Thursday, June 12, 2008
If You Like Chess...
Maybe you enjoy a game of chess once in a while, or checkers or mancala. Maybe you've watched or read the Japanese series Hikaru No Go. I've got a book for you. Okay, five books:
Volume 1: Learn to Play Go: A Master's Guide to the Ultimate Game
Volume 2: Learn to Play Go: The Way of the Moving Horse
Volume 3: Learn to Play Go: The Dragon Style
Volume 4: Learn to Play Go: Battle Strategies
Volume 5: Learn to Play Go: The Palace of Memory
Go is called Wei Chi in China, where it originated over 3000 years ago. The Koreans call it Baduk. In Japan, go is the national game, and until recently most of the world's top players were Japanese. Today Korean and Chinese players are some of the dominant figures of go (or whatever you wish to call it), and there are a few westerners who play professionally. This series was translated into English by Janice Kim from the original Korean by Jeong Soo-hyun. He is a top-ranked professional go player and university professor of the game. Volume 5, however, is apparently more the work of Ms. Kim, drawing on what she learned studying in Mr. Jeong's academy. She had fifteen years of professional experience when she published this final volume in 2003.
Go is a strategy and tactics game, as is chess. But it involves capturing territory (The Chinese name for the game translates as "the surrounding game.") rather than a king, so it resembles war more than chess does. Where chess is played on an 8 X 8 grid, the go board is a grid measuring 19 X 19. So instead of 64 places pieces can occupy, there are 361. That many possibilities can overwhelm the beginner. If you are new to the game, it's a good idea to start on a smaller board. On a 9 X 9 board you can learn the rules and grasp the essence of the game. Then, with some experience, move on to the challenge of the full-size board.
Go has a handicap system, so when playing against someone more experienced, winning (or at least a respectable showing) is possible for the less-skilled player. This also helps make the game interesting and challenging for your more skilled opponent.
Reading the first book in the set is enough to get you started and volume one fortunately includes a board and playing pieces (called "stones"). The rules are simple, but the game has so many possibilities that mastering it takes years -- some would say a lifetime. Ms. Kim notes that "The first three volumes are the introductory series, designed to give the reader the most solid foundation possible for quick progress."
"As well as being an interesting amusement, go is also believed by many to develop one's brain power and even build character. One certainly must use one's intellect to play go, but one is also rewarded for awareness, a calm heart, and a sense of purpose. Even though it is not a physical sport, go is categorized as a martial art because of the aspects of self-development involved. That's why go is sometimes called 'The Way of Go' or 'The Teachings of Go.'" (From volume one, page 53)
I host a "Chess and Go" program at our public library. When I teach people to play go, I show them Janice Kim's books. Recently I played against a boy I had taught maybe six months ago. He beat me, which really surprised me. I figure he's been studying Learn to Play Go. Either that, or I teach the game better than I play it. Rats!
Before this set was published in English, Go for Beginners, by Kaoru Iwamoto, was probably the best introduction to the game. I learned the game from it and recommend it without hesitation. But Learn to Play Go is even easier for the beginner. To help the reader, the authors follow instructional chapters with "Test Yourself" sections. When I failed some of those test questions, I benefited from reviewing the material.
My one complaint is that the page layout wastes a lot of space. The series probably could have been published in two or three volumes. That said, Janice Kim has given us an excellent introduction to the game of go.
Beyond the Books
A good way to study the game of go is to replay professional games. An amazing archive of games dating from the eighteenth century to recent championship matches is available for that purpose at http://gobase.org/. As I replay them, I try to figure where the best move would be. Three of the twentieth century's top players were Kitani Minoru, Go Seigen, and Sakata Eio. I like studying their games, especially. Lee Chang Ho is one of today's best. I enjoy studying games he has played against his mentor Cho HoonHyun, and against other 9-dan (the top rank) players. Note that the family name is given first, so GoBase's alphabetical list is searched, for example, for "Sakata," not "Eio." GoBase has other useful resources, as well. It's the best website devoted to go that I've found.