I'm not sure if I've mentioned it before or not, but when Koreans do things, they go all out. They always play the part/dress the part/live the part/etc. (I'll save explaining that for another post.)
Becoming a Professional Player in Korea
During 60 years of professional baduk history in Korea, there have only been about 210 professional players. Only 35 of them were female. As in other sports, becoming a professional baduk player means taking a long and difficult road.
In Korea, a certified student who studies baduk at Hankuk Kiwon (Korea baduk Association) seeking to become a professional player is called a yongusaeng. At any time in the yongusaeng league, there are 120 boys divided into 10 classes and 48 girls divided into four classes, class 1 being the strongest (for both the boys and girls) and 10 the weakest (4 for girls).
A tournament among the yongusaeng takes place every month, and classes are reorganized each time according to the results. The top four players of each class will move up to the next class, while the worst four will be demoted to a lower class. When a new yongusaeng joins the league, he or she will get the lowest position in the weakest class to start with, regardless of his/her strength.
A qualification tournament to select new yongusaeng takes place every four months. To be selected, an applicant must be under the age of 18 and be in the top 12 of the hundreds of players participating in the qualification tournament.
Every month, four of these newcomers have the honor of joining the weakest yongusaeng class in place of the students cut in the monthly yongusaeng tournament. All 12 new students are incorporated into the yongusaeng classes, four at a time, over three months.
The competition among all the yongusaeng _ including the lowest ranked newcomers _ to join a higher class and not to be kicked out of the league, is incredibly intense. During week, when there are no league games, the yongusaeng spend most of their time studying baduk. They replay the professional games, review their own games from the yongusaeng league, study new joseki variations, solve life and death problems and play other yongusaeng.
Some of the yongusaeng, whose ages range from eight to 18, even give up regular education to have more time to study the game. They study baduk from morning to night, except for a little exercise during the day to keep their health.
There are about 15 private baduk academies in Korea (otherwise known as baduk tojang), with between 10 to 20 yongusaeng. Most of the teachers at these private academies are professional players, and they play teaching games and review them with their students.
Each academy also has other students who aspire to join their ranks of the yongusaeng. Their number ranges from 50 to 150. That means there are more than 1,000 students at any given time who want to become yongusaeng.
However, the number of players who are able to go professional is very small. The number of newly made professional players differs each year according to the situation of the Korean baduk scene, but it is always less than ten.
In recent years, new professional players were born in the following manner.
The three players with the highest scores in the yongusaeng tournament, and five who qualified in the annual professional qualification tournament become professional players. Since a student older than 18 cannot stay a yongusaeng, a player over that age is technically barred from becoming a professional player.
The fiercer the competition, the more miserable the students who do not succeed by the time they turn 18. Most of them develop future careers that have something to do with baduk because they love the game so much.
However, even for those few students who are able to go professional, there is still a long and difficult way to go, for the competition becomes even more cutthroat once they enter the professional baduk world.
The writer is a baduk professor at Myongji University and a professional player of the game.
[The Korea Times]