Culture

Go for it: Ancient board game holds logical and artistic appeal for players worldwide

by Andrew McKirdy

Staff Writer

The master enters the room several minutes after the scheduled 9 a.m. start.

He bows to the match officials before taking his seat at the board, but it is clear from the way he rubs his face and fidgets with his hands that he is already agitated.

He has been waiting a year to face the challenger, who has emerged victorious from a long and arduous tournament to earn his place in this best-of-seven match. Even if his title were not on the line, the master would still find it difficult to relax. Such is his way.

The challenger enters less than a minute later. He bows to the officials, then slips gently into his chair, sliding his slender legs underneath him into the seiza position. His youthful face is inscrutable.

The two players draw to decide who will play black and who will play white. If the master is relieved to have gained the advantage by drawing black, it does not show on his face. He grips his forehead and glowers at the board, then plays his opening move.

It is Aug. 27, 2019, and the annual Meijinsen series — one of the most prestigious competitions in the game of go — is underway.

Defending champion Cho U has won the Meijinsen title six times. | DAN SZPARA
Defending champion Cho U has won the Meijinsen title six times. | DAN SZPARA

Infinite possibilities

Go is a board game that involves two players, one playing black and one playing white, taking turns to place stones on the vacant points of a square wooden board, with the aim of surrounding more territory than the opponent.

The game was invented in China more than 2,500 years ago and is commonly believed to have been introduced to Japan in the seventh century. It became a favorite first with the imperial court and later with the general public, before being modified and formalized into the game we know today.

The establishment of state-sponsored go schools in the 17th century put Japan at the center of the go world, and the game has since permeated ever deeper into the grain of Japanese culture.

Although Japan has fallen behind China and South Korea as the leading go nation in recent years, the country still has an estimated 2.5 million players, from a worldwide population of 40 million players from more than 100 countries.

Nobel Prize-winning author Yasunari Kawabata wrote about go in his 1954 novel “The Master of Go,” while the manga series “Hikaru no Go,” serialized from 1999 to 2003, is widely considered to have helped popularize the game around the world. When Japanese astronaut Koichi Wakata went aboard the Space Shuttle Endeavour in 1996, he played go in space with NASA astronaut Daniel Barry.

Defending champion Cho U, a 39-year-old from Taiwan, is relentless as he marches toward victory in this year's Meijinsen series. | DAN SZPARA
Defending champion Cho U, a 39-year-old from Taiwan, is relentless as he marches toward victory in this year’s Meijinsen series. | DAN SZPARA

“The idea of go being an art or a part of culture is very strong in Japan,” says American-born professional go player Michael Redmond, the only Westerner ever to have reached the game’s highest rank of ninth dan. “More so in Japan than in other countries.”

The rules of go are simple. Both players are allowed to place their stones on any of the 361 points on the board, with only a few exceptions. The very fact that players have so much freedom, however, also makes it one of the most complex games in the world.

Ryutaro Miyazaki, an executive director of the Japan Go Association, started learning how to play go when he was 5 years old. | YOSHIAKI MIURA
Ryutaro Miyazaki, an executive director of the Japan Go Association, started learning how to play go when he was 5 years old. | YOSHIAKI MIURA

“One of the best things about go is that there is no right answer,” says professional player Ryutaro Miyazaki, who also serves as an executive director of the Japan Go Association, also known in Japanese as the Nihon Ki-in. “Even if you were to play millions of games, you would never play the same game twice.”

Go’s infinite possibilities mean players can devote their entire lives to the game and still keep learning. Players must start from a very young age if they aspire to be professionals, and most become dedicated go apprentices — known as insei — from the age of around 11 or 12. From that point on, all other interests fall by the wayside.

Miyazaki was 5 when his father, an amateur enthusiast, started teaching him. His father encouraged him to forget about his schoolwork and concentrate on go, and in class he would sit with a book of go problems hidden inside his textbook. He won the national junior championship at the age of 11, and became an insei months later.

Redmond, meanwhile, moved from the other side of the world to begin his apprenticeship. He grew up in Santa Barbara, California, and was introduced to go by his physicist father at the age of 10 or 11.

An estimated 2.5 million people play go in Japan. | YOSHIAKI MIURA
An estimated 2.5 million people play go in Japan. | YOSHIAKI MIURA

After making rapid progress and entering tournaments in Los Angeles, he was told he was a genius and that he should move to Japan to become an insei. He did this when he was 14, despite his mother’s strong opposition.

Once in Japan, Redmond threw himself into his go studies. He learned Japanese quickly, and was too immersed in go to even feel homesick.

Although he adapted well to his new environment, the level of competition proved far more formidable.

“The players who I was up against were actually younger than me,” Redmond recalls. “There was a big age gap, and it became kind of a handicap for me to be older than my rivals. Because there’s a tendency, I think, for the younger players to improve more quickly, or more easily.”

Redmond estimates that a go player generally peaks in their 20s or 30s, and by that time, most have already racked up thousands of hours of experience. In April this year, 10-year-old Sumire Nakamura, from Osaka, became Japan’s youngest go professional.

Participants attend a summer camp in Tokyo organized by the Japan Go Association for players from overseas who are interested in improving their knowledge of the game. | YOSHIAKI MIURA
Participants attend a summer camp in Tokyo organized by the Japan Go Association for players from overseas who are interested in improving their knowledge of the game. | YOSHIAKI MIURA

Every year, the Japan Go Association holds a summer camp for players from overseas who are interested in improving their level. The 10-day itinerary includes game tuition, lectures by professionals such as Redmond and trips to watch professional matches. The camp is in its seventh year.

This year’s edition was held from Aug. 20 to 29, and was attended by 30 participants from 12 different countries, ranging in age from 9 to 69. The youngest was Gene Wong, from Hong Kong, who was in Tokyo with his father, Chiu Yeung Wong.

Gene has been playing go since he was 4 and was attending the camp for the second time, having taken part last summer as well. One of the friends he made on his first trip even came to Hong Kong to visit him.

The summer camp organized by the Japan Go Association attracts players of all ages. | YOSHIAKI MIURA
The summer camp organized by the Japan Go Association attracts players of all ages. | YOSHIAKI MIURA

Gene says he would like to become a professional, but his father is not so sure.

“It’s really hard,” says Chiu. “At one point I thought he had the chance, but he’s not that young anymore.

“My wife doesn’t want him to sacrifice other things like schoolwork to focus on only one thing. It’s a really hard decision. At the beginning I thought it was good for him, but then I thought I shouldn’t be in a position to decide his life. If you want to become a pro, everything changes.”

Advantage white

In an elegantly furnished tatami room in the Hotel Chinzanso Tokyo, as a maple tree meditatively dips its hanging branches into a pond outside the window, the master gnaws furiously on his fingernails.

The opening game of the Meijinsen series, which is scheduled to last two days, has been progressing smoothly. But still the master cannot settle. He yanks at his necktie, spits fingernails into a tissue and pours himself cup after cup of tea.

Toramaru Shibano, a 19-year-old from Kanagawa Prefecture, is known for placing his stones soundlessly on the board. | DAN SZPARA
Toramaru Shibano, a 19-year-old from Kanagawa Prefecture, is known for placing his stones soundlessly on the board. | DAN SZPARA

All the while, the challenger sits in front of him, serenely watching the board with his legs tucked neatly underneath him.

The professional players analyzing the moves in the hotel press room, including former masters Hideo Otake and Keigo Yamashita, say it is still too early to tell what shape the match will take. Then, slowly, as an apparent advantage for white emerges in the center-right of the board, murmurs that the master has made a mistake with the 65th stone begin to circulate.

The professional players feed the moves into a computer’s artificial intelligence program. It rates the challenger’s chances of winning at 80 percent. At one point before the end of the first day’s play, the figure rises to 90 percent.

On a live video feed from the hotel’s Otowa room, where the match is taking place, the master bites another fingernail while the challenger eats a forkful of cheesecake.

Toramaru Shibano, a 19-year-old from Kanagawa Prefecture, did not appear to get outwardly unflustered during the Meijinsen series. | DAN SZPARA
Toramaru Shibano, a 19-year-old from Kanagawa Prefecture, did not appear to get outwardly unflustered during the Meijinsen series. | DAN SZPARA

Artificial intelligence

In March 2016, the 18-time go world champion, Lee Sedol of South Korea, played a best-of-five match against AlphaGo, an artificial intelligence computer program developed by Google DeepMind.

To everyone’s surprise — and certainly not least Lee’s — AlphaGo won 4-1, playing a number of highly innovative moves that ran counter to centuries of received go wisdom.

Experts had predicted it would take another 10 years before a computer program could beat a player of Lee’s caliber, and the result sent shockwaves through the go world.

“At that time, everyone panicked,” Miyazaki says. “Everyone was stunned. Now, no one thinks a human can beat artificial intelligence, so instead we learn from it and coexist with it. We absorb the good bits from it.”

Computers can now analyze and rate players’ moves with such accuracy that Redmond says he is prepared to base his judgment on them to a certain degree, and he believes that AI programs have made studying go much more effective.

Michael Redmond is the only Westerner to have reached the game's highest rank of ninth dan. | YOSHIAKI MIURA
Michael Redmond is the only Westerner to have reached the game’s highest rank of ninth dan. | YOSHIAKI MIURA

He also rejects the notion that machines have taken the human element out of the game, explaining that while the computer will suggest a move, it is up to the human player to understand why it made it.

In fact, Redmond says, the advent of AI has given him a new lease on life.

“As you get older, the speed of your calculations and accuracy tends to slip a little,” says the 56-year-old. “It’s very disappointing for a professional player if you see that happen. Maybe there was a point where I felt that way, but my encounter with AlphaGo and then with various computer programs actually sparked my interest.

“Now I have a teacher,” he says. “Because I know that it’s stronger than me, and I know what its strong points are. I can learn from it. The problem with being a professional player is that, after a certain point, you don’t have a teacher that you can trust.”

No two games of go are ever alike. | YOSHIAKI MIURA
No two games of go are ever alike. | YOSHIAKI MIURA

Redmond says that go appeals to “people who like to work things out in a logical manner,” and several of the participants at the Japan Go Association’s summer camp are indeed from a mathematics background. Others, however, are more interested in go as a part of traditional culture.

In “The Master of Go,” which tells the story of the epic 1938 match between the master, Honinbo Shusai, and the challenger, Minoru Kitani, author Kawabata laments the strict rules that have been set for the contest, at the expense of old traditions. “From the way of go, the beauty of Japan and the Orient had fled,” he writes. “Everything had become science and regulation.”

For some involved in the game, go will always remain a thing of beauty.

“In go, you start with an empty board,” says Miyazaki. “In games like chess or shogi, you start with all the pieces on the board. In go, you start with nothing, then add white and black so that, between the two of you, you create a work of art. That’s the way I think about it. It has a very strong artistic image.”

Toramaru Shibano (right), a 19-year-old from Kanagawa Prefecture, challenges 39-year-old defending go champion Cho U in the prestigious annual Meijinsen series in August. | DAN SZPARA
Toramaru Shibano (left), a 19-year-old from Kanagawa Prefecture, challenges 39-year-old defending go champion Cho U in the prestigious annual Meijinsen series in August. | DAN SZPARA

The tipping point

The second day’s play of the opening Meijinsen match finds the master just as restless as he was on the first.

His situation, complicated by his mistake with the 65th stone, looks unpromising. The professionals in the press room crowd round go boards simulating the match, endlessly debating the options and ramifications.

Then, after both players return from lunch, the challenger makes a fatal error.

Trying to be too aggressive, he ignores the safe option and places the 108th stone at the top of the board, near the top-left corner. The move offers the master a way back into the match, and he wastes no time in claiming it.

The challenger, a 19-year-old from Kanagawa Prefecture named Toramaru Shibano, who is known for placing his stones soundlessly on the board and is said to weigh only 45 kilograms, remains outwardly unflustered.

Toramaru Shibano, a 19-year-old from Kanagawa Prefecture, is known for placing his stones soundlessly on the board. | DAN SZPARA
Toramaru Shibano, a 19-year-old from Kanagawa Prefecture, is known for placing his stones soundlessly on the board. | DAN SZPARA

But the master, a 39-year-old from Taiwan named Cho U, who enjoys bouldering in his spare time and has won the Meijinsen title five times previously, is relentless as he marches toward victory. By 6:15 p.m., the game is over.

As the sun sets over the pond outside and the soft trill of crickets replaces the shrieking of cicadas from the hotel garden, the master looks at peace for the first time.

“I was in a difficult position right from the start and as the match wore on, I thought it was over for me,” he says. “But I hung in there.”