My Life with Games (part 21)–Go

Go is to Western chess what philosophy is to double entry accounting.–Trevanian

I’ve never really sat down and figured out which is my favorite game. I’m not sure that I could fairly answer that question. I love so many games, and I find that most games are heavily dependent on the social context. So I wouldn’t normally say that I love a particular game as much I might say that I love playing certain games with certain people. This is a developing attitude, I admit, but it’s one I’m trying to cultivate.

But if I had to choose–if I were dumped on the proverbial desert island and could only take one game–I would choose Go.

If you’ve never seen a Go game in progress, click through this link for a picture and some basic information. It’s such a simple board. Lines and stones. Yet, what a fantastically profound game.

Let’s talk about how this game is played, and then I’ll tell you why I love it.

Go is played by two players on a 19×19 grid of intersecting lines. Starting with Black, each player takes turns placing a piece (called a “stone”) on an intersection (called a “point”). After each move, if a stone or group of stones is left with no adjacent empty point (called a “liberty”), that stone or group of stones is captured and removed from the board. A player may also pass, which is his way of saying that he sees no move that he considers to be valuable. If both players pass, the game is over. At this point, each player counts up the empty points he has surrounded and subtracts the number of stones that his opponent captured to determine his score. High score wins.

There. That one paragraph explains 95% of the rules of Go. It might seem like there’s not all that much to it.

Until you begin to play.

For better or worse, the game that Go is most often compared with is Chess. As such, you get quotes like the one at the top of this post. But it’s not really a fair comparison. Chess is a battlefield confrontation, with cavalry charges, flanking maneuvers, shield walls, and the like. As such, Chess is ultimately a tactical wargame that rewards the coordination of a combined arms force. Go is something else entirely. I could make the case that Go is more of a strategic wargame, but I almost think that it’s better to consider Go as being completely independent from the wargame genre altogether. I know that it sounds like a case of special pleading, but Go is less about war and more about…life. Or insight. Or wisdom. Or something like that.

Chess rewards superior generalship and the martial spirit.

Go rewards superior insight and the perceptive spirit.

No, that’s not quite right, either. Sigh.

But when I play Go, I feel like I’m participating in something deep and profound. This quote seems to sum it up well:

Beyond being merely a game, to enthusiasts Go can take on other meanings: of a nature analogous with life, an intense meditation, a mirror of one’s personality, an exercise in abstract reasoning, or, when played well, a beautiful art in which Black and White dance across the board in delicate balance.–Terry Benson

Very few games engage me in all these ways: mentally, physically, aesthetically, spiritually. But Go never fails to do so.

The mental challenge of Go is perhaps the most obvious reason that I love it. While it is possible to play Go on a smaller board, the “correct” board size to play is 19×19. This is really, really big. Conceptually, think of four chessboards, arranged in a 2×2 grid. That would be a 16×16 area, which is still smaller than a Go board.

Then, imagine trying to play a game of Chess on each of those boards simultaneously. Oh yeah, and on your turn, you’re only allowed to make a move on one board. And checkmate on one board means you lose everything.

That’s what Go can feel like. There’s a definite sense of managing activity in distinct areas of the board that aren’t relating to each other.

Except that they do relate to each other. One quality of a skilled Go player is the ability to see the details of a tactical engagement without losing sight of the larger impact that the moves being made have on the entire board. Every stone placed on the board sends ripples of meaning throughout the entire board, influencing and impacting every stone that has been placed.

Also, while it may not be apparent at first glance, Go has plenty of room for style. So, a particular move isn’t just “efficient” or “sub-optimal”. It can also be “daring” or “conservative” or “uncertain”. This quote seems to sum up the mental appeal of Go well:

The board is a mirror of the mind of the players as the moments pass. When a master studies the record of a game he can tell at what point greed overtook the pupil, when he became tired, when he fell into stupidity, and when the maid came by with tea.–Anonymous

In this way, a game of Go becomes the record of a conversation of sorts between the two players.

Now, if that were all there were to my love of Go, it might be interesting, but you might be justified in thinking that I am overacting a bit in my effusiveness about this game.

But there’s so much more.

I own a number of boardgame apps for my iPad. Assuming that the designer did a good job of making the translation, the experience on the iPad is comparable to the physical game experience. Indeed, in some cases (like Carcassonne), I almost prefer the electronic experience. The computer can tally the score, track the game state, and do all the petty administrative details that often occupy much of the playing of a physical boardgame.

But not Go.

I do own a Go app, which I play to practice. But Go is one of the few games that I prefer to play with physical components.

When I was robbed, one of the things that I lost was my Go stones. I had a fairly cheap set, with little plastic M&M-shaped pieces, and so I’d use them for generic game counters at times. They were in my bag when it was stolen. So, Crystal encouraged me to go out and acquire a replacement set. A nice set. She insisted, and I had to listen, didn’t I?

My new goban (Go board) is a hefty 17″x17″x1″ slab. It’s actually made out of bamboo, which gives it both durability and a beautiful tactile appeal. I love brushing my fingers across my goban. The stones are 3/4″ in diameter and made from glass with a powder coating providing their color. They are contained in two wooden bowls, complete with lids. In other words, it looks a lot like the set depicted on this page. Part of the joy I get in playing Go is in being able to physically interact with this board and these pieces.

Go has taught me other things about physicality. For example, one common lesson is to wait to take a stone from your bowl to play until after you have decided what to play. One reason for this is that holding the stone makes you impatient to play it. Therefore, you put yourself in a position to rush yourself, instead of adopting a posture of calm consideration.

As Yamamoto Tsunetomo might say, this understanding extends to all.

Both mentally and physically, Go is a beautiful game. It is undeniable that it is a deep game. However, all of this depth of play emerges from an incredibly simple rule set. Go defines the quality of “elegance” in games. Nothing else even comes close. Beyond this, the physical components are beautiful to see and to touch. For that matter, when placing a Go stone correctly, there is a particular “click” that is enjoyable to hear.

Unlike many competitive games, Go does not encourage an attitude of aggression towards your opponent. Indeed, in a very real way, the game consists of two opponents coming to a place of harmony and peaceful co-existence. This quote sums it up well:

You’re striving for harmony, and if you try to take too much, you’ll come to grief.–Michael Redmond

Indeed, one of the first things that I have to teach new players is that it is not necessary to attempt to interfere with everything your opponent is doing. Go is not a zero-sum game. Sometimes, to cite yet another Go proverb, you should just “[g]ive your opponent what he wants”.

As a result, Go has produced a community of play that is very friendly and open to newcomers and outsiders. One Go proverb states, “Use Go to meet friends.” This is encoded deep in the culture that this game has produced. Your opponent doesn’t exist to be defeated. Instead, we are together pursuing the study of this great game. There’s almost a sense of a shared meditation happening when the game is played well.

Additionally, instruction is a significant part of the game. It is common for opponents to discuss the game afterwards, both seeking to learn from each other how to improve their play of the game.

Conversely, it is understood that playing Go means being a student of Go. An individual game can be won or lost, but the ultimate goal is to better yourself. One commonly cited Go proverb says, “Lose your first fifty games of Go quickly.” It is through patient study and embracing of failure that you improve your play. Just as the game of Go encourages taking the long view, so too does the study of Go require taking the long view.

For myself, I learned much of what I know of Go by spending time on the Internet, playing with those patient enough to engage a beginning player. Where many Internet game communities can be punishing to outsiders, I was encouraged and affirmed in the game. Even my beginning, fumbling play was applauded, while I was simultaneously instructed how to perform better. The values that Go engenders were communicated to me, and I have sought to pass them on to others. I do not claim to be a great player–or even a good player–but I will happily teach what I know.

And there’s something in all of this that is spiritual. Go embodies so many values that I consider to be important, and so I find that playing Go teaches me to be a better person. Go teaches me to pause, to consider, to meditate upon consequences. Go instructs my intuition. Go teaches me to be at peace with my neighbor. Go teaches me to move aggressively, but only when the moment is right.

And, Go teaches me about God.

As I’ve said, the play of a single stone causes ripples across the entire board. As such, masterful play in Go is about making moves that take advantage of these multiple meanings. A single stone, placed just so, can change everything.

And that’s how God moves in this world. When He wills a thing to happen, it does not merely have a single meaning or effect. Rather, He places a stone upon the goban of the world, and everything changes.

Everything.

And, somehow, He meant all of it.

I don’t get to play Go as often as I’d like. Because I’m usually teaching the game, I’m limited in finding opponents that I can learn from. Instead, I tend to run in cycles. As I return to Go, I bring with me all the lessons I’ve learned elsewhere: lessons about other games, lessons about tactics and strategy, lessons about life. As I return to Go, I discover that I have somehow advanced in my understanding. What was complex or beyond my understanding has suddenly become clear.

And then, as I leave Go, I take with me all the lessons I’ve learned about Go and apply them everywhere else.

I study other games to learn how to play games better.

I study Go to learn how to live a better life.

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2 responses to “My Life with Games (part 21)–Go

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