PLOTTING: Go player Paul Steyn considers his next move.
PLOTTING: Go player Paul Steyn considers his next move.
HARDWIRED: Competing against computers? Careful you might lose.
HARDWIRED: Competing against computers? Careful you might lose.
LEARNING: An onlooker enjoys a game of Go.
LEARNING: An onlooker enjoys a game of Go.

BENT studiously over a board, thoughtfully moving pebble-like pieces, two guys are engaged in a 5 000 year old activity. They are playing Go, an ancient and enormously complex game that enjoys great popularity throughout the Far East and which has a small, but dedicated following in the Western Cape.

The origins of Go are shrouded in mystery, although it almost certainly originated in China. Legend has it that Tibet’s fate was once decided over a Go board when the Buddhist ruler refused to go into battle and instead challenged the aggressor to a game of Go.

Go is a territorial game for two players. The game starts with an empty 19x19 grid which players gradually fill by alternately placing either black or white stones at intersections.

Touching stones of the same colour form groups that can branch out across the board. If a group of stones is completely surrounded by opponent’s stones it is captured and immediately taken off the board. The player with the most points of territory and captured stones wins.

Go looks deceptively simple and more akin to draughts than chess, to which it is usually compared. But unlike chess you don’t have to learn a myriad of moves and there is no referencing medieval power structures. With crystal clear, Zen-like simplicity Go avails you of only one option – a move in either direction.

But Go’s surface simplicity belies its profound complexity. It has been hailed as the most elegant game ever discovered and the world’s leading Go player, Lee Sedol, seemingly oblivious to any arrogance in the claim, says that next to chess, Go is “incomparably subtle and intellectual”.

This assertion, until recently, was backed by the fact that until March, even the best computer programs, the results of many years development, could not beat experienced players.

But this March, tens of millions across the globe watched the historic match, which took place inside Seoul’s Four Seasons hotel, between Lee Sedol and AlphaGo, an artificially intelligent system designed by a team of researchers at DeepMind, a London Artificial Intelligence laboratory now owned by Google.

The machine claimed victory in the best-of-five series, winning four games and losing only one. This feat, which experts predicted wouldn’t happen for another ten years, was notable because the technologies at the heart of AlphaGo are the poised to reinvent everything from robotics to scientific research.

Using a deep neural network – a network of hardware and software that mimics the web of neurons in the human brain – AlphaGo was fed 30 million moves from expert players to teach it to play.

For a human, becoming a professional Go player is a longer and lonely process. Aspiring professionals begin training at the age of five or six years old when they leave their parents to study at special schools where they practice from 8.30am to 10pm. Hopefully, by the time they reach their teens they’ve become strong enough to compete for professional rankings.

Recently thousands of children around the world have been inspired to learn Go because of a manga comic Hikaru No Go Hikaru. The game is gaining popularity outside the Far East and catching on quickly in America, which was the first western country to go professional.

Here in South Africa, Gordon Wells started playing Go about 11 years ago. He was introduced to the game via chess.

He recalls, “sometime in high school I stumbled across a book on chess variants called A Guide to Fairy Chess. Through further searches on the Web I learned about Go. After seeing the game in the movie Pi, I got interested in playing properly and discovered there was a small club in Pretoria where I started playing.”

Now he plays on average about once a week, excluding games over the Internet.

While South Africans don’t have the option of being packed off to special Go training schools, it still takes commitment to progress in the game. Gordon suggests that playing for an average of an hour a day should soon lead to proficiency but he adds, “If you’re able to keep things fresh in your head a few hours over a weekend is fine too. It especially helps to play over the Internet against different opponents. Now with phones it is also easy to carry study material around with you for whenever you need to kill time. You can still progress enjoyably if you have less time, even just once a week with a little bit of reading in between.”

Go players are ranked similarly to martial artists, with amateur Dan, followed by professional Dan as the top rankings. Gordon suggests, “If you’re playing seriously you can become proficient in a year. I know of newcomers who reached Dan amateur level in the space of a year or two.” But don’t worry about winning at the outset, Gordon says, “There’s a proverb that goes something to the effect ‘you should play – and lose – your first 50 games as quickly as possible’.”

A great advantage of Go is, that like golf, it employs an effective handicapping system which allows players of widely differing strengths to compete on equal terms. Gordon explains: “One of the most appealing things about Go is that the depth of skill it accommodates spans such a wide range. I can give a large handicap to a new player and still win comfortably. In turn, the same applies to a stronger player than me. If the handicap is right, a weaker and stronger player should have a roughly equal chance of winning.”

So with winter approaching, why not discover a board game with a philosophical twist. Gordon expresses the poetry inherent in the game, saying “What I enjoy about Go is seeing tenuous unrealised possibilities in a board position and trying to spin them into existence.”

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