Thoughts on the strongest players over time

I wanted to try plotting an idea of who the strongest players were in each decade.

This is only a vague and subjective chart, hopefully provoking some discussion :D

Decade (CE) Japanese Era(s) Strongest Players
1800-09 Kansei 寛政, Kyōwa 享和, Bunka 文化 Hn. Genjo 元丈 / Yasui Chitoku 知得
1810-19 Bunka 文化, Bunsei 文政 Hn. Genjo 元丈 / Yasui Chitoku 知得
1820-29 Bunsei 文政 Hn. Jowa 丈和 / Inoue Genan Inseki 幻庵
1830-39 Bunsei 文政,Tenpō 天保 Hn. Jowa 丈和 / Inoue Genan Inseki 幻庵 / Hn. Shuwa 秀和
1840-49 Tenpō 天保 , Kōka 弘化, Kaei 嘉永 Hn. Shuwa 秀和 / Hn. Shusaku 秀策
1850-59 Kaei 嘉永, Ansei 安政 Hn. Shuwa 秀和 / Hn. Shusaku 秀策
1860-69 Ansei, Man’en, Bunkyū, Genji, Keiō, Meiji Hn. Shuwa 秀和 / Hn. Shusaku 秀策
1870-79 Meiji 明治 Hn. Shuho 秀甫 / Nakagawa Kamesaburo
1880-89 Meiji 明治 Hn. Shuho 秀甫 / Hn. Shuei 秀栄 / Nakagawa Kamesaburo
1890-99 Meiji 明治 Hn. Shuei 秀栄 / Hn Shusai 秀哉 / Karigane Junichi 雁金準一
1900-09 Meiji 明治 Hn. Shuei 秀栄 / Hn Shusai 秀哉 / Karigane Junichi 雁金準一
1910-09 Meiji 明治, Taishō 大正 Hn Shusai 秀哉 / Karigane Junichi 雁金準一
1920-29 Taishō 大正, Shōwa 昭和 Hn Shusai 秀哉 / Karigane Junichi 雁金準一
1930-39 Shōwa 昭和 Go Seigen 吳清源 / Kitani Minoru 木谷実 / Fujisawa Kuranosuke 藤沢庫之助
1940-49 Shōwa 昭和 Go Seigen 吳清源 / Kitani Minoru 木谷実 / Fujisawa Kuranosuke 藤沢庫之助
1950-59 Shōwa 昭和 Go Seigen 吳清源 / Kitani Minoru 木谷実 / Takagawa Kaku 高川格
1960-69 Shōwa 昭和 Takagawa Kaku 高川格 / Sakata Eio 坂田 栄男
1970-79 Shōwa 昭和 Kato Masao 加藤正夫 / Otake Hideo 大竹 英雄 /
1980-89 Shōwa 昭和, Heisei 平成 Kobayashi Koichi 小林光一 / Takemiya Masaki 武宮正樹 / Nie Weiping 聂卫平 / Cho Chikun 조치훈 / Cho Hunhyun 조훈현
1990-99 Heisei 平成 Kobayashi Koichi 小林光一 / Cho Chikun 조치훈 / Lee Changho 이창호
2000-09 Heisei 平成 Lee Changho 이창호 / Lee Sedol 이세돌
2010-19 Heisei 平成, Reiwa 令和 Lee Sedol 이세돌 / Gu Li 古力 / Ke Jie 柯洁 / Park Jungwan 박정환
2020-21 Reiwa 令和 Ke Jie 柯洁 / Park Jungwan 박정환 / Shin Jinseo 신진서

Here is a neat visualization video ranging from 1974 to 2016


Some of the pieces of reasoning:

  • Genjo and Chitoku were formally recognised as Jun-Meijin, “half-Meijins”, eight-dan pros. They also had an exactly even win record.
  • Jowa was Meijin and, historically, a Kisei (“Go saint”).
  • Shuwa had a positive record against Jowa and was the head of the Honinbo house.
  • Shusaku was unbeaten with Black and, like Jowa, regarded as a Kisei. Also Shuwa’s heir.
  • Shuho was head of the Honinbo house and had a positive record against Shuei (iirc).
  • Nakagawa Kamesaburo was a seven-dan professional.
  • Shuei was head of the Honinbo house and drew in a jubango against Shuho. He was Meijin and acclaimed by Takagawa as the strongest of all classical players.
  • Shuei didn’t nominate an heir, which suggests that Shusai and Karigane were of quite equal strength.
  • The Game of the Century was a recognition by Shusai that Go Seigen was an equal opponent.
  • Fujisawa Kuranosuke was the first modern nine-dan professional.

I think the later individuals can speak for themselves.


Whilst reviewing the chart, I had to make some adjustments to initial inaccuracies.

I expanded Shuwa back into the 1830s and took Go Seigen out of the 1920s.

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Have to put Iyama in the 2010s, he dominated the Japanese Go titles at that point, and would be remembered in the Japanese Go history regardless (even though not necessarily the strongest in the world, and lost most of the international games, since he wasn’t good at shorter time settings).


This is more an international list, but certainly Iyama is a historic figure in Japanese tournament Go.


At Iyama’s peak before 2018, when he still kept all 7 titles, his records against Ke Jie at that point is 3-2, and against Park Jungwan 4-2, and those lost are at late 2017 the point where he started to lose titles in Japan. I think In the mid-2010s Iyama was probably on par with both of them (he is older than both of them, so started to decline earlier is normal). This is measuring past records, not current strength though.


Rin Kaiho didn’t make it to the list? Nor O Meien? Not even Gu Li?



I want to add Rui Naiwei in the 1990s or 2000s to the list, she is the only woman Go player that has beaten Lee Changho at that time, historic record she is 4-5 to him. She just couldn’t find games to compete with male Go players due to prejudice and various political reasons.

Also, her record against Lee Sedol is 2-3, that’s saying a lot. To beat them in the 2000s. And she was already past 30 years old at that point.


Not even Gu Li?

2010-19: Gu Li 古力

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Gu Li is in the wrong decade. Should be 2000’s for sure. He wasn’t among the top 4 even in early 2010’s but was consistently there in 2000’s.


Here’s my take. I’m too fuzzy on what comes before the 1950s to answer well for those periods.

Decade Strongest Players
1950s Go Seigen / Hashimoto Utaro / Sakata Eio
1960s Sakata Eio
1970s Sakata Eio / Cho Chikun / Kato Masao
1980s Cho Chikun / Cho Hunhyun
1990s Cho Hunhyun / Lee Changho
2000s Lee Changho / Lee Sedol
2010s Lee Sedol / Park Jungwhan / Ke Jie / Shin Jinseo
2020s Shin Jinseo

I don’t know that much about Gu Li. When I placed him in the 2010s, I was thinking of his 2014 jubango against Lee Sedol (the last big pre-bot event and the subject of the (public-domain) book Relentless).

I disagree that Cho Chikun can be placed as one of the strongest players of the 1970s. Before 1980, he’d won a mere two big titles (Oza '76 and Gosei '79), much less than – for example – Ishida Yoshio. In fact, Ishida should probably be noted in the '70s.

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Data-based analysis for the same thing, years 1980-present:

Relevant inclusions by decade (metric: were in the top 3 at some point in that time):

1980s: Kato Masao, Otake Hideo, (they’re listed in the '70s but were still top players in the early '80s) Nie Weiping. (Top Chinese player of the era)

1990s: Ma Xiaochun (Another top Chinese player), Yoo Changhyuk (2nd in the world for a few years behind Lee Changho). Cho Hunhyun was also still a top-3 player.

2000s: Gu Li, Xie He. Cho Hunhyun was also still a top 3 player, which is absurd given that he was pushing 50 at the time.

2010s: Kong Jie, Choi Cheolhan, Shi Yue, Mi Yuting. Of these, only Shi Yue manages to hit #1 on Coulom’s ratings list, but they were all top 3 players at some point. Iyama Yuta made it as high as #4 or so, and would be a reasonable honorable mention as the top Japanese player of the era by far, and a strong competitor internationally. Shin Jinseo should be listed here, as well, becoming the first player to pass 3700 (and in the process take the world #1 spot) in 2018.


Ah, I shouldn’t have forgotten Ma Xiaochun.

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Lee Sedol and Gu Li had an infamous rivalry. One reason was that from about 2002 through 2006 (while “Stone Buddha” Lee Changho was seemingly unassailable for more than a decade), Lee Sedol and Gu Li were the most promising players to take Lee Changho down, neck-and-neck in strength, about the same age, and from different nations. They also had complementary fighting styles, which made for flashy and exciting games. But by about 2007, Lee Sedol had emerged as the stronger and succeeded in displacing Lee Changho from the top spot. And by the 2014 jubango, the Lee/Gu rivalry was something of a historical footnote. Lee Sedol dropped only two games and won six in the jubango.


Lee Sedol dropped only two games and won six in the jubango.

Reminds me of Go Seigen’s 1951-2 7-1-2 victory over Fujisawa Kuranosuke.


Cho Chikun had a preview of spotlight in the first half of the 1970s. Acording to, from 1971 to February 1975, Cho won 20 games and dropped just 4. That includes a 10-game winning streak that featured wins against Fujisawa Hideyuki, Kobayashi Koichi (twice!), Hashimoto Utaro, and Takagawa Kaku. That’s why I included him.


Kobayashi Kochi had his dominating time before Cho Chi Kun, trusting then all the japanese titles.
After 2005 it’s a bit harder to chose between the Chinese players as in my opinion there is like a dozen of almost same top level players, some who won international major tournaments even not mentioned in the lists already given ( I think of Chang Hao in the early 2000’s then Chen YaoYe, Zhou RuiYang…).
I think Cho U could be mentioned too.

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This list is missing Huang Longshi 13dan player.

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