I like to play go. It’s a board game, originally from Asia, that is played on a board with 19 x 19 lines. You take turns placing stones (one player gets white, the other black) on the intersections of the lines. The goal is to create a territory; space delimited by your stones. At the end of the game, you count up the points (intersections) in your territory, and add any stones you have captured (you can capture stones by surrounding them). The person with the highest score wins.
That was a very, very succinct description of the game of go (or baduk, in Korean, or weiqi in Chinese). While the rules are simple, it does get more complicated than that. The game is played professionally, mostly in Japan, Korea and China, and has developed a long tradition of strategy and tactics. You could say that the depth of study is similar to that of chess, though the game’s logic is totally different: while you can kill stones, the goal is to make territory, unlike in chess where the only goal is to kill pieces.
Another difference between go and chess is the ability of computer programs to successfully play the game. While software can beat chess grandmasters, no go software comes anywhere near the level of professionals (though people are trying hard). This is, in part, due to the number of possible moves at any time (at the first move, there are 361 points where one can play, though the first few moves are usually only played on one of a couple of dozen points), but also to the number of moves in a game (games range from 200 to 300 moves).
I’ve been playing go for many years, casually at first, then, in the early days of the Internet I started playing on the now defunct NNGS (No-Name Go Server), a server that connected people around the world. I now play on KGS, where my screen name is Dogen. Unfortunately, I live in an area devoid of go players or clubs, but with KGS I can play at any time of the day or night, and I get to play people from many different countries and styles.
So, for years I had wanted to get a nice go set. I had a cheap folding board with glass stones; fine to play the game, but not aesthetically pleasing. I finally made the investment in a nice set, ordered from Kuroki Goishi Ten in Japan, a manufacturer of go stones, boards and bowls. As you can see in the picture above, those are the three elements of a go set: a board, black and white stones, and bowls to hold the stones.
The board is made from hyuga kaya, a type of tree found in Japan, and is made of four pieces of wood glued together. A board’s price depends, in part, on the number of pieces of wood it uses: the more pieces, the cheaper. The most expensive boards are made of a single piece of wood, and this is very expensive because of the size of the piece needed and the impeccable quality it must have. Next come boards with two pieces of wood, with a joint in the middle. Then come four-piece boards, and then five- to seven-piece boards. The wood used for my board is beautiful; kaya has a yellowish tint to it, and the grain on the top is very straight. In addition, the four pieces of wood are joined at points just under lines, so you cannot even see the joints.
The stones are quite special. The black stones are made of slate, and are really “stones”; they are black, not the usual gray slate people are familiar with, and have a matte finish. The white stones are made from clamshells and have grain on one side. They are smooth and shiny, and contrast well with the black stones. There are three different grades of clamshell stones; from least to most expensive: flower, moon and snow. I chose moon, because the grain is more attractive (on snow stones, the grain is less obvious). They also come in different thicknesses; mine are 8.4 mm thick, which I find quite nice to hold. Many players prefer thicker, heavier stones.
Finally come the bowls. Perhaps the least esthetic part of a set, mine are made of cherry blossom wood, and have a beautiful glowing finish and very prominent grain.
What strikes me most about this set is the overall esthetic quality of the different elements and how they all fit together. The craftsmanship of this material is magnificent, showing that one can own hand-made objects even in our mechanical age at affordable prices.
But I said I don’t have anyone to play with. It’s a shame, but the only use I’ll have (for now) for this set is to play games on the board as I play them on a go server, or to play out pro games to study. I very much enjoy doing the latter, as it is a form of meditation; when one is absorbed in a game, the outside world fades away and one’s concentration peaks. For now, I’m a slightly-better-than-average player, but I’m getting better, through study and practice. Wish me luck!