Sunday, May 01, 2005

Go Figure

I've been getting into the game of Go recently.

Go, known as Weiqi in China, is perhaps one of the most popular games in existence, and is probably one of the oldest, being three to four thousand years old verses chess's thousand or so, but is still not very well known in the west. In the east it's much more popular than chess is here. That is to say, many people in the east actually do play go, while most of the people who know how to play chess here in the west actually don't play much, if ever. Chart fancy chess sets owned compared to chess games played...

It's perhaps the supreme example of a deceptively simple strategy game which unfolds endless complexities as one learns it. The rules of play can be explained in a few minutes, and are intuitive enough that people have theorized that go might be played by aliens, because the rules are so simple and geometrically elegant that they would of course be discovered by anyone anywhere.

A tutorial.

The game Othello, beloved of M-----, was advertised by, "A minute to learn. A lifetime to master."

Go is similar, but no promise of mastery is ever implied! Go is never mastered, and "masters" constantly are surprised by new playing styles of bold innovative players.

I was a "smart" kid, got into the "gifted" program at school, and so on. My dad taught me chess at an early age, and I enjoyed the game but let it pass as I grew older. I never really got hooked by chess, but always assumed that it was "smart" and that chess skill somehow reflected intelligence. I never got interested enough to become really talented at the game, but I could hold my own and not play like a complete idiot. M----- actually has an attitude against the game, from when her supposed teacher in the gifted program she endured made everyone play chess because that's what smart people did. eek.

In high school I learned how to play bridge, and quickly learned that bridge is by far the most complicated card game ever. So far as ordinary strategy games went, I always assumed that chess was the ultimate board game, and that bridge was the ultimate card game. Other games were certainly interesting but in comparision were ultimately lacking in depth of possibility. Yes, I became an annoying little snot in many ways.

Both bridge and chess are complex and involved enough to provide a lifetime of interesting discovery, the hallmark of a truly great game.

Actually, that's the hallmark of a truly great anything.

But when I learned go, and studied it a bit, all other games suddenly became simple to me. The level of possibility and complexity that go provided was inexpressibly more rich than any other game I'd ever encountered. The variety of possible chess or bridge games seemed to shrink down to niggling variations, while the possibilities of go experience seemed wide open. Go is both global and local, requiring play of subtle broad and long term strategy yet offering vicious tactical local interaction. Chess is ultimately local, since nothing is ever more than eight spaces away from anything else, and all play focuses upon the kings.

The smallest go game anyone takes even remotely seriously is 9 x 9, and that's commonly referred to as a teaching board. The standard game is played on a 19 x 19 board.

One interesting thing to note is that chess has effectively moved into the realm of computers. Chess has been analyzed to such an extent that chess programs can beat all but the best of human players, and those the programs can fight to a draw. Just today I read that a new go program running on a network of 75 new computers was beat 8-0 by mid-level go enthusiasts. Amateurs, not pros. This is typical.

Go is so much more possible that the very best programs can't even beat decent amateur players. Professional go players don't even deign to bother with computer programs. Go has been "completely solved" as the game theorists like to say on a 5 x 5 board, and athe 9 x 9 "teaching" size is certainly well beyond modern game theory or computer science.

All that I'm trying to say here is that chess seems to be becoming less popular now that the goal of mastering it is now dominated by computer programs. Why bother?

Go remains an art which is truly an art, as it's not subject to any logic, and mastery of which is most effectively transmitted by spending time with a master. An average person with effort can become better than the best computer program out there. Really. Go is at its heart a fundamentally human game.

Go has been a feature of movies lately, like in A Beautiful Mind and Pi. In A Beutiful Mind the artistic aspect of go is noted when Nash plays a "perfect game" and still loses!

I'm also finding that it's just a much more beautiful game to experience. The patterns of form that the game evolves are some of the prettiest to be found in the game world. Get yoruself a full-sized wooden board and some nice stones, and just playing at all becomes a wonderfully satisfying aesthetic experience. Meditative and centering.

My favorite Go equipment dealer is Yutopian. I bought my board and stones there and a gift board with the same stones for my friend Mike which he loves, all quite reasonably.

If you'd like to find a go group in your area, try the American Go Association.

If you'd like to play me, I'm fatoudust on Dragon Go Server.

Sensei's Library, linked to above, is a fantastic source of information, but feel free to ask me and I'll do my best to answer any questions. Go's an amazingly friendly game!

Other thoughts on Chess verses Go: here and here.

Go vs. Chess is oddly similar to my recent discussions about Linux vs. Windows, and I think it's an interesting comparison. Seeming complexity and power verses actual complexity and power.


Anonymous Sam said...

I never liked chess much...I'm not sure why but I never had fun playing it. Scrabble will always be the best board game in my opinion. And I learned to play bridge a few months ago. It's fun, but I'm terrible at it.

10:48 PM  
Blogger fatoudust said...

Scrabble is awesome! My favorite word game by far... ah... fond memories of playing "quartz" on a triple-word-score... good times...

12:12 AM  
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