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Child prodigy took a pass on Go

Southern Californian Curtis Tang excelled at the ancient board game, but found that a Chinese Go academy killed his enthusiasm. Now he's back in the United States, and playing the game for fun.

April 24, 2012|Gale Holland, Los Angeles Times
  • Curtis Tang, 19, says of the Chinese academy where he studied Go intensely: “Anything you do every day is going to get boring.”
Curtis Tang, 19, says of the Chinese academy where he studied Go intensely:… (Gary Friedman / Los Angeles…)

At the age of 8, Curtis Tang, then living in Alhambra was a child prodigy in Go, the ancient Chinese board game that Henry Kissinger recommended as a key to Chinese thinking.

Played with white and black stones on a crosshatched board, the game's object is to surround more territory than your opponent.

So old, its year of origin is murky, Go is deceptively simple. But in Asia and much of the rest of the world, it's considered the richest game of strategy ever devised, and its mastery is a matter of unmatched prestige. Champions in countries including China, South Korea and Japan go on to world-class careers as professional Go players.

By the age of 10, Tang was the U.S. junior Go champion. Judged by Chinese standards, it was as if Tang had won the Intel Science Talent Search and the International Paderewski Piano Competition combined. But in Alhambra, Tang, like Alexander the Great, looked around and saw no more worlds to conquer.

Instead of weeping, like that ancient empire-builder, Tang moved to China and enrolled in a Go academy, where children, ages 6 through 18 or so, train night and day in the game.

I first heard about Tang from my old friend Andy Okun, chairman of the board of the American Go Assn., which is trying to professionalize the game in the United States so young phenomenons like Tang will have a pathway to develop their talents.

I envisioned Tang's story as an illustration of America's unfortunate preference for brawn over brains. I also saw it as a cautionary tale of American decline in an information-based economy in which eggheadier nations such as South Korea and China seem likely to prevail.

I noted the depressing showing by the U.S. in the first World Mind Sports Games a sort of brainpower Olympics that followed the real thing in Beijing in 2008. A quick check of the International Mind Sports Assn. website show that the games, which included events in chess, bridge, checkers (or draughts), Chinese chess and Go, led to a pathetic medal tally: China: 26. United States: 2.

So in China, Tang must have found his Valhalla, I thought. But the teenager set me straight.

During his 1 1/2 years in the school that the students nicknamed the "Demon Academy," he lost his love of the game, he said.

About 2,000 students at the Beijing school live in dorm rooms. After a morning jog at 6 a.m., he and the other kids studied or played Go until 11 p.m., he said. Every day. No literature, art or science lessons, not even math, he added. Just strategy, lectures, replaying classic games from years past and challenging each other to matches.

"Anything you do every day is going to get boring," he said.

At the end of the year, the older students take a qualifying test to turn pro. According to Tang, if they age out without passing, their years of struggle are wasted.

"Of course it's crushing," he said.

Disillusioned, Tang left the academy for public school in Shanghai, where his father was working as a flutist. He found it deadening.

"They do not promote critical thinking or creativity," he said.

Tang scurried back to California, where he is a junior at Temple City High School, basically having the American high school experience — and by his account, a whale of a good time. He lives in an international house in Temple City, where his landlady cooks and cleans for students mostly from Asia, he said.

"We're like a big family," he said.

He is developing his writing and his interest in drama, having landed the lead role of Nathan Detroit in the high school production of "Guys and Dolls." At my request, he sings a few bars of track tout Nicely Nicely's song, "Fugue for Tinhorns" — "I got the horse right here, The name is Paul Revere, And there's a guy that says the weather's clear. Can do, Can do. This guy says the horse can do...."

Tang is back to loving Go, although he mostly finds his opponents online, from South Korea, China or Japan. Now, he plays the game, not studies it.

"Having unnecessary fights just to have fun," he explained. "Not trying to be analytical about every point."

This weekend, Tang will take part in the 2012 Cotsen Go Open Saturday and Sunday at the Korean Cultural Center in mid-Wilshire. It's a pre-qualification event for the first American professional Go tournament this summer in Black Mountain, N.C.

So if you want to learn about a game, unlike chess, in which humans can still beat the computer, drop by.

"A lot of people like to play games, and this is one of the best ones," Okun said. "When you get a whole bunch of people together who love a game, a lot of rich life can be lived in it."

Tang would love to see more Americans play and respect Go. Some of the people at his school are dumbfounded at the energy he pours into it, and make sarcastic remarks like, "Oh Asian nerdy boy, playing a board game; you're so cool," Tang said.

But he doesn't foresee, and certainly doesn't want, a turnaround where we throw ourselves into Go the way some Chinese and South Koreans do.

"We have so many fun things to do here," he said, "why would we devote our lives to Go?"

gale.holland@latimes.com

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