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Going, going, gong.

December 30, 2011 at 4:57 AM


Some months back I decided I was going to try and master the oriental game of Igo (It`s Chinese, Korean and Japanese.) This simple looking game, consisting of placing black or white stones on a checkered board in order to make territory, is one of the oldest games in existence. It actually dates back to around 4000 BC or at least before the first edition of `Basics.` It is said to have the second greatest number of players in the world after Chinese Chess and is exceptionally popular in Korea where ten percent of the population play; it has its own TV channel and there are as many `Igo` cram schools as there are regular cram schools in Japan. That is saying something!

The basic moves of the game are so simple they can be learnt in about two hours. The depth of philosophy, strategy and reasoning involved in the game is so deep it boggles the mind. In Japan (and probably elsewhere) it is regarded as a serious martial art. Not surprising it is compulsory for anyone studying to be an officer at the Chinese Military Academy. It is so inherently complex no computer has been designed that can play against even an average professional player. The number of possible patterns are not quantifiable like chess, and are said to be greater than the estimated number of atoms in the Universe. Recent research show that the constant manipulation of patterns by the mind has a significant preventive effect on the development of brain atrophy/diseases as one ages.

There is one proverb/aphorism among the millions associated with the game I like: `Lose your first fifty games quickly and then you can start to play.` I think I passed that mark a long time ago but who is counting?

I enjoy making comparisons with learning this skill and the violin. There are certain things one `must do` in order to play Igo which are hard disciplines to acquire. The same things apply on the violin. The only difference is that in the former case one is soundly spanked within 20 minutes, with the latter one simple endures years of small success without knowing why. Personally, I prefer the former.

First of all one cannot play without `reading,` what is going to happen in the mind`s eye first. In the same way, one should never practice without `visualizing,` (same meaning) first. To pick up the violin and play without thinking is so utterly normal for so many and yet it means nothing. One is being led by the notes on the page and nothing more. This is exactly the same as the two concepts `sente` and `gote` in Igo. The former means that one plays and the opponent has to respond to your action. The latter means you are simply following your opponent around responding to every attack she makes while producing very little of your own self. In music too, we can follow a score passively or we can `decide` how we are going to play something and make it ours. Bend the score to our will and find out how it responds. We may then have to take a step back into `gote` but that is part of the process.

Beginner players at Igo, based on my experiences of daily play on the Internet, typically don`t grasp the concept of `opening game,` `middle game,` and `closing game.` In the same way we have to make choices when learning a piece about what we are trying to do. Set out the overarching structure? Finding the peak moment? Or `Working on the nitty gritty so it`s more or less ready for performance?` Or `The Polishing stage minute where tremendous gains and losses can hinge on the smallest detail?`
The weakness of Igoists ;) who attack like crazy in one area before even setting out the overall conceptual framework is they get bogged down. In this case one does a `tenuki` (sort of `pulling out the hand`) and makes a big play somewhere else. Bored and in a rut with practice? Pull out a lot of new stuff and work on it. Or study a Beethoven quartet for a week; or memorize a work without touching the instrument.....

Igo is a high speed game. One can learn a great deal from playing again and again with an opponent but that is limited. Dan players (high level) can look at a situation and solve it instantly. Beginners can`t do this but there is no time to work things out. An interesting conundrum which is the same as sight reading! In Igo one practices solving `tsumego,` (life and death situations) on paper until the shapes and patterns become automatic. Sound familiar? Finger patterns and scales n`est pas? Without this grind one can never really play pieces very well. Never really improve.

I like the idea of equating scales with `life and death.` Puts the whole issue in perspective.

Now there is just the question of what to do with `dat steenking moggie,` who keeps jumping on my Igo board.


From Emily Hogstad
Posted on December 30, 2011 at 4:09 PM
Wise wise words. I'm embarrassed I've never heard of this game. It sounds fascinating. Thanks for sharing.
From Yixi Zhang
Posted on December 31, 2011 at 5:35 AM
Buri, interesting analogy! As a kid, I was a pretty proficient Chinese chess (not Igo) player. I too see a lot of similarities between the Chinese chess and violin playing. For instance, you must have a game plan before you start your first move. You must quickly size up the opponent (or the music you are going to work on) and decide whether you want to play offence or play safe. You know you are losing soon if you are constantly on the defense. But it’s not always possible to be in charge, especially when the opponent is much stronger than you are. In such case, you know you won’t likely to win but, this is the exciting part with chess but not so much with violin, the tougher the opponent is, the more fun a game is for me because there are always so much I can learn by alternating offensive and defensive strategies to keep the game going as long and meaningful as I can. With violin, if the piece is clearly beyond my reach, it’s unproductive for me to continue working on it.

I also find playing chess very much, if not more, like doing philosophy. They both require a lot of thinking and can look really complicated at first, as they seem to have endless options for different ways of coping with opponents’ challenging moves or arguments. But after you have worked on these games for a while, you will see patterns and you will realize that in vast majority cases the options are not infinite and to some extent choices for the next move can be rather predictable. This is similar to violin playing in that after a few years of study, one should be able to tell common problems every violinist would one time or the other face and there are finite amount of solutions for fixing.

This is the comforting part of learning that we can see some coherence and feel proficient in all these activities/games. The hardest part is going beyond this stage and become a true master. I never seem to be able to get to that point.

From Geoff Caplan
Posted on December 31, 2011 at 11:20 AM

An Igo comment you made in a post a few weeks ago has got me playing again after decades - thanks for that! You had reminded me that it really is one of the most beautiful creations of the human mind. The inexorable simplicity of the rules is such that the great chess player Bent Larsen once said "If there are civilisations on other planets, they will undoubtedly be playing Go". There are few human creations with a claim to perfection, but for me Igo is close to the top of the list.

As for the violin, is there any sphere of life that can't be illuminated by this wonderful game?

For me, a great insight is the interrelated concepts of shape and efficiency. This means placing your stones in balanced, flexible but connected patterns so that whichever direction they are attacked from, they can skip lightly away towards safety.

As a beginner on the violin, I'm finding that the single most important issue is to find the body shapes that are most balanced and flexible, so that whatever the demands of the music I can respond with the minimum of fuss and disturbance. Just the simple stuff - preparing properly for string changes, so the movement is minimised. Balancing the left hand and placing the fingers with lightness and spring.

I once heard a 9 dan go professional (world champion level) with a reputation for the beauty of his play say that his secret was just to do the simple things correctly. I suspect it's the same with the violin - the great players are those that took the trouble to truly master the skills covered in volume one of every method. Come to think of it, that's a pretty handy New Year's resolution...

From marjory lange
Posted on December 31, 2011 at 3:51 PM
Buri, is Igo the same as the game "Go?" played with marbles or tiles to enclose your opponent? If so, it's an amazing game, even for a solo player.

(They make a board with indentations for the pieces, rather than laying them on squares. That might discourage your malevolent moggie from demolition.)

Your typing was wonderful on this blog! I almost didn't think it was you (and I'm not being catty; I enjoy the cryptic posts).

From Stephen Brivati
Posted on December 31, 2011 at 8:53 PM
Hi Majory,
I guess that@s the one. But not only ensoing opponent, territory is important. A lesson my cat has yet to learn.
Odldy enough, the great Igo boards (which are hugely expensive) are chosen to have a wood thta make sa gorgeous clunking noise as the stone is placed. Over the years such boards do become indented.
From Patrick Tinney
Posted on January 1, 2012 at 2:39 AM
I have always know it as just Go, but when I looked for stones in the local Koren markets (the less expensive glass ones) I had to call it baduk, though one store owner insisted that it is pronounced paduk.

Not unlike violins the better Japanese boards (tables) a “floor-standing Kaya goban” can run $10K to $60K, kaya being the type of tree.

I read somewhere that the best goban are marked by a master using a samurai sword dipped in ink.

I couldn’t find it but there is a very old print showing a couple of samurai playing Go using a square patterned cloth with flowers for the stones. So you might get away with a lesser board. The vinyl ones don’t make that nice clicking sound we work so hard to get. Kind of like a cheap bow, fishing line anyone.

I no longer attempt to play Go. If I have time for a game I try to do something a bit simpler, like chess. I should introduce the boys to Go (again) but they are just really starting to like chess so maybe during the summer.

A Koran accompanist I used to work with told me that baduk was mainly an excuse to sit around and smoke cigarettes. I think she had a brother or two in mind. She was an excellent accompanist though.

From marjory lange
Posted on January 1, 2012 at 8:18 PM
Although it might lack the elegance of a beautiful Igo board, maybe magnetized would work with your cat (till you teach him/her to play--but that means you would ALWAYS lose; cats are master strategists).
From Terry Hsu
Posted on January 2, 2012 at 1:57 AM
I used to play a fair amount of Go before having kids. I found one of the most interesting concepts the one of miai. Miai is a situation where there are two equivalent moves such that when your opponent picks one, you pick the other. It somehow seemed to work that despite the equivalence of the moves, somehow putting the miai question to one's opponent tends to work to one's advantage.

My wife got me a beautiful go set for my birthday many years ago. I've tended to play more chess than go, but go is a truly beautiful game. A wonderful, seemingly contradictory, fascinating addictive game.

From Paul Deck
Posted on January 2, 2012 at 3:27 AM
Chess is a fine game too. It is quite sophisticated in its own way although it lacks the purity and symmetry and deeper elegance of Go. It's been said that skill at chess is the sign of a wasted youth. I didn't find much analogy between chess and violin as a boy. Maybe I was too ignorant to have noticed. I found stronger (albeit emotional, rather than logical) connections to the visual arts. Maybe all pursuits that involve patterns and mental discipline are all destined to be related. The Eternal Golden Braid, etc.

@Terry is miai analogous to zugzwang?

From Terry Hsu
Posted on January 2, 2012 at 3:51 AM

I always thought the saying went "skill at darts was a sign of a misspent youth." :)

Miai has some similarity to zugzwang in chess, but zugzwang generally is pretty catastrophic, whereas miai is a more subtle advantage.

I think of miai as perhaps the fundamental go concept since go is all about tradeoffs. When one gets a really sophisticated sense of miai then one seems to get into the "zen" of go.

I think that the fundamental concept of chess is checkmate. While puzzles are valuable, there is no more deadly combination then one which administers checkmate.

In chess it is possible to be quite viciously aggressive. As an example, one can threaten checkmate multiple times in a sequence and that is often quite valuable. But in go, when one plays very aggressively it tends to backfire. One can capture a great many of one's opponent's stones but typically end up losing large amounts of area in the process.

Perhaps this give and take and seeking of balance makes go more musiclike than chess. But there were many chessplayers who played the violin and vice versa. Sergei Prokofiev and David Oistrakh used to play chess together regularly. The pianist Mark Taimanov was a chess grandmaster who played Bobby Fischer in 1972. After losing 6-0 to Fischer, he said "Oh, well, there's always the piano."

From Yixi Zhang
Posted on January 2, 2012 at 5:45 AM
Terry, very interesting discussion! In traditional Chinese culture, four main artistic accomplishments required of a Chinese scholar are "qin"(musical instrument), "qi"(chess), "shu" (calligraphy) and "hua"(painting). Having been brought up in such culture, I always have a difficult time to view chess as a form of sports or game. And yes, and one can always get comfort in other form of arts if one is losing to another chessplayer.

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