My nemesis is a 12-year-old named Adam. When I first played Go with Adam Plesser over the summer at Francesca's coffeehouse in Durham, I entered the game with what I thought was a healthy mix of generosity and arrogance. Go easy on him, I thought to myself, he's just a kid.
Wrong. He crushed me, and midway through the game I mumbled something about being tired and resigned in disgrace.
So when I hit Adam in the second round of the 7th Annual Triangle Memorial Go Tournament, which took place two weekends ago, this time I was ready, I knew better, I was prepared to give him no ground and remind him just which one of us is 12.
The oldest board game in the world, Go is played on a wooden board 19 lines high and 19 lines wide; each player takes turns placing one of their colored stones on one of the 361 intersections on the board. The goal is to completely surround as much territory as you can, and if you are able to completely surround an opponent's shape, their pieces are captured and removed.
That's basically all there is to it. There are no special pieces, no knights or bishops or queens, just a series of identical pellets and the shapes that they make. This is why the philosophers Giles Deleuze and Felix Guattari called Go "war without battle lines, with neither confrontation nor retreat, without battles even: pure strategy."
Go has never caught on in America the way chess has, but it remains a major cultural touchstone in Japan, China and the Koreas, with increasing awareness in America due to cameos in movies like Pi and A Beautiful Mind. A computer recently solved checkers, and computers regularly beat world chess champions, but humans are still the masters of Go: Even the best computer is no match for a middle-ranked Go player, and the game is believed by some theorists to be mathematically unsolvable because there are more possible games of Go than there are atoms in the universe.
Although the Internet has made things easier in recent years, for a long time Go players in the United States have had to make due with relatively few opponents. When the Triangle Go Club was founded four decades ago, it had only two members: Duke math professors Joe Shoenfield and Dick Scoville, whom the Memorial Tournament memorializes. Today the club has more than 40 members from all over the Triangle, and last year it hosted the 2006 U.S. Go Congress in Black Mountain through the hard work of local co-directors Paul Celmer and Peter Armenia.
Go players are ranked on a system imported from the martial arts. A complete novice is said to be 30 kyu. As you improve, you count down from 30 to 1 kyu, then up from 1-7 amateur dan, and 1-9 professional dan. (Yes, you can play Go professionally, but you have to be really good.) These ranks differ somewhat from country to country, but with Japan having generally the hardest ranking system and America having the easiest.
The American Go Association handles rankings for amateur players. To give a sense of Go's learning curve, I've been playing on and off since the end of my freshman year of college, eight years ago, and I've progressed only as far as 7 or 8 kyu. The best amateurs have been playing for decades; professionals have been playing nearly their whole lives.
Unlike chess, Go has a built-in handicap system: The difference in skill between each rank is one free move. If a 15-kyu gives a 17-kyu two free moves, it's an even game again; a 1-dan can play an 8-kyu by allowing them nine free plays. The handicap system is what makes organizations like the Triangle Go Club possible; you can arrive every week certain there'll be someone you can play.
But at the Memorial Tournament, with 32 players driving in from as far away as Virginia and Tennessee, these sorts of huge handicaps aren't necessary. The games were paired according to AGA ranking, which meant you only played people roughly as good as you are. In the Memorial Tournament, there were four divisions, with the top three winners in each division taking home a cash prize. In the top division, dominated by first generation Asian Americans, Changlong Wu, a 6-dan who's a Ph.D. candidate in environmental engineering at Duke University, took home first prize for the third time. I could play him a million times and never come close to winning.
Compared to Wu, the curly-haired 12-year-old who sits down across from me for my second-round game is hardly frightening at all. "I think I played you once before," I say, playing it cool.
"Yeah, I think so," he replies, with what looks to me like a little smile, a little hint of overconfidence. Watch out, Adam, it's payback time.
In other contexts, I'm sure Adam, whose younger brother Michael is also in the tournament, is the very picture of adolescent hyperactivity, but while playing Go he fits right in among the adults, never becoming distracted or breaking his concentration, just throwing down the tiles one after another. Because I am ranked slightly higher than him, I play white and he plays black. Neither one of us talks while we play. Go is a quiet game, contemplative and intense, the only sounds the soft clink of the stones against the wood and the periodic gasps of horrid recognition when you suddenly realize that the shape you've spent so much time building is actually surrounded and doomed to die.
Which is what happens to me. What looks at first like an impregnable White stronghold in the upper-left corner of the board is suddenly threatened with capture. All my avenues of escape are cut off, one by one—and when I finally get lucky and do escape, it's only to discover that he's managed to cut off and kill an equally large group in another corner in the meantime. I fought back here and there, got in some good hits, but it was much too little, way too late. The final score was something like 50 to 2—a devastating blowout.
Another crushing defeat, another lesson learned.
Next time we play I'll probably have to let him spot me a move. Or maybe I should play his little brother.
The Triangle Go Club meets three nights a week: Tuesday nights at the Borders on Walnut Street in Cary, Wednesdays at Francesca's in Durham, and Fridays at the Barnes & Noble at Southpoint. There are also weekly games played on the campuses of UNC and NCSU. For more info, visit www.trianglegoclub.org.
Correction (Oct. 11, 2007): Changlong Wu's occupation was misidentified; he is a Ph.D. candidate in environmental engineering at Duke University.