Interview with Mateusz Surma 2pJun 05, 2021
Go players know Mateusz Surma as the “Stone Buddha” of European go – he rarely shows emotions during play.
On the go board his favorite strategy is cashing points while leaving weak groups unattended and then aim to survive with those groups when absolutely necessary. If none of the groups die, his strategy has been successful, as it naturally means he has more territory than his opponent.
Mateusz plays a sharp game and you don't want to mess with him when it comes to life and death situations. Life and death could be called Mateusz' speciality, but he also excels in endgame.
Besides playing go for a living, Mateusz generates income from his go business – he owns Polgote, a company that sells go equipment, offers go lessons by a variety of teachers, and organizes go events.
I interviewed Mateusz on his life as a go player and a businessman:
Artem: When and how did you start playing go?
Mateusz: I started playing go in 2002 at the age of six and a half. My father taught me how to play. He was also my first teacher.
Artem: Is there a specific reason why you like to play go?
Mateusz: I like solving problems. And there are quite a lot of problems to solve during a game of go.
Artem: I remember that you once told me that you wanted to become a pilot. Why is that?
Mateusz: I like to travel, see new places and visit different countries. Being a pilot would allow just that. In Poland, being a pilot is also one of the best paying professions.
Artem: Can you tell us about your education?
Mateusz: Ever since I started playing go, I wanted to be a professional go player. That was my dream and goal to work towards.
In the beginning I simply played and studied go with my father, at home. I also played in the local go club of Wodzisław Śląski once per week.
At the European Go Congress in Leksand in 2008 I learned that a new go school for foreigners was about to open in Korea, called King's Baduk Dojang. Ten of the most promising go students that applied would get a scholarship to study at the school. I applied and was selected for the scholarship, but I had to wait a year to go to Korea in order to finish my first class of middle school (7th year of school altogether).
Both my middle school and high school in Poland arranged an individual study course for me that I followed for the next few years. I had to take one examination per subject after every term in middle school, and just one exam per subject after every year in high school.
I would train in Korea for three months, then go back to Poland and study for school at home. After a year the King's Baduk Dojang unfortunately closed down, but my teacher Kim Sung- rae took me to another go school – the Yang Jae-Ho Baduk Dojang. This was a school for Korean go players and all lessons were taught in Korean. There were only two foreigners in the entire school: a student from China and me. I was the only person there that didn't speak Korean, and almost no one spoke English.A young Mateusz in South Korea in 2009
Later on, the Yang Jae-Ho Baduk Dojang merged with two other schools and changed its venue. That's when I entered the Choong-Am Baduk Dojang, a school that many new professional go players from Korea studied at. So I ended up studying in the best go school in Korea. During that time I started studying the Korean language as well.
My scholarship had long finished and there were fees for both the Yang Jae-Ho Baduk Dojang and the Choong-Am Baduk Dojang. The flight tickets back and forth from Poland to Korea weren't cheap either, and my parents took loans at a bank to be able to pay my studying fees.
I set a strict deadline: my plan was to become a professional go player in Korea before the age of 18. I told myself that if I wouldn't manage, I'd return to Poland and give up on the dream.
I played in theyeongusaengleague (the Korean equivalent of the Japanese insei), a league for strong amateur players of about 7 dan to 8 dan European level, who train to become professionals. This league consists of several groups that the participants are placed in, in accordance to their level. By doing well in your group, you can promote to the group above you.
I was told that if I'd manage to work myself up to the third group in the league, I would be offered a pro-title by the Korean Baduk Association. This should tell you something about the level of competition, because only foreigners get this special treatment. The Korean players have to fight their way to the top of the first group in order to have a chance at becoming professional.
I was in group 4 and did quite well. There was one game left to play and if I won, I'd go up to group 3 and become a professional player. Unfortunately, I lost that game. I considered to keep playing in the league (which had no age limit), but I'd just turned 18. I adhered to my own deadline, left Korea and stopped playing go.
In Poland I started studying for high school more seriously. After passing my final exam of high school in 2014 I managed to qualify for the Faculty of Aeronautics and Space Technology in Rzeszów. At the time this was the top Polish university when it comes to aeronautics. After one and a half years of studying, the top 24 students of the university (by grade average) would join the pilotage program and get the education and all the civil licences for flying airplanes free of charge. This was a big deal, because taking the exams to obtain these licences privately costs a fortune.
It was a rat race. I was used to studying hard though and my grades were good. After a year, although there was no official results listing, I must have been in the top 10 students of the program.
However...during the time I'd stopped playing go, a professional system had been put in place by the European Go Federation. In March 2015 I was one of sixteen people invited for the professional qualification tournament in Pisa, Italy. I participated and won the tournament, after not having studied go for about a year and a half!
My plans did not change and I was going to finish the remaining part of my pilotage qualification studies with high grades, then finish my university degree and obtain the necessary licences to become a pilot. But I was invited to study go in China at the Ge Yuhong Weiqi Daochang. Many of the new up and coming Chinese professionals studied at the school, so this was a big opportunity.
I faced a tough dilemma: should I continue with university or return to go. More and more go tournaments for professionals were popping up, and since I already had the pro-status, I figured that it should be possible for me to make a living by playing go. This would allow me to travel and follow my childhood dream. I decided to quit my aeronautics studies and submerged into the go world once again.
From 2015 to 2016 I studied at the Ge Yuhong Academy, one of the top go schools in China. Besides go, I also studied the Chinese language.
My results in pro tournaments weren't exactly spectacular and I knew that I wouldn't be able to play any of the top players in the Far East, which meant that I wouldn't get a chance to win any major go tournaments.
It often made me feel sad when I had to explain what go was to almost anybody that asked me about my hobby (when I was young), school (when I was a teenager) and job (when I was a pro). I started thinking about going in a different direction: to not play go tournaments for a living, but to popularize go in the Western world and earn some money by doing so.
In many places I’d heard that go helps in the development of logical and strategic thinking, in the development of risk and profit evaluation and in understanding the bigger picture (by adjusting local situations with a global impact in mind). This way of looking at the game intrigued me and I decided to become a go entrepreneur.Mateusz at the Silk Road Tournament in China in 2015
Artem: And then? What happened next?
Mateusz: I made many mistakes. But I learned from them, so perhaps it was necessary to make those mistakes.
I'd organized several small go tournaments in the past and I wanted to think bigger. I wanted to organize the two biggest go tournaments that Europe had ever seen. And have such big prizes for the participants that the Western media (TV, radio, internet) would be intrigued when I'd contact them. The goal was for the media to pick up on the events and propel go in the right direction.
To prepare for the masses of people who would want to learn go, I wrote my first book,Shapes of mind. Go course for beginners.The funds for the printing of the first, Polish edition were gathered from a crowdfunding campaign, organized by the Polish Go Association. Later I outsourced the translations to other languages and printed these editions from my savings. The book is available in English, Spanish, Russian, Ukrainian and Polish. You can buy it athttps://polgote.com/en/shop/shapes-mind-go-course-beginners.
The plan for the organization of my first major go tournament was to invite all the top professionals from Asia and some of the strongest players from the rest of the world. They would compete in online preliminaries, followed by face-to-face finals that would take place in Poland.
I visited the Kansai Ki-in, the Nihon Ki-in, the Hankuk Kiwon and the Zhongguo Qiyuan and revealed my plans to their officials. All the associations agreed and backed up the event. Unfortunately, the tournament failed before it could even start, due to the birth of strong goAI. The new and super strong go computer programs made it possible for players to cheat during the online preliminaries and at the time impossible for me to detect or prevent.
For my second tournament, a new European Grand Slam that would be held live in Warsaw, without online preliminaries, I'd even arranged a sponsor. The sponsor agreed to fund the prize pool of 29.300 euros and the additional organization fees. I outsourced the website for the event, and when I asked the sponsor to send me their logo for the website, they told me that the deal was off. We hadn't set up a contract, which was a big mistake on my part, and I even lost the money I'd invested in the website.Mateusz and his book ‘Shapes of mind. Go course for beginners’.
While this was all happening, I continued myGo course for beginnersand wrote a series of eight books with life and death problems, calledYou won't get dumber while thinking.I created the tsumego problems myself, which took me about a year. I'm glad I did, because the series is unique. The problems in these books range from 20 kyu level to 3 kyu level. They are designed for players who improve their go level mostly by solving problems: if you are 3 dan, but your strong suits in go are the opening and the endgame, it might be difficult for you to solve the 3 kyu problems in these books.
I’ve read and solved many life and death problems in my life. Many of the tsumego books had flaws – the answers were incorrect, there were multiple correct answers to the problems that weren't mentioned, or the problems and their answers were shown on the same page. Some of these books were also quite big, which made them unsuitable for traveling.
My intention was to make books of high quality. During the making of the series, I checked each problem numerously in order to make sure that all the tsumego are solvable, that the given answers are correct and that you won't accidentally see the answer while you're trying to solve a problem. The size of each volume is A6, pocket size, easy to carry when travelling.
In 2018 I thought up a plan to confirm and enhance the quality of my books: I brought them with me to the European Go Congress in Pisa, Italy, and offered any of the congress participants 100 euro if they'd spot a mistake in any of the 1900 problems and their answers. Many strong go players gave it a shot and just 7 mistakes were found.
The books are available in English, Spanish, Russian, Ukrainian and Polish. You can buy them athttps://polgote.com/en/shop/you-wont-get-dumber-while-thinking-life-death-goproblems-series-8-books
After I created the book series, I launched my business called Polgote. I run an online go shop where you can buy my books, as well as quality go equipment imported from Asia. I also gathered a group of skilled and ethusiastic go teachers that provide lessons on Polgote. Their information can be found on the website, which functions as a platform for people who want to learn go or become better at it.
In 2020, during the COVID-19 lockdown, I started looking into ways to grow my company and began studying marketing, sales, finances, economics and business management through books and online courses. I realized that I should have done that a long time ago!
Personally, I barely teach go nowadays, and try to delegate the online go lessons to the other teachers on Polgote. That way I have more time to spend on improving the business, something I work on almost every day.
Artem: What kind of lessons do you offer?
Mateusz: Currently Polgote offers online go courses for beginners, for players of 20 to 15 kyu, for players of 15 to 10 kyu, an online go school for stronger players, individual lessons and strategic planning lessons that include 'improve your middle game' and solving tsumego problems together with a teacher. Recently, we also started approaching schools to offer online go lessons in their co-curricular activity programs.
Artem: Could you tell us about your family?
Mateusz: I got married to Guzel in 2018. My wife is a Tatar girl from Russia and one of the best go teachers in Europe. Some of her students, aged 7, 8 and 8, finished on 3rd, 5th and 7th place at the European Youth Go Championship Under 12.
After our marriage, we lived in Kazan, Russia. Our daughter Agnieszka was born in 2020. During the lockdown we moved to Poland, on foot, through Kaliningrad. From both sides of the border were drove by car.Mateusz and Guzel
Artem: Would you like to study go in Asia again?
Mateusz: For now I'd like to spend more time with my wife and daughter, and develop the company to the point that our passive income becomes higher than our living costs and we can live a comfortable life. In the future, maybe we could travel to Asia and stay there for some time, so my daughter can study go as well.
Artem: You visited go events in Latin America several times. Can you tell us about that experience? Is the atmosphere there comparable to that of go events in Europe?
Mateusz: These events were great. The atmosphere in Latin American seemed a bit more relaxed to me than that of European go events. It was nice to meet many amazing people there. These events were also part of the reason I started learning Spanish. Since 2020 I've been teaching go in Spanish as well.
Artem: Is there any specific country you'd like to live in?
Mateusz: I'm quite flexible when it comes to such things. But I value freedom and fair rules, so I’d rather head in the direction of the more capitalist countries.
Artem: Do you have any hobbies?
Mateusz: I like watching movies and traveling.
Artem: Can you list your best achievements in go tournaments?
- European Grand Prix Finale: 1st place in 2020.
- European Grand Slam: 1st place in 2019.
- Samsung Cup preliminaries: 1st place in World Division Baduk Masters in 2017.
- Chinese Go League: four wins in a row in 2017.
- European Professional Championship: 2nd place in 2016, 2017, 2019 and 2020.
- European Championship: 3rd place in 2013, 2nd place in 2017.
- Silk Road Tournament: 2nd place in 2015.
- European Youth Championship: 1st place in 2006 (Under 12), 2010 & 2011 (Under 16).
Artem: Do you have time to study go nowadays? If so, how do you do it?
Mateusz: It’s always possible to find time, but I have other priorities. So recently I haven't studied go at all.
Artem: If the reader wants to improve at go, what advice would you give him/her?
1. Actually play go, get your practice in!
2. Always try to win. But when you lose, review the game. You need to know exactly why you lost and what your mistakes were, so you don't repeat them the next time.
3. Solve life and death problems.
Artem: Is there a game record of yours that you would like to share?
Mateusz: Recently, on the 2nd of March 2021, the Polish team played an online match against the French team for the Pandanet Go European Team Championship. This is a game from that event. I played as White. My opponent was Dai Junfu 8d.
Dia. 1. Tesuji
I spotted a tesuji at move 144 (marked as 1 here) and gladly played it.
If Black responds at A, White will connect at B and Black would have to connect the two stones - a nice combination for White in sente.
If Black plays B, White gives atari one point below A and captures four stones of black on the right side
The situation looked undoubtedly profitable for White.
Dia. 2. Counterattack (2 – 22)
Unfortunately for me, my tesuji turned out to be a horrible mistake.
White finished in gote on the right side, and Black used the timing to destroy White's center, starting from move 8.
After Black 22 the white center territory has vanished, but that isn't White's only problem. White now also has a large, eyeless group in the center that must somehow survive.
Dia. 3. Struggling to survive (23 – 39)
The group in the center had to crawl desperatey with moves 27 to 37. Luckily, White manages to hang onto life with move 39.
Black can no longer kill this group, because of his own weak group in the center. It's impossible for Black to protect both his stones on the left side and in the center.
Dia. 4. The final exchange (40 – 57)
After White 43, if Black plays at 52 directly, White can block off and capture Black's group in the center with A. In the actual game, White 51 initiated the final exchange - Black saves the six stones on the left side, but White captures the black stones in the upper left corner.
After I lost sente with move 144 (White 1 in Dia. 1), it felt like an avalanche swept over the board, starting from the right side and finishing on the left. This was a very tough game for me. In the end, I miraculously won by 1.5 points.