The game was over, that last play killed him; and he sat staring at the board so hard I thought he would make it go away. He had tried everything to shake me short of tipping over the table: drumming, humming, loudly slurping his drink, and of course, jangling the stones in their bowl like a mad rattlesnake. I just let this nonsense fly past me, and it paid off. I won. Finally he got up, and without a word or gesture, stomped out of the room, keeping his head up, trying to imitate the glorious defeated hero. He didn’t even mark the loss on the wall chart. So sad; and for a second I felt embarrassed, even angry at myself. How could I be so cruel? Bah! There was nothing to be ashamed of. I had beaten him soundly by out playing him and so scored my first win of the go tournament.
I hadn’t come to Los Angeles to play go. My older sister lives there; and though it meant babysitting her three boys much of the time, I was willing to pay that cost if it got me away from work in whatever form of vacation I could get. Well, babysitting isn’t fair; her boys are all fourteen or older with each going their own way, the eldest to attend a local university this fall. There had been a tour of the campus that Wednesday given to incoming freshmen, and since my sister and her husband both worked, I volunteered to accompany my nephew. I just gave off weak smiles and nods to any questions put to me, and nobody seemed to mind, even when I sponged a free meal from the cafeteria—after which I told my nephew to eat at home. It was at the school that I saw the notice for the go tournament. The first round was Friday, and with barely enough money, and courage, I went.
The place was busy, with over a hundred players pre-registered and more coming in the door. Twice while in line to register I wanted to leave; each time reminding myself that most of these people were probably not much better players than me and likely as apprehensive. Unfortunately, my initial opponent bragged he was a 2 dan, and so I gave up any thought of winning, hoping that I could at least make him think hard as he crushed me. He even drew black and so got to play first; his lone stone in one corner an ominous threat to all of mine still cowering in their bowl.
Unlike chess, in go the board is vacant at the beginning of the game. Both players then create shapes by placing their pieces on the intersections, rather then the squares, of the 19 x 19 grid. Single stones become shapes, shapes become groups, groups become guardians of territory (collections of vacant intersections), the player with the most at the end of the game being the winner. The opponent’s pieces can also be captured, which is added or subtracted to the final score.
Whenever I see a near empty go board, I am always reminded of my first teacher of the game. He was an old, polite looking Japanese man with a squeaky voice who had been invited by my first grade teacher to show us the game. I don’t remember his name and never knew his playing strength. At first seeming very sedate, he was soon bouncing from board to board, laughing all the time while placing his pieces and capturing ours; cackling like a crazy kid collecting gobs of M&M® on Halloween. We couldn’t help but laugh with him. We all lost, of course, but no one cared; we had learned something new and enjoyed doing so. He had made learning the game fun in a way for me that no one has ever done since, though I’ve always suspected that he had had more fun teaching us than we as children had in learning it.
So, thinking I didn’t have much of a chance against my 2 dan opponent, I instead played with fun in my heart, and blew my mind by winning. At the end, my opponent’s position was hopeless; I had one of his large groups completely surrounded. But since he left without telling me he resigned, I was stuck waiting for the time on his clock to run out. Still, I couldn’t be happier, and once over, I glided to the wall chart to mark the win. Of course the entry had to be made somewhere along the top edge, and I could feel my shirt coming out in the back as I reached up to mark the chart. Was my underwear showing, too?
Suddenly the wall darkened, and I ducked, fearing that my opponent had returned to take revenge by smacking me on the back of the head. I smelled the cologne that my dad wore as two protecting arms rose above me and took down the chart from the wall. “Here, maybe I can make it easier for you,” said a gentle voice. I turned round ready to be courteous but already hating some man for rescuing me because I was short. A second later I forgot my anger.
He was tall, with something of an early fortyish, elfin-face that had just started to droop around the eyes and cheeks. It spilled down from neatly trimmed hair, passed dark eyebrows and sparkling eyes, ending in a clean-shaved, rounded chin that held up a warm but indefinite smile. His suit was the lightest of grays that fit his dapper figure and he wore a name badge that read “Tournament Director.” “Is this you?” he said as he bent over to mark my score. I know I said something in return, something in an inhuman voice I’m sure, for he stared back at me as if I had answered in some unknown language. I cleared my throat and managed a “thank you.” The next moment he was called away by someone hailing “Brad.” He excused himself, and I could breathe again.
A mid-thirtyish, newly made divorcee is not supposed to fall in love so easily. She’s supposed to be angry at life and hate men for at least a few months, maybe a year, before being tripped up again, if she bounces back at all. Well, so says my sister. Then again, how would she know? She’s been in love only once with her first and only husband. For me, it was exciting to know that I could feel again, to want again; to know that I wasn’t burned out inside, and maybe with time, come to care for someone again. Brad? Well . . . I could’ve at least worn something brighter instead of stereotypically, black-bland slacks and T-shirt—without even a small sequence to break up its lack of color?—and a light jacket that didn’t match anything. (It was cool for once in Southern California.) I didn’t want to think about my hair: wild and tied in a loose knot. Ick! Had I fallen this far down? When was the last time I dressed with my eyes open?
During the lunch break, I spent time in the restroom tying up my hair in an imitation of something neat and fashionable, then ate a light meal; I don’t play well on a full stomach. For the afternoon round I drew a 2 kyu, a little easer rank to play against than a 2 dan. I also received black, and so got to play first and was confident I’d do well. Still, I reminded myself to play for fun, and it worked . . . for the first twenty moves. Then Brad walked past—his cologne lingering—and my next move was a blunder. For forty minutes my opponent must have thought he was playing against a zombie as it took me that long to regain my composure. Damn me! Near the end I was about to resign when my opponent misread an endgame sequence. It brought the score close, but in the end I lost by two points. I tried to pretend it was okay, that I had played as hard as I could and that I should learn from my mistakes. But it never feels good to lose; I don’t care who you are. My opponent wanted to talk about the game afterwards, and by being polite I missed my bus ride home. It was a forty-five minute wait until the next one.
For a few minutes I watched a couple of the high-dan games, then strolled out to the vender area, admiring the expensive go equipment—I still play on a plastic board at home—and the myriad of books about the game: the covers shiny, the photos dynamic, the insides filled with the mysteries of a game over four thousand years old; all the answers a player could ever want. I made sure I had bus fare back home before buying one on the opening—the weakest part of my game. In a room set aside for blitz players, I started to lay out the stones according to the diagrams in the book when a girl no more than seven came up and asked, “Will you teach me?” “Only if you tell me your name.” “Shari,” she answered, and then sat down. She said that her brother had brought her and had promised to teach her the game, but was too busy with the tournament. “Then let’s surprise him,” I replied.
We played on one of the smaller 9 x 9 boards, first showing Shari how to place the pieces and then adding a bit of strategy. She learned quickly, though I was taxed in finding moves that didn’t decimate her position. “I want to go here,” she would say, and I would answer, “Then I’ll take your stone.” “Prove it.” And in some cases I couldn’t, though once I made a smiley face that had us both laughing so long I nearly missed the last bus back to my sister’s house.
Saturday morning was overcast; my sister says that I always bring bad weather with me whenever I visit. To make up for it I stole some of her clothes: a light, berry top and light blue jeans, and carried a fleece jacket of washed out lavender; then did up my hair. “For a game of go?” my sister asked. “Who is he?” she demanded to know. “Sakata Eio,” I told her, and then hurried out of the house while she was still trying to figure out what type of name that was. She and all her family were going to a Dodger game. I passed on baseball even though the Giants were in town. Sacrilege I know, but I like playing go, too.
Later that morning the sky cleared. I was glad for my sister’s family, but as the clouds waddled off, so did my luck: I lost the morning game. My opponent made a mistake in the opening (the fuseki, as it’s called in Japanese), but I got lost in the following complications and resigned early.
Between games, I looked for Shari, thinking we might play some more or even have lunch in the nearby cafeteria. I found her in the main hall standing next to, of all people, Brad, pulling on his hand as if urging him to go someplace with her. He struggled against her while standing amidst a circle of smartly dressed people that included a couple of Cover Girls who smiled, moved, and laughed in all the right debonair ways. Busy with the tournament Shari had said? Her brother was the tournament: i.e. the tournament director. I was right, though; Brad was handsome. But what had I been thinking? Those two girls were too much competition to get into the ring with; beside, Brad had probably only been polite to me yesterday. Sorry ego, only a bit of biological lust passing through. Then why was I using his name? Why was he handsome? Damn me! Hopefully, Shari didn’t see me slink from the main hall and out of the building. I felt ashamed of my cowardliness, and a bit sorry for her. There were few players her own age, while she had come with a brother too busy to pay much attention to her.
This time I ordered lunch to go; then pitched it into a trash can and sat drinking iced tea on a bench under an elm tree, pretending to read while really trying to calm the confusion inside of me. This day was no longer fun; I had been wrong . . . again. Strike three. As if in answer to my distress, a bus hissed to a stop just across a short run of grass. It waited with its doors open like the arms of a knight errand ready to carry me away to happily ever after. I began to pack. An old woman beat me to the doors, and I watched as she hobbled up and disappeared into the bus, its interior made gloomy by the contrasting noon sunlight against the darkly tinted windows. I cringed seeing it swallow her, seeing the bus for what it really was: a cave to hide in, a giant maw awaiting its next meal, a ride that would take me anywhere but somewhere.
May be I should’ve gone to the ball game with my sister’s family. Too late; the sun can’t hide when there’re no clouds. I had shed black in favor of color for whatever the reason, and—Damn me!—I had forgotten how many swings you have to take to get any sort of a hit. It wasn’t my fault no pitch came my way. Besides, I had to go back. I had made a friend and I couldn’t abandon Shari so easily. To “pssst” with who her brother was and the make-up artists that hung around him. He deserved to go bankrupt paying for all that war paint. I stood up; then found I had been crying. Tears of joy . . . of freedom? Time to find out.
My clock was running when I got back to the main hall and met my opponent for that afternoon: a 3 dan that had had bad luck in the second and third rounds, and so, like me, had a score of 1-2. I placed my bag and jacket on a nearby chair, sat down, and reminded myself to play for fun. It almost worked again. Whenever she tried to complicate the game, I played simply, taking what secure territory I could while waiting for the right time to reduce her territory. She thought long and hard—good for me!—and was nearly out of time when we entered the endgame (yose, as the Japanese call it). But here she dominated the game, and I was behind by over twenty points when I finally resigned. Another loss? Yes, but at least I had hung in there longer than I thought I would. Without a handicap (additional stones placed at the start of the game by the weaker player) a 3 dan should’ve cleaned the floor with me much easier.
Unfortunately, I had had an audience. Many of the other players stopped to watch—her, not me, I’m sure. Shari found me, too, and I moved my stuff to the floor so she could take the chair next to me. She booed when I gave up, and everyone laughed. After the game, we picked up a couple of bottles of apple juice and adjourned to the blitz room to play. Shari wanted to try the bigger 19 x 19 board, and was doing surprisingly well for a beginner when her brother Brad came into the room. “So here you are,” he said to Shari. “I wish I could hide so well.” Me, too. He slid into a chair next to her. Test! Be brave my heart!
“I can play go now,” said Shari. “This is my teacher.” “Ah, a good one, I see,” he replied. I tried to keep my smile weak, like his the other day. “Show me,” he said challenging Shari to a game. We swept the board clean and they began placing their stones. “Thanks for taking the time to show her the game,” Brad said to me. “I never get to play as much as I’d liked to now. There always seems to be too many boring people to meet, like those snooty, expensive girlfriends of those high-dans. Can’t understand what those people see in each other.” They played on for a few silent minutes. “Loser buys the ice cream?” I asked, daring to change the subject. Would it work or was it a swing at a pitch in the dirt? Shari hummed. Brad didn’t answer until I looked up at him. “I was hoping more for dinner first,” he said.
“See, I told you you’d like her,” Shari said. She leaned over and whispered in my ear, though loud enough for Brad to hear, “He’s not married. Say you like him, too.” I couldn’t help letting the smile grow bigger on my face.
Well, sometimes a walk will get you to first base, too.
- text copyright © 2013 by mari t.
1: http://en.academic.ru/dic.nsf/enwiki/742612 (12-6-2013; 8:34 pm PT)
2: http://www.gojapango.com/culture/go_game.html (12-6-2013; 8:35 pm PT)
3: http://bayareago.org/news/2013-09.html (12-6-2013; 1:40 pm PT)