Thứ Ba, 19 tháng 5, 2009

Interview Catalin Taranu — Part 3

In the last part of the Catalin Taranu story the chief protagonist mainly has the floor. Except for the first section on Japan I have hardly added any comments and the text is an fairly literal transcription of Catalin’s words.
My social life isn’t what it used to be; I am no longer addicted to going out every day. Sometimes I am quite content just spending a day by myself at the computer.
Catalin ‘fresh 5-dan’ Taranu, 10th of June 2002, Nagoya, Japan

For the sake of good order I present a timeline of Catalin Taranu go facts:1973 March, born in the town of Gura in Rumania
1989 April, Catalin played his first game of go
1989 October, his first tournament, a perfect score as a 6-kyu
1990 September, as a 4-kyu beat his first 4-dan (!)
1991 to Bucharest for studies, playing with Christian Pop a lot
1993 with a score of 7 out of 10 obtained 6th place in EGC at Prague
1995 to Nagoya, Japan, at the invitation of Saijo 8p
1997 reached 1p, shortly after 2p, won 5th Fujitsu
1998 reached 3p, won 6th Fujitsu
1999 reached 4p, won 7th Fujitsu
2001 June, admission to the 'strong' pros by attaining professional 5-dan ranking
2008 European Champion
Living in Japan isn’t easy. This is especially true when it involves a foreigner resident in the country of sumo wrestling and pachinko. One hears sometimes that Japan is a close society, and that it is very hard to penetrate. ‘Either the person in question goes native, or he/she will never feel at ease amidst Japanese,’ is a fairly generally accepted opinion.
Apart from the conventional wisdom above it often seems Japan watchers stumble over one another to sell best the same dubious but well sounding platitudes in a taking (book) form. So a bit of an explanation of this is called for.Vice versa offering and accepting sometimes the rawest emotions is a custom current in many societies. Japan definitely does not belong to these. Morals do slacken a bit due to a rampant unemployment, but compared to inhabitants of other countries the Japanese are still strict and controlled. This doesn’t affect foreigners very much because the impression the average Japanese has of countries overseas and their inhabitants comprises among other things a kind of unlimited freedom. This more or less licenses the ‘gaijin’ (foreigners) not to take much notice of social rules and agreements. As a rule the Japanese are very friendly towards foreigners, whether they know the language or not. For foreigners that want to feel a little more at ease, learning the language and acquiring the local customs form the first challenge.The surprise in store for the serious student of Japanese after a couple of years of studying his head off is that even mastering the Japanese language well one gets nowhere fast with one’s customary standards concerning the contents of a conversation!

Apart from the conventional wisdom above it often seems Japan watchers stumble over one another to sell best the same dubious but well sounding platitudes in a taking (book) form. So a bit of an explanation of this is called for.Vice versa offering and accepting sometimes the rawest emotions is a custom current in many societies. Japan definitely does not belong to these. Morals do slacken a bit due to a rampant unemployment, but compared to inhabitants of other countries the Japanese are still strict and controlled. This doesn’t affect foreigners very much because the impression the average Japanese has of countries overseas and their inhabitants comprises among other things a kind of unlimited freedom. This more or less licenses the ‘gaijin’ (foreigners) not to take much notice of social rules and agreements. As a rule the Japanese are very friendly towards foreigners, whether they know the language or not. For foreigners that want to feel a little more at ease, learning the language and acquiring the local customs form the first challenge.The surprise in store for the serious student of Japanese after a couple of years of studying his head off is that even mastering the Japanese language well one gets nowhere fast with one’s customary standards concerning the contents of a conversation!
Displaying a colorful gamut of emotions combined with revealing personal secrets, which always works nicely to get to know new people in the West, is utterly useless here. So as a good gaijin with the best of intentions you come away with a flea in your ear for a couple of times and get looked at as if you come from Mars, before you learn that in Japan ‘doing something’ together is the social cement that builds and maintains friendships, and that words and emotions can almost be dismissed as accidental.The stranger who has succeeded in making Japan his/her home will the other way round have a very hard time moving about freely in a foreign society again, where you can laugh, cry, and say strange things in season and out of season. When Catalin came to Japan he knew neither the language nor social standards. Still he had quite an edge over the run-of-the-mill foreigner: he did have something he could do together with Japanese.
When I first came to Japan I was very proud of myself and of my go achievements. I had that attitude of ‘look, I may come here to learn but really I already know everything’.After my arrival I could join the insei league in Nagoya. Finishing first there over a year’s period was the only way to be recognized as a professional. Saijo took very good care of me and I really owe him everything.Look how strong I am, see how clever!
My attitude originally only made me unbelievably stupid. Saturdays and Sundays I used to play my insei games and I showed them to Saijo at home afterwards. I kept talking all the time, I showed Saijo everything and told him exactly what was the case and what I thought with every move. Time and time again I was holding a post mortem all by myself as if crying out: ‘Look how strong I am, see how clever!’ And there was Saijo on the other side of the board, looking on patiently with every once in a while a smile on his face. Sometimes also he made a funny face or stared into nothingness a bit bored. But he was always very, very patient with me and never interrupted.After a while it dawned upon me that it was a bit strange that I was using my games to tell Saijo what the game was all about while he never spoke. It still hurts when I recall the realization when I finally caught on to how unbelievably stupid I was carrying on.So from that moment on I tried and restrained myself. I talked less and less and but for an incidental question I didn’t speak much more. And, lo and behold, Saijo sensei started explaining and commenting more and more. Now the proper learning really started. I finally had access to his enormous knowledge of the game and realized once again how dumb I had been not to give him more room before. Nevertheless I couldn’t restrain myself completely and every once in a while I fished for a compliment. When Saijo showed me something, I would say: ‘Yes, yes, I’ve been thinking of that; I ended up not playing it but I have given it a lot of thought’. At which Saijo regularly answered: ‘Very good, very good’. Although I think I didn’t really deserve it he always was very friendly. A teacher like Saijo is a must.
So little by little first my pride and then my conceit went overboard. For you know, we have a lot of superfluous pride, such a tremendous lot. I just said that Saijo was friendly but in the first place this really concerns didactic technique and not friendship. It goes to show that Saijo is a first rate teacher.What I mean is this. You can try to tell someone something in a manner like: ‘You must do it this or that way’, but this will almost inherently cause a reverse reaction. If as a teacher you try to force an idea upon the pupil chances are that this doesn’t work and that the idea will be rejected. Then the teacher can of course try and face the pupil down and press home vigorously that he knows what he is talking about, but Saijo knows as no other that mostly the result is that both parties use up a lot of energy without making any progress. So he waited for me, abundantly clearly being of the opinion that the pupil must ask for knowledge of his own accord.That Saijo dodged a direct teacher pupil confrontation is what helped me most on the road to being a pro, I think. It lasted about two months before I quieted down a little. Having a teacher like Saijo is really a must to climb the ladder. I understood from stories of foreign insei in Tokyo that a teacher doesn’t have to be on such terms with the students. For that reason alone becoming a pro there seems to me to be very difficult.
Mathematics and Attitude
Although my interest and training in mathematics originally came in handy with learning go, I don’t think a mathematical approach is the key to top level go. Like I said before, the right attitude is in my opinion much more important. I don’t exactly know about intelligence and talent. Every once in a while people compliment me that I must be very clever to be such a good go player. Only that is not true at all. Also, I don’t really excel at other games; the only one I play fairly well next to go is the computer game of civilization. There are so many things you have to take into account in this game and you have an enormous liberty to make decisions; it is definitely a bit similar to go. But all right, talent for playing go has nothing to do with cleverness in daily life. Therefore it is not my aim to become more clever but to improve my attitude. This has already made considerable progress but probably not enough yet.I think it is more important to overcome your own weak points (=attitude) than of beating the strong points of your opponent. Confidence, of course, has a great deal to do with that. As long as before playing a game against a 9-dan I have the idea that I can’t expect to win, losing seems to be almost the only option open. When I played a couple of games on the Internet Go Server against Yamashiro 9p we won the same number of games. But I only found out it was him the next day. If I had known before that my opponent was a strong 9-dan pro I probably wouldn’t have been able to win a single game.with confidence everybody can exploit his strong points
With confidence everybody can exploit his own strong points to get further as a go player. I don’t know whether that will do you any good in daily life. I know a handful of pros that are a bit strange socially and that also reflects on the go board a little. But if you have a good look how strong they play they demonstrate a terrible force in a less conventional approach. I think there are many ways for a human being to make peace with yourself, being satisfied in a positive way with who you are and what you do. Some do yoga exercises or a religion, others play go. One time I got into conversation with Go Seigen he also spoke of religion a lot. I felt strongly that for him the game of go was closely related to religion.
Attitude and technique
It is funny that my technique hasn’t really changed or improved much in recent years. Digging into difficult joseki or studying tesuji is not what made me grow stronger. Today more than ever, by the way, joseki study has come to be seen in an entirely different light. So many breakthroughs have been made; and countless corner patterns have been unsettled. The situation seems to be that a lot of joseki books have become out of date. One thing is for certain: so many complicated moves are possible that it will take some time before clarity can be brought about.During my years in Japan I have experienced a kind of mental growth and that is of the utmost importance for climbing higher up. For that matter, it is in no way perfect; sometimes I have little control of myself in a game and lose in a very unprofessional way. I have experienced a mental growth.
For the Fujitsu Cup in 2000 for instance I played against Florescu and I was properly taken in. After the opening my position was good, no, I thought it was even great. Thinking too much of this is a danger in itself, of course. Well, I thought I could easily wind up the game and didn’t pay the proper attention for a moment. Florescu got a chance and he exploited it in a masterly fashion. For once the fighting gets on its way it is just like a struggle for life or death between two cyclops that don’t really see what’s going on but make up for that with fighting spirit and power.
Once you have ended up in such a phase of exchanging right hooks and left straights it is very dangerous. Top players in Europe are fidgeting to use this raw power on the board and go for it all the way. They have an unbelievable fighting spirit. That is why it is very important to respect your opponent at all times and never to think that winning the game will be a piece of cake. This attitude is attained with the mental power every strong go player has.
Respect is important but on the other hand you need to learn and handle unrestrained avidity of the opponent. I have a good example from a couple of weeks back. In the morning I went shopping on foot and when I returned I saw that my bike had been pinched. I had owned it for a couple of years so this really p-put me in a bad mood. Just when I was going to open my front door my neighbor came out with a bike on the shoulders. I had another good look and it actually was my trusty bike, minus the lock then. I addressed the neighbor: ‘Say, that looks a lot like my bike.’And the man says without giving a wink: ‘Is that so? Well here you have it back.’ And he makes some small talk without offering an apology and acts like nothing has happened. At a moment like that you feel as if your opponent keeps playing tenuki while his stones are on the verge of death. A sort of a mixture of rage and indignation. Staying calm and considering carefully are of course the best things you can do but to demonstrate that self control isn’t always easy. The bike incident with my sticky handed neighbor finally ended before it began. However, on the go board it happens all too often that your opponent leaves you no choice but seriously to go for his stones and catch them. On the Internet often you seriously have to go for the opponent stones.
This goes especially for games I play on the Internet. Even top players who should know better keep on playing thin moves and simply ask to be taken advantage of. The trouble is that in lightning games this (playing too thinly) isn’t a bad idea at all. Under time pressure it isn’t easy to find the only correct sequence of moves that catches all the stones.A week or so back I played against Nakao Jungo, a 7-dan pro from Nagoya. That guy is really unbelievable; he seemed to play honte (the proper, honest move) every move; it was solid through and through and there wasn’t a cinch in his armour! This way of playing may be a bit typically Japanese style. People here sometimes seem to prefer losing with playing thick moves over winning with a sequence of thin moves.Anyway, it is absolutely wrong to lose your patience with your opponent and feel anger, although every once in a while this really is understandable. Definitely, when your opponent simply forces you to try and catch his stones, it often gives a bad feeling. Of course it is a legitimate and possible way of playing: ‘Ha ha, I’m not going to defend, I just keep taking away your territory and if you want to win this game you’re going to have to finish off my big group for a start.’ In a game where the players are approximately of equal strength this isn’t easy at all. Particularly with little time the ‘thin player’ will even get away with it. Countless times on the Internet Go Server I knew for gospel truth: if only I had five extra minutes I would certainly be able to catch his stones. Ah well, you don’t have that time and you fail, you lose, opponent happy.
Mental Power of fighting Spirit
In my view mental power is at least half of your playing strength. It is a kind of superconfidence, perhaps a combination of experience, knowledge of the game, and tenacity. When I played against the Japanese top pro Otake I encountered this. Through some cause or another Otake wasn’t at his best and he wanted a little too much. I managed to take advantage of that neatly and when I later spoke with pros who had been following the game I was told that through my successful action the game should have been over and Otake should have lost. What happened then during the game, I will not forget easily. I simply felt Otake’s mental power press down on my brain. I think you must have been in a similar situation to understand what I am talking about.All top players have this capacity to nail someone down and make him feel, as if hypnotized, that he is nothing but a victim who doesn’t stand a chance, seemingly with the power of the will alone. In Nagoya I had a similar experience in a game with Baba 9p. I fear I still have a lot of work to do before I can keep myself together enough and have a chance against go greats. The will to win can help here of course but Saijo once addressed me seriously about this. He told me that wanting to win at all costs reduces your chances of winning rather than enlarges players have the capacity to make you feel like a victim who doesn’t stand a chance
The mental power I just mentioned and things like ‘kiai’ (fighting spirit), and the will to win all are important and at times necessary to play a good game. But a fine line separates exaggerating things from honest confidence.
But this apart, I really, and I mean really, was bent on winning the game for my promotion to 5-dan. Never before in my whole go career I had been so strongly determined to win a game. I had been preparing for this game mentally for a while already and among other things I had been talking seriously with Nakane 7p about how he had done it. Some pros need three or four tries to reach 5-dan, others never make it. You might compare it with toppling domino tiles. You need time to get so far that one more victory will bring you promotion. Lose that game and everything collapses and you can start all over again. For a lot of pros it takes some time before they have gotten over it.

Interview Catalin Taranu — Part 2

Just before Catalin defeated a Rumanian top player in The Romanian Cup of 1990 as a 4-kyu, he had been playing an international tournament. This was in Prague the same year. He tells what things were like at the time in Rumania, the country once known under the name of Dacia and constituting a province of the great Roman Empire.
At the time it was a golden age for the Rumanian go federation, because we were always assigned a sizeable amount by the government. This grant was among other things used to sponsor players and have them play in tournaments. Originally I was meant to participate in the youth world championship in Prague, but I discovered on the spot that I was already too old for that. I was still seventeen all right, but my eighteenth birthday was before the date the tournament was going to be held. Tough! I comforted myself by playing the regular tournament and did not bad in it, 4 out of 5 I believe, but it may also have been 5 out of 6.
After that it was the Romanian Cup, after which (at last) I was promoted to 1-dan immediately. Promotions come a little faster now, but then they were quite slow. The Ing Cup tournament in Amsterdam, held in March of 1991, was my first tournament ‘really’ out of the country, out of Eastern Europe. It was in a period of revolutions and great changes in all kinds of respects, not only on the map of Europe. The stable support the Rumanian go world had enjoyed, threatened to disappear, and to top it all off the secretary and great support of the federation, Georgi Stihi, stepped down. He was the one who made things actually happen, and without him chaos threatened. Entering the West with Eastern European currency is not much of an option, and it looked like nobody cared any more whether participation of Rumanian talent in tournaments out of the country was still sponsored. I then first accosted Stihi myself. Unfortunately he was so frustrated with certain people in our little go circle, that in spite of a few promises nothing happened. There was nothing else to do but try with the bureau that was occupied with federations and mind sports. I don’t exactly know who it was I met, but I think it was even a secretary of state, someone who had been a very famous handball player once. I arranged that a few phone calls were made and soon after everything was settled. Though it was a pity all formalities took some extra time and I ended up missing the first round, which brought me a loss by default.
The go circle in Rumania and the adjoining countries was an almost ideal surrounding to become stronger. Most people knew each other, and because usually the government arranged accommodation for the participants, at night we also were together to play go and to study. It was an extremely pleasant surrounding, that fitted very well with my go madness. In Amsterdam this was quite different; I knew nobody and didn’t feel at home; I clearly didn’t belong there. All the same I jumped at the chance to compare strengths with others in the West. I always got along fine with my math friends or my Rumanian go acquaintances, but basically I was (and am) a bit shy and don’t start a chat with a total stranger that easily. One time Guo walked over to me and started a conversation and was very friendly, but I just stood there. After all I was fairly isolated in Amsterdam, and although staying over I still enjoyed the Amsterdam hospitality, I didn’t really make new friends, that was only later.
Catalin didn’t play very well in the third Ing Cup, he ended sixteenth, but he did beat Ralph Spiegl (5-dan, Austria) and Rudi Verhagen (then still 4-dan). Not at all bad for a recently promoted 4-dan, especially considering Catalin only played the game for less than two years. What can you do but jealously shake your head and once more take a book of life-and-death problems from the dustiest shelf and open it?
To rub it in once more, a quote from one of Catalin’s Rumanian go friends, Radu Baciu: ‘We once were a small group of Rumanian go players at the Belgrade Grand Prix tournament. Among us, we were all of 4- to 5-dan strength and we also had a freshly promoted 1-dan named Catalin Taranu. He achieved the best result by just winning the tournament. In Rumania we didn’t trifle at all with promoting people at the time. That’s why his convincing result only brought him a 2-dan diploma. There was nobody in our group who doubted that Catalin was a go prodigy. All we wondered about was how much he would accomplish and how long it would take him. By the time we were back in Bucharest, Catalin didn’t allow any doubt about what things were like. Within a few months he was promoted to 3- and then to 4-dan. Catalin performed a feat nobody in Rumania had ever yet managed: steaming from kyu level to 4-dan within a year.’
I grew stronger by leaps and because at the time (early nineties) the strongest player in Rumania was a 4-dan, I often played among the top boards in tournaments. I remember well that Sorin Gherman was regarded as by far the strongest Rumanian player; he was the first to be promoted to 5-dan. When I played him as a 2-dan in his first tournament after the promotion, I creamed him up. But that shouldn’t make you think I could win every game I played; most of the time I had reasonable results, but for example the two times I entered the Romanian Cup, I only scored 3 out of 6. I lost to Robert Mateescu, whom I had beaten only a year before. I also was no match for Mihai and Chattar. Weeks after those games I still met them in my dreams or remembered them suddenly in the daytime, far from a nice experience!
In 1991 Catalin left Vatra Dornei for Bucharest to study information theory. (Part I has wrongly that Catalin lived in Vatra Dornei till 1995.) Until then his parents hadn’t paid much attention to their son’s go fanaticism, but gradually they started to worry about Catalin’s academic achievements. They had ample reason to do so. Catalin only grew more fanatical, with his mathematical interest for the first victim. After 1990 he played in every tournament he could get to and at university with Cristian Pop for a room mate it was also go that came first. There was a small go club there with a number of fanatical players. So Catalin spent his time excellently, albeit not at university.
When I had to double a year at university my parents didn’t like it. They worried what should become of me. I must say though that both my father and my mother never asked me to give up go or tried to force me to do so. By the way, I also was the strongest chess player of my age in the vicinity of Vatra Dornei. I even played in a few tournaments and got reasonable results without any study of openings and the like. But my chess was never serious and once I started playing go it was over.
Did you always play to win?
Of course. I was young and ambitious. Winning wasn’t everything but it was very important. I stopped feeling that fire and that ambition at all lately; probably that is the cause that I lost a couple of games.
Does that have to do with age?
No, I don’t really think so; I have the idea that it has more to do with what kind of a person you are, with your character.
Were you satisfied with your own play during tournaments, and could you really feel yourself growing stronger? Did you study a lot for tournaments?
My play was reasonable, but certainly not perfect. Nevertheless I really felt progress by the tournament and that in turn again confirmed my confidence. May be you know those opening books by Sakata, I often used them and I picked up much from it. I studied a lot of joseki then, now I hardly do. It helps if you have a good memory for go. Situations on the board I can fairly easy remember if I have a good look at them. I have a friend who has a very good memory for stories and jokes and the like, but for that kind of things my memory is a sieve.
Saijo Sensei is a fairly well known figure in the international go world. This good-humoured 8-dan pro seems to be most content if he can tell about the game of go, is given a chance to teach beginners the rules, or can give advanced players a few pointers about shape and tesuji. Catalin met Saijo for the first time in Prague at the 1993 European championship. Catalin played here as a 5-dan and with 7 out of 10 earned sixth place. His results and opponents were, in that order:
Peter Zandveld, 4d
Sorin Gherman, 5d
C. Nishimura, 5d
Alexei Lazarev, 6d
Farid Ben Malek, 5d
Frédéric Donzet, 5d
Laurent Heiser, 6d
Naoyuki Kai, 6d
Andras Göndör, 5d
Rob van Zeijst, 6d
All in all a convincing result. In Prague however a possible position as a candidate professional in Japan wasn’t brought up yet. This only came about the year after in Maastricht. ‘Saijo sensei has always been very nice, but he was certainly not a talent scout who picked out people that appealed to him. One moment I gathered my courage and accosted him to ask the direct question. His answer was a diplomatic: ‘Hmm, that might be difficult, but I’ll have a look.’ So much for that approach.’
Though Catalin didn’t play so strongly in Maastricht and had to settle for fourteenth place, he did well in a two stone handicap game against Saijo. He got the better of Saijo and at the same time could convince him of his dedication to go.
How well Catalin had succeeded in this appeared rapidly:
You can imagine what I felt like when shortly after Maastricht I got a message that I was welcome in Japan, and that Saijo had arranged a spot for me as an insei!

Interview Catalin Taranu — part 1

Catalin Taranu, a 28 years old Rumanian who succeeded in becoming a pro in Japan, has been promoted to 5-dan in June of 2001. This means that he entered the ranks of the ’strong’ pros. In his favourite bar / pub he tells Pieter Mioch about himself, Rumania, and his life in Japan. On this page the first part of the Catalin Taranu story.

As a background for the Carpathian mountains in the North, turning into the Transsylvanian Alps, Rumania finds its place / accommodates itself in South East Europe between Ukraine, Hungary, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, and the Black Sea. In spite of the beautiful nature and the many ideal ski resorts, the outside world, indulging in movies, knows Rumania mainly because of ‘The son of the dragon’. This cruel young man, Vlad ‘Pole Man’ Tepes, was born in the 15th century in the town of Sighisoara. Usually he is referred to by his family name, Dracula. As far as we know he is no ancestor of Catalin Taranu.

Catalin was born in the town of Gura Humorului in the district of Bucovina on March 31st of 1973. In the mountainous North of Rumania his father was politically active in the Communist Party. Before he retired he filled among others the post of mayor of Gura Humorului and later of Vatra Dornei. The mother of the Taranu family teaches biology in school. Catalin’s elder brother, as far as we know not a go player, is named Cristian. Because of his father’s political career, they needed to move house every once in a while, and when Catalin was seven years old, this made him end up in the city of Suceava, in the region of the same name.

Moving around all the time wasn’t much of a problem for me. Of course, right after moving it is difficult for some time, but I always welcomed the chance to meet new people and make friends. When you’re young, that’s easy.

Before Catalin went to Japan, he lived in Vatra Dornei, and this town with less than thirty thousand inhabitants meant an opportunity to get acquainted with the game that would change Catalin’s life dramatically.

Why the go players from Vatra Dornei are so strong? Well, that’s because of the fresh mountain air, of course.

Catalin tells with a smile over a glass of wine. And believe it or not Vatra Dornei turns out to be indeed a kind of spa where one can enjoy medicinal baths and clean air.

Catalin played his first game of go in April of 1989, due / owing to his mathematics teacher Cristian Cobeli (also assistant professor at the Rumanian Academy of Bucharest). Cobeli, a man of mathematical consequence, had reasonably successfully set up a little go class. It was here that Catalin learnt about the game from China; he played with Cobeli and ‘first generation’ students Marcel Crasmaru and Petru Oancea.

I was convinced my future would be in mathematics. To me, the world consisted of digits and variables; I was all taken by mathematics and Cobeli was a very good teacher and coach. Until my 15th at least my whole life revolved around mathematics and my preparation for the national mathematics Olympiad, in which I participated several times. This Olympiad is in a number of rounds; it starts at school, next regionally, then in provinces, and if you’re very good you can enter the nation wide finals.

Catalin never managed to reach the national finals and probably the go world can call itself lucky. Had he ever attained such a high mathematical level, he might have never indulged in go so much.

The big minus of being so completely absorbed by mathematics is the loneliness. Studying and preparing for a meeting becomes the main focus of your life, and the bottom line is that you do that all by yourself. Although I was completely taken with mathematics, I never enjoyed that loneliness. Especially not when you study your head off for a year with as your only goal to perform well in the Olympiad, and not make a mess of things on the great day in all of three hours’ time. Go at least is a two person thing; that was quite an improvement for my social life, going from one to two. From the moment on that I came into contact with go, mathematics soon took second place. This is not to say that I wouldn’t have stopped it anyhow, because of the antisocial character of a mathematical career. Whatever, all the passion I ever had for numbers easily transferred to go. I was totally crazy about go.

From my twelfth my life ‘really’ started. Vatra Dornei was much more interesting than the places I had lived before. Cobeli taught part time at the school I attended at the time. Teaching in the middle of nowhere was a way for him to concentrate on his own studies; he was well on his way to become a professor in mathematics. Cobeli was a cool breeze at school, and I often visited him after lessons to borrow new books. I think that at the time Cristian Cobeli was about shodan in strength. In April of 1989 I played my first game of go. I don’t exactly know why, but I remember that period well. The first two months were agony. Although I thought I understood the rules and the game certainly captivated me, I really didn’t know what exactly to do. I gave it a shot and hoped I’d become a little better fast.

I think this is the only weakness of go, that starting period in which beginners get the rules explained but can’t really do anything with them at all. The two months it took me to get a grasp of what really was the general idea, are no exception. Only people slightly obsessed with the game will come out on the other end of this. In that respect chess players are a lot better off, there may be more rules but the goal and the way of playing become clear much sooner than with go.

Catalin’s mathematics teacher meant a goldmine of mathematical wisdom and new ideas for Vatra Dornei. Many a teacher will envy how much Cobeli managed to achieve with his pupils. In Catalin’s period there were certainly not dozens of go players-to-be. The number remained under ten, but strange enough all of Cobeli’s wards fairly easily reached dan level. After the first generation of players already mentioned before (Marcel Crasmaru, now a Tokyo resident, and Petru Oancea) came generation number two, probably now still the strongest Rumanian twosome, Christian Pop and Catalin Taranu. After Catalin had been living in Japan for some time, Christian Pop moved in with him and stayed for a year. He almost also made pro, Catalin and Pop used to play even in practice games. Pop was very close to professional strength, when he decided to pack it in and went homeward bound.

Hardly six months after Catalin’s learning the noble game, he played his first tournament in Eforie Nord (’not a city, only a resort’) at the Black Sea. The occasion was the Rumanian championship Catalin also participated in, in the 10-4-kyu group.

The top eight participants played the final for the championship, after that there was a group from 4-dan to 4-kyu, and below that was my group. No one really knew what kind of grade to pin on me and I believed I played as a 6-kyu. Imagine the surprise when I won all my games, eight in a row! I won my group and you can understand this was a great encouragement for my go career. I was sixteen at the time and quite happy with my result, it gave me an enormous confidence. It earned me my 4-kyu ranking and from that moment on I started playing all kinds of tournaments.

In Rumania the rankings seem to be distributed rather severely and it is not so simple, even at the kyu level, to adapt one’s own ranking. This explains why, being undoubtedly much stronger, in a tournament in September 1990 Catalin was still playing as a 4-kyu.

Yeah, that was a nice tournament, the ‘Rumanian Cup’. I played as a 4-kyu there without a worry in the world. For the high dan players it was different, of course; they took the tournament and their games extremely serious. Of the six rounds, in the third or fourth I was paired with a Rumanian 4-dan, Robert Mateescu. Holding black I played the game of my life (I thought at the time) and I sort of overthrew the tournament with a half point win!