First things first: No, outside of there being white and black pieces placed in alternating turns on a grid, it’s nothing like Othello. And it was invented by the Chinese, but is most often referred to by its spiffy Japanese name: Go.
Go, or wéiqí, was created by Chinese emperor Yao about 4000 years ago and was allegedly invented to help a stupid son learn to think better. Or it was invented by Chinese tribal warlords as a strategy aid. Or it began as a fortune-telling medium.
The reality of the game is more interesting than the lore: Go (碁 in Japanese), baduk (바둑 in Korean), and wéiqí (围棋 in the original Chinese), is a game with true majesty for those who devote themselves to it. For its devotees and for mathematicians in almost equal measure, the game inspires reverence and awe. Due to its extremely open-ended play and staggering mathematical possibilities for variation, the game is by far the hardest to teach computers. That fact, along with the clip below (after the break), from Darren Aronofsky’s film, π (or Pi) sealed it: Go was the game for me.
“Listen to me. The possibilities of game play are endless. They say that no two Go games have ever been alike. Just like snowflakes. So, the Go board actually represents an extremely complex and chaotic universe. That is the truth of our world…there is no simple pattern. — From π, or Pi
Until recently, Go resisted a high level of mastery by computer intelligence, but advances in artificial intelligence and computing power appear to be making lamentable headway. I’d like to think maybe it was just human beings manipulating things behind the scenes that led to this breakthrough. Call me a human sentimentalist and anti-silicon bigot if you like, but I’m just not into the idea of carbon-based people being bested or replaced by our silicon-based creations. I interviewed a Carnegie Mellon robotics expert, Hans Moravec, several years ago, about a book he’d published arguing that people like me are just squeamish and failing to see that robots and machines are simply “children of our minds.” And I can see his point, in a way. If I were someone who spent all of my time with machines and mostly tinkered away happily in my basement, sans human contact, I might find the ineffable qualities of human experience trivial as well. I might mistake a program for a child.
Speaking of children: Watch out for them and do not take them lightly when playing Go! Many are much better than your calcified adult mind might think. When a friend and I took a dawn train from San Francisco to Palo Alto a while back to play at a “qualifying” tournament (to become official card-carrying members of the American Go Association), we faced mostly skilled Korean and Japanese teenagers. Not long after that, in Chengdu, in southwestern China, I briefly received instruction from an 8-dan master, and lost to one of his many students, a 12-year-old kid dressed very oddly like an American Boy Scout.
I also had lunch at a Buddhist temple in Chengdu with my wéiqí teacher and five Russian business students, one from Siberia, the rest from Moscow. Before meeting them, I had fancy visions in my head of meeting some Serious Russian Go Players, but Svetlana, Alexandra, Dmitrii, Anzhela, and another woman who was too cool to offer up a card turned out to be newbies who were drawn to the game more for its reputation than for anything more substantive. I learned during our meal that they had contacted my teacher to learn more about the game because they thought the principles of Go might be useful if applied to business. They wanted to know: what competitive edge might Go-playing give to aspiring businesspeople?
During the lunch, I wondered if I might have offended any of the Russians when I said that Go had ruined me for chess. “Why?” asked Dmitrii pointedly. “Well,” I explained, wary of giving offense to a game that many Russians revere and are quite skillful at, “chess is mechanistic and deterministic, whereas Go is more open-ended, non-deterministic. That’s why it’s easier to teach a computer to play chess than Go.”
After huge amounts of delicious food were gone, we all grew bored of each other and the Russian businesspeople paid the bill.
But I digress. Play Go. Immerse yourself: Start watching Hikaru No-Go, a highly addictive Japanese manga series credited with reviving the popularity of Go in Japan. Then check out Sensei’s Library and learn about the theory, practice, and culture of Go. Learn the ABC’s through an interactive tutorial at The Interactive Way To Go. Solve ranked and categorized problems at Goproblems.com. Then log-on to one of the two major online Go servers: KGS or IGS. Both are free and allow records of games for review. KGS tends to be friendlier and new players can often find helpful instruction and tutorial games with other members.