Friday, December 28, 2007

"Go" - contemplating the oriental mind through a board game

I'm not usually impressed by the effect of TV on children. But here's an example of something really exceptional. Consider Japanese comic books, they are called "manga" and sometimes they are made into Japanese TV animation, called "anime".

The manga and anime titled "Hikaru no Go" became so popular amongst Japanese youth that it singlehandedly reversed the decline of the oriental board game called "Go" in Japan.

The Japanese, who dominated the game for more than a thousand years, had been eclipsed by the South Koreans by the end of the Twentieth Century. By the 1990's go had become an old man's game in Japan. But the story "Hikaru no Go" which came out in manga and anime in 1998 changed all that. Suddenly tens of thousands of Japanese children wanted to learn how to play this old person's game. And once the anime series was shown in other countries it popularized go around the world.

" Hikaru no Go" is about two boys. One is the son of a professional go player. The other is a boy who is possessed by the spirit of a medieval go player. You laugh, but this TV series changed the course of Japanese culture.

It must have touched a nerve in Japan, a country that valued its past but was quickly discarding it at the same time. There is something about the game of go that deeply reflects the oriental mind.

Go is said to have originated in China, where it is called "Wei Chi", about four thousand years ago. A bit more than one thousand years ago it was introduced to Japan where it caught on very quickly.

The western game of chess is the other great game of skill. Even though chess originated in Aisia, it's character now reflects the western outlook. A game of chess represents a single battle, an all or nothing struggle to capture your opponent's King.

There are many battles in a single game of go, some of them going on simultaneously. The object of go is for each player to capture as much territory as he can.

In chess there are many different pieces, each with different functions and properties, with all of the pieces already set on the board at the beginning of the game.

Go is maddeningly simple. It starts with an empty board. Very "Zen". Go pieces are called stones and they are all identical except one player uses black stones and the other uses white stones. Once a stone is placed on the board it stays there and doesn't move unless it's captured.

What makes a go game so intricate and even more complex than chess is the go board. In go the stones are put down on the intersections whereas chess pieces occupy the squares. The chess board has 64 squares but the go board consists of a grid of nineteen by nineteen lines that forms a total of 369 intersections. That makes for many more possible moves than in chess.

A computer has defeated a chess grandmaster but no computer has come close to matching the skills of a professional go player.

The best go players play with an economy of effort. Each move they make does many things at once: extending territory, defending one's stones from capture, capturing the opponent's stones, etc. Certain well placed moves will have more effect in the latter part of the game than when they are first played.

I first learned to play go in my grade eight science club. I've played off and on, but basically neglected it. But all that changed after I watched a dozen or so episodes of "Hikaru no Go".

You can play go on the internet, but it's more fun to play an opponent face to face, snapping the pieces onto the board, rather than having the computer do the work for you.

There is a go club in town. One of the great things about go, which is not true of chess, is that players of unequal strengths can play as near equals by giving the weaker player extra handicap stones. Games are played at the Prince Rupert Public Library almost every week. If you already play go, or would like to learn please come by. For more information you can call me at 622-2716 or email

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