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Go Crazy 

To its obsessed fans, Go isn't just a board game. It's a way of life, a key to building better computers, and maybe even the savior of American education.

Wednesday, Feb 28 2001
Right now, somebody somewhere is losing a game of checkers. Imagine for a moment that one of these losers has suffered a checkers loss so thorough, so soul-killing, that he comes to believe life has no meaning. So he makes his way to the Golden Gate Bridge. There, he pauses to look at the magnificent panorama set before him, mutters a few sad oaths through the tears that mix with sea spray, climbs the railing, and jumps -- his checkers-ruined body crushed in the cold, churning waters of the Pacific.

What would we think of such a person? We would think that such a person is a damn fool. And we would be right.

But what seems odd in the context of most games becomes rational and sane in the world of the ancient board game Go. People can be fans of checkers, Yahtzee, or solitaire, but you won't find obsessed scholars of those games; chess players take their game seriously, but few bestow it with the deep meanings, potential, and emotions that Go players do with their chosen game. There are indeed stories of Go players brought to the brink of suicide -- or over it -- by the game. There are people so devoted to Go that they have made it their full-time profession. And there are people who feel, quite soberly, that the game can help save American public education. When Go aficionados hear such stories and claims, they hardly blink. Wanting to kill yourself after playing Go is extreme, sure, but not unheard-of. Hell, it's practically a sign of progress.

Go doesn't look terribly seductive on its face. Its equipment is simpler than chess -- just a grid and some black and white stones. The basic rules are even simpler; a child can learn them in an afternoon. But mastering the game is a lifelong, and sometimes life-consuming, effort. In Asia, where the game was invented about 4,000 years ago, an estimated 100 million people play Go. Professional Go players are as famous as Tiger Woods is here. A recent poll of South Koreans placed a top Go player as the eighth-most-recognized person on the planet, smack between Madonna and Bill Clinton.

The United States, on the other hand, is "a Go backwater," says Janice Kim, who is that rarest of creatures, a professional American Go player. At best, maybe 50,000 people play the game in this country. But to the extent that there is an American Go culture, San Francisco is its hub. As a region with a rich Asian culture, a deep obsession with technology, and a willingness to experiment, the Bay Area has attracted a small group of Go devotees who are evangelizing the game in various ways, with various degrees of success. San Francisco is the home of the country's oldest Go club, which has attracted some of the world's best players -- a few of whom now make their homes here. Computer scientists from the Bay Area are in the forefront of efforts to create Go-playing software -- "the biggest challenge in computer science," as one programmer claims. And if Go does indeed become a part of school curriculums, it will be mainly due to efforts launched here.

Go devotees all have a different reason for playing, but they tend to speak as if they've discovered the world's greatest puzzle; they've fallen for something that is fascinating because of -- and in spite of -- the fact that it is impossible to master. And if you want to get metaphysical about it -- and so many Go players do -- you can start seeing the game as something that is, in a way, perfect: a source of immeasurable potential for strength, goodness, and wisdom. Something worth not just interest, but devotion. Something that, in fact, isn't so far from how a dictionary goes about defining God.

Janice Kim, at 31, has been a professional Go player for almost half her life. She is, in fact, the first female Westerner to achieve that rank. Like golfers, she makes money playing the professional circuit, in overseas competitions that offer purses upward of half a million dollars. Sitting in a Larkspur tea room, she speaks about her chosen profession seriously, but she's just as prone to crack wise about it. She recognizes that a lot of people don't quite get what she does, and there's a Hey, it's a living snarkiness to the way she talks about it. "I feel like I'm the old lady of Go sometimes," she says with a laugh. "I see these up-and-coming players -- 11, 12, 13 years old -- who look at me like, "What crypt did you come out of?'"

Kim is one of only a dozen professional Go players in the U.S. How she became a professional says a lot about why Go has never been popular here. When she was 11, Kim's family sent her from New Mexico to Korea to study at a Go academy in Seoul, a school designed to train professional players. For the next six years, Kim studied nothing but Go -- no math, no science, no literature, no gym class (she received her GED diploma after returning to the U.S. and now holds degrees in math and philosophy from NYU). Her father, a Korean immigrant, avid Go player, and scientist at Los Alamos National Laboratory, suggested the idea, and Kim was pretty much all for it. She liked the game as a child, in part because her father would let her stay up late if she was playing it.

In letters to her sister back home (who dismissed Go as "a game for houseplants"), she described her lifestyle as "the ultimate teen fantasy." The academy's 20 students would stroll into their sessions at around 10 or 11 in the morning and play until whenever; there was ample time to go roller-skating and see movies with her fellow students, who eventually got over the weirdness of having a classmate who was not only an American, but an American girl -- female Go professionals from any nation being a relatively recent phenomenon.

About The Author

Mark Athitakis


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