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."
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.