Where is Go going?

December 11, 2006

beauty-in-go.jpg I started to play go in the early eighties, giving up chess in the meanwhile: the more I played go, the more it looked to me as if chess was becoming too cramped, almost claustrophobic.

There were two aspects of go that I loved most (and still do): first, its subtlety, its deepness and its stress on flexibility and on keeping open the largest number of options as much and as long as possible.
It really fascinates me how professionals use so-called “probes” in order to force their opponent to choose a strategy, making him consequently lose some degrees of freedom, so to speak.

In the eighties, if I remember correctly, very few professionals played long, complicated and drawn-out joseki: Cho Chikun once said that he didn’t like them because they simplified the game too much, taking away subtlety. Kobayashi Koichi was criticised very often by his fellow professionals (especially Takemiya Masaki…) for settling the shape as much as he could.

Second, I really enjoy the great role played by intuition and “feeling” (something that I couldn’t find in chess). I’m not saying that brute force reading and calculation are not important, especially so when you go from the fights in the chuban (middle game) to the score calculation in the yose (endgame), but in fuseki (the opening) and early chuban, intuition has wide scope for action: no fuseki is (or at least used to be) like another one. Not so in chess.
Not for nothing my heroes are Shuko, Otake and Takemiya!

Yes, one should define “intuition”, and it is certainly true that intuition and feeling can be seen as skills that one acquires with experience, playing and studying literally thousands of games.

Mind you, I am a sort of post-hippie, my generation is the one that looked toward India and the “Orient” at large to find something that we couldn’t find in our western, rational mind. So it is quite obvious that I would cherish these aspects of the game of go, maybe missing or misunderstanding some others.

Then I stopped playing for ten years, and when I resumed playing some years ago, what kind of situation did I find?

In the East, the arrival of strong, very strong Korean and Chinese players: this is really great, as otherwise the game could have ended up as something for a few pros and for a bunch of aged people in Japan… But this meant also, as I perceive it, the affirmation of a very aggressive style right from the beginning, and the appearance of almost established fuseki sequences where long, complicated, drawn-out joseki are instrumentally played in order to settle the shape quickly and go directly to a sort of oyose (large endgame) stage, where it is easier to calculate the value of each move.
Is go evolving towards chess? What happened to subtlety and flexibility?

In the West, there are a number of attempts to formalise the game using game theory and other mathematical and logic tools. One of the reasons for this is of course the possibility to arrive at writing a software that would be able to play at a reasonable level, but we have seen few results so far. Luckily, I say.
I think the real reason for this is the very western passion for rational and formal thinking, for putting everything in the right box identified with its proper label.
It almost looks as if people are trying to find the perfect move in the fuseki by applying some suitable theorem instead of relying on experience and “feeling”, as described above.
Is the western, rational mind taking over? What happened to intuition?
Are there professionals who use such approach?

Another aspect that seems weird to me is the hugely large discussion going on on how to devise a perfect and logically coherent set of rules and definitions for the game, able to take into account even the remotest and weirdest of the possibilities. (Ah, Gödel, where art thou?)

It seems to me that all that mathematical, logical and theoretical arguing on rules would scare any beginner (not to mention myself), making him/her believe that without a PhD in mathematics you cannot play go: not a good advertisement indeed! I have always taught go saying that it has 5 rules that you can learn in 15 seconds…

I’m not saying that those approaches to the game have no validity (and after all I’m still short of becoming shodan and shouldn’t talk much…).
Koreans and Chinese players seem to win more international tournaments than the Japanese do.
Intellectual formalisation is surely fun for those who practise it.
But I have the sensation that such approaches somehow diminish and simplify the game, an attitude that is only natural when one is afraid of empty spaces (agoraphobia) and wants to grasp a sure way around…

I, of course, have no answers, and perhaps I just like to grope in wild darkness…
But I promise: while still liking better to develop the left side of my brain, I will practise reading and counting as well, otherwise I’m afraid I’ll never reach shodan…

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