"Your play is somehow inorganic . . . unliving. It has the beauty of a crystal, but lacks the beauty of a blossom." -- From the novel "Shibumi," by Trevanian.
To the 50-odd fans who were watching him in action here, Cho Hoon Hyun's playing had the beauty of a blossom. He would pick up a white stone delicately between the index and middle fingers of his right hands, look for a split second at the intersecting lines crisscrossing a yellow, wooden board, and put it down decisively on an intersection -- perhaps next to another white stone and eyeball-to-eyeball with a black one.
It was a quite gesture and, to all appearances, a simple one. But in the moment between picking up the stone and setting it down, Cho had performed a kind of lightning mental caculation that is still beyond the power of any computer. He is one of the world's top half-dozen players in the ancient Oriental game of Go, which looks simple but is probably the oldest, subtlest and most complicated board game in the world.
Sunday evening in the basement of the Central United Methodist Church in Arlington (where the Arlington Go Club meets on Monday evenings), the 28-year-old Korean champion took on 16 Washington players -- simutaneously. He beat 15 of them.The lone local winner, apparently a fellow Korean, seemed almost embarrassed at his victory and declined to give his name. "I think I was luck," he said.
"You play only against the situation on the board; you deny the importance -- the existence even -- of your opponent . . . There is something devilish in this. Something cruelly superior. Arrogant, even. And at odds with your goal of shibumi." -- From "Shibumi"
Go is a game for gentlemen, for artists. Its vocabulary lacks entirely the slang terms of derision which are so abundant in chess: "patzer," woodpusher," "fish," "turkey." It has a 4,000-year-old tradition, and part of that tradition is respect for the person sitting across the board.Perhaps that is why, until recently, it has not made much headway in the United States.
In the last year or two, several million Americans have heard of Go for the first time.It is one of the thematic elements in Trevanian's best-selling novel, "Shibumi," whose hero Nicholai Hel is a Go player, a spelunder, an expert in the arts of love and professional killer -- just the sort of person to become the ideal of any red-blooded American boy.
"I'm here because I read 'Shibumi' last week and it intrigued me. It's a great book," said one fan going into the church. "I didn't know anything about the game, and I thought it might be interesting. I've also joined a local caving club."
"The point in 'Shibumi' is that you reach a certain stage, a certain level in your life, and this game is one way you get there," said a woman, also going in to see her first game of Go.
What they saw, in Cho's 16 games and illustrated lecturer-demonstration that he gave with the aid of a translator, was essentially an infantry game. Unlike chess, which has pieces of various ranks and the tactical equivalents of cavalry and artillery, all Go stones are created equal. After they are placed on the board one at a time they stay put. The board has 19 vertical and 19 horizontal lines, and the stones (black moves first, white second) are placed on the 361 intersections of those lines.
The object is primarily to contrl territory, secondarily to surround, cut off and thereby capture your opponent's stones. The winner is the one who has encircled the most terrain and kept the most uncaptured stones at the end. Nothing to it -- except that, as you play, it seems to become more and more complicated. A chess game can often be won by the daring of a single nobleman or the cooperation of two or three highly mobile pieces. Go is a whole campaign, with many battles going on simultaneously which are won or lost by foot soldiers who blockade fronts and hold open the lines of communication. "A player can win most of the battles and end up losing the war," says Washington Go player Joe Engel. "You have to have a total grasp of the board."
The 16 Go boards on which Cho's opponents were playing were spread on long tables forming a hollow square. Cho -- who, with his dark hair and thin features, vaguely, resembles world chess champion Anatoly Karpov -- paced around the inside of the square, stopping briefly at each board to glance at the situation and put down a stone, before moving on to the next opponent.
His adversaries sat on folding chairs around the outer rim of the square, gazing at their boards with speculative or puzzled looks, tentatively putting down a black stone while the master was away to see how it would look, then picking it up again. Some of them left theirs in place. In simultaneous Go, unlike chess, a player does not have to wait until the master is present to make his move: The master of Go is expected to be able to tell what move has been made with one glance at the board -- and afterward to be able to replay all 16 games from memory.
Each of Cho's opponents was given a handicap of farom three to nine stones.
These were carefully set down on the board in positions established by the centuries-old ritual of the game.
"In Korea or Japan, a master would not play this many opponents at once," said Lee, the president of the Korean Go Club. "One at a time is the rule. It's more serious that way." Also differing from tradition were the boards, which were in the flat modern style rather than slightly hollowed out under the center to make a resounding noise when the stone is slapped down.
"Your scorn for mediocrity blinds you to its vast, primitive power . . . The amoeba outlives the tiger because it divides and conquers in its immortal monotony." -- From "Shibumi"
Go is intensively cultivated in three countries: China, where it orginated and is called Wei Ch'i; Korea, where it is called Ba Dook; and Japan, which received it from Korea and calls it Go. In these countries, it is said that a player of average ability has to play 10,000 games befor reaching the lowest rank of professional play. At a rate of one game per day (and a serious game of Go can easily take a whole day), that comes to 27 years. Cho Hoon Hyun is 28 years old, and only one step below the highest possible rank for a professional Go player. But of course, he had more than average ability, and he started young.
"I began," he recalls, "looking over my father's shoulder while he played, and I developed an instant interest in the game." He entered his first professional tournament to test his strength when he was 7. "I used to play very fast when I was little," he says, "and most of my opponents were the old men of my village, who took a long time moving. While they were thinking about their moves, I would run away and play. This was considered an embarrassment in a Confucain society which venerates old people."
Now, as the top player in Korea, Cho wins about $50,000 per year. This is less than half of what a player of similar strength might expect to win in Japan, where there is more affluence and Go is an obsession for much of the population. But winnings are only the beginning of income for a man whom his countrymen treat something like a top athlete, something like a favorite performing artist. Lessons, books and articles, even endorsement of brand names in the style of a top tennis or golf player, are other sources of income. n
In the United States, he is a stranger, except to a handful of American Go players and a somewhat larger community of Koreans. About half the crowd at his lecture-demonstration seemed to need no interpreter to understand what he was saying. One of them was Dr. Jongsoo Lee, president of the Korean Ba Dook Association which has 70 to 80 members in the Washington area. "There are at least 2,000 Korean players in the greater Washington area," says Lee. "But most of them play only at home or with friends." The Korean organization sponsors an annual tournament but does not hold regular weekly meetings, unlike the three local American clubs. Besides the Arlington club, where Cho played, there are the Greater Washington Go Club, which meets Friday evenings at Cedar Lane Unitarian Curch in Bethesda, and the University of Maryland Club, which meets on Tuesday evening in the Student Union building and welcomes players
The American Go Association a volunteer organization with about 800 members and virtually no budget, sponsors a national championship match each year, preceded by regional Eastern and Western championship tournaments and is now trying to raise funds to bring some of China's top Go experts according to one member, is composed largely of "reformed chess players." Others at Cho's demonstration confirmed the sense if not the wording of this claim.
"I use to be a chess player," said John Goon, program coordinator of the Greater Washington Go Club, "and I think nine-tenths of the Americans here are former chess players. About five years ago, I was beginning to feel burnt out in chess. Having attained the rank of expert, I found myself studying a lot more and progressing a lot less. In Go, I found a feeling of infinite depth, unlimited growth possibilities. After you have played Go for a while, the chess board, with only 64 squares, seems a very limited field of action. In comparison, Go has an awesome scale, cosmic proportions."
But it is still a game relatively unfamiliar to most Americans, who tend to learn it in their mid-20s or later, while Orientals usually begin to play it in childhood. Looking around at the Americans playing against Cho, Jongsoo Lee seemed polite but not very impressed. "They are very sincere," he said, "they read books and learn fast -- but when you start late, there is a limit to how far you can go."
"Do not fall into the error of the artisan who boasts of 20 years experience in his craft while in fact he has, had only one year of experience -- 20 times." -- from "shibumi"
Goon says, "I know of only one American professional Go player in this country, on the West Coast. He is trying to make a living at it and charging $20 per lesson, which is not high by Japanese standards. But we also have two Americans seriously pursuing professional careers now in Japan. James Kerwin is an active player at the entry level of professional Go, which is called the One Dan level -- the professional ratings go up to Nine Dan and Cho is an Eight Dan. There is also Michael Redmond, who is only 16 years old and very promising. He went to Japan a few years ago and played a few trial games with a professional who agreed to accept him as an apprentice."
Having lost games to both Japanese and Korean players, Goon takes a philosophical approach to the different styles: "At the top levels, each player is unique, but on the amateur level, the Japanese tend to be more esthetic about it and cultivate a broader conception of the game as a whole, with an orientation toward its long-range strategic potentials. Koreans are more agressive and tactical. When you play a Korean, you expect a bloody, hand-to-hand combat. The Japanese are more delicate and subtle -- it hurts just as much, but it hurts later."