4/26/20: Notes on Go (I)


Go, Weiqi, Baduk.

You can read the rules online. On a fundamental level, Go is a game about territory: the player whose stones enclose the most space on the board wins. But in practice, in the joyful agony of hundreds of games, you see that the real perfection, delight, and nightmare of the game comes from the complications that arise from attempting to achieve this end, a whole twisting galaxy of complexities that rise up and coil in a medusa’s head of smoke before, at the end of the game, condensing back down into that very simple, stark, single criterion.

When I play Go, I hardly ever think about territory. This could be why I’m a weak player. Whatever territory I end up with only starts to crystallize in my awareness at the midgame. It seems to be something I’ve inherited, or that was assigned to me in accordance with whatever virtues or flaws I exhibited in my play up until that point, allocated like a punishment or a reward – but also networked to, and dependent on, the virtues and flaws of the other player as well.

One of the most satisfying, elementary things to learn in Go is how to know when a game is over. If both players are competent – not good, necessarily, but merely competent – there seems to be a silent concordance between them that the game is nearing its end, an acknowledgement that some invisible demarcation has been crossed between midgame and endgame. The last sequence of valuable plays are made, one by one; sometimes the game has already been decided and these are more or less a formality; and then, as an actual formality, the dame points, which are empty spaces on the board owned be neither side, and unable to be owned by either side, are filled in. Eventually, one player will pass, and the other will normally follow suit.

But there’s something interesting there. In Go, giving your opponent two moves in a row is catastrophic. I came to this game from the larger board game realm; I always imagined what Go would be like if there were modern board game elements in it, like what if there were variable player powers that each player was assigned at the beginning of the game: powers that gave the player a one-time special ability to use, like the ability to take two turns in a row, or to remove one of an opponents stones; things like that.

Powers like this would raze Go’s balance to the ground. Life and Death, the concept on which every dramatic moment in Go hinges on, is usually such a close thing that any one of these powers would dramatically skew the game in favor of the player using them; in talking about it with other players we figure that, in terms of scoring, an ability like this could have a scoring implication of like 100 to 150 points.

But a power like this does exist in Go, because because it is possible that the second player will not pass, and make another play instead. When this happens it can be humiliating, because it could mean you missed something, some weakness in your walls or other exploitable element in your ranks of stones. And sure, sometimes it’s nothing more than a last throw-in on behalf of the other player, and often the game is already more or less decided and another few points one way or the other won’t make a difference; and sometimes even if there is potential flaw the second player will not catch it and pass anyway; and lots of games end with one side or the other resigning before the very end of the game; and with really good players such mistakes – and thus possibilities – rarely or never happen. But there’s that moment when you pass, where your ceding the state of the entire game to your opponent, and allowing them to do what they will with it.

When I went to the local clubs to play Go, my favorite players to watch were a certain sort of patient ones. You would almost call them slow players, but that wasn’t exactly what they were. They were thoughtful, and conscientious practitioners of Go’s most arcane element, which is Reading: the ability to read out a sequence of moves and determine the value of a particular possible play.

My favorite player to watch would sit and stare at the board, his right hand hooked over the edge of his bowl of stones, holding a stone between fore and middle finger; thinking, he chewed on the side of his left pointer finger. Watching him read, I could almost see the invisible stones falling on the board in one sequence, then another, then another, like fissures in glass making and unmaking themselves. He was good at counting points, and evaluating the probable worth of a particular, not-completely-formed section of territory. He was a strong player but not the strongest, and not that strong in the unfettered hierarchy of Go; and probably for any but the very best players these calculations are never certain, relying as they do on the player keeping a lot of invisible information in their heads and also making some degree of assumption about what the other player, a separate and unreachable human being, will do on their turn; but the scholastic way in which he went through this process, patiently, with every move, made it hard for me to think of him as anything but the best. Which he wasn’t.

But there is this aesthetic, dreamlike dimension to Go. But while it appeals to artists because it is so perfect and protean and unassailable, it’s not an artist’s game; a game of Go doesn’t respond to creativity in the sense that artists understand that word. Lots of people that I played with came from mathematics or the sciences, and there’s an obvious correspondence between those analytical, binary realms and the near infinite but still circumscribed permutations of a Go board’s 19×19 universe. But it’s not strictly a mathematical game either.

In Shibumi, Trevanian writes poetically about Go, which his insufferable hero Nicholai Hel plays, but I don’t think he really grasped its essence; for him it was a fetish, he responded to the aesthetics of it on a superficial level, and exoticized it.

Also, Kawabata Yasunari in The Master of Go shows that the real thing inside of some people that calls out to Go is a kind of internal void, an unsatisfied hunger that obsession compels them to sate. We all have these voids in us, these permanent insecurities like scars with mouths and we reach for things to fill them like a starving person grasping for nourishment. Go, masterable but not ultimately knowable, can provide that nourishment. But sometimes it’s less like nourishment and more like throwing fuel desperately into an unendingly hungry, profundly inefficient engine.

[Image: Kitani Minoru (R) playing Honinbo Shusai (L) in the latter’s last professional game; this game is the subject of Kawabata Yasunari’s The Master of Go]

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