Some months back I decided I was going to try and master the oriental game of Igo (It`s Chinese, Korean and Japanese.) This simple looking game, consisting of placing black or white stones on a checkered board in order to make territory, is one of the oldest games in existence. It actually dates back to around 4000 BC or at least before the first edition of `Basics.` It is said to have the second greatest number of players in the world after Chinese Chess and is exceptionally popular in Korea where ten percent of the population play; it has its own TV channel and there are as many `Igo` cram schools as there are regular cram schools in Japan. That is saying something!
The basic moves of the game are so simple they can be learnt in about two hours. The depth of philosophy, strategy and reasoning involved in the game is so deep it boggles the mind. In Japan (and probably elsewhere) it is regarded as a serious martial art. Not surprising it is compulsory for anyone studying to be an officer at the Chinese Military Academy. It is so inherently complex no computer has been designed that can play against even an average professional player. The number of possible patterns are not quantifiable like chess, and are said to be greater than the estimated number of atoms in the Universe. Recent research show that the constant manipulation of patterns by the mind has a significant preventive effect on the development of brain atrophy/diseases as one ages.
There is one proverb/aphorism among the millions associated with the game I like: `Lose your first fifty games quickly and then you can start to play.` I think I passed that mark a long time ago but who is counting?
I enjoy making comparisons with learning this skill and the violin. There are certain things one `must do` in order to play Igo which are hard disciplines to acquire. The same things apply on the violin. The only difference is that in the former case one is soundly spanked within 20 minutes, with the latter one simple endures years of small success without knowing why. Personally, I prefer the former.
First of all one cannot play without `reading,` what is going to happen in the mind`s eye first. In the same way, one should never practice without `visualizing,` (same meaning) first. To pick up the violin and play without thinking is so utterly normal for so many and yet it means nothing. One is being led by the notes on the page and nothing more. This is exactly the same as the two concepts `sente` and `gote` in Igo. The former means that one plays and the opponent has to respond to your action. The latter means you are simply following your opponent around responding to every attack she makes while producing very little of your own self. In music too, we can follow a score passively or we can `decide` how we are going to play something and make it ours. Bend the score to our will and find out how it responds. We may then have to take a step back into `gote` but that is part of the process.
Beginner players at Igo, based on my experiences of daily play on the Internet, typically don`t grasp the concept of `opening game,` `middle game,` and `closing game.` In the same way we have to make choices when learning a piece about what we are trying to do. Set out the overarching structure? Finding the peak moment? Or `Working on the nitty gritty so it`s more or less ready for performance?` Or `The Polishing stage minute where tremendous gains and losses can hinge on the smallest detail?`
The weakness of Igoists ;) who attack like crazy in one area before even setting out the overall conceptual framework is they get bogged down. In this case one does a `tenuki` (sort of `pulling out the hand`) and makes a big play somewhere else. Bored and in a rut with practice? Pull out a lot of new stuff and work on it. Or study a Beethoven quartet for a week; or memorize a work without touching the instrument.....
Igo is a high speed game. One can learn a great deal from playing again and again with an opponent but that is limited. Dan players (high level) can look at a situation and solve it instantly. Beginners can`t do this but there is no time to work things out. An interesting conundrum which is the same as sight reading! In Igo one practices solving `tsumego,` (life and death situations) on paper until the shapes and patterns become automatic. Sound familiar? Finger patterns and scales n`est pas? Without this grind one can never really play pieces very well. Never really improve.
I like the idea of equating scales with `life and death.` Puts the whole issue in perspective.
Now there is just the question of what to do with `dat steenking moggie,` who keeps jumping on my Igo board.
`So this is Christmas?` As the Bard once said. Or was it JFK?
Christmas starts early November in Japan, with inflatable red and white arches around the entrances of convenience stores, decorations that I bang my head on while shopping and 87 billion renditions of `Last Christmas,` playing in every store known to woman. Drugs aside, that abomination is what George Michael should have been put in the slammer for.
For me, Christmas is not a religious celebration so I wonder what it all means? The Pope has been rabbiting on about consumerism, which is hardly original but he may have a point. Kids here are all expecting relatively expensive electronic toys called DS or WTF or whatever while their parents agonize over spending that money so their offspring can be as moronic as the next, while in the Tohoku (tsunami) region other kids with nothing struggle through a bleak and cold existence with little more than the bare essentials. Others, disenfranchised by the nuclear disaster wonder which hotel or relative they will be shacking up with for the vacation.
I guess for me it’s about expressing gratitude. `Thanks,` is such a simple word, yet so powerful. The other day someone asked me to do them what seemed like a fairly small favor, but since they didn’t know the country or the situation they had no idea how much work I had to do, how many favors I called in, while actually being extremely busy. I was glad to do it, but did I get even a simple thanks? Not one jot. It leaves a bad taste.
One of the things I like about Japan is that there is an –extremely- developed sense of debt and gratitude built into the culture and social exchanges. If someone helps you out you owe them, and consequently move heaven and earth to repay that debt. It may be a little artificial or strange to westerners at times but it works in its own way and is not to be sneezed at.
Then there is `gratitude,` on a much larger scale. As I get older, with me and the world seeming to be falling apart in so many dimensions it is becoming easier and easier to be morbid instead of giving thanks everyday. Thanks for waking up in the morning, having food on the table, being able to listen to music, talk to people here and having a cat with bad breathe. There is a lot to be grateful for and a lot to be shared (will share the cat with anyone).
Yes, that is the key to Christmas: give thanks for what you have and then share it with other people.
Have a happy New Year too.
More entries: September 2011
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