Polt’s Evolving Chess Game

Choi “Polt” Seong-Hun has retired from professional StarCraft to enlist for mandatory military service and will no longer be in attendance at Blizzcon. There are many things you can call Polt: A student-athlete turned professional athlete. One of the all-time great players of SC2 (he placed fifth in my initial ranking of the greatest SC2 players of all time). Part of the first class of players to have ever played the game. A career that lasted six years with multiple top placings both in Korea and abroad. One of the few Koreans to ever be fully embraced by the foreigner audience and given the title “Captain America.”

But if there is one thing to take away from his career, it is this: Polt was a tactical genius. There have been multiple players who have had great tactics among the Terran race. Players like Cho “Maru” Seong-Ju and Lee “INnoVation” Shin-Hyung come to mind. But none has ever done it quite like Polt, for as long as Polt, with Polt’s limited resources both inside and outside the game. Like many of the Wings of Liberty Terran Champions (except Lee “MarineKing” Jung Hoon), Polt was incredibly thoughtful about how he played, and that intelligence showed throughout his career.

Polt’s entire career can be summed up as solving out-of-game problems in the game. Like Mun “MMA” Seong Won, Polt never had incredible mechanics. MMA solved this problem with his very controlled multi-tasking and intelligence. But for Polt, his mechanics were even worse. Both players had to be incredibly efficient and make their actions do more than their opponents. Polt’s mechanics weren’t overly problematic in the early days of his career, but from 2013 onwards became the hallmark of all of his strategic thinking.

Polt had essentially three styles of play he used throughout his career. The first was the all-in, deviating from standard all-ins to incredibly creatives ones. The second was positional tactical. He tried to outplay the enemy opponent in the large one-time battle and this was emblematic from his 2011-2012 career. The last style is the base trade and is one of the ultimate strategies in SC2 and was epitomized by Polt’s play.

Although these three styles seem disparate, they all feed into one another. An all-in allows room for the standard game to be played. The tactical prowess feeds into the execution of the all-in. The base-trade is just a larger extension of Polt’s tactical vision on the largest scale with a shift in priorities.

The two most notable all-ins Polt did in his career were the 1-1-1 and the two base mech build. In the first Global StarCraft League Open Season 1, Polt was matched up against SC2 legend Jang “MC” Min Chul. The game was right out of beta and everything was new, but even then Polt showed incredible creativity as he unveiled the 1-1-1 build (one barracks, one factory, one starport). The key to the build is that Terran units have great synergy with each other and it takes a particular counter or a larger economy to beat the push, something that wasn’t learned until a year into SC2. Polt’s version of this build had included two additional barracks, but the initial idea of the build that came to haunt all of Protoss through WoL started there.

The other one was against Kim “Classic” Doh Woo at Blizzcon. Polt reappropriated (or independently thought up) a mech build that was used once by Koh “GuMiho” Byung Jae in Pro League. It completely shocked Classic and remains to this day one of the most shocking builds to have been played in a large stakes tournament.

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Polt’s WoL career success was in large part due to his incredible tactical prowess. There are two particular examples of his tactical acumen. The first was the second game in his GSL finals against MMA on Metalpolis. It remains to this day the single most influential TvT ever played in SC2 history. Back during MarineKing’s prime he changed the ZvT matchup completely with his use of split marines against banelings. Polt did the same thing here against MMA. He aggressively split his marines to minimize tank fire and destroy siege tanks. This new way of play changed the entire dynamic of the matchup as every tactic and position that had been used up to that point was proven wrong. Polt’s use of marine-tank in that finals made Terrans understand the full dynamic between Marines and tanks and when and where you could position them.

The other example of Polt’s tactical genius was his battle against broodlord/infestor. Broodlord/infestor was the most imbalanced era in all of SC2 and Polt was one of the few to have any success against it. Others tried a diminution tactic. They’d drop on far off places and hope the Zerg split their army badly, try to pick at the Zerg’s army before trying and usually failing to fight the Zerg’s main army. Polt went the opposite route. Instead of fighting in far off places, he focused solely on the big fight and always choose positions where he could gain the maximum amount of surface area which weakened the effectiveness of broodlord/infestor. The best example of this was Polt’s games against Park “DongRaeGu” Soo Ho at MLG Spring Arena 2.

The stepping stone between this style of play and Polt’s base trade style is seen in his brief rivalry with Ilyes “Stephano” Satouri. Both were incredibly intelligent players with even more patience. When they realized full out battles couldn’t give either the decisive victory, it became a much scrappier economic and position game between the two that forced both to their limits of positioning and tactics.

By 2013, the gulf between Polt and his peers was becoming more noticeable than ever. You can look at multiples games from 2013 onwards and you will see an increasing amount of built up bank that wasn’t done by design. Polt was just getting slower while his opponents both in Korea and abroad were getting faster. It was around that time casters and fans started to notice a common trend in all of Polt’s games: Whenever he was behind, he was likely to win.

Polt’s essential problem was that due to the difference in mechanics, he had to forfeit the early game. So what he did instead was find builds that allowed him to reach mid game and then from there play himself out of the deficit. This game plan was the final evolution in Polt’s style, Polt’s chess game.

Chess is an oft-used analogy that isn’t quite analogous. In SC2, you can rebuild units and outplay your opponent purely through an economic standpoint, which isn’t possible in chess. In chess, once a piece is removed from the board, it isn’t coming back.

But if there was a player who did play SC2 like chess, it was Polt. Because in Polt’s case, he mastered the art of the base trade. With the difference in mechanics so high, he was always losing out on pure army supply. Also, he was losing out in pure battle micro, even if he could get better positioning. So the conundrum for Polt was this: How do you win a game if you can’t win a fight?

The answer was never to fight on their terms. Polt forced the game into a test of priority choices for the opponent and himself. Do I attack and go for the base while sacrificing my base and production? Do I fight kill Polt’s expo while he is ransacking various expos? The question for Polt was never what the armies had, but where the armies fought. And in Polt’s case, his army tried to attack where the opponent’s was not. He made SC2 a game of elimination, where the pieces he took off the board were much harder to replace than just army units. This was an arena where decision making and proper strategic evaluation was paramount. So even though he was always down in resources in both mechanics and army and money, he made it for up with his smarts.

That was the end game of Polt’s style. You can see it in any of his big games post WCS transfer. The most notable being his incredible IEM Cologne run where he beat both Jung “Rain” Yoon Jong and Classic during the Blink Era. Both Rain and Classic were considered two of the best Protoss players to have played the game and both were in form. The Blink Era was a particular time in HotS where Protoss was heavily favored to win against Terran players and only three Terran players had any success in individual tournaments against Protoss. Polt’s run at IEM Cologne was the biggest and it was done solely through his base trade style.

As Polt retires now, he can look back at all of his accomplishments. All of the players he’s defeated, the tournaments he’s won, the fact that he is one of the only players to have won a championship in every year of SC2. But more than all of that, he was one of the few who took what made him different, what made him unique, and ran with it all the way to the very end of his career as one of the most brilliant tactical minds of the game.

Photos by Patrick Strack/ESL, eslgaming.com

Slingshot senior columnist. StarCraft and CS:GO expert who pushes narratives over numbers. You can reach him at Stephen@Slingshotesports.com

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