Jim Pacha Hurriedly opened the auditorium's double glass doors, stepped through and lit up a cigarette. "God, what a fight," he said, taking a deep drag. He stared at the ground while nervously rocking his stout frame from leg to leg. After two more quick puffs, Pacha tore off and threw away the lit end of the cigarette, carefully saving the butt for later. He exhaled deeply, gathered his composure, then turned to walk back in through the doors. "I hate byo-yomi," he muttered.
Pacha entered a cavernous room in which more than 200 people were sitting in pairs at long rows of tables. Each couple was focused in silent concentration on an intricate black and white pattern that had been woven atop a square wooden board. Pacha quietly made his way to his board and sat across from his opponent. He was as ready as he could be to begin the byo-yomi—Japanese for "overtime"—phase of his game of go.
Welcome to the 1991 U.S. Go Congress, the year's most important gathering for American aficionados of the ancient Chinese board game of go. These go-getters descended on the University of Rochester's Wilson Commons student center last August for the seventh annual such fest. For $480, which included room, board and a banquet, each participant was treated to a week's worth of lectures, clinics, demonstrations and, of course, competition.
The game that lured these people to upstate New York is a national pastime in Japan, China and Korea, but it remains something of an obscure obsession for a small cult of American enthusiasts. That's surprising, for go is not a daunting game. The rules are so simple they can be written on the back of a T-shirt—apparel that was de rigueur at the congress. In go two players take turns placing round black and white stones on a board inscribed with 19 vertical and 19 horizontal lines. The object is to capture territory and enemy stones by surrounding them with your pieces. Strategy can become complicated as chains of stones begin to intertwine and the board becomes a shifting web of complex forms and shapes. The game, which starts out with the simplest and most concrete of elements—line and circle, black and white—can move into endless abstractions and subtleties.
"Go has an infinite horizon," says Dave Weimer, the director and main organizer of the Rochester congress. "In chess, everything is localized—the board is only 64 squares. And material gain is everything. In go, you can't isolate any part of the board; positional advantage is the most important element. You can get situations of localized battle where groups of stones get isolated, but you have to be able to see the connection between the smaller scene and the overall picture."
The smaller scene of the go world presented at the congress was a curious amalgam: East meets West, young challenges old, novice learns from master. Standing by the refreshment table, which offered Japanese green tea as well as hot coffee, a skateboard-toting teen casually chatted with a bespectacled engineer who was carrying a portable computer. Nearby, under a sign written in Chinese, a young woman hawked bumper stickers that read I GO FOR GO. Various impromptu discussions sprang up around the room, and any number of regional accents and foreign languages could be heard.
The players at the congress ranged in age from nine to 80 and came from every corner of the continent, from Canada to Mexico. "The awareness of the game among the general population has increased," says Weimer. "These days, when I'm on a plane and reading a book about go, the person next to me will often know what it is."
In Rochester this diversity made for some intriguing cross-board encounters. For example, the player who caused trouble for Pacha this morning was Lena Petrovic, a 16-year-old from University, Miss. Petrovic, who has been playing in tournaments since she was 10, learned the game from her father, Rade, an assistant professor of electrical engineering at the University of Mississippi who was the go champion of Yugoslavia three times. Pacha is a 43-year-old computer programmer from Broomfield, Colo., who took up go 17 years ago as an alternative to chess.
As it happens, many of the older players at the congress started out as chess hobbyists and learned go from other competitors at various board-game tournaments throughout the country and, indeed, the world. Most of the younger players seem to have been introduced to the game by parents or by computerized go programs. And as Barbara Calhoun, president of the American Go Association (AGA), says, "Because of the economic situation in the world today, people in general are more aware of things Asian." In the past five years the association's membership has tripled, from 500 to 1,500.
This growing desire to understand Asian thought is one reason Weimer, a political-science professor, has for the past seven years taught a semester-long course at Rochester called Go: Game and Culture. In the class, which has also attracted business students, Weimer teaches the game's basic strategies and shows how the philosophy of go reflects Asian culture. "I try to convey the idea that the most important characteristic of go is patience," says Weimer. "You've got to look ahead, think strategically and not be greedy. Don't try to take everything, or you'll collapse. You have to give your opponent something. But those are lessons for life."