Interview with Cristian Pop

by Sorin Gherman

Cristian Pop, 7 dan, is one of the strongest European players. You can read about his past results on his own Go page. He is also known as "Solaris" - which is one username he uses on online Go servers. Cristian has an online Go school - visit his website for details.

Cristian represented Romania very recently, at the 28th World Amateur Go Championship in Japan where he managed an excellent 4th place. This is an interview with him a few days after the tournament was over.

Cristian Pop photo

Can you tell us about your Go career?

I first heard about Go in the 8th grade, from some Chess players that were talking about Go with a great deal of respect. Then I saw a small Go tournament that was organized at the same time with a Chess tournament - I was a Chess player at that time.

Math professor Cristian Cobeli (who was also the first sensei of Catalin Taranu 5p, and two other strong Romanian Go players: Marcel Crasmaru and Petre Oancea) taught me the rules, and I played my first game with him. He next asked me to read an introductory Go book, which I did. From reading that book, Go looked like a pretty easy game, not to mention that according to some graded problems from the end of the book I was rated 6 dan or so!

I knew both Catalin Taranu and Marcel Crasmaru from math competitions; Catalin was not playing Go yet at that time, but Marcel was 1 kyu. I wanted to give him a handicap the first time we played (I thought I am 6 dan, remember?) - but he gave me 9 stones instead, and I only lived with 1 group - such an embarrassment!

Both Catalin and I decided it is time to study Go - and it took us maybe one year to get to play even with Marcel.

All of us eventually moved to Bucharest for our University studies. Catalin and myself shared a room in the students dormitory, and rather than studying for the university we were playing Go almost non-stop.

I became an insei at the end of 1997, and returned to Romania two years later. I played in a lot of Go tournaments - you can read about the most important ones on my website, at

For the past one year or so I have dedicated myself completely to Go: teaching and playing in competitions. After all, this is what I like best, so I think it is important for me to focus on it.

Can you give us more details about the period when you were insei in Japan, and how did it contribute to you evolution as a Go player?

Well, that was a pretty fuzzy period for me :-)

The truth is I had a hard time adapting to the Japanese way of life. Honestly, I spent a lot of time playing computer games, as I was living in Catalin's apartment - he was already a professional at that time.

I was going weekly to the Nihon Ki-in. Also, Ogata Sensei 9p and Hiroe Sensei 9p, the official insei instructors, were commenting every game we played in the insei league, and they were also playing with us. We were about 15 insei in Nagoya at that time. It was quite a boost from the previous year - when Catalin was insei - when there were only 5 insei or so.

I became number 1 in Nagoya in the pre-qualification tournament. By the time of the final tournament, though, I was alone - both Catalin and Saijo Sensei went to Europe for the European Go Congress - and my morale was down, I couldn't sleep, etc. The first game was with Yamamori - he was the one who won the tournament in the end, he is 5 dan now. I was ahead by 20 points or so when the yose started, but lost in the end with half a point. That was the beginning of the end for that tournament as far as I was concerned. I finished number 3 out of 8 players - but just one insei qualifies from Nagoya branch each year.

Once that tournament was over, I came back to Romania. It was a very painful experience for me at that time - but after all it served me well. For one thing, I studied much more in Romania than I did in Japan. My stay in Japan certainly changed the way I think about Go, my perception - maybe not right away, but over time it did. I am sure that it contributed a great deal to my current level of understanding Go.

If one is by himself, it is impossible to get past certain barriers without strong opponents and good teachers.

What is your favorite professional player? How do you study Go?

I don't have any favorite - I used to like Cho Chikun and Go Seigen, but I cannot say exactly why - maybe Cho Chikun because of the very complicated games, with a lot of fights and deep reading.

Nowadays, though, I study all strong Go players equally. As for studying, I apply the classical formula: I study professional games and tsume-go. When I see some new and interesting position, I try to find and replay professional games with that pattern, and I am trying to understand the reasons behind the moves.

What are your results against professional players?

I played quite often with all professionals living in Europe. While I do have won games against every one of them, I should mention that my score against them is negative. But I don't think there is any big difference between me and them.

While in Japan, I played a lot of training games against Hikosaka Sensei 9p - who was Judan at that time. We played with 10 seconds per move. I won several such games against him - but of course they were just training games, maybe he wanted me to win some to boost my morale :-)

I also won in several teaching games against other professionals.

You are currently teaching Go on the internet - any advice for those who what to advance at Go?

The first advice is to play as much as possible - at least one game every day. Then one should replay professional games - better on a real goban than on the computer - and to solve tsume-go.

Also, it is good (but not absolutely necessary) to have a teacher: that normally speeds up the learning process, helps eliminating bad habits, etc.

It all depends on the individual's goal - what level one wants to achieve, and how much effort one is willing to put into Go.

What is Go for you: art, sport, game?

Hmmm :-) I am at a level where I see Go as much more than just a game. But I cannot say it is art, I'm not at that level.

Either way, it is important to treat Go with respect. Also, one should treat stronger players with respect. Respect is something that's missing a lot from the online Go servers.

You have very recently represented Romania in the 28th World Amateur Go Championship and won the 4th place, immediately after China, Korea and Japan - congratulations by the way, this was the best Romania result so far, and one of the best results for non-Asian countries in the history of this championship. Can you tell us some details about the tournament?

As a general feeling, it was pretty much the same as the previous ones I played in. One difference was that North Korea didn't send a representative - usually they send a pretty strong player.

I lost only against China and Korea - both players were very young (13 and 20). There was a pretty big difference between me and them: I felt they were very well trained and were both very sharp in quickly estimating a position and making decisions. It was pretty interesting to see their post-mortems: they were analysing extremely fast, laying out variations on the board without the smallest hesitation.

As a hypothetical example, imagine a game between someone who knows all common tsume-go positions by heart, compared to someone who has to read them all the time from the beginning.

They both knew a lot of fuseki novelties - while my only plan was to start a fight as soon as possible, since I am not familiar with the latest developments.

This year, the Korean player was clearly outclassing every other player - except for the Chinese player, which was one class above that :-)

Too bad for the Korean player, this would have been a good chance for him to fulfill his dream to become a professional. The Chinese player will become a top professional player, I think.

As for the games I won - they were all pretty easy games for me.

When do you think a non-Asian country will have a chance to win a World Amateur Go Championship?

If both China and Korea will keep sending players of this caliber, which are clearly on a path to become professionals, there is no chance. If they send real amateurs, we might have a chance.

The Japanese player was more of a real amateur player - I think I might have had a fair chance with him. But we weren't paired together.

We are clearly lacking when it comes to proper training, and we don't have a really organized way to play with strong players often. By comparison, I am sure that the Chinese player, for instance, has 10-20 friends of the same strength to play with constantly. Not to mention teachers.

Cristian's commented game with the Korean representative at the 28th WAGC, from the 4th round.


Cristian's game with the Chinese representative at the 28th WAGC, from the last round. Cristian made just one comment, on his losing move 82.