Why do I play go?

Published 18 May 2020 by antti (last edited 21 May 2020)
tags: tldr

Recently I noticed that Vit Brunner, who hosts several classic tsumego collections on his website, posted a questionnaire on why people play go. After giving it some thought, I decided to elaborate on my own reasons here on the NGD website.

Usually, when somebody writes on the topic, they give what I would call the ‘standard list of benefits’, something like:

  • Go brings people together.
  • Go teaches you how to win and lose.
  • Go helps children realise the consequences of their actions.
  • Go helps you focus.
  • Go is a great educational tool for schools.
  • Go helps develop creativity.
  • Go helps build confidence.
  • Go helps develop problem-solving skills.
  • Go exercises both sides of the brain.
  • Go teaches you how to be calm under pressure.

Sound familiar?

In fact, I borrowed the above list from an article on chess.com, simply swapping ‘chess’ for ‘go’. When we look at the above list in detail, we realise that it can actually describe almost any skill-based competitively-played multiplayer game. Why play go in particular, then?

If I look at myself, I have had several different kinds of reasons for playing go throughout my career. In the start, it was Hikaru no Go which got me in the game, probably exploiting its ‘realisable power fantasy’ quality: in most comic series, the protagonist usually becomes good at something that the reader has no way to imitate in the real world; but sports and game-based series such as Hikaru no Go can effectively attract new players with the promise that ‘you can be just like x!’ (Give me a break, I was twelve!)

A few years in, I found myself still playing the game; probably its mathematical and visual qualities felt like a good match for me, and I also liked the feeling of improving quickly. A bit later, still, the game became a good excuse for me to often travel abroad (to tournaments), and travelling is certainly something that I have always enjoyed. Making acquaintances of go players from around the world was extremely fun, too.

Something crucial started changing for me when I studied as insei at the Japan Go association in 2011–2012. For these first ten years of my go career, I had played the game as a hobby, thinking that if I became a top European player it would be good enough. After I returned to Finland to continue my university studies, however, I started feeling that my go practice in Japan had been more meaningful – even though, objectively speaking, most people would think that engineering is way more worthwhile than some old Asian board game.

Now that I have become a professional player, I am in the very small group of people who can say that they have a financial interest in playing the game. Still, I do not consider myself as playing the game for money: if that was the main motivation, I would have continued my university studies and tried to become a consultant or a manager – and on the other hand, even if I wasn’t a professional player now, I think I would still continue to play.

What, then, is it in go that draws me? Being in the top 0.01% of players, I no longer improve quickly, so that enjoyment is gone; and as a lower-tier Japanese professional I cannot play in amateur tournaments and most of my professional tournament games are against considerably stronger players, so it is not the pleasure of winning that keeps me playing, either. Is it sunk cost fallacy that keeps me going now; would I feel that my time with go had been in vain if I quit now? I don’t think this is the case, either.

After having studied as insei in 2011–2012, I think I have built a fascination with the way a higher-level game of go becomes a kind of philosophical match off. Of course, similarly to chess, there are moments in a go game where precise calculation is vitally important and can decide the game – but more often a player has a bigger number of similarly good moves available, therefore letting the player create their own value propositions. A game of go then becomes an exchange and competition of more general ideas and principal understanding of the game in a way that I think no other game does.

When you meet a new person and first talk with them, you probably end up going through a general list of topics such as ‘where are you from’ or ‘what do you do for a living’ that help you label the person in question. On the other hand, if you use the same amount of time playing a game of go with the other person, you get a glimpse of how they actually think – while not having to touch more sensitive topics such as political inclination. I think if this quality of go were stripped away, I would look for a better way to spend my time. Indeed, in internet go this has mostly already happened, as my average opponent these days is consulting an AI rather than making their decisions for themselves.


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