Super Subcultures

Go Big or Go Home

In dingy basements and private clubs, an ancient Asian board game becomes a cutthroat battlefield for brainiacs.

Go Big or Go Home

It’s a cold night in January 2012 and Peter Armenia is sitting on a Flushing-bound seven train, anticipating culture shock. For two decades, Armenia has played the ancient Chinese game of go, always wondering how his skills would hold up at a traditional Asian club. Tonight, he’s finally getting his chance.

“I’m ready to lose and embarrass myself,” says Armenia, a slender forty-eight-year-old man with short salt-and-pepper hair.

Asian go clubs are hard to find, as many aren’t even listed on the website of the American Go Association, the game’s governing body in the U.S. They aren’t highly exclusive, but Korean, Japanese and Chinese languages are preferred over English, and indoor smoking, drinking and gambling are common. Although Armenia knows the game, most of the players in his four-month-old go club are Westerners. Asian players are known for being stronger, but will the stereotypes hold true?

Armenia claims he isn’t nervous, although his rapid leg shake might suggest otherwise. He’s more concerned about the language barrier—the only Korean he knows is baduk, the word for “go.”

The subway continues speeding along the elevated tracks, the constant rumble interrupted by the ringing of Armenia’s phone. He answers, and speaks rapidly, his eyes lighting up with excitement behind his wireframe glasses. The train suddenly dips into a darkened tunnel, cutting off the call. It lurches forward and slows to a stop.

“What did your friend say when you told him where you were going?” I ask, as we make our way from the train platform to the energetic streets of Flushing, Queens above.

Armenia chuckles, then says, “We’re headed to the real deal.”

Go is a two-player game played on a wooden board covered with a 19-by-19 grid. The pieces are round stones slightly larger than M&M’s. One player uses black stones, the other white. To begin a game, white places a stone on one of the 361 intersections formed by the grid—not within the spaces, as in chess. The object of the game is to surround territory, or occupy a majority of the available empty spaces.

According to the Chinese Yao myths, Emperor Yao, considered the first civilizer of China’s “Golden Age,” brought a go board and stones with him when he descended from the heavens roughly 4,000 years ago. The game became popular during the T’ang Dynasty, sometime around 600 A.D., when go joined music, calligraphy and painting as one of the Four Great Accomplishments of a cultivated Chinese individual. The game was so revered that players were elevated to government positions under the notion that, “if they could manage the small board,” says Peter Shotwell, a go historian and writer, “they could certainly manage the big board of life.” From China, go spread to Korea, Japan and Tibet, and eventually the West. At the start of the California Gold Rush, Chinese pioneers established some of the first twentieth-century American go clubs in San Francisco.

Today, roughly 100,000 play in the United States. Go clubs and ranking tournaments are held in school gymnasiums, cafes and homes around the country, but few knew that they existed—until recently.

In the spring of 2011, former U. S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger published On China, a 530-page book exploring how the country’s history has shaped its relations with the West. As Kissinger sees it, the intellectual games each civilization favors—go in Asia, chess in the West—help us to understand the complex military, political and economic relationship between the two civilizations.

In Kissinger’s theory, chess is a game of “total victory,” entailing crushing destruction when a player achieves checkmate. Go players, on the other hand, strive for “strategic flexibility,” and “psychological advantage” that builds slowly toward balance and harmony. Imagine a go board as land, with each player vying for the largest chunk. Whereas the West—single-minded and desirous of quick victory—focuses on the decisive battle, Asians are all about the protracted campaign, remaining calculating, demure and patient until it’s time to attack.

“Where the Western tradition prized the decisive clash of forces emphasizing feats of heroism,” writes Kissinger, “the Chinese ideal stressed subtlety, indirection, and the patient accumulation of relative advantage.”

Not all go players are convinced. In a 2011 essay, author Richer Bozulich writes: “One of the themes that runs through Henry Kissinger’s recently published book On China is that the Chinese leadership employs go (wei’qi) strategies in their domestic policies and in their relationships with other countries. This is an old and flawed thesis propagated by individuals who have only the most rudimentary knowledge of the subtle strategies of go.” Perhaps the Nobel Prize winner got it wrong.

Although the basic rules of go can be learned in minutes, mastery of the game’s more complex principles takes years of study and practice. Unlike chess, in which pieces mimic real-life figures—kings and queens and bishops—go stones create beauty in their abstractness, a direct challenge to right-brain thinking. It’s harder to encircle, capture and create meaning in abstraction using pieces that aren’t representative of anything. For a beginner, it’s even harder to know what move to make next. A common go saying states that there are more possible go moves than atoms in the universe.

Despite Kissinger’s book, the game has yet to achieve anything close to the popularity of chess in the West. According to the American Go Foundation, an organization dedicated to educating children about the game and promoting it in the U.S., it has struggled to attract players. “The challenge is to get people interested in a game that is impossible to be good at,” says Terry Benson, American Go Foundation president, “unless they’ve been playing since they were young, like they do in Asia.”

In 1995, the Nihon Ki-in, a Japanese go organization, founded the New York Go Center in a five-story Midtown East brownstone. Backed by Japanese go master Iwamoto Kaoru, the Center offered pick-up games, tournaments and classes led by guest instructors from Asia. Kaoru’s vision was to spread go in the West, and promote cultural understanding between Asian and Western players through the establishment of clubs in New York City, Amsterdam, Sao Paulo and Seattle.

From the start, it was clear to many of the center’s American players and volunteers that the Nihon Ki-in had no interest in creating the multicultural experience Kaoru would have wanted. Those who ran it, some say, weren’t too responsive to what the go center needed and had little connection to other ethnic communities. “They didn’t discourage people or actively try to exclude anybody, but an inward-looking mindset developed,” says Roy Laird, former Nihon Ki-in America board member. The club was barely advertised, attendance was low (only an average of ten players showed up per day), and profits were minimal. Despite efforts by several players to raise attendance, the Nihon Ki-in thought it best to close the center in the fall of 2010.

Armenia, a former software engineer, was first introduced to go by a co-worker from Alabama who worked with him at Kodak in Rochester. The co-worker spent lunch breaks with Armenia teaching him the game on a 9-by-9 board. As a beginner, there was something about the game’s simplicity, abstractness and aesthetics that attracted him. He liked playing competitive chess, but go was “more of an amalgam.”

Armenia was even more amazed at how the game related to his other passion—photography. “I simplify things when I take photos. There’s something about the nature of the game that attempts to do that.” In 1995, Armenia headed for Durham, North Carolina, to pursue photography full time. Soon he was playing in tournaments, reading more books, and attending weekly go nights at a Turkish teahouse. The energetic atmosphere brought out an eclectic mix that included Scientific American writers, carpenters, and old-time locals who were equally excited about the game’s complexity and ties with Asian culture. After a few years, Armenia graduated from casual play, attending his first Go Congress in 2001 in York, Pennsylvania. He would always remember stepping into the large central playing area and being greeted by 150 go boards—“a go orgasm for nerds.” Soon, he became an organizer himself, beginning with the 2006 U.S. Go Conference, which he co-directed.

Before moving to Manhattan, Armenia had played once at the Go Center and found its atmosphere “cold.” Along with his wife and four-month-old daughter, he moved to New York in the fall of 2011 and began looking for a go club as lively as the one he had left behind in Durham. Early candidates included the Brooklyn Go Club, which met once a month at a member’s home, and the year-old NY Mostly Go Club, which held infrequent club meetings at the headquarters of Neither satisfied him. Armenia checked out a club in Hoboken, but again was disappointed. Only two players showed up to play at an uninviting college faculty lounge. “People were playing go here, but in their own way,” says Armenia.

Frustrated, Armenia decided to fill the gap, starting a club that would meet every Tuesday night without fail. Armenia admits that selfishness was behind a desire to create a place where the city’s go players could meet weekly. “In North Carolina,” he says, “our club changed venues a number of times before, eventually, it was walking distance from my home. I wanted that here.”

On Oct. 4, 2011, a little over a month after moving to New York, the Gotham Go Club held its first meeting at the Hungarian Pastry Shop in Morningside Heights. About twenty players filed into the small, dimly-lit café—former AGA staff members, students, authors, and players who had been around New York City’s go scene since the ‘70s. They huddled over small wood tables, snacking on chocolate cake and tea, as the room filled with the distinctive sound of stones clanking on wood. “It was a really great setup and ideal place to hang out and play like they do in chess in the Village,” says Laird. “I just wish I could have had a beer instead of a cider.”

The New York go scene, which had been ailing since the Go Center closed, was suddenly revived. “People started to appreciate the game much more,” noted Boris Bernadsky, twenty-three, a former New York Go Center bookkeeper. “We felt the need to go to these clubs and meet-ups and support them.”

Randy Au, founder of the NY Mostly Go Club, began hosting weekend go at Fat Cat, a board game-friendly jazz club in the West Village. Bernadsky was planning more tournaments, and Scott Goldiner, a Gotham Go Club member, started hosting Thursday night go at the Citi Group Center. But still, these clubs were dominated by American players. When would the stronger players from the traditional clubs make an appearance, if ever?

The revival was dubbed by an AGA newsletter as a “Go Renaissance in the Big Apple.” Armenia called it, “the hottest go scene in NYC.”

“Hottest go scene?” I asked Armenia. That sounded a little hokey.

“What? I’ve got to do something to make it sexy,” he said. “We are talking about go here.”

One month before Armenia headed to the Flushing go club, he was one of thirty players to participate in an AGA-rated tournament hosted by Bernadsky in Manhattan. He was sick with a mild cold, but was still geared to play—if people were supporting his club, he most definitely would show support in return. Getting off the 1 train in the West Village, Armenia walked down Christopher Street and descended the stairs into Fat Cat.

In the AGA ranking system, a 35 kyu player is considered the weakest and 1 kyu (pronounced ‘cue’) the strongest. From 1 kyu, a player advances to 1 dan, 2 dan, and so forth until reaching the revered ranking of 9 dan. A player moves up the amateur rank by competing in AGA-sanctioned tournaments like this one. In countries like Korea and Japan, amateurs can aspire to become professionals, and in turn, vie for large cash prizes in tournaments like the Ing Cup and achieve star-status equivalent to pro golfers.

At this time, rumors were swirling about the development of an AGA-sanctioned U.S. professional ranking system. “One of the ways of spreading the game is to have heroes, people who players can identify with and get inspired by,” says Allan Abramson, former AGA president. The crowning of a new pro would be a historic milestone for some, but not for others. Armenia has no aspirations to become the first AGA go professional and admits he probably isn’t even skilled enough to qualify.

At Bernadsky’s three-round tournament, participants included Peter Schumer, a jovial grey-haired man in his mid-fifties who teaches an undergraduate go course at a Vermont college; Afa Zhou, a Brooklyn computer science professor; and Thomas P. Au, financial author. Joe and Yuga Suzuki, two of the younger members in the city’s go scene, were also present. Like most young practitioners, the brothers were inspired to play by Hikaru no Go, the popular Japanese manga comic that helped spark renewed interest in the ancient game among a younger generation.

Slender Randy Au entered the jazz hall with a Nikon camera strapped over his blue long sleeve dress shirt. “Somebody has to document it to show that this happened,” he said with a laugh. True, with the tournament hosted in a dark basement, it would be hard for anyone above ground to know what was going on below.

Three blocks away lies the now-shuttered Chumley’s bar, where go first came to New York. Chess master Edward Lasker founded the American Go Association in 1934, after learning the game from a Japanese player in Berlin. He held weekly meetings at Chumley’s, a former speakeasy and onetime hangout of cultural icons like Faulkner, Steinbeck and E.E. Cummings. A 1942 Life magazine photo showed a group of American players sitting at one of Chumley’s long wooden tables, deeply concentrated on the game venerated by the thousands of intellectuals, samurai warriors and monks who played centuries before them. Chumley’s has been closed since 2007, when its roof collapsed, but at Fat Cat, play continues.

After half an hour of small talk, round one started as a high school band began to play. Some players put in earplugs to drown out the loud, percussive-heavy Latin rhythms, hardly an ideal go-playing soundtrack. Round two began, then round three, the clanking of go stones against the board inaudible over the music.

Five hours later, at the tournament’s end, Bernadsky gathered the players to announce the winners. One prize was private lessons from a ranked go professional—not the thousands of dollars a tournament winner in Asia might receive. Joe Suzuki was one of the four winners. Amidst a loud applause, the shy, dark-haired boy made his way through the huddle to collect his prize. Someone whispered to me that Suzuki won by “sandbagging,” or playing at a lower rank than rated. At only ten years old, he had apparently mastered the art of deception.

Armenia gathered his jacket and said his goodbyes. Unlike Suzuki, Armenia hadn’t brought his A-game. Blame it on his cold. And, despite the musical distraction, Armenia liked Bernadsky’s tournament. He was accustomed, like most go competitors, to playing in unusual places: parks, universities and churches. Armenia could now add windowless jazz club basements to the list.

One month later, after exiting the Flushing subway station, Armenia and I stand at the corner of Roosevelt Avenue and Main Street surrounded by throngs of people, brightly-lit storefronts and fragrant Asian eateries. We round the corner to the quieter, less pedestrian-heavy Union Street, where the signs are written solely in Korean. Finally, we arrive at our destination, a two-story building at the corner of Union and 35th Avenue. On the second story, white light streaming through the windows and a small logo on the yellow awning are the only signs of Heng Woo Kim’s Korean baduk club. We climb a short flight of creaky narrow stairs, and step through the club’s unmarked white door.

Inside is a large florescent-lit room with distracting mint green walls, three long tables topped with ready-to-play go boards and half-empty cans of Coors Light. The stench of cigarette smoke permeates the air. Nineteen elderly Korean men are huddled around three different games in progress. Armenia stands awkwardly, surveying his new environment. It seems that no one has noticed we’ve arrived until friendly-faced Gene Kim approaches us, clad in a yellow train conductor’s hat, blue suit and white Chuck Taylor shoes.

Armenia is here in part for a cultural lesson and in part to see how twenty years of go playing stacks up against stronger players, but a little self-promotion doesn’t hurt. He takes out a stack of U.S. Go Congress fliers and hands one to Kim. He studies the colored pages and returns the flier, telling Armenia in broken English that he’s never heard of the AGA.

“How strong are you?” Kim asks to match Armenia with a player of a similar level.

“I’m a 1 kyu,” responds Armenia.

“One kyu is 6 dan,” says Kim.

“No, I’m a 2 kyu,” Armenia blurts out, fearful of accidentally being paired with a player far beyond his skill level. But Kim doesn’t hear Armenia, and has already scampered off to the corner to confer with the other players in the huddle. A man in his late fifties sporting loose-fitting khakis, a navy blue fleece, and black glasses motions to a go board in the back of the room.

Weaker players are always assigned the black stones. White plays first. Unlike chess players, who use calculation and prediction to win, go practitioners play based on intuition and gut instinct. As a rule of thumb, each move should keep your stones connected, and your opponent’s stones disconnected. The most basic move is to capture a stone for points by surrounding it on all four sides, or “liberties.” But, of course, things only get more complicated from there.

To help demystify some of the more advanced go moves, beginners will often be told to read the eighteenth-century essay, “Thirty-Six Strategies: The Secret Art of War,” a collection of stratagems, or ruses, like “Lure the Tiger Down from the Mountain,” influenced by Taoist thought. They have useful applications in war, politics, daily life, and even go.

Taoism, an ancient Chinese philosophy and religion, stresses that the ultimate path to success—in war, go, or anything else—is based on the ability to manipulate the forces of yin and yang to one’s advantage using the least amount of effort. As in war and life, patterns on a go board are constantly in flux. A soldier, a go player, and even the average person must learn to carefully observe and analyze changes to figure out how best to push forward. Only then will balance, harmony and ultimately, success, be obtained.

Armenia and his opponent take a seat across from each other at the empty table. As the wall fan drones monotonously, several players gather round, whispering in Korean. Although Western players occasionally visit the club seeking out stronger players, contests like this one are rare.

“You take black and I take white,” says Armenia’s opponent, a man named John who surprisingly speaks good English.

Strategy #1: “Cross the Sea Without Heaven’s Knowledge.” Quietly gain territory while lulling an opponent into carelessness.

Without warning, John places the first stone down with a THUMP against the board’s top right corner. The whispers from the crowd are silenced. Game time.

Strategy #4: “Take One’s Ease While the Enemy Becomes Exhausted.” Achieve an early territorial lead by forcing the opponent to scramble to catch up.

The alternate turns rather quickly, filling the board’s empty spaces with stones. Armenia stares intensely at the board, his body rocking rapidly from side to side like it does when he plays at the pastry shop. John is laid-back, his right hand calmly fiddling with the white stones in the black bowl. No doubt he’s done this a thousand times.

Strategy #10: “Hide Your Dagger in a Smile.” Looks can be deceiving.

“Where are you from?” asks John, placing another white stone on the board.

“Manhattan,” Armenia responds, somewhat relaxing his stick-straight posture. “I just started this club,” he adds, pointing to a flier that he had placed next to the board.

“Are there Asian people there?”

“Few,” says Armenia, placing a black stone. “Some really strong Chinese players have recently started coming.”

Strategy #15: “Lure the Tiger Down from the Mountain.” Don’t play where an opponent is strong.

John begins to place his white stones down the center of the board, creating a box around a smattering of Armenia’s, and capturing stones that will count for points.

Strategy #20: “Muddy the Waters to Catch the Fish.” Complicate things.

The direction of play shifts to the corner left, then corner right. The black and white stones on the board begin to assume intricate shapes and patterns, incomprehensible to the untrained eye.

Strategy #36: “Run Away.” When all else fails, avoid conflict.

A go game ends when both players pass or one resigns. John’s stones are heavily concentrated throughout the board, while Armenia’s black stones are loosely clustered at the top right. After twenty-two minutes, Armenia shakes his head. He’s losing bad, and he knows it. “I think that’s it,” he says. The two silently count up each player’s territory. Armenia has lost by over twenty points—not a close game by any means.

“You’re not a beginner,” says John encouragingly. He then suggests that Armenia play with a two-stone “handicap” to make things more even. They clear the board, and the game starts with two black stones on the board before the game begins. Ten minutes later, Armenia resigns. “It’s too much,” he says. A third game begins, this time with a three-stone handicap. “Now I’m playing for pride,” Armenia jokes, looking at me. He came here prepared to lose, but after two consecutive defeats, perhaps that’s changed. Play resumes. Armenia resigns, a third time. Then a fourth game commences with a four-stone handicap. “Four stones,” says Armenia. “I should be able to win with four stones.” More stones connect, slam against the board and fall victim to capture; more patterns, shapes and abstractions are formed, but it is not enough. Armenia resigns again, defeated a fourth and final time.

Rising from behind the table, Armenia graciously thanks his opponent for the match and heads toward the door, leaving in his place a small stack of Gotham Go Club fliers.

We walk back to the subway as it begins to lightly drizzle. Armenia recaps his dismal performance. John was indeed a skilled player who didn’t unleash all his bag of tricks out of sheer politeness. His play was “fierce and furious,” a fighting style characteristic of Korean players. But Armenia had learned to play surrounded by fighters, including a Viking-like participant who once got so upset after being forced to resign that he stabbed a Swiss Army knife into the board.

“Do you think they’ll even check out your club?” I ask.

“I probably won’t be seeing them much,” Armenia responds, as we turn a corner into the frenzy of Roosevelt Avenue, “and why would we?”

In the cozy living room of his one-bedroom Upper West Side apartment, overlooking the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, Armenia taught me how to play go. His digs are a definite downsize from his former three-bedroom home in North Carolina, but it’s still a go player’s refuge.

Books like The Treasure Chest Enigma and First Kyu are stashed on a wooden shelf in the corner alongside a collection of colorful pins from the seven U.S. Go Congresses he’s attended, and, tucked underneath the couch, a katsura wood board etched on the bottom with President Obama’s signature and seal. A carpenter friend from North Carolina had crafted a Hawaiian koa wood board that Obama gave to the Chinese prime minister, and used Armenia’s board to practice the etching.

Seated in his living room, Armenia showed me how to make “eyes” and win a ko, and told me about atari (stones in jeopardy of capture), sente (forcing moves) and dame (neutral spaces). He also cautioned me to never connect to a weak stone—also useful relationship advice, he joked.

With each game we played, I improved.

I later downloaded an app that pits you against a computer. I won at first, but lost as the levels increased, and my play was reduced to haphazard clicking. Although chess programs have been beating human grandmasters since IBM’s Deep Blue, no computer can defeat a top-rated go player. But I was being beat by a relatively low-level computer. I needed Armenia and go clubs to make sense of the game. It wasn’t going to happen on my own.

Seven months after Armenia’s game at the Flushing baduk club, the AGA crowned its first two go professionals at the U.S. Go Congress in North Carolina, one of which included twenty-one-year-old Queens native Andy Liu. “I’m not that excited,” he said in a recent phone conversation, “but I know that people think this could really encourage more people, and youth, to get into the game.”

It’s too early to tell how the AGA will run the new professional system, and if it will spike the number of Americans who are interested in the game. “The pro system is a good thing, and can motivate kids to play,” says Armenia. “It’s better than having to go to Japan when you’re eight. Let’s hope they keep it going.”

The next generation of players is learning the game by playing online, not in clubs like Armenia’s, but his group continues to meet every Tuesday night. The Asian players from Flushing never did stop by, but stronger players do drop in from time to time.

At one of our living room go lessons, Armenia showed me, using the Cheerios he was feeding his daughter, how to properly hold a stone between the index and middle finger. “Go has crept in, but it’s a slow creep that’s competing with all other types of thing,” he said as his daughter bounced playfully on his lap. “I don’t think go is going to burst onto the scene like say, Thai cuisine, which, ten or fifteen years ago, wasn’t very popular. Last time I checked, go stones were not that tasty.”

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Mo Oh is a graduate of the Center for Cartoon Studies with an MFA in cartooning. Currently residing in Boston, Massachusetts, reading, eating, baking, attempting to grow plants and working as a concept artist for a small game company. Contact: [email protected]