An interview with Baek Hongseok

Recently Baek Hongseok won the 4th BC Card Cup, and many of you followed the news or watched the games on Baduk TV.

Baek Hongseok 9 dan.

I also commented some of his games with Dang Yifei from the final earlier (game 2 and game 4).

Baek talked to me on the phone about the BC Card Cup and some other things. Here’s what he had to say…

BC Card Cup

An Younggil: Hi Hongseok, thanks for agreeing to do an interview for Go players overseas!

First of all, how do you feel about winning the BC Card Cup recently?

Baek Hongseok: It feels great, and it was the most exciting moment of my Baduk life.

I also feel some pressure and responsibility, because I won a big title.

How did you feel when you were playing the final games?

Baek Hongseok (9 dan, left) plays Dang Yifei (4 dan) in game 2 of the 4th BC Card Cup final.

I tried to control my mind and convince myself that it was just a normal game, nothing special.

It helped me, so I managed to not be too nervous.

In particular, I tried not to think about my opponent. I just wanted to play my best.

Baek Hongseok gives an interview after winning the 4th BC Card Cup.

Baek Hongseok’s style

How would you describe your style of play?

I like fighting games. I tried to lead the final games into a fighting game, but Dang tried to make them into simple and peaceful games. I thought games 2-4 were not bad, so I didn’t try too hard to fight during those games.

I thought game 3 was the most important in the series. When I won that game, I became more confident and I could be calmer because of that. Earlier, I was too excited about the final, so I tried to become calmer and settle my mind.

On Dang Yifei

And what do you think about Dang Yifei?

Before the finals, I was told that he likes fighting and plays a sharp and active game. However, I felt he was also very nervous, so he didn’t seem to play with his own style.

Compared to his earlier games, he didn’t play such bold or daring moves in the finals, because he was too nervous as well.

I felt his style of play was tenacious. He’s still very young, so he could still be the best in the world one day. He has a lot of potential, I think.

Baek Hongseok in 2007.

Military service in Korea

When will you go to the army to complete your military service?

I’m thinking about joining the navy early next year. It’s because there’s a special Baduk military stream in the army which was recently created for strong Baduk players.

Will you be able to study Baduk while you’re in the navy?

It won’t be easy to study Baduk while I’m completing my military service, but they’ll give me permission to participate in some domestic official matches. I’ll probably also teach Baduk to other soldiers in the navy.

What do you think about Korean military service for Baduk pros?

Obviously, it’s hard to maintain your strength, but it’ll be helpful on a mental and physical level. I think there are still some positive aspects to it.

Do you think the compulsory military service has an adverse effect on the strength of Korean pros compared to Chinese ones?

I think so. All male pros in Korea have to think about military service from when they’re 20 years old. They can’t make long term plans because they know they have to leave the field for 24 months at some point.

It’s a very critical issue for top pros. Even though I think I can overcome this sort of obstacle, it can still be a big problem for some pros.

Baek Hongseok in 2008.

A note about Korean military service

In the past, there were some special cases where top pros who won international titles, like the BC Card Cup, could get exemption from military service, but ever since Baduk was reclassified as a sport (previously it was an art) around 2006, it’s become much harder to qualify for exemption.

In the 1990s, there were three international Go tournaments where pros could earn a special exemption. They were the Ing Cup, the Fujitsu Cup and the Tongyang Cup.

At that time, there was a new bill put in place for Lee Changho. If a young pro made it to the final of one of those three tournaments, they didn’t need to complete their military service, as a special case.

There were some similar exceptions for masters of other art forms. For example, if a pianist won a very famous competition, they could become exempt from military service too.

In the late 1990s, the Tongyang Cup ended and some other international tournaments were established (such as the LG Cup, Samsung Cup and Toyota Denso Cup) but no new rules were created at that time. So in the early 2000s there were only two titles left for Korean pros to aim for.

As I said earlier, after Baduk became a ‘sport’ in 2006, it became even more difficult. Today, only the Olympic Games and the Asian Games are recognized ways for sports people to earn exemption, but Go isn’t currently included in either of those events.

Go was included in the 2010 Asian Games (in Guangzhou, China) and the Korean Baduk team took the gold medal. At that time, Park Junghwan was given special exemption, so he won’t need to go to the army in the future. In addition, Cho Hanseung was able to finish his military service a bit earlier, as he was also one of the team members.

But since that event, there haven’t been any other avenues for top Korean pros to earn an exemption.

Unfortunately, Go won’t be included in the 2014 Asian Games in Incheon, Korea. So at the moment, all current male pros will have to join the army. Park Junghwan may be the last one who gets a special exemption like this.

Plans for the future

What’s your plan for after you complete your military service?

I want to keep playing Baduk in the field for as long as I can. I want to become a pro who’s steady. I think it depends on how hard I work for that.

I’ve heard that you have a girlfriend. Did you ask her whether she’ll wait two years for you to complete your military service? 😀

I haven’t asked her about that yet, but right now I’m happy together with her, so I’ll try to do my best for her.

I first met her at the Baduk club at the Ewha Women’s University, and now we’re in a good relationship. I don’t know what will happen in the future, but I’m happy now.

Getting to know Baek better

Who do you consider to be your rival in the Baduk world?

Lee Younggu, Yun Junsang and Heo Youngho are my friends and rivals. We’re all around the same age, so we’re competitive with one another in good faith. They’re my precious friends.

Which would you choose if you had to choose between Baduk and your girlfriend?

Hahaha (he seemed to think these questions were so funny and silly :D)

I’m going to play Baduk for my whole life, and if I marry her, we will spend our whole lives together too. I can’t choose one.

What would you say is the most charming aspect of your appearance?

[Laughs again] (he seemed to be shy and a bit embarrassed about answering this question :D)

I was told that I look nice when I’m smiling.

Baek Hongseok at an interview in 2007.

I know you like sports and that you’re very good at them. Do you still play sports a lot?

Baek Hongseok in his baseball uniform.

I used to like soccer very much, but recently I started playing tennis and I play tennis quite often now.

I have daily lessons, and I attend the pro Baduk players’ tennis club every week.

If there was a time machine, so that you could go back to the past, when would you go back to and why?

I want to go back to the time when I’d just become a pro. I’d study Baduk very hard. When I look back, I spent too much time on things that weren’t very important or valuable.

I’m regretting that now, but I can’t go back. So instead, I want to do my best now.

How to get better at Go – Baek style

Lots of Go players want to know what the best way to improve at Go is. What do you think?

Firstly, if you like Go very much, it’s far easier to become stronger.

If you can play real games with players of a similar strength, that should be very good. If someone who’s stronger than you can review your games with you, that’s really the best.

If you have to study Go on your own, you can study whatever you like. If you like to review pros’ games, you can do that. If you like to study life and death problems, you can also study that.

You can study whatever you want to study and have fun! That’s the best way I can think of.

Plans for this year

What’s your plan for the rest of this year?

I don’t have any particular plan because I want to study Baduk very hard until I go to the navy. It will probably be the last chance I have to study very hard in my life. So I’m going to dedicate myself to Baduk this year.

Thank you very much for your time and your sincere answers. Go fans outside of Korea, around the world, will be pleased to hear your personal story.

I hope they’ll get to know you better through this interview, and will become your fans. I also hope you can compete at the top of the field for a long time, as you hope to.

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About Younggil An

Younggil is an 8 dan professional Go player with the Korean Baduk Association. He qualified as a professional in 1997 and won an award for winning 18 consecutive professional matches the following year. After completing compulsory military service, Younggil left Korea in 2008, to teach and promote the game Go overseas. Younggil now lives in Sydney, Australia, and is one of the founders of Go Game Guru. On Friday evenings, Younggil is usually at the Sydney Go Club, where he gives weekly lessons and plays simultaneous games.

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


  1. Thanks for the nice interview! Very interesting questions~ I didn’t really know the situation about the exemption from the Korean army~ I thought it was still possible to get it.

  2. Fantastic interview!! Very good and fun questions with refreshing answers. Always a pleasure to read your articles Younggil.

  3. The final question is indeed the one: how to improve. And Baek says: study what you like. It seems I can delete everything I’ve ever written or devised about an ideal way to improve. Motivation beats everything, except maybe that one really has to play games.

    The interview was exceptionally long. Often I find that I wanted to learn much more but this one really fulfills the need. Thanks a lot!

  4. Tom Rike says:

    Great interview. Having watched the match it is really nice to hear what was going on in his mind.

  5. John Hardy says:

    This is a very good interview, with quite wide ranging questions. There was a focal question on the issue of military service which was informative.

    Congratulations, Younggil.

  6. Great interview! Thank you, An Younggil. Congratulations to Baek Hongseok, and I really enjoyed his answers and attitude 🙂