Last May, Google’s computer algorithm AlphaGo beat the world’s top-ranked player in the ancient Chinese board game of Go. On the heels of an equally total drubbing of a South Korean Go grandmaster a year earlier, the result confirmed the arrival of a revolutionary new form of artificial intelligence.

AlphaGo had chosen to take on the world’s best Go players in part because Go is the most complex of all games. There are more possible Go games (ten to the 172nd power, which is four times the number of chess games) than there are subatomic particles in the known universe. More importantly, Go rewards the uniquely human attributes of creativity, judgement, instinct, and feel, and, for that reason, was long regarded as an insurmountable challenge in the field of A.I.

Where A.I. goes now is anyone’s guess. Experts in that field are already attempting to apply what they learned from the Go contests to problematic sociological issues ranging from population control to drug testing. But where the game of Go is headed in this country, and specifically in the Chicago area, is not a guess.

Local clubs have exploded in attendance since a Google algorithm bested the game’s top players. (Photo by Gerri Fernandez)

To be sure, the vast majority of the roughly sixty million people worldwide who play Go live in China, Japan, and Korea. But there are now roughly three hundred seventy-five Go clubs in the United States, a number that’s growing, according to the American Go Association (A.G.A.). That includes seventeen clubs listed in Illinois, including in Chicago, Evanston, Schaumburg, Tinley Park, Naperville, Aurora, and Arlington Heights. In addition to the several hundred people regularly playing in clubs around the Chicago area, many Go players choose to play online.

“Over the past twenty years I have watched the American Go Association website explode, and the number of Go clubs has steadily grown every year,” said computer consultant Mark Rubenstein, founder of the Evanston Go Club that has been meeting every Wednesday night at an Evanston coffee shop for twenty years. “And since AlphaGo, interest has skyrocketed. All the vendors that sell Go equipment have been running out of Go stones, which has never happened.”

The Yu Go Club, which meets Tuesday nights at the Bridgeport Coffeehouse, is one of the newest Chicago clubs. “I put up fliers around town, and for a few months, it was just me hoping someone would show up. Now, since AlphaGo, people are coming,” said club founder Greg Kulevich, who describes the game as a “lifelong journey” and plays daily online.

“The game has definitely gone up in popularity,” said Albert Yen, a seventeen-year-old senior at New Trier High School who planned to start a Go club at the school this year. “At school, I see some teachers who have now heard of the game, and we have a lot of students who have started playing.”

Yen won a division of the U.S. Open, the largest annual Go tournament in the country, in 2015 and is currently ranked in the top forty players out of more than sixteen hundred ranked players in the country. He noted also that the 2016 turnout for the U.S. Go Congress annual tournament was double the turnout the year before.

The game of Go is played by two people on a board that has nineteen lines drawn on it horizontally and vertically. Players take turns placing a black or white “stone” on one of the three hundred sixty-one intersection points. The objective is to fully surround, with your stones, a larger total area of the board than the opponent. Once placed on the board, stones may not be moved, but stones are removed from the board when “captured.” Capture happens when a stone or group of stones is surrounded by opposing stones. The game proceeds until neither player wishes to make another move. When a game concludes, the territory is counted along with captured stones to determine the winner.

Known as Wéiqí in China and I-go in Japan, Go was invented in China about four thousand years ago, making it the oldest continuously played board game today. The sage-king Yao, whose benevolence and diligence served as a model to future Chinese monarchs and emperors, is said to have invented the game to instill discipline in his dilettante son.

From left: Greg Kulevich awaits his next opponent after a victory at The Evanston Go Club’s weekly meeting;; an Evanston Go Club member takes a stone out for her next move; and a Go player counts points after a match(Photos by Gerri Fernandez)

Through the centuries, Go became one of the components of classical education for both men and women, alongside calligraphy, music, and painting. In ancient times, Go was also considered a martial art and was part of the training of warriors in Japan, China, and Korea. Today, it is taught at military officer training schools as an exercise in military strategy. Throughout Asia, major tournament winners are celebrities. With massive media coverage, monthly Go magazines, and twenty-four-hour Go-centric cable stations, the game is an integral part of Asian culture.

The earliest Go players in this country were probably Chinese workers constructing the transcontinental railroad in the mid-eighteen hundreds, according to the A.G.A. The game did not attract attention outside that community until the early nineteen hundreds, when it was enthusiastically adopted by a group of German mathematicians and game players, among them world chess champion Emanuel Lasker and his cousin, soon-to-be American chess champion Edward Lasker.

Edward, who co-founded the American Go Association in 1937, famously said: “While the Baroque rules of chess could only have been created by humans, the rules of Go are so elegant, organic, and rigorously logical that if intelligent life forms exist elsewhere in the universe, they almost certainly play Go.”

There’s a reason Zhang Yungi, of the Chinese Wéiqí Institute, assessed the difficulty of mastering Go this way: “Success at Go requires the tactic of the soldier, the exactness of the mathematician, the imagination of the artist, the inspiration of the poet, the calm of the philosopher, and the greatest intelligence.” On the one hand, Go is a game of simple logic, compatible with traditional Western-style linear thinking. But it is also a game that rewards lateral creative thinking, less dependent on logical deduction and more reliant on the “feel” of the stones, a “sense of shape” and what the A.G.A. calls “a gestalt perception of the game.” As such, scientists have found that playing Go uses both the creative and logical parts of the brain and allows players to strengthen connections between the two. “You can look at Go as being highly mathematical, but a lot of times when you ask a very strong Go player, ‘Why did you play that move?’ the answer is, ‘It felt right; my intuition told me that I need to be here,’” said Rubenstein.

Scientists have found that playing Go uses both the creative and logical parts of the brain and allows players to strengthen connections between the two.

One of the hallmarks of Go, reflecting an East-West contrast, is that it favors patience and balance over aggression and greed. “You must be patient,” Rubenstein said. “The board starts empty. It is four times the size of a chess board, and you can’t be in a hurry to win. You have to be looking to the long game. If you are worrying about over here and trying to win over here, your opponent is playing elsewhere.” Beware, he said, the truth of the ancient Chinese proverb: “If you want to attack in the East, make a loud noise in the West.”

Strategic flexibility is also imperative. “You have to be really flexible and see that the board is constantly changing,” said Yen, who began playing at five years old. “You must not only be able to predict your opponent’s next move but be able to see where the most valuable play is.”

Past US Open winner, 17-year-old Albert Yen, awaits his opponent’s move during a match. (Photo by Gerri Fernandez)

Combining the beauty of an ever-evolving board and intellectual challenge, the game appeals to many kinds of minds—to musicians and artists, to mathematicians and computer programmers, to entrepreneurs and options traders. Children, as well, can learn the game readily and reach high levels of mastery. “I was an avid chess player and was kind of getting bored,” said Evanston Go Club member Kiren Polara, who is fourteen. “I was looking for something more complicated, more intricate, more challenging without wrote memorization. With Go, it is much more about spacial recognition and pattern recognition rather than definite correct answers. With chess, there are definite correct moves set in stone. With Go, we are always learning new moves.”

Because Go lends itself to a uniquely reliable system of rankings and handicaps, players of widely disparate strengths can enjoy a mutually challenging game. Ranks start at 30 kyu (a total beginner) and go down to 1 kyu as a player gets stronger. After 1 kyu, a player becomes 1 dan, and from there the ranks ascend to 6 dan, the highest amateur rank. Weaker players start with certain number of stones already on the board.

“You can always play people of increasing strength and have it be even games,” said Scott Gerson, a Northwestern University senior who has been playing for two years. “For me, it is a chance for creative expression. As soon as you have a basic understanding of the game, you can put your own personality into it in terms of being more aggressive or defensive.”

Collegiality is also another hallmark of Go. “The Go community is very strong,” Polara said. “After playing a game, both players will communicate about what happened in the game, and what they thought they could have done better. People are very modest about their prowess and very supportive of each other, especially beginners.”

Still, Rubenstein feels obliged to issue a word of warning to potential Go newcomers:

“Get ready to be overtaken by the most captivating game-playing experience you have ever had. I’ve been playing the game for over thirty years, and there is always more to learn. I will never reach the levels I want to reach. It is as deep as you want it to be. You become drawn into this world of watching other people’s games and reading books and analyzing your own game and studying with professionals. And at every step, as you learn more and more things, you realize it’s more and more interesting, challenging, and confounding.”

About the author

Alan P. Henry is a New York Times bestselling author, six-time national fiction contest prize winner, and thirty-five-year newspaper veteran with the Chicago Sun-Times, Boston Globe, Boston Herald, and now, 22nd Century Media.

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  • Howard A. Landman September 26, 2017 at 2:52 pm

    “more possible Go games (ten to the 172nd power, which is four times the number of chess games)”? Someone needs remedial math. The number of possible Chess games is around 10^120, so there are about 10^52 or 10,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 times as many Go games as Chess games.

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  • Howard Cornett October 2, 2017 at 8:01 am

    Love the article! Thanks for profiling my favorite game. Like one of the interviewees, I played chess as a kid but found the strict memorization boring and uninteresting. I found Go as an adult and have loved it since I was crushed in the first game a I ever played. 🙂

    One minor correction, the caption that reads “From left: A Go player counts points after a match; an Evanston Go Club member takes a stone out for her next move; Greg Kulevich awaits his next opponent after a victory at The Evanston Go Club’s weekly meeting.” should start out “From right” rather than “From left” based on the way the photos show in my browser (Chrome Version 61.0.3163.100).

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  • Xinming October 2, 2017 at 11:37 am

    The article mentioned that the possible games of go is about 4 times of chess –there may be a math calculation issue.

    Usually, we estimate the possible Go game is 10 ^ 172 ( 10 to the power of 172) the and possible chess game is 10^47 (10 to the power of 47).

    The power of go is 172, which is about “four times” of the power of chess ( 47). But, the first number 10^172 is not “four times” the 2nd number 10^47. It is 10^125 times (because 172 – 47 = 125). That number is 1 followed by 125 of zero.

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