Honinbo Shuei (ca. 1852-1907) has long been esteemed by other professionals, even outside Japan.
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.
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.
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.”
“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
You can also find out more about John Fairbairn and his books at his GoGoD website.