The Tooth


“The Tooth” was given to me as a gift by Janice Kim, the only female American professional Go player (and now a professional poker player), in 1999 and I promptly put it up on the wall next to my computer. I love this photo.

I’ve lost a lot of money in front of this photo. I’ve lost a marriage in front of this photo. I’ve lost a home in front of him. I’ve missed my kids in front of him. He shakes a little every time the train passes, every hour all day long. Sometimes I make a little bit of  money and I smile at “the tooth” but he doesn’t really care. I’ve moved homes six times in the past 12 years and the tooth is  the one object that has stuck with me on each move. The last time I moved, I once again took out a hammer, hammered a little nail in the wall right next to my desk, and hung “the tooth” up.  “The tooth” watched me get divorced. Watched my six year old come in and ask me at the behest of her older sister, “Josie wants to know if you and mom are going to stay together.”

How can you not get a little depressed looking at “The Tooth”? My face will never be etched with the pain and concentration that his face has. His face is like a Greek myth. The furrow of his brow, the deep vertical creases in the center of his forehead,  the thick hair swept back to get out of the way of his brain. The clothes loosely draped over him to just protect him. That tooth. The obvious contrast with the blurry guy in the background, blurred by history, by his insignificant fate, his well-fed face, his cleanliness and tidiness that never got him anywhere. Only the sharp features of “the tooth” were meant to be carved into history.

The photo is of Sakata Eio, the greatest Go player ever. The setting is the 1957 World Championship for Go. The Honimbo title. His nickname was “the Razor”. Don’t think that a guy who plays games is a nice guy. You play all sorts of games in your life. We all do. But he will kill you and eat your brain and not think twice about it.

He once said, ““Perhaps because I am too greedy. I want everything. As a result, every move I make, if it did not reach its greatest efficiency, I wouldn’t be satisfied. Thus, I sometimes get into difficult spots. Under these circumstances, I have to stay alive with my upmost effort.”

He goes for it all, every piece of life in front of him, he goes for it, then he has to weather the pain that results. Because when you try to grab everything, you have to try harder to hold onto it. He”s won more games in his life than any other professional Go player.

Another time he said, “When one gets in trouble or danger, he naturally works harder and ideas come out. I often have such ideas come out when they’re needed. But on the other hand, it’s more important to win the game in a simple and easy manner. If one gets in trouble, he would have to work triple hard to solve the problems, and to win in this way is tiresome.”

A few months ago Sakata Eio died at the age of 90. I bought some of his books and played through some of his games from the 1960s when he was at his peak. Sometimes in the middle of the night I can’t sleep and I come down here and try to work or read. Everything is quiet and dark. Insomnia delivers me the few moments where I’m truly by myself. I look up at the photo, the only consistent presence in my life for the past 12 straight years. Sakata Eio, the world’s greatest game player ever is dead.

I am still alive.



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    Thanks James,

    I already posted in my blog..

  • Mark G

    So 1957…geez James the guy was only 37 in that picture….. maybe it’s time for us to consider concentrating less and chill out a bit ?

  • Kjp712

    I will always have this picture in mind when I visit the Dentist,

  • Dan Russell

    Great last line. In the tune of Denis Johnson.

  • Guest

    Yes Iuo

  • dental planet wichita falls

    James Altucher’s post on “the tooth” has melancholy written all over it. It seems that he blames the photo for all his bad luck. Perhaps his purchase of some of the books of Sakata Eio, who died at the age of 90 as the world’s greatest game player brought some consolation to him and he could draw some inspirations from it.

  • Jane

    The Tooth would burn a hole in the wall without the blurry figure in the background. Well-fed, yes, like the laughing Buddha and not so insignificant. Calm to fire. Love the photo. Thank you.

  • Healthy