Man vs machine battle sparks Go wave in South Korea

Renewed interest in the Go game is sweeping through South Korea, amid a series of battles between Korean grandmaster Lee Se Dol and Google's artificial intelligence AlphaGo.
Renewed interest in the Go game is sweeping through South Korea, amid a series of battles between Korean grandmaster Lee Se Dol and Google's artificial intelligence AlphaGo.PHOTO: REUTERS

SEOUL (Korea Herald/Asia News Network) - Mr Kim Sang Soon, a Go teacher in southern Seoul, has been much busier these days fielding queries from parents and students on courses in the ancient chess game.

"There are indeed many more calls and visits from children, especially preschool girls. I'm pretty sure that the AlphaGo match brought back the popularity of Go," said the 65-year-old, who has been teaching Go for the past three decades.

"This is definitely a good sign."

Renewed interest in the Go game is sweeping through South Korea, amid a series of battles between Korean grandmaster Lee Se Dol and Google's artificial intelligence AlphaGo.

Lee achieved his first victory against the supercomputer on Sunday after losing three games in a five-game match and is due to play the final game today (March 15).

At a children's Go competition held by the Korea Baduk Association on Sunday, the number of new participants rose to 20 students in just one day. This is double the daily average. Around 300 students join the competition regularly every month, the association said.

The fad has also hit colleges as more individuals are expressing interest to join Go clubs.

"Compared to the past, a lot more students are asking through the school's online community how they can join the Go club. I'm sure the number of applications is much larger this semester than before," said Park Hyo Jeong, who heads the Go club at Ewha Womans University.

Go used to be a game for the elite in the past. It has been a common game for man in the street since the country's liberation in 1945.

While the number of Koreans who played Go reached 10 million in the 1990s, this number has dwindled over the years, Go industry sources said.

According to a survey by Gallup Korea in 2013, only 25 per cent of people here said they knew how to play Go and of this proportion, over half of their playing abilities were at the elementary level.

"Go has been a game for all people regardless of class. The game has soothed people's sadness and relieved stress from a long time ago. Since the game requires much time and patience, creating a boom in the game is not as easy as other games," said KBA official Chung Dong Hwan.

"But I can see that the whole country is into Go now."

Bookstores are benefitting from the growing interest in Go.

Kyobo Book, the largest bookstore chain in Korea, saw Go book sales rise by 7 per cent compared to last year. Online bookstore Aladdin, has also seen a jump in Go books sales by 50 per cent.

Of the top five Go books sold in the first week of this month, four were written by Go champion Lee Se Dol.

For some retailers, Go products are also flying off the shelves.

Online shopping mall Gmarket said its sales of Go items surged fivefold in the past month. Another online shopping mall, Auction, also saw sales of such items jump by 40 per cent.

Among these customers, there were over 80 per cent more customers in their 20s compared to the previous year, according to Auction officials.

"Not only Koreans are interested in Go, but also people from other countries. I believe the current boom may serve as a turning point for the Korean Go industry, depending on how well (our association) manages the opportunity," Chung added.