Go pros play chess to relax

4000 years and counting

“In Go, you have 361 possible first moves to pick from. In chess, you have 20.”
  • “In Go, you have 361 possible first moves to pick from. In chess, you have 20.”

"I am the president of the club. It’s a loosely formed group that meets Tuesday nights for the last,” the man laughs, “40 years. We meet at Twigg’s Coffeehouse [4590 Park Boulevard at Madison] and play from 6:30 to 11 o’clock.” Speaking is Ted Terpstra, 66, of the San Diego Go Club.

The game of Go is thought to be 4000 years old. It is the oldest game still played in its original form. And it is, according to the American Go Association (AGA), the most popular game in the world. A tournament Go board features a grid of 19 horizontal and 19 vertical lines. Two players — one using black stones, the other white stones — alternately place their stones on the intersections of aforesaid horizontal and vertical lines.

Follows is from the AGA website: “Go is the simplest of all games... Try to surround territory and to avoid being surrounded... Go is the most complex of all games. There are many more possible Go games — 10 followed by more than 300 zeroes — than there are subatomic particles in the known universe... All moves are possible at all times, adding even more to the complexity.”

I ask Terpstra to tell me about the best Go player he’s ever taken on. “Last year at a tournament. They imported great Japanese professionals, some of the best in the world. I got to play a simultaneous game with a 9 Dan professional.

“He was playing 18 games at once. I had a 9 stone handicap and he just killed me. He cut off one of my groups, so I resigned. That’s the protocol, when you’re too far behind, don’t play it out forever. Then, he swept part of the board away and said, ‘Well, you know, 20 moves ago, if you would have gone here, here, and here,’ he re-created his last 20 moves. ‘You could have saved that group.’”

Terpstra says his parents were normal, blue-collar people living on the South Side of Chicago. “I went to the University of Chicago, then took my first job at Princeton working at the fusion reactor.” He moved here in 1995, works as a computer programmer at a fusion reactor in La Jolla. He’s married, has four grown kids, and lives near Mission Bay.

Before Go, Terpstra was a practiced, experienced chess player. I asked him to compare the two games.

“For the past ten years, a computer has been able to beat the world’s chess champion. A computer can barely beat me, and I am nowhere in the hierarchy of great Go players.

“There’s a professional ranking and then there’s the amateur ranking. If you just learned the game, you’re probably a 25 Kyu. As you get better, you go up to 1 Kyu, and then there is this hop from Kyu to a Dan player. I am a 5 Kyu: a decent player, but not a very serious player.”

I ask, “Where’s the jump between amateur and pro?”

“In China, Korea, Taiwan, and Japan, they have a formal system where you try out to become a pro. At 16, in Japan, you would try out, and if you became a pro you wouldn’t do anything for the rest of your life except play Go.

“There’s a Bobby Fischer of Go. His name is Michael Redmond. He must be in his 40s now. He went over to Japan when he was 16, and he plays at the 9 Dan professional level over there. That’s as high as you get. There’s maybe 100 Japanese who are 9 Dan.”

“What was it about Go that called you away from chess?”

Terpstra says, “I liked being able to handicap a game. Couple of years ago I had a 90-year-old Go partner. Every Thursday afternoon we’d get together. I gave him a 3 stone handicap. We played evenly, each winning 50 percent of the games.

“Chess, you start with the board full of pieces and you take them off. In Go, you start with an empty board and you’re creating as you go along. They say Go professionals play chess to relax,” Terpstra laughs. “In Go, you have 361 possible first moves to pick from. In chess, you have 20 possible first moves.”

“Tell me about the club.”

“We have beginners all the way up to players who are 2 and 3 Dan. Occasionally, we have someone visiting from Japan. Last year we had two 7 Dans visiting. Maybe three or four times a year I invite all the Go players over to my house to sit around and play, maybe have a glass of wine.”

Interested readers are invited to contact Ted Terpstra at 619-384-3545 or via email at [email protected]

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