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The Empty Board: Philosophical Reflections on Go

The Empty Board: Philosophical Reflections #20
By William Cobb
Posted: 2024-03-29T01:00:58Z

I spent this past winter in Mexico, which meant the only way I could play Go was by using the computer. Thanks to Dragon Go Server, I had plenty of action, but I found something was definitely missing when playing the game that way.

It’s not just the long wait between moves (there are other sites where you can play a live game), it is just not the same as playing over an actual board with another person in front of you. Go is a personal interaction, very much like having a conversation. Exchanging messages via a machine is not at all the same. Like a conversation, there is a very complex interaction going on: facial expressions, body movement, variations in the way the stones are placed on the board. All of these are an integral part of the activity. You want to win, of course, but you want the game to be a good experience and that requires both of you to play as well as you can. Winning because your opponent made an obvious blunder is very unsatisfying; it leaves you feeling like something is seriously missing from the experience---it’s like someone just suddenly got up and left in the middle of a conversation. It would be normal in a friendly game for you to insist that your opponent take back the bad move.

This is why Go is so appealing; it’s a genuine human experience. We usually think of ourselves as separate, individual persons, but in reality we are integral parts of communities. It is only in such supportive interactions that we fully exist. If you think of others as primarily useful objects to be manipulated into creating benefits for you as an independent being, you will find life oddly unsatisfying. It is common for Go players to begin a game by saying to each other, “have a good game”. That’s a request for a mutually enjoyable experience, not for a chance to crush the other player. Other games can be like this also, of course, but somehow Go is unusually effective in bringing out the best sort of human interaction, which is to say, the best sort of human experience. It is no wonder that so many players become addicted to the game. 

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