American Go E-Journal

The Janice Kim Files: Debating the Details

Friday June 24, 2016

by Janice Kim 3P2016.06.24-janiceKim

Andrew Feenberg has made illuminating and interesting points comparing and contrasting the recent match between AlphaGo and Lee Sedol, and the novelized match between Shusai and Kitani in the book The Master of Go.

There are differences in the modern feeling of go, and what go traditionally has been, and it is all about the details; the ones we focus on, and what they mean, are up for debate.

Feenberg suggests (Rational Play? The Master of Go vs. AlphaGo), as some observers in the book do, that move 121 was the central issue, a move away from the main center battle in order to take advantage of the time rules. Kawabata does spend a bit of time on it, but I’d say therein lies the issue for the Master: it’s not a central issue to the game itself.

For that reason, it may have the appearance of a modern attempt to take advantage of ‘fussy’ rules in order to win a game, at some cost to the meaning of the game. In fact, it may be much more insidious than that :), it’s a ‘modern’ way of extracting the maximum number of points whenever you can, without emotional involvement in what appears to be happening on the board at that moment as a battle between two human opponents. In this sense, the modern game is bringing a new, more nuanced sensibility to the concepts of “tempo” in games, specifically “sente” and “gote” in go.

The Master himself allows that it’s a question of timing, and his opponent may not be able to make that small forcing play later, depending on how the center battle goes. It possibly does throw him, as he later misses a crucial timing issue in that center battle (at this level, questions of who is the inferior player I think can’t be shown through one game, or one move in one game, and are beyond the scope of what can be argued through them). But this detail of what the Master actually said is lost as well, perhaps deliberately as it’s subtly suggested that the Master himself is now trying to “justify” an (ugly) move in an attempt to preserve the beauty of go, as if we have a lock on definitions of beauty, and 121 isn’t it, and the players themselves are telling us things about the game that they don’t understand.

If this were a modern game, there would be no question that White would lose a game without komi; there’s no reasonable chance that one top player can spot another Black no komi, the Master is almost certainly going to lose such a game precisely because of tradition. It’s interesting to me to note our human tendency to focus also on the score beyond winning and losing, as if the players would care if it was a 3 or 4 or 5 point loss, and play accordingly. Observers often say a resignation or a bigger loss is somehow indicative of a greater difference in skill exhibited between the players. It’s rare for someone to see that a great player, seeing he or she was behind, would make plays that were arguably better, but perhaps riskier and result in a greater loss.

Focusing on another detail, I’d hesitate to call this a ‘Western’ influence, although perhaps Kawabata appears focused on ‘outside’ influences and is feeling it from the West, and China could be considered west of Japan, or not being looked at, depending on where one is standing :). The way of thinking behind move 121 to me has clear roots in an outside, fresh perspective of analysis through objective territorial counting that Kitani’s great collaborator in the modern way of play, the player who came to Japan from China, Go Seigen, brought to the table.

A more compelling analogy to me would be between Go Seigen and AlphaGo, and the big question still to be answered is if AlphaGo will bring us a rich body of work like Go Seigen did, so much so that it’s said you can do nothing but study the games of Go Seigen 10 times and become a professional shodan, or if we’ll have 10 tantalizing clues of what AlphaGo was thinking at a point in gmaespacetime.

Much thanks to Mr. Feenberg, and the American Go E-Journal, for bringing such thought-provoking pieces right to me with my morning coffee!

Categories: The Janice Kim Files