I met Lukas Podpera, the Czech Go Baron, at the Västerås Go Tournament in Sweden, where he was the top-ranked player. As I was gathering a few wins and losses against opponents around my level, Lukas was busy smashing everyone away from the top board, which was kept in a separate room apart from the main playing areas. Because of this I did not see Lukas very often, so he seemed especially mysterious and powerful. At the end of the three-day tournament, I noticed him helping one of his opponents create a record of their game, so I decided that he could not be the Go monster I had been imagining sitting behind the top board. I worked up the courage to introduce myself and, before I even knew what I was doing, asked if he would be willing to teach me.
It turned out to be a good plan. Relative to Lukas, I am a beginner, and each lesson feels like a personalized masterclass. The fluidity and creativity of his play is astounding, and so is the way he reviews each game, anticipating all of my questions and problem areas with kindness and humility.
Below is our most recent game, commented by me with a few of Lukas’ suggestions, followed by an interview with him. In the game, I felt I did well given the difference in strength, but made a terrible blunder at the end because my brain was exhausted trying to keep up with Lukas.
And now, the interview.
River: How would you describe your teaching philosophy?
Lukas: I try to help my students understand that Go is not a fight, but rather a game about building. So, they should always prefer to build territory, and be aggressive only if necessary. Also, I teach my students that they should always understand what they are doing and, when they play moves, that they always have some plan behind them. My important task is also to prevent students from making errors in basic principles.
R: How would you describe your style of play?
L: I’m a calm player, focusing on having strong shapes and a lot of solid territory. I use brute force only if necessary—for example, to punish an opponent’s mistake. So, when someone is watching my game, one might have the feeling that I’m doing nothing. Mostly, I’m focusing on doing things right by myself and waiting for my opponent’s mistake. This strategy needs a lot of patience and often leads to close games. I had to study a lot of endgame to make it sharp. My half-year stay in China six years ago helped me with that a lot.
R: What was your experience in China like?
L: I spent half a year in Beijing in one of the most famous Chinese Go schools led by Mr. Ge Yuhong. I studied there with five other strong European players and something like a hundred Chinese youth. Training in the Asian professional development context was a really exhausting but unforgettable experience. From Monday to Friday, we studied Go for 12 hours per day. During the weekends we either had some friendship matches with Chinese players or we participated in a tournament. Occasionally we did some sightseeing, such as going to the Great Wall of China.
R: What do you enjoy most about Go?
L: This question I usually answer simply: the endless possibilities and variations for trying to win. Before each game I can always design a strategy about how I will try to get the victory. Thanks to that, I’m sure I will never get bored of playing. Also, Go has helped me to get to know a bit more about myself.
R: What has Go helped you learn about yourself?
L: I believe that Go shows a lot about my personality, but that’s not the case for everyone. Go helped me learn to be patient and more decisive. Making the right decision in life has been always difficult for me, and I was always doubting myself. That doesn’t happen so often anymore. Go also taught me to tell the entire truth in any kind of situation, and to never lie to myself or anyone else.
R: How has your Go world changed since the rise of AI? What do you think the future holds?
L: At first, I was conservative and felt very suspicious about the new ways of playing that AI created. Eventually, I had to adopt a lot of new methods into my play, and in the end, it proved to be a positive decision. This gave me new opportunities to explore the game even more. Also, I realized that many moves that I would never think about before are now easily playable. However, I’m still careful about studying a lot with AI, because although it’s nice to learn some new moves or sequences, AI will not tell us the meaning. Therefore, I usually adopt a new method in my play only when it is explained to me by an Asian professional. Since I believe that the sure-win strategy will never be discovered, the arrival of AI should be judged positively. On the other hand, there is a negative aspect: I’m worried that, because AI applications are available to anyone in these days, it will kill online tournaments in the near future.
R: What is your most memorable game?
L: Immediately I think of my two most successful results: bronze medals in the European Championships in 2016 and 2019. I would probably pick my quarterfinal game from 2019 against European pro Ali Jabarin, which was one of my best performances ever.
R: Who are your Go heroes and why?
L: I would like to mention two. The first is Vladimir Danek 6-dan, a Czech player who was my teacher when I was a middle-dan player. He was a National Champion like 12 times, has been playing Go since 1970’s and basically built the Czech Go community from nearly zero. Even though he holds a PhD in mathematics and physics, he has spent his life with Go. He even had a big Go-shop of his own.
The second is Lee Changho – a famous Korean player who was world no. 1 15-20 years ago. I admire him for his calm and peaceful style, which was enough to beat the rest of the world. At that time, he had a winning rate similar to what Shin Jinseo has now. I was so lucky to meet Lee Changho three times in person.
R: What was it like organizing the Corona Cup?
L: Originally, I planned the first edition of the Corona Cup (Spring 2020) to be only a Central European event. However, the announcement about the tournament started to spread faster than the COVID-19 virus itself. In the end it became a huge event, which I was not really prepared for. It became a really big responsibility to make it run smoothly. Fortunately, I had prior experience organizing and refereeing tournaments. Anyway, those were a really exhausting 6 weeks for me, but despite that I enjoyed it and I think the participants did as well.
I made a second edition that autumn, but this time I had help from a team of organizers, so not everything was on my shoulders. It went even better than before, and the number of players reached 400. Because the pandemic situation is not getting much better, there is a good chance I will be making a third edition in the next few months.
R: Are there any upcoming Go-related events that you’re particularly excited about?
L: 2021 is a year when the European Pro Qualification will be held again. Of course, we need to wait for the moment when it’s possible to hold live tournaments and to be able to travel. I have already reached the final twice, so I hope that, should I reach a third one, that I will finally be successful. That is my main goal for this year. Otherwise, as usual I’m looking forward to the European Championship and the European Grand Slam. Hopefully, they will be allowed to be held live as well.