[going, going, gone]

Topic: Culture

When I was teaching English in Korea, I once taught a lesson on “What do you want to be?” to a class of ten-year-olds. Most of the kids came up with the expected responses — boys declaring, “I want to be a soccer player!” or “I want to be a firefighter!” while the girls expressed their desires to become teachers and doctors. But there was one student who was struggling to express something different, something that wasn’t there in our limited employment vocabulary. Finally he blurted out, “I want to … paduk!”

With the help of some drawings, I was able to work out that paduk (바둑) is the Korean version of the boardgame called igo (囲碁) in Japan, weiqi (圍棋) in China and “go” in the United States. My ten-year-old student wanted to be a professional go player!

Even after that curious incident, I’d never given the game much thought until my friend and upstairs neighbor, Robert, expressed an interest in learning to play. With the help of some rules printed out from Wikipedia, he, Jenny and I played our first games against each other this past Saturday, and though we weren’t sure who had won or why, we were all hooked. Far more fluid than chess, but at least as complex, go isn’t about killing the enemy’s king, but about massing your pieces, controlling territory and maintaining “liberties,” or open spaces adjacent to your stones. I don’t want to read too much into the political metaphors at this point, but they do strike me as an interesting insight into differing Eastern and Western concepts of warfare and the state.

Back at work on Monday, I asked my colleague Young what she knew about paduk and discovered that it’s one of those things all Koreans learn at some point, like taekwondo, though she never much cared for it. She also told me that good players say they can learn a person’s personality from the way he or she plays.

For those interested in learning to play, or just learning more about the game, here are some useful links:

  • Wikipedia: Go (board game) provides a thorough introduction, with links to articles on the rules, the history and more.
  • GoBase.org is a major go site with commented games, go problems, rules and more.
  • The American Go Association has lots of useful tools, including Karl Baker’s 22-page handbook, The Way to Go (PDF) and a page of Go computer programs.
  • Hiroki Mori’s Interactive Way to Go is an enjoyable and helpful interactive introduction to play and strategy, well worth a look.
  • Wulu (ZIP file) is a go program for Windows that allows you to play 9×9 and 13×13 games, with or without handicaps, and gives you a fair amount of flexibility regarding who goes first, difficulty level and scoring method.

As with chess, there is a tremendous amount to learn about this ancient and absorbing game. I don’t know how far we’ll get, but it should be an interesting journey.