Games People Play

In this Japanese woodblock by Utagawa Kuniyoshi, Guan Yu plays Go to distract himself from the pain of a wound.

I’m not sure why, but I have never been much of a board game player. I am in the minority, since board games have been played in most cultures throughout history.

Senet, which may be the oldest board game, has been found in Egyptian burial sites from 3500 BC.

Patolli is a board game that was played by the ancient Mayans.

I played Checkers like most kids. (It’s also known as draughts in the United Kingdom and some other countries.) And when I got bored with it, I moved on, like many others, to Chess.

The Moors learned chess from the Persians, took it to Spain when they invaded and then it spread to Europe. It’s a good Medieval history lesson. The pawns are the serfs, or laborers who are most plentiful and are often sacrificed to save the more valuable pieces. The Castle is home and the Knight is the soldier who protects those of rank. The Bishop represents the church. The only woman on the board is the Queen who is the most powerful piece of the game. In any chess set, the King is the tallest piece. He must be an old King because he can’t move too well, so he is protected by his Queen.

If you’ve read The Royal Game & Other Stories, by Stefan Zweig, there is the story of a man in solitary confinement who maintains his sanity by studying a book of master chess games, which he plays endlessly in his mind, until it becomes all-consuming. I didn’t have the mind for strategy that allows good players to see many moves ahead and play games in their head. I guess I live too much in the moment.

The oldest game that I have ever played is Go which is an ancient strategic board game that originated in China about 2500 years ago and that predates Chess.

My good friend Steve is a very good Go player and so I wanted to be able to play him. Go is not easy to play well. With each new level (rank), the game seems to become more difficult. The more you know, the more you know that you know that you actually know very little.

I did like the look of the board and the bowls full of black and white stones used in playing Go. I liked the tactics, the strategy, the capturing of territories and the way the tide can change based on one move. I just wasn’t very good at it.

I had played some modern game variations like Pente and Othello years before I even knew the game of Go existed. But those modern versions are really simplistic compared to Go.

Like many beginners, I started by randomly placing stones on the board. I treated it like a game of chance. I read some books from Steve on the game and realized that there are some basic common opening sequences. But Go is something that I think must require thousands of games to begin to master.

I was not the first player to think that comparing Go and Chess is a way to explain Western versus Eastern strategic thinking.  Don’t nitpick that both Go and Chess originated in Asia. The Western chess we know today is different from the earliest version, but I’m thinking more of why Chess might be more appealing to Westerners.

Go begins with an empty board, building from nothing to something. There are multiple, simultaneous battles going on and winning is point-based. Chess has a single objective winning objective – kill the king. The rows of soldiers march forward and fight man-to-man. The individual stones in Go are only significant as part of larger groups.

I was sure someone had written a book or a dissertation on Go as a way to understand either Eastern military strategy or to explain Western and Eastern business strategies. Sure enough, a search turned up The Way of Go: 8 Ancient Strategy Secrets for Success in Business and Life

Do you think that the games we play – as individuals or as a culture – says something about who we are?

Stepping Stones to Go: A Game of Strategy
An Introduction to GO: Rules and Strategies for the Ancient Oriental Game
Go Basics: Concepts & Strategies for New Players
Go and Go-Moku: The Oriental Board Games
Go Game Board and Stones
Complete Go Game Chest
Go Bowls

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A lifelong educator on and off the Internet. Random by design and predictably irrational. It's turtles all the way down. Dolce far niente.

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