Blood on the Goban: Exploring the Myths of an Ancient Art

This article is a re-formatted extract from Issue #1: Birth, which you can read more about here.

Go, in its impenetrable elegance, is quite possibly the oldest board game that still sees widespread play. A product of ancient China, its popularity in East Asia far surpasses that of chess. In comparison, I’ve heard Go’s complexity equated with that of a war; opposing the self-contained battles fought on a chessboard. Though exaggerated, there’s some truth to that analogy, which has helped Go to maintain its appeal for over twenty-five centuries. In fact, it was once considered a founding art of the Chinese aristocracy. Along with the practice of music, calligraphy and painting, Go was revered as an exercise in expression and discipline alike.

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The politics of the past-time have widened since the elitism of its founding days. Yet, it remains largely obscure in the Western world, where it’s usually nothing more than a symbolic head-nod. In its home continent, it’s been known to sweep entire nations into its all-encompassing allure. Throughout a clash between two masters in the 1930’s, loudly touted as “the game of the century”, millions hung on their every move.

The Game of the Century

Honinbo Shusai was a Japanese legend who got his name by leading the Honinbo Go school, an institution founded in the 17th century and held up as one of the finest. As such, he wielded an enormous amount of respect. So, when 1933 saw him face a young, Chinese upstart, the Japanese media were ready to publicise it in the grandest possible terms. Wú Qīngyuán, better known as Go Seigen, was a mere twenty-one years of age for the contest’s duration. Since he’d already made a name for himself with beautiful and inventive game-play, huge anticipation surrounded the event.

The match was a brilliant one. Each players’ strategies have been extensively studied since. Placing the moves’ intricacies aside, some of the mysticism that comes with Go reveals itself. It can often be a catalyst for social issues or contemplation. Go’s poetic reputation comes, in part, from its excellence as a philosophical diving board. Shusai and Seigen’s tournament saw itself sold as a metaphor for relations between Japan and China at the time. This had the regrettable repercussion of literally smashing in the windows of Seigen, who quickly fell subject to Japanese nationalist ire. It’s important to remember, in our current times of division, that racism will use any excuse.

Honinbo Shusai (left) and a young Go Seigen (right).

Honinbo Shusai (left) and a young Go Seigen (right).

As the player controlling the White stones, Shusai gained a unique advantage. Tradition, long since antiquated, dictated that those playing White may adjourn at their whim. Surprised by the instinctual talents of his challenger, Shusai used this privilege liberally. This meant that, at any time, he could enter into a private study of his next move, complete with the additional insights of his students. Despite this gracious handicap, the game saw him struggle to gain steam.

In contrast, Seigen showcased the best of his prodigal skills, opening strong with a series of moves so innovative that some thought them insulting. After three months of play, Shusai finally assured victory with an unpredictable move of divine proportions. Though beaten, Seigen would go on to acclaim as the world’s finest modern player. Over time, Shusai’s move has generally been accepted as the work of one of his students; Maeda Nobuaki.

Such stories follow Go. After all, it’s had long enough to birth myths and legends in their droves. Mastering it can be a life’s work, with individual moves and approaches spawning seemingly endless lectures and literature. Those who don’t play can’t understand the significance of Shusai’s move at W160, and I’m ashamed to count myself among them. Instead, the tales of their impact are what compels us. Nowhere is that more true than of a 19th century meeting, widely known as “the blood-vomiting game”.

The Blood-Vomiting Game

Held in Japan’s Edo period, the contest was tense before it even began. Preceded by no small amount of disarray and distrust between the two parties, it took seven years to come to fruition. While originally scheduled for 1828, a multitude of squabbles kept it delayed until it eventually commenced in 1835. These difficulties forced Inoue Gennan Inseki to step back from play, sending a pupil in his stead. This left Akaboshi Intetsu, Inseki’s underling, up against Honinbo Jōwa. As the head of the same prestigious school that Shusai would lead a century later, Jōwa was a formidable opponent. For Intetsu, playing on his tutor’s behalf, a win would result in profound effects on his career. Jōwa, however, needed only to prove his superiority; the one thing that Inseki had doubted of him all along.

Honinbo Jōwa

In, potentially, the most memorable game of Go recorded, the manoeuvring of the stones themselves seem somehow uninteresting. To all but a Go scholar, there are two aspects that make “the blood-vomiting game” a fascinating singularity. Firstly, three moves played by Jōwa are cited to have been gifts from otherwise unidentified “ghosts”. His butting of heads with Intetsu wasn’t easy for him. In actuality, Intetsu commanded the encounter for its majority. The spectral forethought, apparently imbued into those three moves, was the main reason for Jōwa’s famous comeback. How much truth lies in the claim of ethereal intervention, in essence, relies on your own convictions.

Finally, Intetsu’s loss would outdo that of a simple game. Though Jōwa surely treasured his triumph, it came tainted when his rival punctuated defeat with a violent expulsion of blood across the board; dying soon after. It was the product of existing medical conditions, of course, but had the pressure of play triggered it? Had Jōwa’s “ghost moves” truly unsettled him to such fatal consequence? Today, Go can still grasp its enchanting tendrils around an uninitiated audience. Just last year, the artificial intelligence of AlphaGo resoundingly beat Lee Sedol – celebrated as a first-rate player – four times in a series of five games. The entire ordeal roused deep conversation and attention around the planet. Go may no longer be a fundamental art, but its endurance, grace and wisdom guarantee its place in our thoughts as long as we can hew wood.

Professional 'Go' Player Lee Se-dol Set To Play Google's AlphaGo

This article is a re-formatted extract from Issue #1: Birth, which you can read more about here.

British fellow consumes media and regurgitates back what you should think about it.