"Chess is a battle, but go is war"

The Economist's year end special issue includes a feature on go, which I've slowly been working on taking up. Here are some excerpts from the piece, titled "The game to beat all games: The most intellectually testing game ever devised?":
The heavyweight pros on late-night cable television boast nicknames such as Monster, Razor, Butcher, Assassin and Knitting Needle. The most famed matches in history include the Blood Vomiting Game of 1835, the Famous Killing Game of 1926 and the Atomic Bomb Game of 1945. No, this is not some bone-crushing contact sport. It is a simple parlour game where two opponents, comfortably seated and often equipped with nothing more than folding paper fans and cigarettes, take turns placing little stones, some black, some white, on a flat wooden grid. Simple regarding rules and gear, that is, yet so challenging that in this mind-game, unlike chess, and despite the long-standing offer of a $1.6m reward for a winning program, no computer has yet been able to outwit a clever ten-year-old.
Although the roots of chess extend to ancient India and Persia, its present rules were fixed only in the early 19th century. Arabic manuscripts do record, move for move, chess-like games from a thousand years ago, but the oldest fully registered game played by recognisably modern rules took place in Barcelona in 1490. By contrast, the earliest completely recorded game of go, pitting Prince Sun Ce against his general, Lu Fan, and showing tactics almost exactly the same as those used today, is believed to date from 196AD. The 12th-century go manual, “Wang You Qing Le Ji”, or “Collection of the Carefree and Innocent Pastime”, includes dozens of complete, numbered diagrams from actual games that were certainly played during the Tang dynasty (618-907AD), as well as complex puzzles that remain testing for present-day amateurs.
It was in Japan, too, that skill in the manufacture of go equipment reached its peak, in the cutting of perfect boards from the rare, 700-year-old kaya tree, the use of slate for the black pieces and clamshell for the white, and in the fashioning of bowls made of precious mulberry wood to keep them in. Today, a new, top-quality set of this type may cost $150,000.


Blogger R. Scott Buchanan said...

This reminds me, I have further proof that my faculty members Don't Get It.

One lab, which shall remain nameless to protect the guilty but which specializes in machine learning and pseudointelligence and similar bullshit, has a bunch of guys in it who play go for a couple of hours every afternoon when they would have taken a siesta in their home countries (only two US natives in the whole lab). This strikes me as fairly reasonable, although personally I'd opt for a nap, but whatever.

Their advisor, a dyed-in-the-wool Buckeye if e're there was one, is a self-proclaimed chess expert. He cannot fathom, much less abide, the fact that none of "his guys" will play chess with him. He's convinced that it's beyond them, and this is why God made him a Ph.D. and his grad students... well, grad students. I did some checking: two of his guys were internationally ranked in previous lives as productive human beings. They just prefer Go at this stage in their lives.

I don't claim that chess is easy by any stretch, but it's interesting that this one professor is so convinced that a game he can't play must, of necessity, be easy.

Oh, and the compromise game in the lab, when the professor wants to play a grad student during naptime: shesh-besh. In fact, they've gotten to the point where they're using a simplified backgammon ruleset to test some new machine learning algorithms, which is an interesting take on the old "machines playing tic-tac-toe" motif.

19 December, 2004 19:57  

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