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Go solves the problem of most board games by handicapping the weak player

San Diego club meets at 6th and Ivy

John Cox, a fifty-one-year-old marine enginee who lived in Japan, now lives in El Cajon with his wife Taneko. “When I get up in the morning, I look at my go board, and every day I oil it. ”
  • John Cox, a fifty-one-year-old marine enginee who lived in Japan, now lives in El Cajon with his wife Taneko. “When I get up in the morning, I look at my go board, and every day I oil it. ”
  • Image by John Chun

Players of go, the premier board game in Japan, are said to be models of rectitude and composure, as an apocryphal story relates.

One day two Japanese were playing shogi, Japan’s version of chess. They fell into a loud quarrel concerning an obscure rule, but soon felt ashamed of their behavior. “While we have been acting like noisy children,” said one, “our friends downstairs have not made a sound while playing go. We should learn to emulate them.”

The two went downstairs to apologize and discovered the go players settling a dispute over a fine point by silently strangling one another.


I came across go the way most Americans do, by accident. Relatives from Japan were to visit us, and I wanted to get some flavor of their culture, so to B. Dalton’s I went, there picking up several books. One was The Master of Go by Yasunari Kawabata, recipient of the Nobel Prize for literature in 1968. I knew nothing of Kawabata and nothing of go, and I chose the book only because it contained drawings of the successive stages of the go game which serves as the focus of the story.

In 1938 Kawabata was a reporter for one of Japan’s largest newspapers. His assignment was to cover the final game in the illustrious career of the go master known as Shusai, the head of the Honinbo go school. Shusai invariably took the white stones because white plays second and is at some disadvantage in the game, just as the player using the black pieces is at a disadvantage in chess. So great was Shusai’s skill that few could recall his ever playing black, the color taken by the weaker player, and no one could remember his ever losing a title match.

His opponent was Minoru Kitani, a brash young man by Japanese standards for whom tea was both a pacifier and a diuretic. He drank tea by the potful, and every five minutes during the course of the game he would excuse himself and repair to the toilet. Shusai, by contrast, was a study in immobility and seemed almost not to breathe.

The game stretched over months, with days or weeks between sessions, and some days only half a dozen moves were made. Yet even the breaks were grueling, for the players used all their free time to plot subsequent moves. In the end Shusai’s failing health took its toll, and he made what was quickly realized to be a fatal blunder. Kitani capitalized on it and won by five points, thereby becoming the new champion. Like William Jennings Bryan after the ordeal of the Scopes trial, Shusai’s loss took from him what strength he had remaining, and in short order he died.

In relating the story Kawabata changed the names of all the principals except Shusai. In the book the drawn-out game was reproduced schematically with explanatory notes for the uninitiated. But those notes left me in a haze, so to the library I went for more formal instruction in this most honored of Oriental games.

Like chess, go is a game of skill only; no element of chance is involved. And like chess, go might best be considered a military game. Beyond these, the parallels to chess are few.

The go board is a grid formed by 19 horizontal and 19 vertical lines, resulting in 361 intersections. The go stones, which are lens-shaped pieces of slate (black) or clam shell (white) are placed not within the squares but on the intersections. In informal play, tabletop boards are used, but in tournament play or whenever fidelity to go traditions is desired, the ages-old board is used. Made out of a solid block of Torrey pine and mounted on four stubby legs, the board measures about a foot thick and a foot and a half on a side. The players kneel or sit cross legged before it.

In even games, when no handicap stones are used, black plays first, placing a single stone anywhere on the board. White follows, and the moves alternate. Once a stone is played, it cannot be moved unless it is captured, in which case it is taken off the board.

The object of the game is to surround territory, the winner being the player to surround the more. To accomplish this each player builds large groups of stones, each group having a configuration making it alive and immune to capture. A dead group of stones is one that can be completely surrounded by the opposing forces and, once surrounded, removed from the board. The game ends when neither player can place a stone so that it neither fills his own territory nor is automatically dead within his opponent’s territory.

In chess, players try to position their pieces in the center of the board, since those squares are the most valuable. In the early stages of go the center of the board is the least valuable because it is harder to surround territory there than it is on the side (the edge counting as a free wall), and it is harder on the side than in the corner. This can easily be visualized. To surround one unit of territory in the center, a player must use four stones, placing them immediately to the north, east, south, and west of the space desired. On the eastern edge of the board, a unit of space may be surrounded by three stones placed immediately to the north, south, and west. And in the southeast corner one space may be surrounded by placing stones to the north and west.

Stones are thus most efficiently used if first placed near the corners. As a general rule, most of the early fighting takes place there, then spills along the sides, finally moving toward the center. By the time the game is concluded, about 250 moves have been made, compared to about 40 for the average chess game. Most go games take about an hour, but in professional play two days are used. The fifty opening moves are made the first day, and the remaining moves the second.

In most board games the weaker player is at a marked disadvantage. The weaker he is, the more frustrating is the game for him and the more boring is the game for his opponent. Go overcomes those problems by a finely honed system of handicapping. The weaker player, using black, is given a number of handicap stones equal to the number of ranks between himself and his stronger opponent. For example, I am rated a twelve-kyu player; when I play a five-kyu player I get seven handicap stones. These are placed on specified points on the board. My five-kyu opponent then makes the first moves of the game. I have been given enough extra stones that during the crucial early part of the game I have a decided advantage in mapping out territory. Of course, my opponent’s greater skill means he knows better how to destroy that territory. The game is neither discouraging for me nor boring for him.

In go the handicap system facilitates a precise ranking of players. Two scales are used. The more proficient players are called dans. The lowest dan is the one-dan, also called shodan. The highest is the nine-dan. In San Diego perhaps half a dozen players are rated as amateur dans. Distinct from the dan ranking is the kyu ranking. The better the kyu player, the lower his number. This means one-kyu, the highest kyu rank, is immediately below one-dan, the lowest dan rank. There is no lower limit to the kyu ranks, though for practical purposes a beginner, after half an hour of instruction and the observing of a game or two, might be rated about twenty-kyu.

In the early stages of one’s playing, the rise up the ranks is fairly rapid. You know when you improve because you begin beating players who rank above you, and it is by playing people of known rank that you determine your own. My father-in-law gave me my baptism in the game when he visited last summer, and during the ensuing six months I have advanced something less than one rank a month. Already I can sense slower progress. It will take me as long to advance from twelve-kyu to ten-kyu as it took me to move from sixteen-kyu to twelve-kyu. As one approaches the dan ranking, an advance of even one rank may take years. There have been times during Japan’s 4000-year go history that no player ranked even as high as seven-dan, though today there are about thirty nine-dans in Japan, inflation having intruded even into go ranking.

The origins of the game are unknown, but go probably began to the west of China, and until it reached Japan several centuries ago, at about the time of our early Middle Ages, it underwent changes in rules and board configuration. For centuries it was the game of the aristocracy, and the Buddhist priests were its particular advocates.

Then in 1612 the Tokugawa Shogunate set up four go schools which received subsidies from the government. The study and theory of go took a quantum leap, and men could make handsome livings by devoting their whole lives to its play. One of the schools founded at that time was the house of Hon-inbo, of which Shusai was the last appointive heir. The retiring Hon-inbo would appoint his successor, and Shusai was the twenty-first Honinbo. In 1939 he gave the title of Honinbo to the Nihon Ki-in (Japan Go Club) to be awarded yearly to the survivor of a tough elimination tournament.

For two and a half centuries the shoguns and emperors encouraged the go schools, but in 1868 came the Meiji revolution, and the shogunate fell. With it went government subsidies for go. The game went into decline, only to be resurrected on a large scale by several giant newspapers. The Mainichi Shimbun, for example, underwrote the Honinbo Match and discovered that with exclusive rights to the reporting its circulation zoomed. Other papers followed suit, and now there are several popular tournaments. It has been estimated that about ten percent of the Japanese play go, and the weekly go program on television draws about a million viewers.

The most lucrative tournament is the Kise Sen. Sponsored by the Yomiuri Shimbun (a newspaper), it has a first prize of seventeen million yen, more than $90,000. Every player in the tournament gets some prize money, beginning at about fifteen dollars for first-round losers, and the prizes mount rapidly as one wins elimination rounds. It is sufficient to say that professional players in Japan make a comfortable living doing nothing other than sitting over a wooden board all day.

And sitting over a wooden board is a necessity for any serious go player. Instructional books are welcome, but the real learning comes through practice, and in San Diego most go players get that practice on Tuesday nights at the Balboa Club building at Sixth and Ivy. Here the Go Club meets, using the same room as the larger Chess Club. The weaker players, who tend to take longer in their games, arrive around seven, and the dan-level players usually come an hour later. An exception is one-dan Joe Langdon, who, when he can get a ride from Ocean Beach, comes early to give the beginners a few pointers.

Langdon, thirty-nine years old, has had what he admits to be a checkered go career. He first learned the game when in college; it was more fun than studying for finals. He taught his friends to play, beat them, “and figured that I was the strongest player in the world..There were few go books in English at that time, and I didn’t know about them anyway.” After college he went into the service and found himself at the go club in New York. He decided to challenge a player who turned out to be one of the strongest players in the club. “I was going to give him nine handicap stones, to give him a teaching game, and it turned out that he gave me nine stones and killed every stone that I had. I then realized I had something to learn.”

In 1969 he wrangled a temporary duty assignment in Japan from his colonel. It was really a sabbatical from his military duties, since he spent the time learning Japanese. During his stay he met a Mr. Ito, and they quickly agreed upon an exchange. Langdon would teach Ito English, and Ito would teach Langdon the fine points of go. This formal instruction paid off, and Langdon rose from ten-kyu to seven-kyu during his three-month stay. After leaving the service he came back to the States and was dismayed to find that it took him another year to advance to six-kyu. The lesson was plain, and he headed back to Japan. He had no money and knew no one, except a solitary American expatriate. “I went there thinking I would have to come back in two months, but I stayed more than five years.” He survived by teaching English and spent all his free time at the go board. “Most of us were bums. We lived for go.”

While in Japan Langdon became acquainted with a small group of Americans who established an English-language press which publishes only go books. The Ishi Press (ishi means stone) prints handsome paperback volumes on all aspects of the game and recently started a bimonthly magazine called Go World, a successor to the Nihon Ki-in club’s defunct Go Review. The magazine concentrates on news of the Japanese go scene and includes articles and problems for beginning and advanced players,

The newcomer to go now has a modest library of English-language books and magazines to which he can turn, and Langdon appreciates’ what those materials could have done for him when he was first learning the game. But even the existing publications are not enough. “Books are only so valuable. More formal instruction is needed.” He remembers the workouts he got at the Kitani School. As a foreigner he was able to play there without charge (the Japanese want to encourage the spread of the game), and he got to know many of the players who are now near the top of the list of professionals. “My major interest right now is in developing a teaching methodology for go,” says Langdon. “I'd like to have a live-in group of people dedicated to go, as in the Japanese schools, or perhaps summer camps for go. I just wish there were a financial angel to get all this off the ground.”

Like Langdon, John Cox, a fifty-one-year-old marine engineer, is an American who lived in Japan for a number of years. He and his wife Taneko now live in El Cajon, though he prefers the other side of the Pacific. “I like Japanese food more than American, but my Japanese wife likes American food more than Japanese.” At times it seems that he likes go more than any food, regardless of the nationality. “When I get up in the morning, I look at my go board, and every day I oil it. ” And with good reason, since he has perhaps the best go board in town. He recently stopped in Japan and picked up additional stones, and Taneko hopes that his thirst forego equipment has been temporarily slaked.

“You’re in another world when you play go. It’s a very healthy form of escape. There’s a lot of simplicity, a lot of beauty in the game, and it’s conducive to relaxation and meditation,” he says. He recalls once being in a spare, unadorned room. The morning light fell across a table and ran up the far wall, making bright patterns that contrasted sharply with the rest of the dark furnishings. That remembered scene reminds him of the go board, which is a combination of dark and light, line and circle, wood and stone. “Go is more than a game because its appeal is more aesthetic that competitive. It is part of a whole outlook on life, and it has that Oriental flavor I find fascinating.”

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