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All A Board

Learning an ancient game in Memphis.



Ai-goo cham-nah,' sighs the middle-aged Korean man sitting next to me. It's a common Korean expression, and presently it means something between 'Oh shit' and 'Jesus.' It's the kind of sigh that takes all the breath his tar-stained lungs can muster. 'What should I do?' he asks himself in Korean. He inhales slowly on a half-gone cigarette. 'It looks like I'm dead.' He reaches into a worn wooden bowl and runs his fingers through the smooth glass stones."

The above is a scene from an L.A. Weekly story about a Korean Go Club. Its writer, Queena Sook Kim, had gone on a mission to cross the ancient board-game club's smoky boundaries.

Me, I just picked up the phone and made an appointment to meet with the Memphis Go Club. From what I had read, I imagined a dimly lit room filled with middle-aged chain-smoking Asian men cursing in their native language as they rattled their hands around in bowls filled with black and white stones. I imagined they'd be placing bets left and right as they strategically placed their stones on the large, wooden boards in front of them. And also from what I'd read about some of the Go clubs in Asian communities on the East Coast, the playing could go on for days.

But the Memphis Go Club turns out to be a small group (all men, though not by design) that meets at Garibaldi's Pizza on Wednesday nights. And they don't chain-smoke or place bets. They just meet to play. In fact, only two of the regular 10 or so members were at the brightly lit pizza joint when I arrived at 7 p.m., their normal meeting time. Go player Chris Watson says the group's loose structure allows members, whose careers range from university professors to musicians to unemployed, to come in when it's convenient for them.

Go, which originated in China and is believed to be the oldest game in the world, is a two-player game of strategy in which the goal is to capture the most territory on a wooden grid composed of 19 vertical lines intersecting with 19 horizontal lines. Territory is gained by placing black and white stones on any of the 361 points where the lines intersect. Players arrange stones to surround the most territory while attempting to capture enemy stones. A game ends when both players can make no further moves and say "I pass."

It's a game that requires logic and problem-solving skills and involves no luck of the draw (after all, you can't be dealt a full house with stones). Many players contend that, although the rules are simpler than chess, it's much harder to master.

"While chess is more one army versus another, Go gets more complicated because of the openness of the board," says Charles Rinehart, a member of the Memphis Go Club. "It gets more complicated as you go along, and the fact that you can play anywhere on the board makes it more like guerrilla warfare. You can have a little skirmish going on in one corner and another skirmish in another corner."

The game dates back about 4,000 years, and legend has it that it was invented by an emperor who wanted to help his mentally challenged son gain some intuition. When the game caught on in Japan around 740 A.D., its popularity grew to exceed that in China. At one time, the annual Go champion in Japan was given a cabinet position. It's still very popular there today, akin to poker games in America, including the smoking, gambling, cursing men spending hours on end engrossed in a game. The game is also taught in Asian military schools as an exercise in strategy, and Asian newspapers commonly feature Go columns similar to the bridge columns in American papers.

The Memphis club, which is officially certified by the American Go Association (AGA), was started years ago when Rinehart and a friend responded to a poster they'd seen hanging in a now-defunct ice-cream shop. The poster called for all interested Go players to meet at an area bookstore. The club grew through word of mouth and eventually found its home at Garibaldi's. Now the club's playing site is listed on the AGA's Web page, and Rinehart says it's not uncommon for traveling Go players to stop in when they're in town.

As an official AGA club, they can receive assistance for teaching materials if any member decides to give Go lessons. Currently, they teach beginners as they come in. They can also host official AGA Go tournaments, which they hope to do someday.

Watson and Rinehart both played in last year's AGA national tournament, but neither brought home any prizes. And it wasn't because they're not any good. Go is simply a hard game to master, especially if it's not learned at an early age. Both men picked up the game later in life. Rinehart's been playing for 12 years now, and Watson, who learned from Rinehart, has only been playing for five.

"Go has a nice balance between intuitive and analytical ability. As you get older, you tend to become more analytical and you lose some of the intuition you had as a child. You can teach a child Go, and they can become quite good quickly," says Rinehart.

Because Go involves so much intuition and because there are so many possible opening plays due to the openness of the very large board, computer programmers are stumped as to how to program software that can play a decent game. In 1997, the computerized chess game Deep Blue beat world chess champion Garry Kasparov, but programmers have yet to create a Go program that can beat even average players.

Rinehart tells me he used to think nothing of going at the game for hours when he first learned, and Watson says he'd love to be able to play through the night if he could take a day off work. Then Rinehart offers to play me a game. I shy away, preferring to sit back and watch more experienced players. They say the game's addictive, and new players often play for hours trying to achieve the perfect game.

But I'm not ready to Go.

For more information on the Memphis Go Club, check out usgo.org.

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