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 Post subject: What is the median income of pro players?
Post #1 Posted: Sat May 18, 2013 8:29 pm 
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I recently read something that blew my mind. Apparently, in the 1st division of the KB Baduk League (40 players), you get paid about $450 per game. You get an extra $620 or so on top of that if you win.

If you win all 14 of your games, then you will make $15,000... For the amount of effort involved, that is a paltry reward. If you win half of your games then you make less than $11,000 from league play.

It was never the case that the median pro could make a living from just playing go, but these days many tournaments have gone to a system that does not pay players who do not get past the preliminaries, so it has become even harder. These numbers make me think that, at least in Korea, anyone who is not ranked in the top 10 will need other sources of income.

If we suppose that pro go players are relatively intelligent people, trying to become a professional go player seems like an incredibly risky decision on multiple levels. Even if you are in the upper echelon of pros (i.e., make it into the KBBL). The life of a pro seems tough.

Furthermore, consider this: The great Lee Changho is the oldest player in the league by far at 37 now that Cho Hunhyun is gone. The next oldest player may be 32. How many players can realistically hope that they will enjoy the longevity of Lee Changho? Even if you are a top 10 player at your peak, it is very likely that you will be unable to compete by the time you are 30. Let us note here that most 9 dans who are the same age as Lee Changho cannot beat the A-class Korean yeonguseng.

The male players may lose two valuable working years to military service (though many delay it until they are 30). Recently, Baek Hongseok and Won Seongjin entered the military just as they were rounding into form as legitimate international-level contenders. They are taking immense financial losses right now by losing the most valuable working years of their lives.

Consider someone like Park Jungsang, who won the 2006 Fujitsu Cup. He has not won any other major tournament. Today, he is out of the top 25 and not likely to improve much at age 28. He might have 2-5 more years of competitive league-level (not tournament-winning) play left in him. Even if he saved the $150,000 from the Fujitsu Cup, he cannot make it last for the next two decades (let alone the rest of his life). And this is a guy who was exempt from military service!

I think I finally understand why pros are said to be good teachers. The vast majority of them spend most of their time teaching because only playing will lead to starvation. Perhaps things are slightly different in China because of the government support and more active professional leagues, but I doubt that it is dramatically different. I do know that the Chinese leagues pay a lot more, but China also has a greater number of professional players (hey, when you have 1 BILLION people...), so the percentage of pros who cannot make a living by playing alone is probably similar.

My question to those who have hard concrete facts (like John F, not baseless speculation) is this: How much money does the median pro player make from playing go competitively? Is this the harsh reality that most of us have been ignoring all this time? Or am I severely underestimating how much money pros make from playing?

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Post #2 Posted: Sun May 19, 2013 3:47 am 
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The fact that the job involves a mixture of teaching and playing is hardly proof that it's a bad career choice.

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Post #3 Posted: Sun May 19, 2013 7:26 am 
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Well, I can't give you any numbers, but I do know that the average pro's income is very low. In fact, Ma Xiaochun recently said he couldn't afford to live in Beijing. If someone as successful as Ma is having that hard of a time financially, then that should be a good hint as to how hard other pros have it.

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Post #4 Posted: Sun May 19, 2013 7:31 am 
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Sme time has passed since the pay schedule for pros has changed so there should be some solid evidence of the effect of the change on the pro population. As was observed, most pros are not competitive in tournaments past the age of 40. In Japan pros seem to do better longer but still, not enough to provide a living from tournament play alone. Other sources of income include teaching and publishing books. Sometimes they own go salons where people pay to enter and play, thus providing some income for the owner. 20 years ago it was said that a typical pro in Japan earns an income similar to that of a university professor, but that was before the recent reforms.

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Post #5 Posted: Sun May 19, 2013 8:55 am 
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gowan wrote:
20 years ago it was said that a typical pro in Japan earns an income similar to that of a university professor, but that was before the recent reforms.
An interesting comparison, since most university professors earn less than they could have, had they focused their talents on making money.

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Post #6 Posted: Sun May 19, 2013 6:39 pm 
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I don't really know the details of the KB Baduk League, but remember they are earning that money in, what, fourteen hours? Twenty-eight hours? The hourly wage is pretty good. Yes, it means that they might want to be getting income from tournaments, teaching, or other sources, but they have the other 351 days of the year to worry about that.

Also, don't forget that Korea is not the richest country in the world. It would be silly to compare these figures to an average U.S. salary, since a baduk player wasn't in line to earn an average U.S. salary, but an average South Korean salary; if you wanted to put this in the U.S. context, multiply by 1.61 - the range becomes equivalent to $17,700-$24,150. I think many Americans would be quite happy to earn that simply for devoting 14 days a year to their hobbies, before even counting teaching or other sources of income.

I'm not saying that playing Go is a lucrative industry. But lots of people are genuinely financially insecure, and also hate their jobs. I don't think professional Go players fall into either category.

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Post #7 Posted: Sun May 19, 2013 7:22 pm 
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jts wrote:
I think many Americans would be quite happy to earn that simply for devoting 14 days a year to their hobbies


I think the above statement shows a very naive outlook on things.

I would assume that a pro would have to spend many many hours of hard study and preparation for each of the hours he/she actually spends playing a money-bringing game. Not to mention the many years of study (for free?) before they even got to that level.

On top of this - pros cannot afford to think about Go as a 'hobby'. We amateurs think like that, but what that means is that we study and play as much as we want (or have time for) and don't study or play when we do not feel like that. That distills for us to nothing but pleasure in the middle, which is why we call it a 'hobby'. Pros cannot afford such attitude. Sick or not, happy or not, they have to put time into Go, which probably makes it much more like work, possibly very hard work, just to stay in the running. This is not to say that pros don't *like* Go... just that's they cannot afford to treat it like a 'hobby'.

Other than this I agree that pros have many other ways of earning money, teaching, books, commentaries, etc... And it sure beats flipping burgers.

Still, I would not be very surprised if it comes out that most of the pros are struggling financially.
Same goes for most chess pro players - its just not a lucrative profession, and you certainly do not choose these careers to get rich.

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Post #8 Posted: Sun May 19, 2013 7:45 pm 
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Bantari wrote:
jts wrote:
I think many Americans would be quite happy to earn that simply for devoting 14 days a year to their hobbies


I think the above statement shows a very naive outlook on things.

I would assume that a pro would have to spend many many hours of hard study and preparation for each of the hours he/she actually spends playing a money-bringing game. Not to mention the many years of study (for free?) before they even got to that level.


The most common thing I've heard 1d-3d/new professional players say in interviews (admittedly I haven't seen that many of them) is "Go used to be fun." Though to be fair this is the same as is said by a lot of people pursuing hobbies/sports professionally. I'm sure I've heard some professional golfer say he had to take up a new hobby after turning professional as playing golf (even casually) was now worktime and he needed something else to do to relax and just do for pure pleasure.

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Post #9 Posted: Sun May 19, 2013 10:52 pm 
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jts wrote:
I don't really know the details of the KB Baduk League, but remember they are earning that money in, what, fourteen hours? Twenty-eight hours? The hourly wage is pretty good. Yes, it means that they might want to be getting income from tournaments, teaching, or other sources, but they have the other 351 days of the year to worry about that.

1) Only 40 players get to play in the KBBL.
2) Those players are training all the time, at least according to what they say. The actual game itself is merely the culmination of many days of preparation.
jts wrote:
Also, don't forget that Korea is not the richest country in the world. It would be silly to compare these figures to an average U.S. salary, since a baduk player wasn't in line to earn an average U.S. salary, but an average South Korean salary; if you wanted to put this in the U.S. context, multiply by 1.61 - the range becomes equivalent to $17,700-$24,150. I think many Americans would be quite happy to earn that simply for devoting 14 days a year to their hobbies, before even counting teaching or other sources of income.

1) $24,150 is fairly low income. One barely has to pay any income tax at that level in the US (just payroll tax). It seems extra low when we consider the intellectual capital that these players are assumed to have. They are assumed to be paying a larger opportunity cost to play go than the average joe. FWIW, South Korean GDP per capita is around $30,000 after adjusting for purchasing power differences due to prices. Quick comparison: The average US plumber makes $46,000/year (Okay, maybe that last one is about how college is a huge scam for many students who take out loans).
2) Again, only 40 players get to play in the KBBL. What about the others? Also, unless you are a top 20 player, you may not get to play all 14 leagues games even if you are in the KBBL. Netmarble has already had one of their 2nd division players take part in two 1st division matches, which leaves at least one 1st division player without the income from those games.
jts wrote:
I'm not saying that playing Go is a lucrative industry. But lots of people are genuinely financially insecure, and also hate their jobs. I don't think professional Go players fall into either category.

While there is no comprehensive survey of how pro players feel about their jobs, one occasionally hears about young pros who are not destined for fame struggling to make ends meet. A coach for one of the KBBL teams was quoted saying that he was really glad that one of the players he drafted was able to win some games because the kid desperately needs money. I think that it would be a mistake to assume that the pros do not receive significant stress from their jobs. By the way, the coaches (who are also pros) make around $8,000/year from that job according to some sources.

Don't get me wrong, I don't feel pity for the pros and I think that they must make enough money from other activities to get by fine. They also have and deserve to have great pride in their status as pros. That said, don't these economic realities surprise you guys even if they seem obvious in retrospect?

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Post #10 Posted: Sun May 19, 2013 11:56 pm 
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@Bantari - I'll cop to being naive if you'll cop to be thoughtless. ;) I think it goes without saying that a professional in any art is going to be practicing every day. (Even if they weren't, the decades of training they've gone through is still a sunk cost. I believe Whistler said, "It took me forty years to paint that portrait in two days.") But if the pro earns X dollars per year for his work, that still leaves him with the question of how much time he has to spend earning that part of his income. If he has to play 100 full-day games to earn an equivalent to 21k usd, that leaves him with 265 days of the year to practice, teach, play in other tournaments/leagues, run a side business, and take dancing lessons. If he has to play 14 fast games, that might leave him with 363 days and 22 hours. It does make a difference. Ponder it.

@Lemmata - So I assume the conclusion is that anyone who makes less than a plumber is just two steps above an australopithecus? I agree with you that the situation for a lot of people who train intensively for some activity but are teetering on the edge between professional and amateur level ends up being temporarily sad. (Particularly bad with musicians.) Once they finally give up, most of them are on their feet again in a few years, but the longer they persevere the longer they prolong the misery. But I assumed we were talking about pros who have a regular source of game fees...

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Post #11 Posted: Mon May 20, 2013 12:19 am 
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jts wrote:
@Bantari - I'll cop to being naive if you'll cop to be thoughtless. ;)


Sure, I 'copped' to worse things. Give me an example and I'll try to accomodate you.

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Post #12 Posted: Mon May 20, 2013 11:30 am 
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This is true for professionals of just about anything people also do for leisure. An American minor league baseball player is a professional, but most of them never make it to the major leagues. A second year player in Double A makes about $11,000 for 6 months of work. They have the offseason to work side jobs, but like a Go professional also have to continue improving themselves during that time. In both cases, it makes no financial sense to stay in the game if you don't believe you'll ever reach the upper echelons. However, if you can become the best, there are ample rewards. It's a mean system, although I suppose it does serve a role in weeding out those without the chops to rise to the very top.

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Post #13 Posted: Mon May 20, 2013 10:07 pm 
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jts wrote:
@Lemmata - So I assume the conclusion is that anyone who makes less than a plumber is just two steps above an australopithecus?
Please do not put words in my mouth. I did not even remotely hint that people with lower income levels are less evolved. Let's not go there. I'll just assume you were making a joke because I don't want to assume hostility on your part.
jts wrote:
But I assumed we were talking about pros who have a regular source of game fees...
A major point of my post was that 90% of Korean pros do not seem to have a regular source of game fees. I hope that at least one misunderstanding between us has been cleared.
jts wrote:
I agree with you that the situation for a lot of people who train intensively for some activity but are teetering on the edge between professional and amateur level ends up being temporarily sad. (Particularly bad with musicians.) Once they finally give up, most of them are on their feet again in a few years, but the longer they persevere the longer they prolong the misery.
Yes. I agree, too. However, there is no organization that sets a ridiculously high bar to officially become a pro musician and admits only a handful of people each year. Given the existence of such a high bar for entry into the pro go world, I think that it is not unreasonable to, at least initially, hold the hypothesis that most of the already tiny group of pro go players can make a living from playing go. Again, I think that the pros make their income in other ways (and stated that opinion). What was of interest to me was that only a small part of that comes from actually playing unless you belong to a tiny group of elite players.

My initial mental image of a go pro was that of a competitor. After learning that competition is a negligible part of the job for most pros, it may be possible to describe a go pro as someone whose skill has been certified by an accredited organization and monetizes the authority projected by that certification in other income-earning activities. One observation: Many amateurs who are stronger than current players cannot attain this certification because of artificial limits on entry, which has been set by the people who already possess the certification. The perceived incentives that may have created such a structure seems very fascinating.
Polama wrote:
This is true for professionals of just about anything people also do for leisure. An American minor league baseball player is a professional, but most of them never make it to the major leagues. A second year player in Double A makes about $11,000 for 6 months of work. They have the offseason to work side jobs, but like a Go professional also have to continue improving themselves during that time.
That's also a pretty good point, but the players do not own the baseball leagues and have limited input about the economic structure of their industry and no input into restrictions on entry. Go players, even if they are dependent on sponsors to fund tournaments, have more power over those aspects of their industry than baseball players. That said, I still mostly agree that I should not have been as surprised in retrospect.

Just to take a quick poll, who other than me was also genuinely surprised to learn these facts about the income sources of pro players?

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Post #14 Posted: Tue May 21, 2013 7:00 am 
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lemmata wrote:
Just to take a quick poll, who other than me was also genuinely surprised to learn these facts about the income sources of pro players?


I was certainly aware that most pros supplemented their income with teaching, exhibitions, etc. but most of the discussion of game fees and prize money that I have seen has been in the context of Japanese title tournaments, which is to say, the top of the top. It's hard to extrapolate from that to everyone else. Certainly at least half of the pros I have met (not very many) have been teaching pros more than competitive ones. I suppose I assumed that they tended to be able to live at least modestly comfortably.

As for what modestly comfortably means, I'd say approaching the US $70,000 or so limit where people's day to day happiness has been shown to stop increasing with increased income. I think that particular number is specific to the US, but it basically is the point where you can take care of everything in Maslow's hierarchy of needs.

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Post #15 Posted: Tue May 21, 2013 7:05 am 
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lemmata wrote:
My initial mental image of a go pro was that of a competitor. After learning that competition is a negligible part of the job for most pros, it may be possible to describe a go pro as someone whose skill has been certified by an accredited organization and monetizes the authority projected by that certification in other income-earning activities. One observation: Many amateurs who are stronger than current players cannot attain this certification because of artificial limits on entry, which has been set by the people who already possess the certification. The perceived incentives that may have created such a structure seems very fascinating.



Good observation. That's a common critique of any professional accreditation: that it's in the existing members interest to minimize the flow of new members to create artificial scarcity.

lemmata wrote:
Polama wrote:
This is true for professionals of just about anything people also do for leisure. An American minor league baseball player is a professional, but most of them never make it to the major leagues. A second year player in Double A makes about $11,000 for 6 months of work. They have the offseason to work side jobs, but like a Go professional also have to continue improving themselves during that time.
That's also a pretty good point, but the players do not own the baseball leagues and have limited input about the economic structure of their industry and no input into restrictions on entry. Go players, even if they are dependent on sponsors to fund tournaments, have more power over those aspects of their industry than baseball players. That said, I still mostly agree that I should not have been as surprised in retrospect.


This question of average versus top pay seems to be the perennial debated point in professional competition. While baseball players don't own the league, they do have input into the salary distribution through their unions. And the question of how much to give to the rank and file (at expense of the stars) is always argued about within that union. In both Go and sports the size of the pool of money is largely outside the players hands, but they have an active part in dividing it up. The biggest difference does seem to be that Go players can keep there numbers low to increase the average salary while baseball players mostly can't.

Basketball is a good counter example here: The NBA actually has a maximum contract in place. No matter how great a player is, there's a preset maximum salary they can receive. To increase the pay rate for a weak player you can increase the game's revenue, decrease the number of players or decrease what the top players make.

lemmata wrote:
Just to take a quick poll, who other than me was also genuinely surprised to learn these facts about the income sources of pro players?


The baseball thing surprised me when I first learned it, but from there I've started assuming any non-elite professional isn't well paid.

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Post #16 Posted: Tue May 21, 2013 5:19 pm 
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I was not surprised. Most professional athletes are primarily coaches, clebrity endorsers, or receiving patronage. Musicians teach, and busk. Actors are famous for waiting tables, or making ends meet with yet older professions.

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Post #17 Posted: Tue May 21, 2013 6:48 pm 
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lemmata wrote:
Just to take a quick poll, who other than me was also genuinely surprised to learn these facts about the income sources of pro players?


Not even remotely surprised, I would have been shocked if it was otherwise. Professional go associations remind me quite a lot of old guild structures, apprentice, journeyman, master etc. They'd squeeze out cheap low skilled labour out of the apprentices and then cheap skilled labour out of them as journeymen before they ever got a shot at setting up shop themselves in many cities all simply to protect or bolster the income of the guys at the top. Accountancy, actuary and law all work somewhat like this in Ireland to this day, apprentice barristers for instance usually aren't paid (this being after our equivalent of Law School). Academics does too to an extent here, I know many PhD students who receive far less than our minimum wage only to go to compete against each other for a limited selection of post-docs and temporary lectureships depending on the field. Again, squeezing cheap research out at the various skill stages while dangling the hope of a full professorship (think head of a department rather than what the American system calls a professor) and the money and prestige it brings.

It's basically a legalised form of pyramid scheme in many of these professions, it's literally impossible for everyone getting in at the bottom to get to one of the very well paying jobs at the top.


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Post #18 Posted: Wed May 22, 2013 12:17 am 
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lemmata wrote:

Just to take a quick poll, who other than me was also genuinely surprised to learn these facts about the income sources of pro players?


I was surprised, mostly because I hadn't given it much thought before. We can probably all agree that professional go players have extraordinary mental abilities and do extremely hard mental work. Kind of like people who have extraordinary physical abilities and get paid to shovel dirt. Current societies have awe for ability, but prefer output when it comes to shelling out.

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Post #19 Posted: Wed May 22, 2013 9:59 pm 
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Did anyone read Hikaru no Go? Does the manga offer any glimpses into the lives of professionals who aren't competing for titles? I haven't read Hikaru, but I do remember that a pro player was involved in its production.

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Post #20 Posted: Thu May 23, 2013 10:28 am 
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lemmata wrote:
Did anyone read Hikaru no Go? Does the manga offer any glimpses into the lives of professionals who aren't competing for titles? I haven't read Hikaru, but I do remember that a pro player was involved in its production.


I cannot tell you that since I have no clue what life as a pro is.

However - I can tell you that HnG had a whole lot of baloney in it. Ghosts of past Go players in somebody's head... puh-leeze! This right there pretty much invalidates the whole story as anything even remotely factual.

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