Go Crazy

To its obsessed fans, Go isn't just a board game. It's a way of life, a key to building better computers, and maybe even the savior of American education.

Yet Go programs are still better as learning tools than serious competition. At first they can mimic the opening moves of a professional 9-dan using tried-and-true opening patterns, called fuseki.But the soufflé collapses in the middle game, when programs tend to ignore crucial moves that would be obvious to most strong players. Bump recalls a recent game Gnu Go played against another program, where instead of an elegant dance of linked stones attacking and defending, both programs seemed to slap stones on the digital board randomly. It looked, to Bump's eyes, "like a food fight."

But Go programming can still be worthwhile financially. Overseas software companies will pay in the healthy five figures to license good programs. And while nobody makes wild claims about how the computer Go effort will produce computers that can actually think, it may teach us something. With Go, programmers have to hack into the sort of human intuition that professional Go players call on unthinkingly. "Finding a good move in chess is more analytical," says Fotland. "In Go, it's more like, "This spot kind of feels right, this spot feels kind of wrong.' Getting those aspects coded into a program has got to teach us something more about intelligence."

Thirty years of playing Go has brought Ernest Brown to a single conclusion: Children need to learn Go.

Brown is a counselor at San Francisco's Juvenile Drug Court. His office, buried in a quiet corridor of juvenile hall at the foot of Twin Peaks, is a small room, painted a dull beige and warmed by a creaky wooden office chair and a wall filled with plaques and photos. There are shots of Brown -- a tall, broad-shouldered man with a calm, sonorous voice -- hanging out with Go players on friendship tours of China; also, Brown helped bring the largest American Go event, the U.S. Go Congress, to S.F. in 1999, and his office wall sports a proclamation from Mayor Willie Brown declaring July 29-Aug. 8, 1999, "Go Congress Week" in San Francisco.

Brown began playing the game as a college student in Michigan, and later continued as a regular member of the San Francisco Go Club. He was entranced with the variety of people he met there: artists, musicians, intellectuals, and once even the Japanese ambassador to the Soviet Union. As he became more involved with the game local- ly and nationally, he started participating in international events, a path that brought him to Singapore in 1989. He was there to watch the World Youth Championship, a children's tournament financed by the Ing Foundation, a Taiwanese Go organization founded by a wealthy industrialist named Ing Chang-Ki.

What Brown saw at the championship stunned him. He watched children play who were barely old enough to read or write yet whose skill at the game far outstripped the best adult players he knew in San Francisco. "It was the first time I'd seen child prodigies," he recalls. "I'd seen professional Go players, but not this. There were 8-year-olds playing as well as professionals."

Brown would eventually make Go the subject of his doctoral dissertation, "The Efficacy of Using the Game of Go to Understand Patterns of East Asian Thinking." One of its main arguments was that the game has the potential to be "the saving grace for American public education." That statement stemmed from Brown's conviction that Go teaches all the things we believe children ought to know at an early age. Among its lessons: Learning is a fun, exciting process that stretches over the entire course of your life; no matter how good you are, you can always improve; share; respect other people, because everybody can teach you something; be strong but not too aggressive and arrogant, because it has a way of turning around and biting you on the ass. And the best part is you don't even have to be a demagogue about it. Kids could learn all this -- internalize it -- just by playing a game.

If only Americans could see this for themselves, Brown felt, they'd come to the same conclusion. If Go was ever going to become popular here, Americans needed to see some home-grown talent, Brown thought, but everyone agreed that reaching that level requires starting to play Go as a child. Nobody had even begun to lay the groundwork for that kind of effort. Brown tried contacting the Ing Foundation in the hopes of funding a full-time teacher in the Bay Area, or at least letting the Bay Area host a World Youth Championship. He was met with bureaucratic stonewalling.

"It was sort of like a peewee football league calling up the NFL for help," Brown recalls.

Jiang Zhujiu's arrival changed everything. His presence provided an opportunity to have a world-class player working with children, as well as a source of funding: When Jiang called the Ing Foundation, the Ing Foundation called back. As a result, the American Ing Goe Foundation was created -- Brown is its president -- and the 1992 and 1994 World Youth Championships were held locally. "In America, the first thing you need to do is get kids interested in the game," says Jiang. "It's really the best game for a human being. Our job, if we're lucky, is finding a big prize for players, and more tournament [sponsors] to get people interested."

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