Looking for truth on the goban

A simple wooden board and round stones made out of clam shells. These two ingredients are all it takes to create the elegant and often bloody battlefield of Go.

Designed several millennia ago, the game of Go is the oldest board game in existence.

Starting in China, the game has gone through several changes in strategic principles, but has remained faithful to it’s simple rules.

It has been my favorite game for some time.

Whether it’s romanticizing over the past greats; Shusaku and Dosaku, as well as Dosaku’s pupil Doteki, who perhaps possessed the greatest mind in the history of Go, or it’s simply sitting down and becoming one with one’s thoughts in front of a wooden board with stones made out of clam shells.

Even when a game turns into a bloodbath, an unknowing spectator would hardly notice.

“When I play go, a lot of times I find how it relates to my life… I’ll play recklessly and after a few lost games I begin to wonder why I lost. Then I’ll think about the recklessness of my play and begin to ease myself and settle in. The same way I would do if I were faced with a pressuring situation in my life.”

These words came from the owner of a go salon I frequent. In my experience I’ve only ever met someone near my age just once, with the makeup usually being that of middle-aged men. There’s a reason for that.

Go has been proven to slow down the effects of Alzheimers. It is the only game that uses both sides of the brain; chess, by comparison, uses the left-side.

But with a ruleset so simplistic, children can easily become addicted to the game. In fact, in the Orient, there are professional systems where players compete for prize money in lavish tournaments to decide the best player in their respective countries. Most professionals begin playing at the age of six and earn their first paychecks by the age of 12.

With grand success comes grand torture and defeat.

Former professional player Kageyama Toshiro once declared, “Amateurs’ go comes from pleasure, professionals’ go comes from suffering.”

Indeed, as many cases have shown.

Nowadays, Koreans dominate the Go world. With wave after wave of impossibly strong players, hardly any international tournaments are won by other nations; although China has put up a good fight lately, Japan hasn’t won a major international tournament since 2005.

It is of no coincidence.

Yeon’gusaeng, known as insei in Japan, are junior professionals. Aged anywhere from nine to 18, these junior professionals are among the strongest amateurs in the country, and, in some cases, already of professional strength.

They spend upwards of ten hours a day studying the game. Replaying games from old masters and playing games against each other, the core of their training comes from doing “life and death” problems.

These problems are often seemingly simple board positions that are usually solved when one reads out a five, ten, sometimes 20 or even 30 move variation which leads to the result of either Black/White living/dying.

After over five years of off and on playing, I can read upwards of 15 and sometimes 20 moves for a single position.

By comparison, professionals read upwards of 100 moves.

“Usually professional players, including me, read around 100 moves ahead. This might surprise amateur players, but the more difficult thing is not reading ahead 100 moves, but deciding which of the final cadidate moves gives a better result… the most painful moment is when I realize that I am on the wrong way a few moves after my original decision. That gives me an agony beyond description.”

Lee Chang-ho’s answer when asked how many moves he can read. Chang-ho is considered one of the greatest players of all-time, winning over 140 titles and completely dominating the professional scene during the 1990s and early 2000s.

At first the game is extremely fun and mostly gratifying. Reading one sentence can immediately improve your strength. However, as one improves, the stronger each band of strength becomes. Suddenly one finds themselves at a wall, impossible to climb and impenetrably hard to break through.

I found myself there.

But then I began to think. Suddenly this game, created over 2000 years ago with a wooden board and stones made out of clam shells, taught me something. Patience and peace of mind.

The air became light again. My bones would ache less and less. Waking in the morning became something to look forward to and not something of a chore.

What Go taught me was to be content with what I have. It may not be as grand as someone else, but it is good. It is decent. Who could ask for more than something good and decent?

Reach for the stars, but do not be dissatisfied with living on cloud nine.




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