The beauty of Go

June 5, 2006

Goban.jpgGo is a game of strategy where two players take turns in placing their pieces (called “stones” – ishi, in Japanese – all of the same value) on the intersections of a 19×19 grid, in order to control its space. The grid is drawn on a wooden board (called goban in Japanese).

Once played on one of the 361 intersection points, the stones are not moved anymore, except in case of capture, when they are removed from the board.
The players start therefore with the empty goban and add stones in order to map out “territories” (i.e. areas of empty intersections delimited by one’s own stones). One point is counted for each empty intersection inside the territory plus one point for each stone captured from your opponent.
The final winner is the player with the larger territory.

The game therefore proceeds from Kaos (the empty goban at the beginning, when everything is still possible) to Kosmos (the spatial structure perfectly defined at the end of the game, when all territories have been claimed and delimited, and no further gains are possible: the entropic death?).
Meanwhile, you will witness invasions, attacks, defences, captures – but in the end only one more point is enough to win the game.

It is extremely difficult to convey in few words the fascination of a such a game, so simple and complex at the same time, or show the philosophy and, why not, the ritual with which Go is played in the Far East.

In Japan, as well in the rest of the world, Go is both seen as a pastime to be enjoyed in the free time or as an intellectual activity. For a (happy?) few persons, it is a profession.
But for many in all such categories, Go is an art, that often crosses the frontier to spirituality or to a way of life: a great player once said that it is not Go that mirrors life, but life that reflects go…

Here follows some essential characteristics you have to master in order to become a good player:

A good player is able to change her strategy midway, according to changes in the situation on the board. A technique exists called in Japanese yosu-miru, where I force my opponent to choose, among many others, a specific direction of play (thus abandoning other possibilities), in order to inform my future strategies

In Go there are not set openings as in chess. Very much is left to the intuition of the players. Their analytical abilities are much more important in the middle game, with its infighting, and in the endgame, where it is possible to (you must) actually count the value in points of every move.

A good player has to balance attack and defense, temerity and steadiness. You do not have to crush your opponent, a one-point difference is enough to win. A poetic name of Go is "Hand talk", a beautiful game is one where the opponents collaborate to make a flowing and harmonious construction…

Go shuns over-concentrated and “heavy”, or “bad”, shapes of stones (see below): they are inefficient (I played too many stones to map a small territory) and prone to be dangerously attacked.

In Go, we speak of good and even beautiful shapes (of stones) as the most efficient way of playing on the board.
Not only that, also the way you hold the stones and the traditional materials (slate and shell for the black and white stones, the thick board) are simple, beautiful and elegant…

gb40.jpgOn of the most fascinating aspects of Go is the need to maintain a global view over the construction one is creating: very often a correct tactical play in a local situation (e.g. one corner of the goban) can seriously damage another friendly group of stones in the opposite corner. The goban must be seen as a whole and not as a sum of many independent situations.

Such concept of wholeness is typical of every Oriental philosophy, in which all things and all events perceived by the senses are interconnected and unite: they are in other words different manifestations of a ultimate reality.

This may explain why it took so much time for Go to get a footing in the West, where, thanks to the Cartesian and Newtonian imprinting that permeates every aspect of our society, the world is seen as something built out of elemental and separate blocks: everything is fragmentary.

Consider for instance writing, which is a series of signs with no meaning on their own: the meaning is acquired only when the signs are assembled in a pre-established order. The Oriental sign, on the contrary, contains a whole image, a sensation, a concept.

Is this the reason why chess are played in the West and Go is played in the East? Is it just a chance that as of today no one has been able to write a software able to play better than an amateur beginner?

As you can practice Aikido, Kyudo, Bushido, so you can practice Kido, the Way of Go.

Such Art, as all the others, requires a constant perfectioning of the technique, but the real mastering is reached only when the technique is transcended and the Art becomes spontaneous, originating from the concentration that allows to be in harmony with the flow of things.

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