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For Japan's 9-year-old go prodigy, first step to greatness led abroad

Professional group aims to develop young talent for international competition

Sumire Nakamura will become history's youngest professional go player in April.   © Kyodo

TOKYO -- Nine-year-old Sumire Nakamura made headlines in Japan when it was announced that she would become the world's youngest professional go player, starting in April.

But to pursue her dream of being the best, Nakamura had to leave home. Nakamura has traveled repeatedly to South Korea to train with other prodigies her age since January 2018. She stayed with her mother in Seoul, attending a dojo training center to practice in the latter half of the year.

Japanese go players do not dominate the ancient strategy game as they did in their glory days 20 years ago, when they won most international competitions. Now they lag behind their Chinese and South Korean competitors, struggling to win qualifying matches. To reverse this trend, the Japan Go Association has introduced a program to develop gifted young players. Nakamura is the first to be selected under the program.

"We need to hurry to cultivate more talent," said Satoru Kobayashi, vice chairman of the association. "Otherwise there'll be no saving Japanese go."

The game is popular in South Korea, where grade schoolers learn it as a matter of course, and more than 100,000 people attend some 800 schools dedicated to go. The best players stay in dormitories and practice from morning to night.

By setting up a program to nurture young players, it finally feels as if Japan is serious about becoming an international competitor again, said Hon Seisen of South Korea, who runs a training center in Tokyo.

Nakamura will compete with other professionals for titles in Japan, starting in April. She will also join Japan's national team. Her mother, a go instructor who taught her the basics, says that she wants to become the world's top player.

She may have more competition before long. Kobayashi is confident that his organization's new program will unearth more talent. "There are some gems out there," he said.

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