American Go E-Journal

THE TRAVELING GO BOARD: A FLOWER BLOOMS IN THE JAIL YARD

Friday November 26, 2010

It has now been almost a year since I first visited the Federal Correctional Institute in Englewood, CO, and I am pleased to report that they now have a weekly go club with regular attendance of 10 to 20 inmates. My first article on this program sparked a tremendous outpouring of support from the go community:  Slate and Shell donated over 20 books for the inmates, Yellow Mountain Imports sent a treasure trove of nice playing sets and books, SmartGo donated free licenses for the full version of their program,  Janice Kim sent more copies of the Learn to Play Go series, and of course the AGF provided free sets and matching funds as well.  All of these resources have been put to good use by the inmates, who are making steady progress.  I have been able to visit the prison every few months, and have had a warm reception every time.

Perhaps the most significant development has been the ability to e-mail with the inmates, which began in June.  The prisoners can’t access the internet, but they are allowed to use an electronic messaging board.  People on the outside can access the system through a website, and once approved, can exchange messages with an inmate.  Almost as soon as the new system was up, we were playing go by exchanging board coordinates.  After several inmates requested contact with the AGF, I paired them up with go players of similar ranks, and also began playing them myself.  In the course of corresponding with them, I have had a chance to hear several of their stories, and have enjoyed getting to know some of the inmates a little better.  “Lots of people in here do not have anybody on your side of the fence,” wrote inmate K in one of our exchanges, “playing with outsiders is an excellent way to help their loneliness and depression.  For the people that do get involved with this on your side, it gives them a chance to realize that we are not all deviants and mad-dog killers, who have a little something to donate to society rather than just being takers. Both sides get the chance to see that we are all just people and maybe we can develop some real long term friendships.  It also gives us some kind of a connection to the outside, for when we are released back into the community one day,” said K.

Another inmate, T, regaled me with one of the best introduction to go stories I have ever heard. “I wish it went like it sounds: ‘ I meet this Japanese guy in prison and he teaches me go, kind of like the Karate Kid story.’  Ha, Yeah I wish it went like that. This is the reality: my cellmate was named Yoshimura, and he was straight from Japan. The U.S. govt. caught him in a meth sting in Hawaii. He barely spoke English, and was a real yakuza straight out of the movies.  He has quite a story himself, anyway, he became my cellmate in like 1998.  About this time I think I was in my Eric von Lustbader mode, reading all his ninja novels (don’t laugh). In these books go was often mentioned, and I remember reading about it in other novels dealing with Asian culture.  So, I asked ‘Yoshi’ if he had ever heard of this game. He immediately became quite animated in explaining it to me and asked if I wanted to learn.  I said yes, and he had Janice Kim’s 1st volume sent to me. I began to read it, and he began to teach me. Well, long story short, I was a poor student (maybe the poorest of all time).  I didn’t get it.  I understood placing the stones but couldn’t grasp the concept of territory (seems so simple now). Unfortunately, I never figured it out. Yoshi became bored, and maybe a little discouraged.  I never grasped the game to any degree while he was here.  He left thinking that I was the dumbest white dude he ever met.  Maybe a year after he left, I hadn’t been playing at all, my mind would sometimes go back to the game, and one day the light came on.  Epiphany, I guess, but at any rate I got it, so I ordered more of Janice Kim’s books and began working on it myself, teaching the few who showed interest.  I have played more in the last year, and since your visit, than the entire time previous.  I had never played a player stronger than myself until I played you, in fact I had never played a game that I wasn’t giving a handicap in until I played you”.

After playing several games with T, both online and in person, I have been able to calculate his rank at 6 kyu.  His rival, O, has come up to about the same level, while K is hot on their heels at 11 k.  A newer player, H, gave voice to a new version of a familiar complaint, “everyone on my cell block is 9 stones stronger than me,” he lamented.  I promised I would find him someone close to his rank to play with on the outside.  H is about 16 kyu, so if any players of a similar rank are interested in a game by e-mail, send a message to agf@usgo.org.  All messages are carried out through an anonymous system, so the inmates need never know your real name, or your e-mail address.  As the program expands, more outside players would be welcome as well.  I hope to run a tournament for the inmates at some point next year, and I plan to continue visiting the prison every few months.  I have been quite encouraged by the dedication the inmates have shown, and I believe that go is helping them to better themselves.  Just as go helps us to transcend international barriers, it can also help us transcend societal ones.  In the end, we find we are all connected through the goban, and that we can play the timeless dance of black and white with anyone, regardless of their circumstances.
- Paul Barchilon, AGF Vice President.  Drawing by Inmate K

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