The subtle art of playing Go

Go is like life… a universe where you alone are master of the game.
Takemyia Masaki « Le Go cosmique », Editions Algo

In that typically Asian soberness of style, equipped with a wooden crisscrossed board containing 361 intersections, called a Goban, and the Black and White stones that go with it, you are ready to enter a world where strategy and tactics are little more than instructive pretexts for perpetual self-discovery.

The rules of Go are simple: the Goban is an empty space that has to be shared. In order to do this, two adversaries alternatively place a stone on an intersection. The object is to encircle zones which will be called territories. But pacifism is not always acceptable: a rule permitting the « taking » of stones allows one to contest an adversary’s territory by « suffocating » it. Even if the game of Go is governed by rules of equilibrium concerning forces and exchange, the Goban is sometimes also a place where agression wins out over notions of friendly co-operation because of the bloodthirsty battles there. And where the death of a seemingly unimportant cluster can lead to victory.

Of all the large family of board games, the game of Go comes out looking well: more than 50 million people play in Asia, and more and more Europeans are letting themselves be seduced by the game’s simple rules and complex developments. According to history, the game appeared in China 4000 years ago and followed the route of conquest. The game then spread to Korea and Japan. It was the latter, though, which brought the game to his highest point of development. The aristocratic circle of XVII century Japan perfected it, and it wasn’t until the XIX century that the game appeared in Europe. In France, the game had not really begun to be played until 1969. It was at this time that a large part of the original vocabulary describing the game was recorded.

The rules of the game are so simple and natural that even children from the age of 4 can learn them. The game helps in developing the visual memory of forms and the the capacity to concentrate. But this does not mean that becoming a skilful player of Go does not require having other qualities. The wealth of combinations and forms make the game arduous for those who do not like to push their minds as far as the first point is concerned, the number of possible situations for 6 moves is one million times greater than chess. Numerous books deal with the second point. There, sequences are studied and optimised.

The intellectual wealth can bring the amateur to the point of addiction. And this is also one of the reasons why computer scientists are fascinated by developing programs which can play Go. After Deep Blue, the almost unbeatable chess computer, the next challenge is to develop a program which can play Go correctly. Today, even if it is thought that the idea most likely to succeed has more to do with artificial intelligence than the raw force of calculation, the day when an artificial adversary as competent as a human is a reality is still far off. And if a computer will one day be powerful enough to foresee all possible moves, what will become of the notions of force, equilibrium of stones and the beauty of forms…?

Even if Go is valued as a model for economics and computer-science (many management training programs use it as a basis for analysis), it is still only a game. And it is on the internet that it has recently become the most popular, in the same manner as other games. But, be careful! Not only is there the problem of the isolation inherent to this form of communication, but also of a certain sort of intellectual slump waiting to attack a player. It is actually very easy to stick to only one strategy, good or bad, and never to go beyond because of an absence of outside criticism. In short, if the internet has brought obvious progress to the world of Go, it is no substitute for the pleasure of being initiated by a club, the electric, hushed atmosphere of a tournament, or a devilish little match between friends.

Read this article in French…