Playing Go

Roughly a year ago I started playing the board game Go both for enjoyment and as a training tool for strategic thinking.  Go is its Japanese name but the game originated in China over two thousand years ago where it was called Wei Chi.  I first encountered Go a number of years ago via my studies in Taoism, Sun Tzu and Chinese martial arts but it sat on my “things I should learn” list for a long time.  Like chess, its counterpart in the West, Go was thought to both build skill in the art of strategy while also building one’s character.  I’ve read or heard numerous times that one is supposed to be able to learn much about another’s character as a human being by observing how they play Go.  When I first started playing I was interested to learn that the ranking system for player skill is the same as that in Japanese martial arts.  There are a series of Kyu ranks and then Dan (“black belt”) ranks leading up to professional status.

Another frequent observation is that it is very simple to learn the rules of the game but difficult to become good at it.  My own experience would support that.

It took no time at all to understand the basic rules.  The object is to build territory on the board while at the same time denying territory to your opponent and potentially surrounding and capturing his stones.  How one cuts off the opponent’s stones and how one builds legitimate territory are simple enough concepts.  How one does this while at the same time avoiding your opponent’s attempts to do the same is another matter.  Initially beginners make choppy clumsy attempts to chase each other around the board and surround each other’s stones.  A more experienced player who understands how to build territory can circumvent those attacks and very quickly leave the beginner wondering how they ended up with no place to set their stones.  In some ways it is not so different that the push hands exercise in Chinese martial arts.

There is a wonderful scene in the film Hero where Jet Li and Donnie Yen fight a duel in a Wei Chi house (chess in the subtitles) and an old blind man plays music.  The connection between the three arts is made clear.  The two fighters are even dressed in light and dark like the black and white stones of the game.

Its not difficult to see why games like Go or chess were considered valuable to the education of a man of worth.  In terms of Agathos, the underlying concept for this blog, such games as both recreation and training tool were (and still are) a display of Arete.  According to Greek art it was a worthy pastime for the heroes of the Homeric epics when taking a break between battles.

Unfortunately, whatever game they were playing is unclear and has not survived.  They seem to be placing or moving pieces but the inscription shows them speaking out numbers as in dice.  Whatever the case, in using Go as a tool to be Agathos I am apparently in good company.

Right now I am at a plateau.  I have become much better at avoiding the chase and surround game and my ability to avoid being chopped up piecemeal has improved.  However, I am entering my middle game without a good sense of the overall shape of the board.  I see the shapes in a given area but miss the bigger shapes.  I am able to respond tactically but not yet strategically.  Eventually my territory breaks down when playing strong players.  I have to accept that as a natural process.  Like so many forms of Arete, it is a pursuit that one has to follow without worrying about short term gain.  It is something to refine through a lifetime.

3 Responses to “Playing Go”

  1. Thanks for some background on this game. I have seen it being played in various martial arts films I have watched but knew very little about it.

    BTW the fight scene you referred to in Hero is one of my very favourites.

    • Thanks Meredith. That scene has been a favorite of mine as well. I also really liked the scene in the calligraphy school where observing someone’s calligraphy reveals their swordsmanship.

      • I liked that too. Hero is a very poetic, lyrical film in many ways. Zhang Yimou has used the wu xia pan form to explore themes around art and, of course, heroism very well. I love it when martial arts films use the martial arts to not just entertain but also to link into aspects of culture, history, ideals or philosophy. For me, the scene between Li and Yen in Hero is really about art, aspiration and inspiration.

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