Saturday, 1 September 2012

The Master of Go

Source: Sensei's Library
First played in China over 2,000 years ago, Go long has been part of the Japanese culture. Played on a board with 19 x 19 squares, Go pieces are played black versus white, similar to chess. But unlike chess or checkers, the pieces are placed on intersections of the square in a grid-like manner instead of inside a square. Once a piece is placed, it cannot be moved. A piece that is completely surrounded is captured. The rules of Go is relatively simple but allow for a wide array of strategies. Winning involves surrounding the opponent's pieces as much as possible. The winner of a match is determined using a points system.

A Go match in progess. (Source: Wikipedia)
I know almost nothing about Go. Most of what I wrote in the last paragraph was picked up as I read this book. The Master of Go is based on an actual match —an important one— between two masters. Honinbo Shūsai, a retired Go 9-rank master, agreed to play a out-of-retirement game against Kitani Minoru of 7-rank. Ranks in Go is akin to ranks in martial arts, reflecting its holder's level of skill, accomplishment, and experience. This was Honinbo Shūsai's final official match as he passed away several months later.

Kawabata Yasunari was a reporter from Mainichi Shimbun assigned to cover the match. The match entirely spanned several months, with breaks lasting from days to weeks. The venues were changed, and moves were made after many hours of deliberations. The match became one of the most discussed Go matches in history.

Fortunately this book is not a blow-by-blow account of what happened. Kawabata wrote, or rather rewrote, the match as a "chronicle novel" or a nonfiction novel. He gave himself and Kitani pseudonyms, but clearly there was no question about the persons involved. Kitani, named Otaké in the novel, was younger than Honinbo but a formidable player no less. In 1928, Kitani beat eight opponents consecutively in a series of matches. Honinbo, whose health was deteriorating at the time, had a reputation for being pragmatic. There were instances during the match when he used the provisions of the match to his advantage. Postponements occurred, dragging the game to a point where forfeiting came into consideration. But with their reputation at stake, both masters proceeded with the intention of winning.

Reading this book with just a rudimentary understanding of Go was certainly a handicap. What made me stay to the end was Kawabata's detailed account of what happened throughout the match, the people involved, and how they revealed clues about the two masters of the game. Go was merely the stage on which a human drama unfolded.

The actual match between Honinbo Shūsai and Kitani
Minoru (Otaké) in 1938. (Source: Sensei's Library)


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