American Go E-Journal

The Win or the Way: Finding meaning in the game of Go

Sunday August 25, 2019

by Brian Olive

Regular readers of the American Go Association E-Journal will be well-acquainted with the contributions of William S. Cobb, both as author of The Empty Board, a column published regularly in this journal for many years, as well as the publisher of many excellent go books through his own Slate & Shell publishing company. Through his writings, Cobb has challenged us all to think more deeply about why we love this game so much. Through his publishing – and, by extension, through Slate & Shell’s generous sponsorship of countless go tournaments around the country – he has worked selflessly to spread his own love of the game.

Mining the same veins of thought expressed in The Empty Board, Cobb has published other, deeper musings on the meaning of Go, especially as it relates to the core teachings of Buddhism. One such article (available here) was published in 1999 in Tricycle: The Buddhist Review. Entitled simply “The Game of Go”, this article explores Go as an aid in the search for enlightenment, an endeavor that, Cobb posits, is on par with other traditional meditative practices such as the tea ceremony and karate. Twenty years later, this essay still shines as exemplary on two fronts: its easy introduction to the game for those not familiar with it, and its deep look into the meaning of the game. It is worthwhile and fresh reading, even for those who have been playing go for years.

As a tip of our collective hat to Cobb’s contributions, what follows is a brief recap of some of the key ideas that emerge from his article in Tricycle. Although this comes at the risk of losing some context, or inadvertently reinterpreting Cobb’s views, the hope is that something said here will encourage you to both read the article for yourself and to think deeply about the meaning of Go. What does the game mean to you? Is Go all about ‘the win’? Or, perhaps, can this millennial endeavor be a way to enlightenment? Feel free to share your thoughts. Here are some of Bill’s:

Go fosters humane attitudes

Cobb rests squarely on the history and tradition of Go to support this claim. From the days of buddhist monks teaching go to samurai, to the continued popularity of the game in Asia and its growing presence in Europe and America, Go has been used as a means to “instill the virtues of overcoming fear, greed and anger”. Any Go player who has played – and lost – any significant number of games can feel the sweet pain of truth in this idea. We’ve all suffered from our greed mid-game, and we’ve all won games based on mustering up sufficient patience and balance of play. Go teaches us these things.

When played properly, you lose about half of your games

On the surface, this statement speaks to Cobb’s full embrace of the handicap system in Go. In theory, when playing with a handicap, we should win about half of the time. If we are improving, and therefore winning more times than not, then we adjust the handicap and get back to winning just half of the time. Most see this as a way to give other, weaker players, a fair chance. This is perhaps true, but Cobb takes it further: this is how go should be. We are, in his opinion, better off when constrained to both winning and losing. Equally. Put another way…

It cannot be good to win in go, because it is not bad to lose

Tightly woven into this surprising idea are the core threads of Cobb’s idea of Go as kido or, the Way. Many play with the singular motivation of winning. For many, it’s all about ‘the win’. We watch go videos, read go books, attend go lectures, all to improve our play and win games. We track our rating, with our sights set on ranking up. Cobb, on the other hand, proposes that the point of playing is to open oneself to the initial emptiness of the go board, to explore the interconnectedness of the stones, to appreciate the impermanence of value and structure, good and bad on the go board, and to lose oneself (i.e. experience no-self) in this act of creativity. Much of the article expounds on these key ideas, which happen to represent the four fundamental Buddhist principles.

In case you missed it, find the article here. photo by Phil Straus.

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