Go, go, go: Ancient game of strategy captures new generation of players

The click of glass against wood is all you hear, the scene library-quiet as a dozen bespectacled players hunch over tables in silent combat.

Chess? No, this is better than that — at least that's what most of them would say. Here on the second-floor confines of the Seattle Go Center, the war fronts are 19-by-19-line matrices, the weapons black and white "stones" the size of fava beans. This is Go, a game with Chinese roots dating as far back as 2000 B.C., a game whose adherents talk of abstract qualities such as beauty, simplicity, equality and nearly infinite possibility.

"So deep. So wide," admires Japanese-born Go enthusiast Akira Sato, and 25 million others can probably relate: That's how many people play the game worldwide.

Its Asian flavor and societal importance are uncontested. Newspapers publish Go columns the way American papers run chess columns, and Go masters still take young students into their homes to mold future professionals.

Korea has a 24-hour cable channel dedicated to Go, while in Japan, anime has bolstered youth interest with a boy character inhabited by the spirit of an ancient Go master.

"It's mathematical without being intimidating," says Seattle Go fan Deborah Niedermeyer. "A beautiful game is a close game. It's not like chess, where you want to wipe all the pieces off the board."

Go on the rise

Easy now, pawn pusher: In the U.S., chess is still king. But thanks in large part to the Internet, Go is making a move. Membership in the American Go Association (AGA) is just shy of 2,000, but as many as 10 times that many play nationwide, possibly inspired by the game's recent cameos in films like "Pi" and "A Beautiful Mind."

In particular, the last two years have been good-to-go for the AGA's long-stable rolls, with 200 new players and a healthy number of new chapters. Seattle is the group's largest.

"There's been a tremendous burst of activity at the chapter level," says AGA president Chris Kirschner, a Seattle branch member. "The number a year ago was about 60 — some with their dues unpaid — and last I heard, there were 97."

Suddenly, the sleepy silence of the Seattle Go Center is broken by the sound of agitated steps clambering up the stairwell. "That sounds like Luke," someone says.

And it is — 9-year-old Luke Allen, a student at Seattle's John Stanford International School, with a classmate in tow. The center hosts a wide range of ages and cultures: On weekends, a group of Koreans shows up with packed lunch bags for all-day play; in the evening, site manager Jon Boley plays grandmaster, taking on multiple challengers at once. Monthly tournaments let players determine their Go rating.

Though his parents say he's actually much stronger, Luke is ranked 16 kyu, pronounced "cue" (the scale runs from 30 to 1 kyu — with 1 being the highest — before heading into professional-level dan status, which starts from 1 and goes up to 9).

A mission of peace

What separates the center from other clubs is that its mission was outlined by a Japanese Go master who, as the story goes, was so moved by what he saw in Hiroshima's aftermath that he hoped to save the world with the game he loved. On its outside wall, frozen in time over a University District parking lot, is a super-sized Go board, a snapshot from a game played near Hiroshima on the day the bomb was dropped.

It was the second day of tournament play. Down came the bomb, 8 miles away. Windows shattered; board and pieces flew to the floor. Air raids had been happening all the time, so the players picked up and went on.

Hours later, refugees came streaming by the tournament site. "One of the players was Kaoru Iwamoto," says Boley, ranked 6 dan (Kirschner is even higher, at 4 dan). "He thought then that something needed to be done to promote peace in the world. He believed Go was one way to do that."

Decades after the war, as a successful Tokyo property mogul, Iwamoto used his wealth to launch four international Go centers. His hope was that people would learn and play the game and also achieve global understanding; Go's structure and philosophy are said to echo Eastern-culture styles and strategies.

First came Rio de Janeiro, then Amsterdam; then, in 1995, Seattle and New York City. (Iwamoto died in 1999.) The Seattle Go center is just off Interstate 5 on the top floor of a drab office building; by design, it feeds off the rent paid by the printing business downstairs.

Scoring with kids

Slightly elevated and set apart from the main area is the straw-matted Tatami room, for ultimate peaceful play. With a pair of ottoman-size Go boards and floor cushions for sitting, such rooms are standard for senseis, or teachers, and a requirement spelled out by Iwamoto.

Luke and his 8-year-old pal head straight for the Tatami room, and Boley laughs. "The truth is, it's most appealing to kids," he says. "Most adults don't like the concept of going in and sitting on their knees."

Last year, Luke's parents started a Go club at Stanford International, inspired by a 25-year-old Korean pro — ranked 6 dan — who'd lived with them on a student exchange. The school's international focus made the game a good fit.

The Go center works with clubs at four elementary schools and two high schools. The longest-running is at Beacon Hill's Kimball Elementary, where instructor Carter Kemp was once named AGA teacher of the year. Meanwhile, 42 kids showed up for the inaugural meeting of a new Go club at Tacoma's Sheridan Elementary this month.

"We don't try and teach kids younger than 4, and even that's a little dicey," says AGA president Kirschner. "The absolute rule is that if the kid thinks the stones are for eating, they can't play."

But as with ballet and gymnastics — and, though he does not mention it, chess — children are ripe for displays of staggering talent. In Korea, Kirschner once lost against an 8-year-old girl who correctly anticipated a 30-move sequence he had not. As a youngster, Janice Kim of Illinois was sent to study at the Go academy in Seoul; she turned pro at 17, now teaches at the New York Go Institute and founded Samarkand.net, an Internet source of Go products where glossy game boards can run higher than $1,000.

The Internet in particular has been a Go godsend, allowing constant, faceless play between opponents around the globe. Go clubs felt threatened at first: Playing online offered around-the-clock convenience and a larger pool of challengers.

Instead, clubs have thrived, though Kirschner now hopes to use the Internet to develop young talent nationwide with the help of budding numbers of American professional Go players. Says center manager Boley: "Playing in person is much better." He turns to those lost in quiet concentration behind him. "Right, guys?"

Drones a lone voice: "That's why we're here."

Keeping chess in check

From China, Buddhist priests are thought to have taken the game to Japan, where it marked the samurai class and developed much of its modern flavor. Though it may have come to the U.S. with Chinese workers, not until the early 1900s did Go begin moving into the mainstream.

Though chess remains overwhelmingly more popular — the U.S. Chess Federation boasts 90,000 members — rivalry has long existed between the two games.

First, Go players say, chess is no war game; it's basically one battle. On the other hand, Go's immense grid produces multiple fronts. "One of the things I don't like about chess is, it comes down to one piece," says John Johnson, a 54-year-old Go player. "It offends my egalitarian, democratic sense."

"Chess is a game of life and death," Kirschner says. "The game ends when the king drops over dead. While there is life and death in Go, that's not the game. It's not possible to completely dominate the game. It's a business model — you're fighting for market share, not the death of your opponent. One has to make peace at the end."

Go proponents cite its handicapping system as better catering to players of varying strengths, one that doesn't alter its basic elements. "In chess," Boley says, "if you take a queen away from the game, it really wrecks what's going on."

Both games tantalize mathematicians, further dividing the two. In 1997, IBM supercomputer Deep Blue defeated then-world chess champ Garry Kasparov, but scientists remain vexed by the task of developing a program that can beat a decent Go player. "There are none that come even remotely close," Kirschner says. "I could give a nine-stone handicap to any program and blow it off the board."

The problem is sheer numbers: The size of the Go board and nature of the game make the number of moves possible at any given time too daunting — for now. "People who write programs for Go have to actually program fuzzy concepts," Kirschner says. "It's a radically different problem, but it doesn't make it a greater game."

The ways to Go

Incorporated at one time into Chinese and Japanese military training, Go rewards foresight, pattern recognition and balanced conquest of territory. "There's a saying: Three corners, you win; four corners, you lose," Johnson says. "It's generally true. If you do get four corners, you're in trouble because you're missing out on the center."

The black/white patterns that form over the course of a game are described as having "good shape," and experienced players assign aesthetic value to certain lines of attack or defense. As in chess, most players are techies — "We have a lot of people who have lost jobs in the last couple of years," Boley says — and overwhelmingly male, though that's starting to even out with the game's rising popularity. But the game's aesthetic qualities may be why it appeals to creative-minded people as well; designers and musicians are among the Seattle Go Center regulars who pay $4 a day to play or purchase longer-term memberships.

Adherents tout Go's etiquette and sensibilities, chastising those who trash-talk or slam stones onto the board, waging psychological war. Good players are quiet, respectful, they say; they even bow, martial-arts style, then straighten their bodies and go to battle. "That's the way it should be," says Sato, a 69-year-old architect. "You empty your mind."

Balance is a key tenet.

Except in tournament play, Johnson says, players should ideally win half their games against a given opponent, adjusting the handicap when necessary. "There's a certain satisfaction in playing a game so closely that when you're done, you're so evenly opposed to your opponent that you come within four or five points of each other — that's satisfying. Never mind who comes out ahead."

Wherever you Go

And as with chess, Go players carve out niches wherever they feel comfortable.

The game and its variations garnish Korean and Chinese community centers from Everett to Federal Way, and there's a Go club at Microsoft. Boeing once had a club, John Johnson says, but "around 1995, everyone was getting laid off," he says. "It got to the point where there weren't enough active employees, so we just cashed it out. That was about the time the Go Center showed up."

But with the center closed on Mondays, several Boeing castaways gather instead at Zoka, a Green Lake coffeehouse. Sato plays here, too. With an ambience steeped in Northwest chic, Zoka is an unlikely successor to grungier sites like the University District's Last Exit on Brooklyn as Go-player refuge. Now just a memory, the smoky Last Exit once swirled with bohemian clusters of chess and Go enthusiasts.

One by one, they arrive, a half-dozen regulars matched in college-campus casual. There are long sips of latte, morsels of conversation — "Did you see that story this morning?" — but mostly there are studied stares, hands wrapped around chins. Sato's foe scans the board and sees nothing but gloom. "I've lost this one already," he says. "Want to play another one?"

Between games, Sato points out a Seattle Go Center brochure. " 'The number of possible Go games is greater than the number of atoms in the universe,' " he reads. "In the universe! Do you believe that? I don't know, it's hard to believe."

He works part time for a Tacoma firm that had just been picked to compete in a design competition.

"Right now, I'm very busy," he admits. "But I still have to play Go." Then he empties his mind, gets up and heads back into battle.