A few moments with the founders of the Singapore Weiqi Culture Center

(This exclusive interview first appeared here on Domain of Singapore Tutoring Experts on 5 May 2014.)

Being developed in China some 3,000 to 4,000 years ago, 围棋 (also known as GO internationally ,Weiqi in China and Baduk in Korea) is one of the oldest games still being played in its original format. Today it is played by millions in Asia and thousands elsewhere around the world. Engineered with deceptively simple game play rules, Weiqi demands much of the player, from being able to strategize/reason competently to being exceptionally creative in structuring moves. Not to forget it also tests one's memory prowess. Today we are pleased to have with us the co-founders of the Singapore Weiqi Culture Center (SWCC)- Mr Wu Nanyue and Mr Frank Leou for a discussion on their initiatives to bring about greater public awareness regarding this great game in the little red dot.

QN: Hello to both of you, thank you loads for agreeing to this interview. How about a proper personal introduction from each of you for starters? Do you guys hold down full time jobs apart from running SWCC ?

ANS: Hi! It’s our pleasure to participate in this interviewe. We are all undergraduates from NUS and NTU. Sadly we have another member, Mr Thong, who is unable to join us for this interview as he is currently in Canada. We plan to fully dedicate our time and effort, after graduation, to develop SWCC.

QN: What is the main mission of SWCC?

ANS: The SWCC is established by a few Weiqi enthusiasts. Our goal is to promote local Weiqi culture in Singapore, thus making players in Singapore a formidable force in the Weiqi arena.

QN: When was SWCC incepted and where is it currently based? How did this idea of setting up a center to promote Weiqi come about?

ANS: SWCC was established in January this year. Currently, we have a training facility in Boon Lay. There is a growing trend around the world as weiqi attracts more and more players. In fact, many countries in Europe as well as the States have already started their professional Weiqi leagues.

The Weiqi level in Singapore, unfortunately, has not yet reached to a point where we can nurture and develop young, local talents to qualified professional players. There is, in fact, lots of room for improvement in this particular area. Since we have some extaordinarily talented and experienced Weiqi coaches, we hope they could come in helpful to raise the general standard of Weiqi in Singapore. The ultimate goal is to, hopefully, have a world-class Singapore Weiqi player in the future.

QN: How many trainers does SWCC have? Would you care to name some of the more prominent ones?

ANS: Sure! We have 5 experienced and dedicated coaches. They include the coach from NTU, Mr Hoo, and the captain of the NUS Weiqi club, Mr Leou, and Mr Yee who is ranked 9d in "Yee Cheng"(弈城), the most popular online Weiqi platform among high level Japanese, Chinese and Korean Weiqi players. They all have years of coaching experience and have coached more than 10 different students.

QN: Could you elaborate on "Yee Cheng"(弈城)? What are the available rankings, and how are players ranked?

ANS: Yee Cheng is a professional Weiqi playing platform that attracts a majority of Weiqi players in Japan,Korea and China. Almost all professional Weiqi players in these countries have an account in Yee Cheng and are active in playing Weiqi there. The lowest rank in Yee Cheng is 18 kyo, followed by 17 kyo; 16 kyo to 1 kyo counts as average, and then grows from 1d to 2d, 3d, all the way to 9d.

Mr Yee has the highest rank of 9 dan, which is almost the same level as professional players. To get promoted to a higher rank, you are required to win 7 games out of 10 games playing with other players of the same rank.

QN: Is SWCC in any way affiliated to the Singapore Weiqi Association? If no, would you guys entertain the possibility of a joint collaboration someday?

ANS: We do not have any affiliation with SWA. As we have a common goal of promoting Weiqi culture in Singapore, collaboration with SWA is a natural course of action in the future. Since its establishment, the SWA has successfully reached out to the public to promote the wei qi culture. We, however, are more inclined to taking a step future by raising the general standards of Weiqi players’ skills.

QN: International chess and Chinese chess both cultivate strategic and holistic thinking to a large extent as well. What makes the game of Weiqi any special/different from the above two in terms of conditioning the brain?

ANS: I want to share an interesting true anecdote about two international chess players leaning Weiqi. In an afternoon of early 20th century, chess masters Emanuel Lasker and Edward Laske chanced upon an article named “Go: A Competitor of Chess”. They didn’t believe any chess could rival the international chess. Then they took all the trouble to learn Weiqi. They were so captivated by Weiqi that they even planned to travel to Japan to learn it. Unfortunately their trip was cancelled because of World War I, but somehow they came up with such a conclusion: “While the Baroque rules of Chess could only have been created by humans, the rules of Go are so elegant, organic, and rigorously logical that if intelligent life forms exist elsewhere in the universe, they almost certainly play Go.”

Actually Weiqi, or Go, is quite different from international chess or Chinese chess. This difference mostly comes from the organic and generic nature of weiqi seeds, which makes weiqi so complex and challenging..

Most chess are derived from a variety of different chess pieces with different roles/functionalities in chess playing. In Chinese chess for example, the rook (车) is usually more powerful than a knight(马), and a knight(马) values much more than a pawn(卒). And the ultimate goal for all chess pieces is to defend for their side’s king(帅) and to checkmate the opponent’s king. International chess is similar. But such relationship between chess pieces is simple and straightforward. It is linear. On the contrary, all Weiqi seeds are identical. The importance of every Weiqi seed on the board is a result of its position and every other seeds placed by both players. The strategic value of each seed changes every time after a new seed roots on the board. With more seeds are put on the 19 X 19 game board, the possible moves and workable strategies grow exponentially. It is because of this generic, non-linear relationship of Weiqi seeds that playing Weiqi demands extremely holistic thinking and strategic direction.

To what level a artificial intelligence (AI) robot can adequately master a particular design of chess would somewhat reflect how much original strategic thinking is involved . Deep Blue, the IBM-developed, supercomputer-powered international chess player for example, defeated top ranked international chess player of the last century, Kasparov, in 1997. Yet even the most advanced AI robot could hardly win a single game against any professional Weiqi player. Thus can be seen, the pathway of thinking that Weiqi promotes is so holistic, organic and divergent that computers can never hope to simulate.

Therefore, we can say with confidence that Weiqi should be the first choice if you wish to pursue a hobby that could help develop your mental faculties. You can search online and you will find lots of scientific researches revealing the incomparably vast plus points that Weiqi has with regards to brain development. This is especially beneficial to young children for without Weiqi, they would hardly have had an opportunity to be exposed to a thing which demands such tremendous amount of calculation, reasoning, strategic and holistic thinking. If a student could start learning Weiqi when he was young and treat it seriously, he would have already won half the battle.

QN: International chess and Chinese chess are far more popular in Singapore as compared to Weiqi. What would you say to that?

ANS: The advantage of Weiqi is exactly the disadvantage suffered in its path of being promoted to the public.

The reason that Weiqi is beneficial for brain development is because that it involves a lot of reasoning and calculation, which somewhat hurts its entertainment value as a form of chess. International chess and Chinese chess are favoured by many in pastimes. Someone once remarked with an analogy, that playing international or Chinese chess is like reading a novel, but playing go is like reading a scientific research paper. While it is good reading novels, people who read research papers will reap far greater rewards.

QN: Are the learners sorted into various classes according to age-group or gaming ability, or both? How long does a typical lesson last, and what exactly is different for a 1-1 session compared to that within a group setting?

ANS: The students are first grouped according to their ages spanning both adult and children sections. Thereafter, they are grouped according to different skill levels. The students of different levels would therefore be coached differently and progress at varying paces .

One coaching session with adults would be within an hour and that with a child would be within 1.5 hours. The advantage of 1 on 1 coaching is the personal attention that the coach can accord to this student. The coach is better able to grasp the strengths/ weaknesses of the individual and design classes specifically to accommodate his/her abilites. This undivided attention and student-centric teaching is something a group class is unable to satisfactorily accomplish. With all these in mind, SWCC offers only 1 on 1 coaching or classes which are made up of less than 8 students.

QN: How are the responses to your current class offerings? Any perks or incentives to entice more sign-ups in the near future?

ANS: So far, the response has been encouraging with many students seeing significant improvements to their Weiqi skills in a short time. In order to benefit more students, we are preparing to offer free, open classes to students and parents. The preliminary location is set at Boon Lay, we are now selecting a suitable time for everyone. We are also open to suggestions on this topic by means of email, phone calls or SMS.

QN: Does SWCC also nurture professional players who go on to participate in major competitions? If yes, any accolades won till date worth mentioning?

ANS: As mentioned earlier, our ultimate goal is to nurture a group of local, professional Weiqi players. Therefore, we always encourage our students to take part in competitions for exposure and experience. Jiawei and Zi Ying who are coached by Mr Yee have already attained 5 dan certification in China.

QN: Looking forward, what are your plans for SWCC in the foreseeable future? Any expansion of your organization on the cards?

ANS: We hope to expand our 1 on 1 coaching team, so as to allow more students to receive professional guidance. Finally, our short term goal is to have a dan certified Weiqi player from our students in the 2015 Weiqi dan certification competition.

It has been most wonderful talking to both of you; please allow me at this moment to convey my sincerest wishes for your future endeavors in shoring up the popularity of Weiqi. And may SWCC continue to grow from strength to strength. Cheers! :)

Thank you very much. We have really enjoyed the interview. Best wishes to Domain of Singapore Tutoring Experts too.