If I play a lot of Go, I see it when I close my eyes: my mind starts to ask itself questions in configurations of stones, like rough drafts of tsumego that may or may not have a solution. Then I play these questions out in different ways, trying to solve them. Usually I’m not able to. This solving happens at a level beneath the conscious part of my mind, at a level over which I have limited direct control, so while I say that “I” ask myself these questions and “I” try to solve them, it occurs sort of automatically; and I feel a sort of low-level, warm, almost pleasant frustration when it happens.
Go is steeped in philosophy, poetry, commentary. It is surrounded by so much lore; it’s positively encrusted with arcana, so it appeals to my innate hunger for Commentary, the base fetish of encyclopedization. And it’s also an inherently aesthetic game. Just visually, it generates beautiful tableaux effortlessly, every time. The branching shapes of black and white, frozen in a final struggle at the end of a game, are like a visible architecture of two separate trains of thought and the ways in which they intermingled with, fought and died with each other.
Games of Go against strangers on the internet can be frustrating in ways that they aren’t in person. There is no opponent to see, and so no physical gestures, no talk, no tics all ascribing their own contexts to each move, and so each play arrives as a play, with no other context, positive or negative. And I inevitably ascribe context of my own, transferring my own frustration at a loss or bad move or an exploitable weakness into a vision of my unseen opponent as a cruel, remorseless, joyless player.
They say that there are more possible legal configurations of stones on a Go board than there are visible atoms in the universe. A lovely concept, but it doesn’t take into account how many of those configurations would probably never occur in an actual game of Go; they may be legal, but they aren’t situations into which a game would be played in any realistic setting.
But, every Go game is different, with its own regions of high drama, climactic battlefields, tragic errors. And when I look through my play records on OGS and see the final board states they are as individuated to me, almost, as people are.
It’s possible to make painfully embarrassing mistakes in Go. The kind that make your jaw ache in regret, your throat dry in futile anger. I have hated myself for bad moves: times when I didn’t see stones were in atari, or that my potential for eyes was being methodically poked out by my opponent until it was too late. And then your mistakes linger on the board until the end of the game like a foreclosed building, decaying.
I don’t think Go is a perfect game, but I think it’s as close to perfect as any game I’ve ever played, and it’s hard to envision anything getting closer. And, moreover, its particular perfection (or near perfection) isn’t restrictive, in the sense that some perfect books, say, sometimes are: it doesn’t feel like it has to be small or circumscribed to be as perfect as it is. Every game feels like an epic, every finished match looks like the map at the beginning of a fantasy novel, delineating some land of wonders and conflict.
One time, at the Cleveland Go Club, I played with a guy who only occasionally showed up. He was small-framed, skinny, with glasses. He gave me a pretty sizable handicap and I still lost. He wasn’t used to handicap games and was nervous that he was going to lose. When it became clear that he wasn’t – I played a group of stones into certain death – he was visibly relieved, and became expansive and more talkative in his relief. After the game he expanded on another common analogy for what Go is like:
“The best comparison that I’ve ever heard,” he said, “Is that Go is like a conversation. Every time you play a stone you’re asking your opponent something, or telling them something. And every stone they play is a response to you. Even if they tenuki, it’s like somebody changing the topic or thinking of something else they wanted to say.”
This analogy is nice to think about. I like it, although I have a hard time “believing” it ludically, when I’m actually playing Go. As bland as it is to say, I do look at a Go board more often like a bird’s-eye view of a battlefield – but even that doesn’t ultimately capture the narrative context of a game of Go for me.
To me, Go is uniquely about itself: small but huge, infinitely flexible and formulated for personal expression. And you wrest this expression merely from black and white stones, cruder than language, and a simple ruleset that ramifies into complexities of frankly incredible denseness.
A single stone can change the entire tenor of a game. Even in my inept play I’ve seen this. Stones that seem dead can be revived, others that are incontestably strong can be suddenly sapped of strength: potential can fade away like smoke. And sometimes you don’t see these kinds of plays until it’s too late, and even more often you don’t see them at all, so that there are certainly thousands of possible moves like this that are passed over in a career of playing Go; better states that never find expression.