The rules of go are simple. Black and white stones are placed one at a time, black always first, on one of the 361 intersections, each piece making a satisfying thwack as it is slapped onto the fat wood board.
Once placed, the stones don't move, unless they are surrounded and captured. The board starts out empty, and the players, drawing on as many stones as they need, fill in about two-thirds of the 19-by-19-line crosshatching as individual stones form groups and bump up against each other.
The object of the 4,000-year-old board game is to surround more territory than your opponent.
Out of that simplicity blossoms what may be the most profound game of strategy ever devised. Unlike chess, the game remains essentially impenetrable to computers.
For centuries Japanese military leaders and, more recently, business titans have regarded mastery of go as an essential skill for those who have to make real-world decisions amid chaos and uncertainty.
The game unfolds as if a work of art in black and white. In Japan, the best boards, made from kaya wood, and stones of clamshell and slate cost thousands of dollars.
Chess is a Western game of strategy that typically builds a crescendo of focused battle, ending with the death of the king. Go is the quintessential game of the East, with perhaps half a dozen skirmishes raging simultaneously in a negotiation for coexistence. At the end both players are alive; the winner might control only a single intersection more than the loser.
I learned how to play go in 1969 when I was a teenager in Southern California spending weekends at chess tournaments.
I stopped playing because there was nobody to play with. Go is enormously popular in Japan, Korea and China--where the game originated--but not in San Bernardino. There were few books in English on the game.
But over the last 30 years the world has changed. I can sign on to the Internet and find strong opponents any time. Los Angeles has emerged as a center of go playing in the United States because of its fast-growing Asian populations, though the United States in general remains a go backwater. A Chinese go club meets in the San Gabriel Valley; there are two Japanese clubs and at least three Korean. A Hong Kong-born engineer runs a Santa Monica company that publishes more than 60 titles in English on go.
The L.A. Go Club, which has been operating in Koreatown since 1972, is among the strongest and most active in the United States. In the largest playing room, about 50 Korean men smoke cigarettes and gamble small sums of money as they slap glass stones onto wooden boards. From the entryway downstairs, between a Korean bakery and a Japanese restaurant, the parlor sounds like a roomful of dryers tumbling thick-buttoned shirts.
Gary Choi, 52, has owned the club for seven years and managed it since 1984. He charges visitors $5 a day to play. The club, in a rundown mini-mall, operates from 11 a.m. until late into the night; Choi recalls only one day when it was closed, during the 1992 riots.
Every Sunday he hires Yilun Yang, once the youngest professional player in China at the age of 14 and now a well-known teacher and author. Yang, 48, came to the United States in 1986, initially for a short-term visit to give go lessons to children of Chinese families in the Los Angeles area.
He now travels widely and gives lessons 60 to 70 hours a week, often over the Internet.
"Ten years ago nobody here knew what go was," he said. Now everyone he meets seems to know and is curious.
Yang's Sunday lessons, held in a small playing room, are one of Los Angeles' hidden treasures. But they can be humbling.
Yang is ranked as a seven-dan professional. The highest level is nine-dan. (For amateurs, rankings start at 30 kyu and drop to 1 as players get stronger. The next step is then 1 dan, at which point the numbers rise to reflect strength.)
One recent Sunday, Yang studied the black stone I had placed on the grid in front of him for a split second. "Doesn't hurt," he declared.
Yang waited a beat as the half-dozen adult students gathered around him nodded sagely. Then he added, laughing, "Doesn't help, either."
"This is better," Yang said, slapping the black stone onto the very next intersection, following quickly with a white stone and several more in alternation. "Here it's a pincer move, it makes a threat and it's good shape. Here it's nothing."
A 10-year-old boy who attends the lessons saw instantly what took me minutes to digest. There are some regulars, but the group varies from week to week, both in number and strength. Those who have attended several lessons typically address Yang respectfully as "master" or "sensei."
"Is anything urgent?" Yang asked, cajoling his students with axioms about where to focus their thinking. "If not, where is the biggest area?"
Yang wore a polo shirt, khaki slacks and a blue watch and had a merry way about him, even while chiding. When one his students said, "I didn't think of that," in response to a suggestion, Yang came back, "Ray, most good moves are because you didn't think of it. This area has a 1 percent chance of having trouble; this area has a 90 percent chance to have trouble. Which needs help?"
Anybody who becomes immersed in a game like chess or go eventually grapples with why it is so compelling that it occupies your mind like a piece of music or a love affair.
These games create an ordered world with both wonderful and awful consequences based on clear rules. That imaginary world can have an addictive quality.
John Iwanaga believes that's worth studying. "If you could harness those [addictive] qualities and apply them to education," he says, you'd have a valuable tool that could be used to motivate students, explaining the idea behind his doctorate thesis.
Go is the kind of game that seems to penetrate to all reaches of your mind. Nobel Prize-winning author Yasunari Kawabata described one months-long match in his book "The Master of Go":
"It seemed to me that the unmoving stones, as I gazed at them from the side of the board, spoke to me as living creatures. The sound of the stones on the board seemed to echo vastly through another world."
For me the ideas that emerge in games float through my thoughts like refrains of elegant melodies.
One of the most persuasive descriptions of why games connect so deeply with us is outlined by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a University of Chicago psychologist who has written for many years about research into what makes people happy.
In his book "Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience," he suggests that people achieve happiness by learning to control inner experience and that certain activities, including work, art and sport, help us do that.
"The best moments usually occur when a person's body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile," he writes.
Some games create ideal conditions for negotiating between anxiety and boredom. Those conditions include the continual learning of new skills in an ordered arena and a real sense of jeopardy that falls short of overwhelming. When these elements combine, we achieve our highest levels of concentration; the rest of the world recedes and we are happy.
Many go players contend that playing makes you smarter, that every child would benefit from learning the game and that every adult can gain insight into himself by examining his style of play.
"Personality traits come out in go," said David Fotland, a software engineer in San Jose. "The game teaches you that greed and overreaching don't work."
Yang shrugs off the question of why people play go. "It's human," he said. "Being human, it's not just eating and sleeping. That's not enough."
Csikszentmihalyi's analysis satisfies me; go makes me happy.