Go and Ski in Pragelato 2

January 7, 2007

pragelato1.jpgThis year too the Go workshop of Pragelato has been a success for AGI, that has been organising it for many years.

We had 15 players from Milano, Roma, Torino, Treviso, Varese, Venezia, Edinburgh, Valence, plus 10 non-playing guests. A lot of people for the most attended workshop of the last three years. Pity for the lack of snow… (last snowfall: 8 December).

pragelato2.jpgOur teacher was Li Jingrui 6 Dan from China (that’s the nominal EGF ranking, as he has played only three tournaments in Europe; actually his playing level is almost professional: among other things ha has played at two stones with Fujisawa Shuko…). Li Jingrui lives in Münich and studies chemistry.

The teaching level was therefore quite high: we discussed fuseki, recently fashionable joseki, positional judgement and thickness assessment to inform the strategy. Then games were commented: Li’s games, professional games and our games: Li made a running commentary of a game of Emiliano and me, played in front of everybody else.
Maybe it was the embarrassment, but somehow we managed to play a decent fuseki that deserved Li’s praise. Pity that I had to resign too soon, as Emiliano captured a group of mine that I had neglected in order to take a lot of profit elsewhere… Ah, the greed of Xmas season!

Days were very well organised: true skiers woke up at dawn (notwithstanding having gone to sleep pretty late…) in order to go to Sestriere’s ski runs, where they made use of artificial snow blasted from snowguns…

pragelato8.jpgWe hapless non-skiers woke up veeeery late instead, and then went cross-country skiing on Pragelato runs, the very same of past Winter Olympic Games; or just for a walk, or a dive in the swimming pool of the hotel we were staying in, the Casa Alpina Don Barra. Or even to play a little go, just not to be too obsessed… 🙂

At 17:00 Li started his lesson, until dinner at 19:30. After dinner we played go until we fancied, as we had a room reserved for our group only, equipped even with a stereo to play a little music…


To sum up, a great occasion to breath clean air in the middle of beautiful mountains and imposing landscapes rich of historical events (Val Troncea, the very narrow valley where the cross-country ski run goes, has been the theatre of important episodes of the Italian Resistance against the nazi-fascists), to train our bodies first and then our minds playing go, and finally to deservedly celebrate with appropriate evening libations…

Those who weren’t there now know what they have missed.
See you next year!

Click on the FilmLoop below to see a selection of pictures. Marchetto has made available the movie of two (as of today) lessons: you’ll find them at the URL below:

Lesson of 27-12-2006
Lesson of 28-12-2006

Lessons are in English; the file is about 290MB and will be available for downloading for a dozen of days.

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Go and Ski in Pragelato

December 26, 2006


This year also we will spend the week around New Year’s at the go workshop that AGI organises every year in Pragelato (North-West Alps, close to Sestriere, Piemonte).

prag5.jpgSki, skating or treks during the day, and go lessons the afternoon and evening. This year the teacher will be Li Jingrui, 6 Dan.

As it has always been the previous years, we expect the usual feast of beautiful snow, landscapes, physical exercise, excellent food, wines and grappa. lot of partying, and go, go, go, and more go!

I will keep you posted, meanwhile here are some pictures taken two years ago.





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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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Beware, you may find some spoilers ahead…


Last Sunday I went to see the movie on Go Seigen. In fact almost the whole go club of Rome was there.

It was the première at the Rome Film Festival, section Cinema 2006 (i.e. the official concourse), so the director, Tian Zhuang Zhuang, one of the most important contemporary Chinese directors, and the protagonist, Chen Chang (also in Kar Wai Wong’s 2046 and Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), were there to say a few words of circumstance before the show.
Really few… all the director said was that go is such a difficult game that the movie doesn’t intend to explain it. Nothing more, not a single word on the movie itself. A little strange, if you ask me.

Being a go player, it is a bit difficult for me to give a non-biased evaluation of the movie. The game of go is certainly represented in all its beautiful aesthetic and, if you like, mystic.
The dedication and devotion of go players toward their art is shown very well – just consider how well the WWII times are depicted, when players were playing in military uniforms, not expecting to return alive to continue the tournament, or the scene when they resumed the game after the atomic blast in Hiroshima had thrown the playing room in total chaos (which is historical, see this article on the atomic bomb game).

Maybe the most charming go scenes are those where Kitani Minoru, Go Seigen best friend and rival, and his go dojo are sweetly described.
The dojo was unique: Kitani and his wife trained in time some 60 pupils, hosting them in their house and treating them as their own children. All the players that dominated the go scene in the ’70, ’80 and ’90 came out from the Kitani Dojo.

Strangely one aspect of Go Seigen life is not openly portrayed: in 1947 he was made to leave the Nihon Ki-in, the professional association – this was probably due to his strong involvement with that suspect religious sect. This is the reason why he didn’t took part for some years to professional tournaments but instead played a lot of newspapers-sponsored jubango (a ten-games one-to-one challenge) against all the strongest players, defeating them all.

go-seigen-2.jpgFinally, the last scene is just perfect: 1984, to celebrate his retirement from active play an old Go Seigen plays his last game as a ceremony in a beautifully formal setting. After the beginning rituals, his opponent carefully picks a black stone from the bowl, and slowly plays THE move, placing his stone on Tengen, the centre point of the Goban.
For non-go players, read this to understand the meaning of such a move as a homage to Go Seigen’s whole career.

Having said so, the movie itself sort of disappointed me. Go Seigen’s life has been full of events, including a world war, so history, plot and adventure are all there. Visually the movie has all the magnificent beauty that Oriental directors have accustomed us to.

Still, something is missing, IMHO.
It is true that biopics are a very difficult genre, and those that turn out to be also great movies are those that, beyond plot and adventure, from a famous life issue a moral (just like in Aesop or La Fontaine), a general principle or a way of conduct that could appeal or be of inspiration to us normal people.
Maybe this is just how I saw it, but, putting myself in the clothes of a non-go-playing person, I’ve found this aspect somehow lacking. In other words, I couldn’t perceive necessity in what the director proposed us with this work.
Am I too picky? Go and see for yourself!

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Japanese Go players in Rome

October 14, 2006

On Saturday 7 October a group of 33 Japanese go players from a Nagoya go club came to visit Rome and asked to play go with local players. They were lead by Baba Shigeru, 9 dan professional, and Shigeno Yuki, 2 dan professional and Secretary to the International Go Federation and assisted by Oka Isamu, from the go club of Pisa.

The go club of Rome took care of the local organisation of the event and of the subsequent dinner.

We were very lucky to obtain the support of the Japanese Cultural Institute in Rome, thanks to its Vice-Director, Omori Hiroshi, a go player himself.


The Institute is really beautiful, situated in one of the greenest area of Rome (close to Villa Borghese) and graced by an astounding Japanese-style garden. A truly incredible setting for this goodwill meeting.One of the poetic names that the Japanese gave to go is “Shudan”, that means “Hands talk”. A beautiful metaphor of how this game allows people of different languages, cultures, races, religions, to share and dialogue in peace and respecting one another. Having fun in the process…

japanese4.jpgThe talk of hands started Friday night at the hotel of our guests. They let us know that they were a little tired, having just come from a two-days excursion to Napoli, Sorrento and Pompei, so they prevented us that the playing wouldn’t last long in the night.
Now, you must know that another poetic name of go is “Ranka”, that means “Rotted handle”: the legend goes that two woodcutters working in a forest decided to have a short rest and play a quick game of go. When they finished they reached for they axes only to find that the wooden handles had rotted during the years spent playing… Another version of this legend is reported here.
All this to say that when I left to go back home at 1:30 in the morning, everybody was still there playing…

The “official” event was on Saturday afternoon. Omori-san had arranged things in the theatre of the Institute, that offered an incredible view.


japanese1.jpgThe go club of Rome, beside having brought the necessary refreshments (you know, playing go makes you thirsty…), fielded a team of 23 players, with two guest players from Napoli, Carlo Nitsch 1 dan and Luca Esposito 6 kyu.

Needless to say, we all had a great time. No better way to start a friendship than a couple of games of go.

japanese5.jpgBaba 9 dan pro and Shigeno 2 dan pro gave running commentaries on games, so that everybody got at least two stones stronger… 🙂

Then we all went to a traditional pizzeria-trattoria overlooking the Tevere river. After having gone through the formality of eating, gobans and stones appeared again and playing was seamlessly resumed.

japanese6.jpg I started a conversation with three Japanese gentlemen in a mix of Italian, Japanese, Spanish, English and gestures (hand talk again…). The subjects? Weeeell… Gina Lollobrigida, Sophia Loren, Romolus and Remo, Julius Ceasar…

A beautiful experience. I don’t know how, but Paolo Scattini stole from Baba Sensei the promise to bring back the whole group next year.

See you all next October, then!

To see more pictures, click on the film looplet below:

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The movie on Go Seigen

October 12, 2006

go-seigen-1.jpgThe much awaited (at least by us go players) movie on the life of Wu Qingyuan (Go Seigen in Japanese), probably the greatest player of the XX century (somebody says of all times), will be shown at the first Rome Film Festival next Sunday 15 October.

Born in China, Go Seigen was brought to Japan in 1928 as a child prodigy to play go at professional level.

go-seigen-3.jpgIn 1930 he was already one of the few top players. In 1933, together with his friend-rival Kitani Minoru, he developed a new theory for the opening (“Shin Fuseki”) that took by storm the traditional way of playing. He quickly became the strongest player of the time.

Being a Chinese naturalised-Japanese, he was sometimes the object of racist intolerance in Japan, and, conversely, the Chinese Authorities in post-war Japan subjected him to harsh treatment (passport retired, etc.) for his ambiguous state.

In 1947 he was forced to leave the Nihon Ki-in, the Japanese professional go association. One of the reasons was allegedly his joining a suspect religious sect. Despite this, he kept on beating regularly all the Japanese top players in a series of one-to-one challenges expressly organised by sponsoring newspapers. I will soon post an account of these thrilling challenges.

Today, at 98, he still plays go and leads a study group for professional go players.


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Shuko the Champ – 2

September 25, 2006

Albeit a bit late, I’m giving a follow up to my previous post on Fujisawa Shuko.

shuko.jpgBetween 1960 and 1970 Shuko won 14 titles, including the Meijin twice, plus four unfortunate challenges for the same title. The Meijin was then the most important tournament in professional go.
Already such achievements were more than enough to make him one of the strongest players of the XX century.

Then a long hiatus followed: his results in professional tournaments were terrible, due also to a strong drinking habit.
He nevertheless made a comeback winning the 1st Tengen title in 1976, aged 51, at a time when all the title winners were players in their twenties or early thirties: it was said that you needed a lot of stamina to go through the best-of-five or best-of-seven title match.

But the best was yet to come.

You may remember from my previous post that Shuko, as the main professional representative that negotiated with the newspaper Yomiuri Shinbun the establishment and sponsorship of the Meijin title, was instrumental for the birth of that tournament back in 1962, and how he proceeded to win its first edition.

But fifteen years later, the professional go players were increasingly unhappy about the amount of sponsorship from the Yomiuri. Requests for a rise of the sponsorship were systematically turned down. Fed up with such behaviour, the Nihon Kiin (the Japanese professional go guild) took away the title from the Yomiuri and gave it to its competitor Asahi Shinbun, that was well prepared to pay much more for the exclusivity.
So in 1976 (while Shuko was winning the 1st Tengen title) a new Meijin tournament started.

The Yomiuri management realised what a big mistake they had made, letting slip such sponsorship to their competitors. So they decided to get back into the game by funding yet another tournament, the biggest of them all, both in term of money and in terms of complexity of organisation.

In 1977, the Kisei title was born, and it had the highest purse of all time – as of today, around 42,000,000 Yen.
Kisei means “Saint of Go”, and to win the title you have to go through four or five sub-tournaments, that involve almost every professional and that take several months to complete. The final is a best-of-seven match: in every game the players are allotted eight hours of thinking time each, so each game lasts two days.
Winning the Kisei really means being the strongest player of the year.

Everybody expected the young stars (Rin Kaiho, Takemiya Masaki, Kato Masao, Ishida Yoshio…) to win the first Kisei title, but, contrary to all expectations, at the end of the mammoth tournament the final was an affair between two veterans, Hashimoto Utaro (aged 70!) and… who else but Fujisawa Shuko?

Shuko won the 1st Kisei 4-1 and, to everybody’s astonishment (but not his, as he always boasted to be the strongest go player…), went on winning it other five years consecutively, beating the cream of the professional go: Kato 4-3, Ishida 4-1, Rin 4-1, Otake Hideo 4-0, Rin again 4-3.

The really incredible thing was that his results in other tournaments were still awful, as he kept on being drunk most of the time.
Shuko always said that he just needed to win four games a year to be on top of the go world, so a couple of months before the Kisei title he would go on the wagon, set himself straight, proceed to wipe off his opponents with is brilliant genius, and then get back to alcoholic celebrations for the rest of the year…

To be continued…


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