Friday, April 15, 2011

Green Eggs and Eyes (Go) + Haaaaroooo! *jowl wagging* Nixon Gets in Early, B*tches! (1960)

So I (Kozure) have been meaning to get in better touch with my Japanese roots and force myself to play a game of Go.

A little background... I dislike abstract games. I would use the word "loathe", except that I really appreciate the effort and clarity of vision that is required to distill a game into its most intrinsic elements. That said, if you pull out a game of Dvonn or Yinsh or Nqyltz or whatever, I get the same sensation that I would feel if I were asked to participate in a three day symposium on the economic theory behind 18th century Paraguayan quantity surveying; I'm sure would be enjoyable for some people on this planet - I am not one of those people.

For me, Go fell into the same category of pre-5AM push-ups; I knew that I would benefit from doing it, but the thought of the effort required wasn't making me rush out to start.

However, I force myself to eat fish because I know it's good for me (my Japanese ancestors finger their ghostly wakizashi short swords in shame), even though I dislike the taste, texture and look of most cooked fish, but I eat it nonetheless, so I felt it was time that I swallowed my mental gag reflex and gave Go a decent shot.

The other thing that held me back is that for such a simple game, I could tell that it is dripping with deep strategies. Strategies within strategies. Strategies within strategies within strategies. Strategies so strategic that it reaches a Zen state of strategy. Literally.

I am bad at strategy. Not horrendously bad, good enough that I can tell that I am bad, which is probably both a blessing and a curse. I can hold my own in some strategic games, but in most games where very long term strategy is key, I will be used as a mop to wipe up the blood of my countless slaughtered gameboard minions.

"But," I said to myself, "this is Go, we're talking about here. This is a game where gameplay is rumoured to be so eloquent that Zen masters can hold off of bashing their students about the noggins for several days just to finish a game."

"Self," I said, "You need to play this game."

So, I borrowed a copy from a friend, along with a strategy guide, read the rules and... put it back on the shelf. It's been sitting there for nigh on two years (the friend told me to hang onto the game). I just couldn't wrap my head around the strategy or the appeal.

Recently my wife introduced our eldest son to chess. As an highly-strategic abstract (albeit a wargame-y one), I have a sort of love-hate relationship with chess. I love it because it's a battle, the figures and the board are just so beautiful in all of their incarnations, and its obviously such a remarkably distilled and studied game. I hate it because it's intimidating to game with a better player, and my strategic skills are not such that I feel equal to playing others with any modicum of skill. Playing chess with my son again reminded me of the classical beauty of the game - the strategy involved was deep, but the game itself was also pleasurable.

Recently our games night attendance has dropped to two at times for a variety of reasons, so I took another deep breath and proposed that Shemp and I play Go. He's played before, but not often - he thinks 12 or 15 times - not often that I'd be embarrassed to even venture to compete, anyway.

Now Shemp cares very little for theme. It's not that he dislikes them, but he doesn't care one way or the other if a game is well-themed. I'm almost on the other side of the spectrum. I want that "real-world" connection. I want to simulate the trajectory of a APCBC round from a M1 57mm anti-tank gun smacking into the Zimmermit-slathered front glacis of a PzKfw V Panther Ausf G tank. I want my cubes to be representative of specific commodities, not generic "colours". I want theme!


(deep breath)

We start simple. 9 x 9 grid. We pick randomly for side. I've read enough of the strategy to place somewhere in the middle of one of the quadrants. I pick a point and play a stone. Shane initially plays conservatively and starts into his own little quadrant. I start to flesh out an eye, then he comes at me with an aggressive play. I treat it like a wargame and consolidate my position, forming a line and linking my chains. I realize there is a definite real-world connection - the connected lines of orthogonal plays are like battle lines, strong, but requiring "supply" in the form of liberties. He continues to push. I try to lengthen my lines. He continues to push. Even with simple stones and points, there is an amazing simulation going on here.

I see the inklings of strategies and how they relate to board position begin form in my mind. He is pushing me. Fine, I will push back. Then, I push too far. I realize I have overextended. I can keep trying to develop this salient, or I can approach it from a different angle. I realize I am throwing good money after bad and play into another quadrant of the board.

Shane looks at me with a expression of mild surprise, "Good play."

(later he says he saw "the penny drop" in my mind)

The game develops. Shane develops a strong chain in the centre, but I am trying for an envelopment strategy. Unfortunately he's too quick and experienced and manages a stable two eye structure. He's also seen the weakness of another portion of my line and starts attacking it. I attack in another direction to change tempo. He backs off his attack to shore up his own flank. I take the breathing room to shore up my chains. He comes back at me, but this time I've got a better footing. He makes a play to get around behind.

I try another angle - I realize that I can also feint, and sacrifice, much as in chess.

At this point, I realize I've been thinking too linearly - too much in terms of real-world strategy. New perceptions open up. This sounds trite/clichéd, but the game is opening up to me. It's like a chime has rung in my mind. Lines are static, conservative. Diagonals are dynamic, aggressive.

We continue playing, but with each stone, I'm trying to drop my pre-conceptions of warfighting and concentrate on the simple - life and death - and then "zoom out" to the complex - stable systems - growing systems, dying systems.

Basho's frog leaps into the pond.

I am playing now with thought, but also "no thought" - I reach a point where I think I have managed a good position, but I will have to fight to the finish to be sure. We are grappling over the interstitial spaces between our strong chains and some of the edges of the board. I've managed an anchor of sorts in one corner, he has one, one is denied to either of us and we're fighting for the third.

Then, suddenly, Shemp says, "I pass."

I've forgotten completely that's an option in gameplay. I blink for a moment and consider the board. Have I missed something? I think back to the rules. My recollection is that if both players pass in succession the game is ended. I ask if that's the case.

He nods, knowingly.

I look at the board. I think I have won. I don't know enough about the game to be sure.

"I believe that I have more empty points," I begin, uncertainly, "so if I pass at this point, I win, correct?"

He smiles broadly.

I pass as well. I have won my first game of Go.

This game is amazing. I couldn't grasp it until I was playing but it is astoundingly deep. Even knowing going in how deep it was, I didn't realize it - couldn't internalize it.

I don't know how easy Shemp was going on me. Perhaps he was holding back, perhaps not. He's not the type to hold back usually, and he's only played just over a dozen times. I'll chalk it up to luck backed up with a little skill.

Or, as my dabblings in the river of Zen has taught me, "Zen mind, beginner's mind."

I asked for another game, but Shemp wanted a rematch in 1960: Making of the President last night. We randomly chose candidates - I got Nixon this time. Again it was a close game in the end, but I won 299 votes to Kennedy/Shemp's 238. AGAIN it came down to Cook County deciding Illinois and Early Returns from Connecticut deciding California. I had leapt to an early lead in the South and West, and we really duked it out in the Midwest and East.

He snaked Texas and Pennsylvania from me in the last turn, and almost (almost!) got California as well with two CA cards in his campaign strategy hole. Nice try, Jack. Maybe in 1964!

Good game, good opponent, great night. (Except for thinking I had left the games on the roof of my car, asking Shemp to go look for them in the streets outside my house, and then discovering I had left them on his washing machine in the basement)


  1. For the record, I wasn't holding back in the game of Go. I was playing much more aggressively than I normally would, with [slightly] less consideration. [Mainly I wanted to make sure we had time for 1960, and see what happened when I played aggressive.] [I found out.]

    You're full credit for the win in my eyes.

  2. I've tried go 3-4 times, but always vs. AI and it's never been very compelling that way. Maybe against humans it's easier to discern intention. Who knows.

  3. You should try against a human opponent. Apparently computer AI for Go is extremely difficult to code and few get it right.