Lee Sedol’s imminent retirement and move overseas

[The information in this article is out of date and has been updated here.]

“I don’t want to fade away as an old man, from behind the scenes of the Go world.” – Lee Sedol 9 dan

Recently, Lee Sedol said something which has shocked the Baduk community in Korea:

“I’ll definitely retire and move overseas within three years.”

This is different from other, similar, cases; because Lee’s one of the strongest Go players in the world right now, and he’s been #1 in Korea for a long time.

He’ll surely remain at the top level for another 4-5 years at least, but he wants to retire and go overseas to promote Go throughout the world.

An interview with Lee Sedol

Lee Sedol 9 dan.

Lee Sedol 9 dan.

Lee recently revealed his plans in an interview with a Baduk reporter from a Korean newspaper.

This is my (Younggil’s) translation of excerpts from that interview.

February 4 (2013): I met Lee Sedol at a restaurant close to the Korean Baduk Association.

We’re meeting because I want to talk to him about his retirement plans.

Since his reading and perception in Go is so deep and profound, I assume that his way of thinking about life is also different from other people’s.

Sedol simply said, “I’m going to quit while I’m still at the top.”

After a shot of Soju, he continued, “I can still compete for a few more years, but what can I do after that?”

“Competing and being at the top is an important part of who I am, as a fighter and a player.”

He said that spreading Go to more players is the best thing he can do after that.

He believes that if he’s willing to promote and teach Go, people will be more interested in Go, even where the game hasn’t yet laid down strong roots.

“I want to make Go as popular as Chess.” – Lee Sedol 9 dan

The first step

Co-founding go9dan.com was the first step in Lee’s plan.

The website focuses on promoting Go in English speaking countries. Since he joined, many top players have also joined the website, and many other people have joined to watch.

Lee Sedol earned more than $640,000 USD in 2012, and he earned more than $700,000 in 2011.

He’s the highest earning athlete among pro sports stars in Korea. In that respect, it’s hard for him leave and go overseas.

It’s really hard to make money by working on a Go website, and it’s difficult to join international tournaments from overseas. His income will probably be negligible once he leaves.

Lee chooses the USA

Lee Sedol with the late Chen Zude (China's first professional 9 dan).

Lee Sedol with the late Chen Zude (China’s first professional 9 dan).

“If I only consider money, it would be better to go to China,” he said.

“Go is booming in China right now, and many people have talked to me about moving there.”

“However, there are already strong players in China and it’s more important and interesting to promote Go in the West.”

He added that it’s likely that he won’t participate in international tournaments anymore after he moves, because of the difficulties involved in traveling from so far away.

He’s chosen to go to the US to promote Go. He hopes the US government and people will be interested in Asian culture, and developing stronger ties with Asia through Go.

Lee Sedol’s plans for the future

Lee has another reason for going to the US. Last August, his wife and daughter went to Canada so his daughter could start studying overseas.

Lee Sedol and his daughter.

Lee Sedol and his daughter.

It’s not a short term plan – Lee believes it will take around 3-4 years. “My daughter’s studying in Canada, but the population of Canada is small and I think there’s more potential in the US right now.”

“I’ll also be able to visit my family in Canada more easily from the US,” said Lee.”

Jubango with Gu Li

Gu Li 9 dan, slated to play a jubango with Lee Sedol.

Gu Li 9 dan, slated to play a jubango with Lee Sedol.

Lee Sedol also talked about the proposed 10 game match (jubango) with Gu Li 9p.

He said he’s willing to play the matches if the prize money is large enough.

He’ll be satisfied with $1.5 million USD for the winner, he says.

Lee explains that the loser’s reputation will suffer critical damage throughout the Go world, and in the history books [like Fujisawa Hosai after he lost to Go Seigen]. According to Lee, the prize money should be large because of the risks involved.

Lee Sedol addresses his critics

He also talked about how some people have been speaking ill of him, because of his strong character and his past conflicts with the Korean Baduk Association.

“I made mistakes in the past, but I’m going to try to have a positive influence on the world from now on. However, I’ll still speak out when I see people committing unrighteous acts.”

Lee Sedol flew to Canada to see his family two days after this interview took place.

Lee Sedol with his daughter, several years ago.

Lee Sedol with his daughter, several years ago.

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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. Wouahhh , it’s unexcepted . This guy is incredible.

  2. As a selfish Go lover I say that his retirement will be an awful loss, I like his games very much. But then, go at this level is top sport like football and tennis, at a certain point in time younger people will surpass you. Tennis player John McEnroe said at the end of his carreer that he hated to lose once a week. Indeed, if money is not the issue, what is the point in going on? Doing something else is important, and the sooner you think about it the better. I wonder what Lee Changho is considering doing in the next ten years.

    Promoting Go abroad, in the Go dessert. Good luck! But… I hate to say this, I guess there are better and more effective things to do, however difficult this may be. But it is his life.

    Kind regards,

  3. Wish him all the best. Being on the top can be fun, until you realize that you might not be there forever. Some people do not mind, others go away before the time comes. It is a matter of choice.
    Hopefully he will have an impact on the popularity of Go. In Germany, it is not all that widespread, although we have league plays.

  4. Very interesting decision by Lee Sedol. Without his obligatory everyday Go training and regular professional games he will have a whole lot of a free time. This time, if used wisely, can be converted in many interesting things. He can write books, travel the world giving lectures, start a blog or website. That can make immense impact on western Go. I wonder what ideas he has in mind.

  5. By the way, what is the current record between Gu Li and Lee Sedol?

  6. Great article, congratulations!
    This is good news for the USA. 🙂

  7. Just wanted to clarify a couple of misleading translations and add in Sedol’s New Year’s Resolution (Lunar)

    1. The first step – Joining go9dan.com as a coordinator was the first step towards going overseas, he said.

    Correction: Co-Founding go9dan.com was the first step of the big picture. (Like the opening of a game)

    2. He added that he won’t participate in international tournaments anymore after he retires.

    Correction: He will continue to play in international tournaments if there are ways to participate. However, he will not actively seek such opportunities.

    New Year’s Resolution: He quit smoking as of February 4, 2013.

  8. Matt Mennie says:

    I look forward to this greatly. It will mean that Canadians will be able to invite Lee Sedol to the CGA Opens. This would be HUGE for Canadians.

  9. Lee, come to Los Angeles!!

  10. If Lee seeks great public, would be interesting if he was willing to take a walk here, in Brasil, though the number of Go players here still is not as relevant in relation to the population that lives here :,(

    Live Go!!

  11. I will be really blown away in a positive way when Lee Sedol dedicates his life to promoting Go in countries outside of Asia. This would be just awesome! But promotion is an art in itself and non-trivial. I hope that he will be surrounded by people who know how to popularize Go as the fascinating game that it is.

    • Yes, my first thought is the same. To someone who never heard of the game, they don’t care if it’s lee sedol or your uncle billy bob joe. They don’t know the difference.

      It takes more than a good player to spread the game and let the average person to at least know what it is. Only then will a really strong player have an affect on making more people interested

  12. I think making go more popular is perhaps even better than winning all of the tournaments. That’s great on Lee’s part. I’m so happy to hear this, and hope that more pro’s follow suit, and play more exhibition games, more fun games. Go should be more popular than Chess, or any other board game for that matter: it’s more awesome, challenging, and complex.

  13. Youngil, what is this proposed Lee Sedol – Gu Li jubango? Is this actually happening? Details please!

  14. José Fidel says:

    Surprising, but at the same time it will be interesting to see him on western countries promoting Go. I hope he comes to Mexico someday.

  15. Gu Li must be sad 🙁

  16. Does anyone know where in Canada Lee’s daughter is? Not to sound too much like a stalker, but Canada’s a big place. I just wonder if I’m in the same city as my hero…’s family.

  17. I appreciate very much getting this kind of news and perspective, it’s difficult to find on the English-language web. I also strongly suggest citing the journalist and newspaper whose work you’re relying on for this interview with Lee. Since English-speaking Go fans are relying on this site for news, it’s important to make it more than just a blog and have journalistic standards.

  18. Jota Carlos says:

    Argh! Really bad news. Move to the West so as to try to promote Go among westerns?! Waste of time. Much better to be among extraterrestrials ’cause they certainly know what Go is all about, according to Edward Lasker, a great chessplayer and Go enthusiast of the past century.

  19. he will come back to south korea penniless… wrong move…

  20. Lee Sedol has a strong tendency to do as he says.
    If you bet against, you have to ask for 20 to 1 odds.
    It surprised me that he is separated from his family.
    What are they doing in Canada?
    Running away from korean chauvinism?
    Making money on go in the West is really almost impossible.
    He said money isn’t his goal and I believe him, but leaving any kind of positive mark on western go is a formidable task in itself.

    • he loves his daughter before everything else. and he’s in the habit of coldly reading out various futures, and choosing the best one.

      and so, if you have a five year-old you love more than anything, and you’ve got a couple million dollars saved up, what do you do to give her the best chance of being happy with your grand children in the year 2065?

      you leave korea and move to the anglosphere. nowhere in the world is liable to offer more opportunity. everywhere else in the world offers far less security.

      think of it this way — what are the chances of a bloody war between south korea and north korea or china or japan in the next 40yrs? >10%. with canada or america? <1%.

      its a sad calculus, but its true. if i had money and i didn't already live in north america, i'd give it all up to raise my children here. because you are giving the best guarantee you can for the happiness and health of your children and grandchildren. (and australia/nz/uk is very close second)

      • David Ormerod says:

        In addition to the geopolitical concerns, there’s also the fact that being educated in the West is currently less stressful and competitive for children.

        The merits of different education systems are another matter, but I have several Korean and Chinese friends who’ve told me that many younger people consider not having kids at all now.

        The main reason is that those who struggled through that system don’t want their children to have to go through the same thing.

      • @James: I disagree. The Scandinavian countries are significantly safer than the English-speaking ones. Also, even the wars America participates in are not on American soil, the crime rate in the USA is a lot higher than in Europe and East Asia so the day-to-day life would be less in the US than in South Korea. Likewise, life expectancy is higher in Japan, France and Spain than in America. It appears, given his comment about Canada having a low population, that part of the motivation is the high number of people in the USA.

  21. Awesome! I may be sad that he is retiring, but maybe I’ll get a chance to play him in the future now if he comes to the U.S. I’ll study hard to become a top amateur an try to become pro by the time he comes to the U.S. I’m 4d, I think I can do it right?

  22. It depends on his expectations. The cultural hurdles here in the West are just too big for any dramatic or lasting effect, regardless of who’s behind the promoting. Lee Sedol will draw some media attention initially, but it’ll be short lived…unfortunately. If he expects to generate the same sort of attention that he currently enjoys, I think he’ll be very disappointed.

    On the other hand, if he’s content with a more localized celebrity status among Go players in the US and Canada, then it’s *just* a matter of making a living from that status. So the question is whether he can be content outside the cultural spotlight on a substantially lower standard of living. That’s quite a bit to give up for the sake of the game.

    • Scott, you say the cultural hurdles are too big, but what are the cultural hurdles? I feel that Go is an abstract strategy game, and that the West can learn to enjoy it. Chess is abstract too, and it’s very popular in the West. The only difference is the pieces are cultural icons, like bishops and kings and queens. Perhaps we could turn Go pieces into cultural icons to make it more appealing to the West. Also, Capture Go should be taught more frequently and the game should be in every store that sells games, like Target, Walmart, and Toys-R-Us. We can turn this around. What are the cultural hurdles in the West, though?

  23. Unlike Chess, there’s no cultural base (tradition, history, philosophy, etc.) for Go in the West, especially in the U.S. It doesn’t matter that Go has family resemblances to Chess in its abstract qualities or that it’s a far more challenging and interesting game. There are good reasons why Go is more established in the East and Chess is more established in the West – different histories and cultural traditions. We don’t have a World Series of Cricket in the U.S. either. Why not?

    It’s not about what “could” or “should” be the case. People in East Asia could learn to play and enjoy Chess as much as they do Go, but they don’t. So the hurdles have nothing to do with the game itself. It has everything to do with the lack of a cultural base.

    Thankfully that’s beginning to change with globalization, but current trends unfortunately put the exportation of popular culture around the world predominately in the West to East direction – that sucks! Hopefully the trends will shift in the other direction someday with Go becoming the international game of choice, but I don’t see that happening any time soon.

    • Eric Martin says:

      Thanks for the reply, Scott. The historical value of Go in the East is a great point. I hope things turn around as well.

  24. I wouldn’t be worried about him going broke. Yes, it’s difficult to make a living on Go in the West, but not impossible. Look at someone like Guo Juan, who has made a career of teaching in the West. Lee Sedol, retiring at the top of his game, has a much higher profile and will command greater attention.

    Also, he’s been a top-ranked professional for years. Lee’s earnings from the last two years is equal to about 65 years on my salary. Granted, I basically have a subsistence income and I don’t have a family to support right now, so it’s not a fair comparison. But, come on, he won’t starve.

    As for the viability of his mission, I think it’s an admirable goal and I’m excited for such a high-profile person give it a shot. It’s not a quick or easy task, but look at David Beckham’s influence on North American soccer’s popularity. And, Scott, I wouldn’t underestimate the power of East-to-West cultural exports. The majority of my non-Chinese, Go-playing friends got into it because they were anime-philes and watched Hikaru, which notably was never officially syndicated in the West. What might happen if a similar cultural force was promoted through more traditional mass media?

    • “But, come on…” where did I suggest that he would starve or that it was impossible to make a living at Go in the United States? Here’s what I did say, however – “So the question is whether he can be content outside the cultural spotlight on a substantially lower standard of living. That’s quite a bit to give up for the sake of the game.”

      And regarding unfair comparisons, or more pointedly, wildly mismatched comparisons, are you suggesting that David Beckham is a reasonable comparison to Lee Sedol? Let me suggest a test that may help you evaluate the reasonableness of that comparison. The next time you are at a sporting event or in a crowed shopping mall, randomly ask a dozen or so people whether they’ve ever heard of soccer before, and then ask them if they’ve ever heard of Go.

      We’ve had professional soccer in the U.S. since at least the 1960s, and it’s been a part of our culture since the 19th century. Soccer is an established sport in high schools, colleges and universities across the U.S. According to FIFA, the US Soccer Federation estimates there are over 24 million (24,473,000) Americans who play soccer, with over 4 million (4,187,000) registered soccer players in the United States (http://www.fifa.com/mm/document/fifafacts/bcoffsurv/emaga_9384_10704.pdf). Richard Luker, a social psychologist who created the ESPN Sports Poll, says, “We discovered 30 percent of American households contained someone playing soccer. The only game that comes close to that massive number is baseball” (http://espnfc.com/blog/_/name/relegationzone/id/262?cc=5901).

      I don’t “underestimate the power of East-to-West cultural exports” in the least. The problem is that you and a few others on this thread underestimate the cultural hurdles that Go faces in the West. Being excited about the possibility of Lee Sedol coming to the U.S. for an extended stay is great – I know I am. Being optimistic about the possibility of his Beckham-like success in the U.S. is nice too, but the probability of such success is extremely low.

  25. Lee sedol suddenly went about 20% cooler 🙂

  26. Sweet. I can’t wait. I think it’s gonna blue up here in the u.s. I’m a Woodworker here making Go boards, and tell you… The compression is high. In the past several months I’ve run into several other woodworkers making the same thing locally… And I’m in the mid West, lower population. Producing for an as of yet underground market, but boy is it a excited one, like a pot of water just about to boil. I think America is ready and Lee is going to be a great catalyst for that. It’s our time!

    • Younggil An says:

      I’m afraid to say that Lee doesn’t think about retiring anymore. He’s changed his mind, and he thought it’s better for him and Go world to play and teach in China and Korea instead of spreading Go in America.
      He may change his mind again when he misses his family too much or fed up with playing. Anyway, that’d be a great catalyst for American players if it happens!

  27. Moving to U.S.to meet up with his family is natural. I understand that part. But devoting your prime years to promoting baduk is a questionable move…(blunder move) Even chess is fading away here; Americans don’t have the patience to learn and play baduk. They will rather play Texas Holdem or Starcraft and computer games….