Go is a very old board game, called Wei Ch'i in Chinese, Igo in Japan, and Baduk in Korean, and is played most heavily where those languages are spoken. I used to dabble in it, and recently in the grip of insomnia discovered that one of the oldest of games is supporting one of the oldest of online communities (and some drop-dead-cool Mac software).

You can learn all about Go on the Net, but to summarize the key points: the rules are simple, anyone can learn them quickly, the moves are much smaller than in Chess and the board is much larger. This means that the strategies are nowhere near cut and dried; you can make a mistake here, dodge nimbly and come back to win the game. It also means that there's much more scope for personal style. And finally, it means that it's a really tough nut to crack for computers. Computers have more or less drawn level with human chess players, but the most sophisticated Go programs can be slaughtered by a human of very moderate accomplishments.

Another nice point about Go is that it's got a really sophisticated handicapping system that allows players of dramatically different skill levels to have involving, exciting games.

What brings this to mind is that last Friday night I had galloping insomnia, and eventually lacked the patience to read, or write, or anything, and discovered that the Internet Go Server, a place I spent a lot of time in ten years ago or so, is up and running and apparently doing just fine, thank you.

As a matter of fact, some of the people I recall from a decade ago were still there. This has to be something of a record in terms of sustaining an online community. There's also NNGS, the "No Name Go Server", and I gather there was some serious acrimony between the IGS people and the NNGS people, but I never did find out what was going on there.

Goban screenshot

There are lots of Internet Chess servers too - places where large numbers of people gather, play games with each other, kibitz on games played by others and just generally hang out. But I never got into chess, so I can't tell you about those.

I first discovered the IGS in the days before the Web - you connected by telnet and the board was drawn in ASCII art. This was pretty poor, since Go boards and stones are typically quite beautiful, and soon there were a variety of graphical clients for Windows and X11, I seem to recall spending many hours with one called WinIGC, which was pretty good and pretty cheap and I bet is still out there.

Goban Mac OS X Icon

Since I'm in Mac-land these days, of course I went looking for an OS X client, and of course there is one that, like much OS X software these days, is just ridiculously elegant and nice. It's called Goban, which is Japanese for Go Board; its icon is to your right, and a screen shot a few paragraphs above; you really need to click and enlarge that screenshot to appreciate the elegant layout and subdued yet effective graphics. (That game eventually came down to a half-point affair, it was a real barnburner. Another nice thing about Go is that there are no ties.)

Goban the program also comes with a builtin version of GNU Go, a Free Software program that plays at a higher-than-beginner level, which is no small accomplishment. Altogether a nice piece of work.

Anyhow, I've revived my account at IGS and maybe I'll play a few games; my handle there is bent4, give me a holler if you see me.

Mildly Humorous Go Anecdotes · (Warning: some use of jargon.)

The Koreans and the Hippie · The Vancouver Go Assocation used to meet twice weekly - it had a large contingent of Koreans, hard-smoking hard-laughing hard-playing guys (hane, then cut, then think). One of the occasional players was a round-eye woman who lived out in the country and had sort of a hippie image - she was buxom, red-headed, and wore overalls and braids. She was a good player and did well in our occasional tournaments. The Korean guys were by and large frightfully sexist, and just hated getting beaten by this woman at their own game; what was really funny was whenever it happened, all the other Koreans would get on the luckless victim and make his life hell, to the accompaniment of general hilarity.

The Prodigy · I was already into my thirties before I discovered Go, and there were a contingent of us middle-aged white guys who played each other a lot at the club and hung out together. This teenage kid joined the club and was quickly revealed to be a prodigy; he eventually became Canadian Junior champion. I remember after one tournament the middle-agers, several of whom had been savaged by the prodigy, went out for beers to console ourselves. “Oh well,” said someone, “to catch up, we'll just have to live longer.”

Sakata! · At some point I believe in the late Eighties I entered the Canadian Open as a 2-kyu, the highest I ever got. Sakata Eio, the Japanese Go god, arguably the greatest player of the (last) century, had a summer place in Vancouver and someone had prevailed on him to come to present the prizes at the Canadian open.

Eio Sakata

I was grinding away in my last-round game, I was over .500 and not out of the running for a prize, when my opponent looked up from the board and turned white as a sheet. I turned around and there's Sakata standing behind me watching our game. He smiled and bowed slightly, I'm afraid all I could do was gasp and boggle. This is like being a weekend duffer on the fourteenth tee and you notice Tiger Woods standing there watching you address the ball.

Thankfully he moved on after only a few seconds; both my opponent and I had fairly shattered nerves, unfortunately mine were a bit more shattered and I had to resign a few minutes later.


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April 01, 2003
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