Home / Opinion / Columns /  Go: The strategy game suspected of being China’s forte

Once Wordle mania wears off, online gamers with a yen for elegant complexity may want to give Go a go. A net search would pop Google’s language for coding onto your screen, but I refer to an ancient game of strategy called Weichi in China, its homeland, that I can’t seem to wrap my head around. As board games go, my mind might well be addled by an overdose of Chess. My plea for a pardon would be David Shenk’s The Immortal Game: How 32 Carved Pieces on a Board Illuminated Our Understanding of War, Science, and the Human Mind, a history of Chess that opens with a tale of its invention in India as a subtle ploy to convey grim news to a queen, before it invites us to marvel at an eye-rubber of a victory achieved 170 years ago by knights after a daring sacrifice of the top order. In Chess, the aim is plainly to checkmate a rival king. While Go is also laid out like a battlefield, one that punishes heuristic biases, it’s on a 19x19 grid that differs vastly: Its ranks have no hierarchy, options for moves are greater by a scary order of magnitude, and one wins by laying siege to the opponent’s forces and spaces. It’s both complex and puzzling. Yet, to the extent its cognitive cues shape Beijing’s view of the world, a grasp of it might be essential—if only to heed Sun Tzu’s age-old advice: Know thy adversary.

From the perch that China’s ascent has given it, the entire Indo-Pacific may seem to be in play today. Half the globe, that is, a big theatre of geopolitics that could potentially see global authority tilt eastwards from the US in a matter of decades. Every hub sought by China to project power beyond its own borders can be interpreted as a move of Go, one best put to a triple test:

What could get encircled?

What does it reveal of its game plan?

And what might thwart its goal?

In the Far East, a Chinese ring has surfaced around Taiwan, and wider threat signals have drawn Australia, the UK and US into an Aukus pact that envisions secret undersea patrols. In South Asia, New Delhi has been on alert for any further sway that Beijing acquires over peripheral countries, from Nepal and Myanmar to Sri Lanka and Pakistan, which could give it a “string of pearls" around the subcontinent someday. For an Indo-Pacific kept “free and open", as India, Japan, Australia and the US have declared as a Quad aim, such a brazen quest for hegemony by a ‘People’s Republic’ bent on denying people liberty simply cannot be given a free pass. Whatever its grand design for Asia, it needs to be foiled.

In Go, a ‘liberty’ is space for manoeuvre, what the other side has to be denied. And like red herrings in Chess, decoy rings can be deployed to masterly effect. A close focus on a small formation, for example, could mean that a mega squeeze escapes notice.

Backed by a naval boost, China’s outward thrust can be traced with some degree of confidence to lessons from its 19th century losses to Western traders in the Opium Wars. ‘Common prosperity’ at home, in this calculus, must go with access to overseas markets; and a blue water bid for command of ocean routes, its mandarins may have reckoned, could earn it a big say in shaping the rules of world trade. With America so wobbly on basic trade principles, weak on oil-shock absorbers and held up by Russia’s dare (and its electoral fallout), that goal might just be closer than we’d like to think.

As cultural exports go, Go fares badly in markets west of India. The reign of Shatranj as the strategy game may suit our national ego. But even an elementary grasp of Go should serve us a note of caution against navel-gazing: Too close a focus can easily turn into a fixation that loses sight of the big picture.

Today, we face the risk of a rulebook reset by an illiberal regime which bullies others, thrives on denials of liberty and does its utmost to keep its citizens wrapped in a web of false consciousness.

In recent weeks, the autocracy across the Himalayas has resisted being called one, proposed a ‘global security initiative’, warned against the prospect of an “Asian Nato" arising, and bristled at the sort of boycott its ally in Moscow faces. But it’s too late for a Chinese reversal to “bide your time". With its economy suffering covid spasms, China can’t afford an export hit.

One thing Go champs can’t be accused of is thinking small. China might be a weak player for all we know, but it doesn’t pay to bet on any such wild guess.

An even bigger folly would be for India to turn inward. On opium lessons, frankly, we fare worse; indeed, a zoom-out view would reveal the sound and fury of our public life drawing us within, apart, and to distraction over religious liberty (and its discontents). We live in times of tension, fake news and mis-judged casus belli red lines. Any form of myopia on security can prove costly.

That a strategy game can have a calming effect wouldn’t have struck me, but that’s what giving up on Go did. Chess at least has the romance of dramatic flips in the odds of victory. But then, my go-to Go guru, a suspected AI bot, spoilt it by sending me this: “One or more liberties enclosed within a group is called an eye and a group with two eyes can’t be captured, even if gheraoed." Guess it’s time to go figure. Again.

Aresh Shirali is editor, Mint Views

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