I am learning to play Go.
Every time I tell someone about it I first get a puzzled look followed by “Why on earth?” and then invariably, “Is it like chess?” I find the game stimulating, and even when I lose, which is almost always the case, deeply satisfying.
Like chess, Go is a game of strategy and warfare, a battle on many fronts. I came across a nice business analogy on the difference between chess and Go: The former is about hostile takeover; the latter about capturing a larger market share.
Gaming strategy: Go looks simple, but is difficult to master.
Legend has it that a Chinese emperor invented Go (“Wei-qi”—pronounced wei-chi— in Chinese) some 4,000 years ago to enlighten his son about the virtues of balance and patience. In the seventh century, it spread to Japan and gradually became part of the country’s culture. It is Japan’s national game.
Like the chessboard, the Go board has squares (about five times as many as on a chessboard), but the game is not played in the squares; it’s played on the corners of these squares. In chess, each piece has its own unique move (pawns cannot move backwards and the knight goes two straight and one perpendicular); Go is played with black and white stones shaped like large buttons, and once placed on the board, the pieces do not move. It has just three simple rules. You learn them in a few minutes. And yet it is bafflingly complex and considered to be one of the most difficult games to master.
Einstein played Go, and so did the mathematician John Nash. There is a nice scene in A Beautiful Mind where he loses to his nemesis, and fumbles away declaring that the game is flawed. Story has it that his frustration with Go inspired him to invent the game of Hex, where he proved that if you have the first move, there is a strategy that guarantees your victory.
In fact, one of the joys of Go is how easy it is to start playing your first game. You and your opponent take turns placing stones on the board, one at a time. Once a stone is placed, it remains where it is. The only way it can be removed is if your opponent captures it. In the end the person with more territory wins.
As you make your first few moves, you begin to notice patterns on the board. I like the names of the positions: Atari (when you are cornered), Ko, Seki. For example, there is a trap known as a “ladder”. It is a formation where your opponent surrounds one of your pieces and gives you only one route to escape. As a beginner, my instinct was to run. But you very quickly realize that it is a lost cause, because no matter how hard you try, your opponent will always be a move ahead of you. The correct strategy is to abandon your piece and move on. Go is full of such compromises. There is a proverb that says: “If you don’t know ladders, don’t play Go.”
I like the Japanese minimalism of the game. The etiquette and aesthetic of the game has been immortalized in literature. In more contemporary times, there is a Go-themed manga series and a popular anime show about a boy who wants to become a professional Go player, and is guided by a spirit.
People who are serious about it spend a small fortune on their Go boards. I play it on my computer. That’s the good thing about technology. I learned my initial steps from the interactive websites of the British Go Association and Tokyo’s Playgo.to. There’s a simple step-by-step introduction which gradually builds your skills. I have also downloaded the game so that I can play at leisure (if you use a Mac, I recommend Goban with its sexy interface).
There’s another interesting thing about Go: While the best chess-playing computers are on the level of the professional human players, the most advanced Go programs are only at the level of an amateur. But I have only recently begun to learn to play the game, and at the rate I am progressing, even this appears to be a distant goal.
Shekhar Bhatia is a former editor, Hindustan Times, a science buff and a geek at heart.
Write to Shekhar at email@example.com