Friday, May 9, 2014

G is for Go

One of a series of articles on games I wish I'd played more of.

I've been fascinated with go ever since I first learned of it.

More properly known as igo in Japanese, this is a kind of ultimate distillation of the concept of games:

Fundamentally, the mechanics are simple, with only a truly minimal handful of rules governing what each player can do.

But this very simplicity leads to a universe of possibilities.

For those unfamiliar with the game, or familiar with it under its various other names [1] Japanese igo is really very, very simple.

You start with a board comprised of a 19x19 grid of lines. [2]

Each player takes turns placing a stone on the intersections.  Stones cannot move once placed.

If a player's stone or group of stones is surrounded by the opponent's stones, with no adjacent intersections open, then they are removed from the board. [3]

When there are no more moves possible that won't result in a capture, you count the empty intersections completely controlled by each player - each is worth 1 point.  The player with the most points wins.

The basics are, as I said, simple, but the sheer scope of options at each turn is such that the board quickly becomes very complex and strategy is very, very sophisticated.

In some ways, this is good: it means that the game can be played by people with a wide variety of skill levels.

In other ways, this is a serious problem, however.

I first started playing igo way back long before I ever moved to Japan. I had heard of the game and had read a bit about it [4] and one year I got a set as part of a game pack one Christmas.  I read the rules, and played a handful of games with anyone who would sit down with me.

It was fascinating, exotic, and incredibly challenging.  For such a simple game, the potential seemed incredible - I was hooked.

But like chess, it can be very hard to find people willing to actually sit and play igo, so for many years I didn't play at all - when I moved to Japan I assumed it would be easy to find partners and finally polish the rather rough game I had developed in the absence of serious players.

How wrong I was.

Like many parts of Asia, igo is played fairly widely in Japan, but the problem is that it's considered a very intellectual and difficult game.  The result? Most people don't start playing until later in life, and when they do they start playing very seriously. [5] This means that for a beginner like me, random friends and acquaintances are unlikely to admit to knowing how to play, and attending an igo club means that the players are so far ahead that it can't possibly be fun for anyone.

When you play igo against a competent, experienced player who is (let's be honest) much, much better than you, they are supposed to give you a handicap in the form of an advantage of stones already on the board.

This handicap is calculated based on a system of grades and levels similar to what you see in martial arts - players are rated as having a kyu number until they reach a reasonable level of proficiency, and then they start working up the dan grades - dan grades are essentially equivalent to having a black belt in igo.

So here's my problem:

I have met any number of people who know about igo, are not particularly proficient, but basically profess not to play.  I have also met a handful of people who tell me they play igo...but are at various dan levels.

The one igo club I've ever gone to where I was made to feel welcome (rather than a stone around the necks of the players who invited me, and therefore were obligated to hold my hand the whole time) the lowest ranked player was 3rd dan. The player who was most enthusiastic about helping me learn the game was 5th dan.

On the face of it, this is great! Who can complain about having enthusiastic, highly skilled players willing to teach you how it's done?

Well, clearly you've never tried this.  The fact of the matter is that it's depressing, humiliating, and not at all fun for anyone involved.

No matter what I did, I couldn't make a single move that made me feel like I was making progress.  Even with humiliatingly enormous handicaps I simply couldn't perform respectably, let alone win.

I don't mind losing while I'm losing a game, but let's face it - not being able to play people your own level makes it very difficult to really learn how to do things right, and is frustrating to boot.

So now I really wish I could meet a few people who, like me, are beginners but seriously interested in learning how to play.  There don't seem to be any Japanese players like this, though, so I guess I may be doomed to play against computers forever.


1. Igo is popular in China and Korea as well, with local variants where there are a few subtle details different from both the Japanese and international versions.

2. Actually, there are variants of various smaller sizes, but most are used only for teaching the basics to new players.

3. In practice, skilled players rarely capture stones because good adversaries won't allow the competition to go that far - they each recognise that a space has been captured and move on to a different part of the board.

4. This was pre-internet, so information was scanty and sketchy.

5. The Japanese take all hobbies seriously. In fact, it seems as though the Japanese are reluctant to admit they have a hobby at all unless they think they can perform creditably - which often means at a nearly professional level.

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