West. Being poor and having little help, he floundered.”

“Another part of his problem was that, by professional standards, he was not an especially good player for most of his life. It was all very well him wanting to maintain the prestige of the Honinbo family, but others laughed at him because he was so weak.”

Shuei becomes invincible

“Of course, he eventually outstripped everyone else and from the middle of 1897 to his death in 1902 he never again took the black stones. Naturally, the question of how he became so strong so late (in his forties) is fascinating.”

From left: Honinbo Shusai, Honinbo Shuei and Karigane Junichi.

“There seem to be three reasons: he studied old Go manuals obsessively, the best apprentices from the Hoensha (such as the future Honinbo Shusai) became his pupils and were strong enough to push him, and there were the ‘10,000 fusekis’. I’ll leave the story of that to the book.”

First full length biography in English

“Of course the book has many, many stories. Some will shock, such as the truth about Shusaku’s Castle Games. His grand gesture in defying a patron upset by a pupil will thrill many – it did me. In short this book ended up as a full-length, text-only biography, and not an analysis of his style at all.”

That is welcome news, of course. After all, this is the first biography of a major Go player in English. John has given us almost that already for Go Seigen, but spread over several books, and in not quite complete form (he says he has not yet revealed the other Japanese name used by Go, for example).

The Life of Shuei is the first dedicated biography.

Commented games of Honinbo Shuei

“So what about the analysis of his style?” I asked John.

“That’s being taken care of,” he said. “Part 2 is well in hand. It will be a chronological survey of eighty of his games. As usual in my work, I combine as many different commentaries by pros as I can and merge them.”

“In this case I was lucky to find even commentaries by Honinbo Shuho, who features so much in Shuei’s story. These commentaries try to show how his style developed. Shuei is famous for his miai, but actually they don’t feature as much as you might expect. I personally was more fascinated by his predilection for L shapes in the centre.”

“When I showed some of these commentaries to Tom – and I regard Tom as something of an expert on Shuei’s games – he was bowled over.”

“But Part 2 will appear as a part-work, if you’ll allow the awful pun. On a Kindle the games have to be presented with many byte-consuming diagram files, so I’m aiming to split Part 2 into four volumes, each with twenty games. I am html-ing the first volume at the moment and I hope to issue that in June 2012.”

Commentaries by Honinbo Shuei

And Part 3, his commentaries?

“I regard that as a special treat for connoisseurs. Shuei’s commentaries on games by other players are considered almost an art form by some. He could be extremely abusive in his comments, according to one pupil, but we have only the bowdlerized form, I’m afraid.”

“However, because they illustrate how he could adumbrate a game in super-lucid fashion they tell us also something about his style. But for people like me, interested (as a journalist) in the techniques of writing about Go, it’s even more fascinating to place him (high) in the pantheon of those who have made Go accessible to an amateur audience.”

“I’ve tried to show some of that in this Part 3, but essentially it’s a further fifteen or so commentaries on games by his pupils.”

So it sounds like you have a treat in store for us?

“Well at least I think I can say Go players who go on holiday this summer will now have something different and convenient to read wherever they travel to! And there are other e-books for the Kindle on the way soon in the GoGoD Vintage Series.”

Find out more

Learn more about The Life of Honinbo Shuei and read a free preview of the book at Amazon.

You can also find out more about John Fairbairn and his books at his GoGoD website.

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About David Ormerod

David is a Go enthusiast who’s played the game for more than a decade. He likes learning, teaching, playing and writing about the game Go. He's taught thousands of people to play Go, both online and in person at schools, public Go demonstrations and Go clubs. David is a 5 dan amateur Go player who competed in the World Amateur Go Championships prior to starting Go Game Guru. He's also the editor of Go Game Guru.

You can follow Go Game Guru on Facebook, Twitter, Google+ and Youtube.


  1. Very interesting, thank you! Sometimes you had go prodigies, like in those days Honinbo Shusaku, but quite often the players were at their strongest between their 30’s and 40’s, like until not too long ago Sakata Eio. Right now the strongest players are quite young, in their 20’s, like Lee Sedol. Does it have something to do with the allotted time, or the fierceness of today’s play? I always have the impossible question who would prevail putting against each other, Honinbo Shuei or Shusaku, and Lee Sedol, in a 3 hours each game. My gut feeling is, Lee Sedol would win because of a superior reading ability: any comments on this?

    Kind regards,

    • jangalf says:

      Somewhere I read that the ability of reading is much the same for older and present times. Don’t forget that the most of the difficult tsumego collections are very old…. And old good profesional were able to solve these problems.
      Maybe the time is the key factor and nowadays pro keep in mind a lot of research and fuseki, joseki, yose investigation than, lets say Shusaku or Dosaku. The older player would be very suprised with a lots of moves!

      • David Ormerod says:

        I agree, old pros were also very good at reading. The main thing that’s changed is opening theory. The further you go back, the more ‘local’ games get.

        Paul, I think you’re right that faster time settings favor younger players. I’m not sure if there are any other factors like improved training conditions perhaps? My guess is that fast games is the main factor.

  2. Thank you so much for this article !
    Among old players, Honinbo Shuei by far my favourite. His games, especially after 1897 (when he hold the 8p rank) are real masterpieces. I studied almost all of them, which have survived. In each game, you can feel the magic flow of his stones, and his wonderful positional judgement. Each game is a profund lesson in the purest essence of go. I love the the way he utilizes the hoshi at the second move by launching subtle but powerful attacks. In one move, he can suddenly put an entire group in deep troubles. Just incredible.

  3. Dan Kopp says:

    Mister Fairbairn:

    Your books are wonderful! Please do us all a favor and publish them on SmartGo Books! Thank you in advance!

    Dan Kopp

  4. Yes, Shuei is my favorite. He should be more well known to beginners than Shusaku.

    • I am not so familiar with the games of Shuei, but I studied quite some games of Shusaku a lot of years ago. At that time I thought the games of Shusaku were about perfect, now I wonder whether the defensive abilities of his opponents were top of the bill. I also wonder whether Shuei had great opponents, the go scene being in decline in those days.

      Why do you think the Shuei games should be known to beginners? And maybe not to the more advanced players?

      I think it would be nice to show a Shuei game here, commented by An Younggil, looking at the game with the professional’s eye of today: which moves would still be good by today’s professional standards, and which not, and why? I guess the introduction of komi may influence some difference of positional judgement. But I also expect that today’s go is more fierce for a reason, like honte moves being too slow, not winning, sente not always being sente anymore, leading to much more messy swaps. All in all, quite an interesting topic.

      Kind regards,

      • Because Shuei’s style has more to offer to beginners than Shusaku’s. (Of course, beginners can learn great things from studying the games of any players of such great strength.) Shuei is often said to have done for White what Shusaku did for Black. I think this is true.

        After his 1897 matches with Yasui Sanei, Shuei never take White again for rest of his life. This almost 10-years he exclusively play as White. Go Seigen modeled his later play off of Shuei — esp. when he began taking White more often. Shuei winning most of his games by large margins in time when White still not yet have komi. His play with White remain very modern.

        His flow of stones and direction of play above almost all other classic Go masters. It is kind of play that inspires without having to examine much, the feeling speaks enough so is very good for beginners. (But, of course, depth is present too.) He have superb skill at furikawari… and creating semedori situations. “Shuei – Masaki 1898-05-15” is great example of these skills. He also very good at amashi & shinogi. “Shuei-Senji 1896-07-00b” is another great game. Many of his skills develop because he required to play White so much. He also using 4-4 stones regularly long before New Fuseki period refocus such play. Go Seigen and others took noted inspiration from him in this way.

        In terms of strength, Shusaku often conflated due to his personality than his play. It most famously noted in post-death series of political events in which Shusaku ousted Jowa for long period of time as a Go Sage. Nowadays I think Jowa status has been revived by many contemporary players who able to look back without bias. So this also not reason to focus on Shusaku over Shuei. But Shuei not perfect person either. John Fairbairn book does great work in helping to show sides of Shuei.

        Yes, maybe it could be fun to see review of Shuei games from Mr. Younggil. But perhaps it better to have professional (or strong amateur) who is fan or very familiar with Shuei review instead.

        • Fantastic answer, thank you very much. the Shusaku/black – Shuei/white remark is very interesting. I will try and find the games you mentioned.

          Kind regards,

  5. jangalf says:

    The Question would be… How strong would be Shusaku for example, if with a time machine we bring him as a little child to the present and put him to study for a pro? The same with any of the geniuses of oder times…
    My opinion is that the “present Shusaku” would be very very strong… and by the way he would live a lot of more years than in his real life.

  6. This book looks so nice… but it’s only for kindle… I hope they will edit it in an other format to read it on my kobo…

    • David Ormerod says:

      John said he’s going to consider other formats based on how well this Kindle version does.

  7. Jangalf, if you teleport Shusaku to 2012, then he’s not Shusaku anymore. We are the result of our genes and the effects of life on them. I know what you mean, but I really think there is a philosophical element making the thought exercise void.

    The times we live in are an integral part of what we are.

    • jangalf says:

      Yes, you are right… probably he would die because he hasn’t any present antibodies… But I tried to say that it ‘s imposible to measure the strength of those geniuses old players with the go elements of today.
      The case of Dosaku is good… trying to play a game with only the kind of moves of that time. that is maybe a good idea to see how strong the guy was. But it’s just my opinion.

      • David Ormerod says:

        Yea, it’s a funny question. We can’t answer it, but it’s fun to think about :).

  8. Bought the first book – can’t wait for the next ones to be released!


    • David Ormerod says:

      Let me know what you think Devin. I really enjoyed volume 1.

      • “Shuei is often said to have done for White what Shusaku did for Black. ”
        I cant agree with that.I am not special fan of Shusaku, but Shusaku was doing well on white, later in his life.In 1853 he forced Yuzo to sen-ai-sen(so we can consider him a real 8 dan from that point), and he was not far from forcing him to black( so on the match with Yuzo he was already quite close to 9 dan).
        “His flow of stones and direction of play above almost all other classic Go masters”
        Its debatable.I think Jowa if he could, would say sth like “maybe, but not better than my”, and Shusaku would say “so maybe a sanjubango?”
        Of course old masters when put against modern would be at disadvantage cuz of development of fuseki/joseki but as all pro state middle and endgame are same.And i must assume that when i read “Invincible” i cant remember how many times modern pros said that Shusaku made mistake in middle game?
        This was a very little number(and mostly when he was young, there is significant difference between Shusaku from 1845 and 1855), so i must say that he was really etremely strong.He also have very strong opponents.Shuei didnt have that strong opposition i think.
        I dont want to say that Shusaku was stronger, but for us amateurs is really impossible to judge.From other point of view when i analyzed games of Shusaku with pro comment from Invincible i must say that it was very helpful.I cannot compare to Shuei cuz i dont have his games with comments but i must say that i consider games of Shusaku very good for amateurs(maybe not beginners – they should study basic L%D problems ,but for sdk).
        Of course when Fujisawa Shuko said once that he consider Shuei as the storngest of all meijins and honinbos – i cant say he was wrong(this is what i feel) – but i would like to check it and see his match against players like Dosaku,Doteki,Shusaku, or Jowa.
        Everybody who saw Jowa’s game against Akaboshi would see his iron will to win at any effort so this match would be really amazing!
        Anyway Shuei was clearly best player of his time and also taught next best player(Shusai) – its enough to become very interested in his go.From other side as would fans of StarWars said go was strong in his family(he was natural son of Shuwa) so no wonder he was extremely strong.

        Anyway what was the truth of Shusaku Castle Games?
        I dont know yet what is on book but from my point of view:
        Shusaku had great luck on game with Yasui Sanchi,and some luck on game with Ito Showa.Also had some luck he hadnt played Shuwa.Rest were quite flawless from his side.
        Of course if Shusaku would have live longer and castle games would not be void – probably he would be soonly promoted to 8 dan get mostly white in castle games and lose some of it(for example against Shuho). But anyway, up to 1853 he proved his supremacy over all players except Shuwa – i cannot imagine what is this “truth” about his record :D.Maybe better i will not buy this book 😛