Crows and herons, the game of go

June 4, 2006

"Crows and herons", after the black and white colour of pieces (called "stones"), is just one of the many poetic names given by Japanese to the game of go.

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Go is the japanese name (if you want to be fussy, i-go, 囲碁) of a very ancient game, born some thousands of years ago in China where is called Wei Qi (圍棋), brought to its technical heights in Japan and then in Korea (where it is called Baduk, 바둑). Today go is played all around the world. It combines very simple rules with complex tactics and profound strategy, which makes it unique in beauty and fascination.

The origins of go are hidden in the mist of legends: probably its playing materials (a wooden board, black and white stones) were used for some sort of divination. Later we found the game played at the Chinese imperial court and in the higher social classes. The games reaches Japan more or less in the VIII century, brough there by a legendary ambassador coming back from China. Also in Japan also the game spread among the military hierarchies and the higher classes.

Modern go starts in the XVI century, when three shoguns (Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi and Tokugawa Ieyasu) fancied an interest in the tactical and strategical characteristics of the game. They took at their services as a teacher the strongest player of their time: Nikkai, who was a buddhist priest of the Nichiren sect, who would afterwards change his name to Sansa.

In 1612 Tokugawa recognised four schools, or Houses, of go, paying stipends to the best players, creating the office of godokoro (a sort of ministery for go) and establishing the ceremony of "o-shiro go", the games of the castle, where players of the highest rank (7 dan) played official games in the presence of the shogun.

An effective professional system was thus established, which brought forth an incredible development of the game. The four Houses were placed under the supervision of the jisha-bugyo, the Commissioner for Temples and Shrines, because they were structured as religious schools. Sansa founded the Honinbo House (after the name of a pagoda of Jakko-ji temple in Kyoto where he used to live). The other rival Houses were Inoue, Hayashi e Yasui.

Rivalry was fierce: players were competing for the honour of their Houses and for the post of godokoro, that gave money and power. The competition wasn't resolved only by playing, but also by means of political intrigues…

Such wonderful situation (for the technical evolution of the game) reached a sudden end with the fall of the Tokugawa shogunate and the Meiji restauration (1868). Funding of the Houses was abolished, and players who until that day were respected and renowned found themselves literally starving to death.

But little by little the remaining players managed to re-organise a professional system at the beginning of the XX century, thanks to mecenatism and to sponsorship from newspapers. Today there are hundreds of professionals in Japan, China, Korea, Taiwan who contend in rich tournaments sponsored by newspapers, TV networks, and companies such as Toyota, LG, ecc. Not to speak of dozens of millions amateurs all over the world.

You can find further reading in the sites linked on the right, and where you could even learn the basics of the game.

Until the next,

Yours,

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