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Wednesday, August 08, 2018

Do Not Pass Go: An evening with the world's oldest board game

One movie that has particularly stuck with me has been Pi.  Darren Aronofsky's first film hit theaters twenty years ago this summer and fast became a sensation.  Especially among mathematicians, who for the first time had a taut psychological thriller of their very own!

A quick and dirty synopsis of Pi: Max is a math prodigy since childhood and has become obsessed with finding an ordered pattern within the stock market.  What he comes across is far bigger and has him targeted by everyone from corrupt corporate agents to Hassidic Jews (just watch it, it does make sense).  Anyhoo, there are a few scenes where Max goes to visit his old mentor Sol.  And those are some of the best-written and finest played scenes of the entire film (YouTube clip with some spoilers).  But one thing had bugged me since the first time I saw Pi...

"What the heck is that game they keep playing?"

Okay, I knew it was called "go" because that's what Max and Sol referred to it as.  And it held great fascination with Sol, especially when he spoke of it as being "a microcosm of the universe".  Obviously something deeper going on here than simply putting what looked like Mentos and Peppermint Patty candy across an empty wooden Mercator projection.  And when I rewatched Pi again recently, once again I found myself wondering what go is.

So as with most things new to me, I yielded to curiosity and looked further.

Turns out, go is old.  Like, really old.  It was first played in China around 500 B.C.  And it is the oldest continuously played board game in known history, or at least played with the consistently same rules.  Backgammon can still claim to be the oldest board game.  The problem is, what we today know as "backgammon" comes down from earlier games that we still don't know very much about their rules.  The sets exist, including those "of ancient Mesopotamia" with dice made of bone that Locke told Walt about in the very first episode of Lost.  But in all likelihood the favorite pastime of the Oceanic 815 survivors bears little resemblance to whatever those archaeologists pulled out of the ground.

And besides, backgammon has just a few checkers to move around the board.  Making the game be go might have presented logistical problems and inhibited the story flow a tad.  I'm gonna assume that Locke, aficionado of games that he is, is familiar with go.

The game has had many names over the centuries, and it has regional monickers in China and South Korea (and hopefully North Korea also) but for most of the modern world it's called "go".  And interestingly the Japanese word for it is "atari", which is also a term used during a game (we'll get to that soon).  And when Nolan Bushnell was coming up with a name for his new video game company, he thought that "Atari" fit well with his guiding vision.

Bizarrely however, there was never a go game for the Atari 2600.  We got that horrid-sounding Pac-Man port and turkeys like Custer's Revenge and Porky's... but a cartridge for the company's namesake?  It never happened.

But let's not digress.

Anyway, after a few weeks of playing around with a go app on my iPad Pro and looking at resources on the Intertubes about the game, I decided it was time to plunge in headlong and experience go for myself.  To have a go at go.  So last night I went out to go.  And when I came back I had gone and went back from go.

Wait... what were those Korean names for this again?

The website for the American Go Association has a massive list of local go clubs.  I found one near my present location and showed up at their weekly gaming session.  Go, I was told, is still not a terribly big game in the United States and much of the western world, but it has been steadily growing in popularity over the past few decades.  Movies like Pi are probably a reason (just as Dungeons & Dragons has been resurging with a vengeance since Stranger Things debuted a couple years ago).  There were three regulars who arrived around 6 in the evening in the side room of a nearby restaurant, and since go is a two-player game all four of us could be playing.

So, about go.  Very simple game.  The board is a grid of lines.  A full-size standard game is a 19 by 19 grid but those who are beginnners or just want a short game can play with a 9 by 9 board.  There are two sets of playing pieces, called stones.  One set is white, the other is black.  Each player takes a color and beginning with black, proceeds to place stones at the intersections on the grid.  The stones don't move as the pieces in chess or checkers can.  They just stay on the board.  Unless they are removed.  Because the object of go is to possess the most territory at the end of the game.  "Territory" being measured by the exposed intersections around the stones.  Each stone on its own has four of these intersections, called "liberties".  And if a stone gets surrounded on all four of its liberties by the opposing player, that stone is taken off the board and figured into the final score.  It's not about seizing the other player's stones however.  That's just one part of the greater scheme to get territory.

It all boils down to one color of stones getting more coverage on the board than the other.  And it's a ridiculously simple conceit.  But as I am coming to discover through both talking about the game with others and my own meager experience thus far, go is much, much deeper than a mere board game.  The ancient Chinese considered it an essential element of philosophical training for all true gentlemen.  Confucius wrote much about go.  It is a game, a practice of logic, an exercise in intuition, an introspection of one's being... all of these and more, all at once.

Go is a game steeeped in ancient tradition.  It is something that many approach with the trappings of ritual.  Go is a game of legend and go games have become legend themselves.  A particularly infamous match in the 1800s ended with a player keeling over bleeding on the board before dying.  Other games have gone on for months, even years.  And then there is what has come to be hailed as "the Atomic Bomb Go Game": a championship match that was well underway in Hiroshima on the morning of August 6, 1945.  "Little Boy" detonated a few miles away, the blast blew out the windows of the house and knocked one of the players off his feet, and the board had to be reset to where the stones were at the moment of the explosion.  All present did these things after going outside the house to see what happened.   They beheld the first mushroom cloud in the history of warfare, then went back inside to continue the game.  They took a break for lunch and later that afternoon the game was finished.

I dont know how else to put it: that is total bad-ass.  I dare anybody tell me that go isn't absolutely hardcore.  Now THAT is a game I wanna be hunkered down with come the apocalypse!

Well, let's get to my first game of go, last night...

You know how when you're like seven or eight years old, and when Thanksgiving dinner comes all the adults sit at the real table while you and your sister Sally and cousin Oliver and the rest of the kids were around that card table in the corner?  Well, that's how it was sorta like for me yesterday evening.  Starting out on the 9 by 9 board.  But it's all well and good, because I had a great instructor in Brendan, who described the game and how to play it far better than I can for now.

One cool thing about go is that there is a handicapping gimmick that lets everybody play against everybody else regardless of individual skill level.  So even if you're a greenhorn like me, you don't have to get into a flopsweat as if you were playing chess against Kasparov.

Brendan has been playing for a few years now.  Mike, another player who came last night, has been into go for over thirty years.  Leo, the fourth to arrive, has been playing for a decade or so.  And if you want to see what go looks like with two seasoned veterans full-bore into a game...

Something that struck me about this game: it's sense of being an organic experience.  Look at that board, in the game between Mike and Leo.  It starts off empty, but the "feel" of moment, of the session, of the stones and of whatever fancy goes across their minds... what starts as an empty board becomes like a living, breathing organism.  And it merits considering that the total number of possible games of go are more than there are subatomic particles in the observable universe!  I already knew that was the same for chess.  Well, the number of possible go games is exponentially larger than that.

Think about it.  I dare ya.  Think about that until you go crazy.  No wonder there was never an Atari cartridge for this game.  Because even today computers find it exceptionally difficult to replicate the go experience.  They can only somewhat approximate it.  To really "get" go, you have to play it against another human, either in person or via the Internet.

Anyway, Brendan became the first person I ever played an actual game of go with, and he was just as I hoped he would be: merciless and unforgiving at least so far as the rule about "a stone laid is a stone played" goes.  Because the best way to learn to play the game, is to PLAY the game just as its meant to be played!  Okay, he encouraged me to take a mulligan in the first of the two games we played, but that was to illustrate something I hadn't seen yet.  Otherwise, a lot of my stones wound up "in atari": the condition of being surrounded on three sides by the opponent and just one stone away from capture.  I missed seeing a lot of stuff on the board that should have been screamingly obvious.  Brendan told me he was much the same when he began.  That a person gets better at this as he or she plays go more and more.

Speaking of "atari", sometimes there's a weird event that happens when the players could be locked into an eternal see-saw of capturing each other.  That's called "ko" and it can lead to a "ko battle" (or as Mike put it, "a gentlemanly hockey fight").  Fortunately there's a rule for that, and if the players get trapped into that situation one has to make a move that's beyond the ko, and that could prove advantageous.  Again, go is a game of both logic and intuition.  With a heavy emphasis on the latter.

Well, by the time I departed for the evening Brendan and I had played two games of go.  The score of my very first game ever had me losing 44 to 4.  The second game though went a bit better.  I still got clobbered 33 to 7... but at least I did capture one stone that night!

And this is how Leo and Mike's board looked like at the end of their game:

Go games don't have a "definite" ending.  They go on until one player resigns, or each player takes a passing turn, or I suppose until they just plain run out of stones.  Or maybe they could add a new rule like they do with Monopoly and how the bank doesn't actually run out of money, you just get to use slips of paper or whatever else is on hand.  And that is likely the only contribution I'll ever make to a grand game deep in millennia of lore and virtue.

And that was my first time playing go.  And I've no doubt that I am just beginning.  This is a game that has serious appeal to me.  I'm looking forward to playing again, and trying to improve.  Something that nobody ever fully masters, I was told.  It's like golf: you can never completely comprehend this game, you can only keep getting better.

Much like how life is supposed to be, aye?

So if you want to have a go at go (no more puns, I promise!) one particularly good resource I've visited often is the American Go Association website.  There is a rather whimsical little tutorial at TigersMouth.org that will teach you the game better than I ever could.  The American Go Association site has links to merchants that sell go equipment: boards, bowls, stones (which can be made of plastic, glass, clamshell, pretty much most materials but probably not Play-Doh or chicken soup).  You may be able to find inexpensive go sets at your friendly local game store or book seller.  I've seen then priced anywhere from about thirty bucks on up to thousands of dollars... and that's just for the board itself.

But yeah, I'm probably going to play more of this.  Go seems to have a really good community around it, and quite a diverse player base.  And I can't help but think that in time, though it may be decades from now, it's going to become as popular among Americans as is already chess, checkers, and Cards Against Humanity!


Unknown said...

Great post.

The Starz Series "Counterpart" title sequence might interest you.


- Chad Stroman