Top 20 Go Players: Lee Sedol and Kong Jie

This is the final article in our series about the top 20 Go players of 2010.

Kong Jie (left) and Lee Sedol play in the final of the 23rd Fujitsu Cup (2010).

Lee Sedol 9p was ranked number 1 and Kong Jie 9p was ranked number 2, according to Dr Bai Taeil in early 2011.

Kong Jie

Kong Jie was born in 1982 and became a pro in 1994.

He won the National Individual title in 2001, and it was his first domestic title. In 2003, he won both the Ricoh Cup and Xinren Wang (Rookies Cup).

A top prospect in China

At that time, he was regarded as one of top prospective players in China, along with Qiu Jun, Hu Yaoyu, and Gu Li.

Gu Li took the lead among them, and even though Kong was highly regarded, his results in international matches weren’t very impressive until 2009.

Kong Jie becomes unbeatable

In 2009, the situation was reversed, and there was a big change in Kong. At the end of that year, he won the 14th Samsung Cup, defeating Qiu Jun in the final. It was his first major international title.

In 2010, nobody could stop him. He defeated Lee Changho in the final of the 14th LG Cup, defeated Lee Sedol in the final of the 23rd Fujitsu Cup, and then beat Yuki Satoshi in the final of the 22nd Asian TV Cup.

Lee Changho and Kong Jie at the 14th LG Cup (2010).

He won four international titles in a row, and it was both impressive and shocking. He seemed to be invincible at that time and many Korean fans were shocked and in panic by his perfect style of play against top Korean players.

Even if he was already highly regarded as a top player, he had never been that dominant before. He suddenly became perfect and unbeatable in 2009 and 2010.

Kong Jie’s style

Kong Jie’s style of play is basically very solid and thick. You can feel some cool and nice shapes in his games. The strong points of his style are accurate counting, balance and endgame.

His opening sense is good and he likes tidy, peaceful games. He never rushes when his opponents have a big moyo, because he’s very good at maintaining balance.

If you watch him playing a reduction or invasion in his games, you’d feel he takes it easy, but if you try to do that, you’ll realize it’s actually very hard.

Kong Jie and his wife.

Time trouble

On the other hand, he used to have trouble with time management.

When he was in time trouble, he often made simple mistakes and lost won games, but it looks as if he overcame that in 2009 and time doesn’t seem to be an issue for him anymore.

He must have tried his best to cover his weaknesses, and eventually he reached the top of the Go world.

Meeting Kong

I met him for the first time in 1998, when he visited Korea for the ‘Rookies’ friendship matches’ – between Korea, China and Japan. We couldn’t talk a lot because of the language barrier, but we could still communicate with body language and Go.

We enjoyed dinner, drinking, karaoke, and bowling together, with many other young players. He was shy and modest, but I don’t know if he’s still shy. Anyway, he’s become quite a favorite with female Go fans and his big smile is still attractive. [Editor: even Jing thinks Kong looks pretty good in a suit :).]

Kong Jie and Choi Cheolhan.

Human after all

He reached the final of the LG Cup in early 2011, but was beaten by Piao Wenyao 9p. Since that final, we haven’t seen his name in the line-up for any semi finals, or above, in international matches.

His recent results in international Go haven’t been as good as before. It’s because many strong young players are coming through the ranks, and they might have figured out the weaknesses in Kong’s style of play.

Though he’s been in a slump in recent times, I hope to see his beautiful and tidy style of play for a long time to come.

Lee Sedol

Lee Sedol was born in 1983, on a small island in the south west part of Korea.

He learnt Go from his father when he was very young, with his elder brothers and sisters. He lived on that small island until he went to Kwon Gapryong’s dojo, when he was 9 years old.

His strong mind and will could be due to the nature of that island.

Lee Sedol’s early years

He became a pro when he was 12 years old, but his first couple of years after becoming a pro weren’t yet remarkable.

He won both the 5th Chunwon and the 8th Baedalwang in 2000, and he became one of the top players in Korea from that period on.

Of particular note was when he defeated Yu Changhyeok in the Baedalwang title match. It was sensational because Yu was regarded as the best attacker in the world at that time. It was Lee Sedol’s turning point, and after beating Yu, Lee seemed to be full of confidence and he started to dominate the Korean Go world.

He also won 32 games in a row (the 3rd best record in Korea) and was selected as best player at the Korean Baduk Awards in 2000.

Lee Sedol and Lee Changho

In 2001, he was in the final of the 5th LG Cup and his opponent was Lee Changho, the invincible. Sedol won the first two games and lots of Go fans were shocked, even though Sedol was regarded as the next Lee Changho.

Presentation at the 7th LG Cup. Lee Changho and Lee Sedol (2003).

Sedol was already playing at quite a high level, but people still thought that beating Changho was impossible, especially in a five game series.

This time they were right. Lee Changho made a comeback and won the title in a reverse sweep, but it was just beginning of their matches together.


In 2002, Lee won the 15th Fujitsu Cup, defeating Yu Changhyeok, and it was his first international title. The game was hopeless, but Lee miraculously reversed the position and won by half a point. It was another turning point for Lee.

In 2003, he beat Lee Changho in the final of the 7th LG Cup and was finally recognized as being on par with Lee Changho in Korea.

World number one

Since 2003, he’s become one of the strongest players in the world, and you can easily find more information about his career on the internet. Therefore, I’d like skip his career and talk about some other things.

Lee Sedol’s older brother, Lee Sanghun 8p, is also a pro and his sister, Lee Sena, used to be the strongest female amateur player in Korea. They’re a real Baduk family.

Sena lived in Sydney for a time, so I was able to talk to her about Sedol and other things after I came to Australia.

Still a student

Sena said, Sedol regards Lee Changho very highly, so whenever he plays against Changho, he treats him like a teacher. Even after Lee Sedol became number 1 in Korea, he still considered Lee Changho to be better than himself.

Lee Sedol’s character

Lee Sedol and his daughter in 2008.

He has a strong character. He’s humorous and jolly, but he’s also very strict with himself.

People say he’s a genius, but actually he also studies very hard.

He’s obviously gifted, but he wouldn’t have reached the top without the hard work.

He used to like to play sports and computer games and watch movies with other pro friends, but after his marriage in 2006, he dedicated most of his spare time to his family and studying Go.

He’s very busy, but he also teaches Go in his dojo in Seoul, with Lee Sanghun (his brother).

Lee Sedol’s critics

Because of his strong character, he has many critics. Those people prefer Lee Changho’s mild, calm and gentle character, which is considered ideal for a Go player by the older generation.

But, in contrast, Lee Sedol is active, energetic and outgoing, so the younger generation tend to prefer Sedol’s character.

Conflict with KBA

In June 2009, there was a big affair in the Go world. Lee decided to retire early from his career in Go.

It was because of deep and long conflicts between KBA (Korean Baduk Association) and Lee Sedol. At the time, lots of Baduk fans in Korea criticized Lee as being egotistical, but actually he fought against KBA for the rights of professional players.

Lee Sedol at an interview about his retirement in 2009.

However, even a man like Lee Sedol can’t win a dispute against a whole organization, so he decided to retire. He was sick of it. But, a lot of his friends tried to dissuade him, and at last he decided to take an 18 month leave of absence instead.

He was ranked number 1 in Korea, with many titles, so lots of Go fans were in panic. Once Lee Sedol left, KBA realized the problem was more serious than they’d initially thought. Many of the people who’d criticized Lee before, had turned to criticize KBA instead.

A positive outcome

After 6 months, KBA agreed to Lee’s claims and made a revised bill for pros’ rights. Lee came back to the Go world and most fans welcomed him. It was a positive end to a painful affair.

Chang Hao and Lee Sedol play in the 2nd BC Card Cup (2010).

Just after his return in 2010, Lee won 24 consecutive games, and won the 2nd BC Card Cup, defeating Chang Hao in the final. He showed his powerful style of play and once again demonstrated his ability and strength.

I’m glad that Go fans around the world can now continue to watch and learn from Lee Sedol’s exciting and entertaining games and I hope that we can continue to do so well into the future.

Lee Sedol and his daughter at the Korean Baduk Awards in 2011.

Enjoy Lee Sedol’s commented games

You can read more about Lee Sedol’s life and enjoy Lee’s personal commentary and analysis of his own games in his excellent book Commented Games by Lee Sedol.

Lee Sedol wrote this book during his 6 month leave of absence. Click here to learn more.

Related Articles

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. I didn’t know anything about the conflict between Lee Sedol and the KBA… Do you have more informations about the reasons of that?

    Thank you for your effort

    • Uberdude says:

      Cho Hye-yeon’s blog has some information about Lee Sedol’s haitus:

      The break seemed to make him stronger: that 2nd BC Card Cup Final Lee played so powerfully that he utterly crushed Chang Hao 9p. The first game is also rather funny with different hoshi 2 space high pincer josekis in 3 of the corners. Lee’s invasion at the top was amazing, I only expected a reduction around the junction point but he invaded deeply and ended up killing bits of the white moyo! It’s one of my favourite games.

      • David Ormerod says:

        Thanks Uberdude. You saved me trying to dig that up myself :). I’ve added the link to Cho Hyeyeon’s post in Younggil’s article above.

      • Anonymous says:

        Thanks, Uberdude, both for pointing out that game, and for leading me to a very nicely formatted new game site. Zeba

  2. Wasn’t it his father who taught him Baduk? Anyway, thanks for the great introduction of these top players! I appreciate your frank writing style! 🙂

    • An Younggil 8p says:

      Oh, yes, you’re right.
      Sorry about the wrong information. When I met him, I thought he was his grandpa, but actually he was Sedol’s dad. I was confused.

  3. Very interesting indeed. Lee Sedol is my favourite player, I truly love his attacking style, there so much to learn from it, apart from the excitement. Him being a man of principles worth fighting for, and him being a very likeable man who obviously loves his daughter makes you wonder whether there is any flaw on him. I very much admire him.

    Kind regards,

  4. David Ormerod says:

    I also wanted to say thank you Younggil, and congratulations on finishing this long series of articles. I know you’ve worked hard writing them.

    I really enjoyed learning more about these players and I hope other people did too. It’s nice to be able to picture them more as people, rather than just a name on a game record.

    Anyway, you did a great job :).

  5. Many thanks for writing those articles, I enjoyed all of them:)

  6. Thank you all very much for the series, it was very interesting and well written 🙂 In Europe, it’s pretty difficult to get some background stories of the Asian pro world because there are no decent news media – your blog is like a light in this darkness, so to speak.

  7. lee sedol’s daughter is very cute….. =)

  8. We readers sure are a demanding lot, but indeed this series felt like an orphaned child as long as the top profiles were missing. I will reread all of them now that they’re complete.

    Thank you so much!

  9. This was a very nice series indeed! China is definitely behind of Korea but Kong Jie plays really great Go for a while… to be continued.

  10. Thank you so much! I feel I know the players a little better now. Do you think you might do something (maybe top 5) of the women players? It’s probably harder to make international comparisons because there are fewer tournaments.

    Also, could you please tell us the link to Dr. Bae Taeil’s website (in Korean, I suppose). I asked on the BC Card Cup story about how to read Korean names, and Jing said you remarked that the Korean alphabet could be learned in 3 days, and I’d like to try it. But I also want to see the latest rankings, and learn to recognize maybe the names of the top 30 men and top 10 women, say. Oh, plus the seniors — I watched a women vs. seniors game yesterday (taped, 3 a.m. Korean time) and enjoyed it a lot, but never found out who was playing. Baduk TV is a blast!