Michael Thai, 2-kyu, faced six dan-ranked players during the World Amateur Go Championship and beat two of them to finish 48th, with three wins in all. A chemistry student who went on to get a PhD in drug development at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, he has an unusual family history: his father was one of the boat people who fled Vietnam around 1980. Ranka talked with him after the seventh round.
Ranka: Please start by telling us about your family background.
Michael: My father, Thai Nga Van, was one of the very first Vietnamese people to come to Ireland. He started a Vietnamese community in Ireland for the Vietnamese people there. He passed away just a few years ago, on the day I submitted my PhD thesis. There was an article about this in the Irish Times. He always wanted me to venture off, like the boat people I’m descended from, and he pushed all his children to get a university education, because he never had a chance to do that himself. My getting a PhD spoke volumes for the Vietnamese community. It was a very proud moment for them when I started my PhD studies. Unfortunately my father didn’t see me get the degree, but he knew I was working on it.
Ranka: Tell us more about your PhD work.
Michael: My PhD work involved an antibody receptor site. I was in a group that was developing an antagonist that blocks antibody-mediated diseases, which can range from arthritis to sepsis and other infections. We successfully patented this work, and are now awaiting future developments.
Ranka: What did you do after getting your PhD?
Michael: I stayed with the same group to do post-doc work of an analytical nature. I measured the variability of the drug in the blood. I spent just about a year doing that, and from there I got hired to work in a chemical company called Henkel. They’re the biggest adhesive company in the world — they make Loctite super glue — and that’s only one of their three main businesses. Another is laundry and home care, and the third is beauty care. You may have heard of Persil detergent and Schwarzkopf shampoo. I work on adhesive development and research at their Dublin site. Adhesive development is not my post-doc field, but the work is still chemistry. This is one of only two places in Ireland doing research like this on an industrial scale. So I was very happy when I started working there because I was working in industry but continuing my research
Ranka: Let’s get black to blood analysis. Can you tell us more about your post-doc work?
Michael: I was working on the development of a drug that can get bound to plasma proteins in blood.The problem with this plasma protein binding is that when you administer a drug, you lose the part that binds to the blood plasma. Actually, the drug is still there but it’s released slowly. So you have to measure the plasma protein binding and find how much is bound and how much is not bound in order to figure out the efficacy of the drug and know how much to give. If you give too much it will accumulate in the bloodstream, and the patient may get an overdose.
Ranka: And when did you learn to play go?
Michael: I started playing go when I was in university. I was born in Dublin, but I did my undergraduate work in Galway, on the other side of Ireland, because I wanted to get away from Dublin and be free. It was a great experience for me. Two of the new friends I made in Galway were go players, Colin Lafferty and Richard Brennan, and they introduced me to the game thirteen years ago. Richard has been playing go for the last twenty-odd years, and his enthusiasm for the game kept me going. I haven’t been very active in the Irish go scene for the past few years because when I started doing my PhD work I just didn’t have the time, but now that I’ve started working for a company and am not completely focused on my PhD, I find myself with time again, and I hope to make a comeback in the next few years.
Ranka: How are you doing in this World Amateur Go Championship?
Michael: So far I have two wins out of seven games. Two of the games I lost were close, but in the other three I was way out of my depth. But regardless of that, I’ve really enjoyed this tournament. It’s my first international tournament. I came here not knowing anybody, but the go scene here has been very social. The phrase ‘everybody’s in the same boat’ is very applicable to this tournament. Seeing and meeting all these people from different countries has been another great experience.
Ranka: Of the seven games you’ve played, which did you enjoy the most?
Michael: My game with the Portuguese player, even though I lost. We were close in rank, so I was not out of my depth. My opening was poor and I got behind, but I managed to reduce his territory and it came down to the komi. The game was very tight, so we played it out and counted to see who won. In all my other games, either I resigned or my opponent resigned.
Ranka: All those resignations suggest that you are a fighter on the go board.
Michael: I am very aggressive, which is kind of bad. I like to fight, I fight a lot, and that’s the reason for my poor openings. This is my style of play at the moment. Hopefully I will incorporate more sober moves into my game in the future so that I won’t get into these bad positions.
Ranka: The Irish Times quoted you as saying you had been a little rascal in your school days. Were you a fighter back then too?
Michael: You have to know certain things about about the history of Ireland. When I was a kid, Ireland didn’t have a lot of foreigners, so when I would walk around its main city of Dublin, I would probably be the only non-Irish person on the street, and other kids would call me names. I was a very independent and strong-willed boy, so I didn’t take those things lying down. But back then, when I was in school, it was just kids being kids, and I was one of just a few foreigners. Now it’s totally changed. Ireland is much more international. They’re accepting people of many different nationalities and it’s a different scene altogether. Ireland is a beautiful country to visit, and I do love living there.
Ranka: Thank you very much.