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Go Woodstock
Albert Kim
March 09, 1992
Scores of board-game freaks flocked to upstate New York for the seventh-annual U.S. Go Congress
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March 09, 1992

Go Woodstock

Scores of board-game freaks flocked to upstate New York for the seventh-annual U.S. Go Congress

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Weimer's teachings were cited in a recent New York Times editorial that suggested that President Bush would do well to study go philosophy when conducting trade talks with Japan and other Asian nations. " Mr. Bush," wrote the Times's editors, "might abandon his high-handed bid for quick concessions and settle in for a long, patient duel. He is dealing with people enthralled by the mystique of Go."

He certainly is. The game's hold on its devotees is powerful. "It is addictive in a medical sense," says Robert Ryder, a 77-year-old retired engineer from Summit, N.J. "I played my first game in 1954, and I've been to every one of these events. This congress fell on my 50th wedding anniversary. Needless to say, I am in a very odoriferous state at home right now. But luckily, my family has agreed to postpone the anniversary for two weeks."

As you might expect, America lags far behind Asia in playing talent. "I started too late," says Ryder, more than a bit wistfully. "I didn't play my first game until I was 39. I haven't had enough time to learn." In many Asian countries youngsters who show exceptional analytical skills start studying at special go academies when they're four or five years old. Some of these prodigies grow up to become professional go players who, if they're among the very best, can earn hundreds of thousands of dollars playing go tournaments throughout Asia. There were 16 pros in attendance at the Rochester congress, offering clinics and doing exhibitions, such as playing simultaneous matches against 10 players.

One of the professionals was 22-year-old Janice Kim, an American in her senior year at New York University. Kim earned her pro status from the Korean Go Association five years ago. She hopes to play professionally in Asia after graduating and is thinking about putting her earnings toward medical school.

"In Korea, I'm a celebrity," she says. "People on the street would stop me. Even the customs agent at the airport recognizes me. Of course, it's a different story here. Last summer I interviewed for a summer job at a hotel in New Mexico, and when the woman asked me what I had as previous job experience, I told her I had taught go in New York. She gave me this really weird look as she turned me down for the job. Later I found out she thought I had said go-go.

"I wonder if America is ready—it's such a cultural thing," Kim continues. "Sometimes when I try to explain go, it doesn't work. Americans always approach things from an individualistic, analytical viewpoint. They want to think things through on their own. Go is much more spiritual. There are certain things you have to accept as true and then rely on your intuition."

In Rochester, Ryder, Pacha, Petrovic and the others aspired to grasp this calm spirituality, but quite often they devolved into stressed-out Americans. In her match with Pacha, Petrovic ran out of her allotted 90 minutes for the game and therefore was forced into byo-yomi. In the overtime, given only 30 seconds for each move, she became flustered and made a crucial mistake. Unable to regain her footing in a key section of the board, she resigned.

"I lost," Petrovic wailed afterward. "It was really close, and I was ready to kill a group. But then the clock started beeping and I made one dumb move and I'd never been in byo-yomi before." She vigorously worked over a piece of gum. She considered for a moment and concluded simply, "It was terrible."

"It was a very good match," said Pacha, as he finally got to finish his saved cigarette. "In fact, she was beating me. I couldn't do this for a living. The pressure gets to me."

He stamped out the butt and sighed. "But I'll keep playing," he said. "I enjoy the challenge. There's an artistic nuance to the game. In chess, you start with an entire board, and you cut, slash and hack to the finish. With go, you start with an empty board and create life for yourself. It's a very positive outlook." He's learning.

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