I Finally Beat A Six-Year-Old At “Go”
It was my turn to make a move. I stood up from my knee-high, neon yellow chair and walked to the front of the classroom. Standing at the magnetic board, I raised a black piece and confidently slammed it down, as 12 pairs of tiny brown eyes studied my every move. As I lifted my hand, our teacher Lin Laoshi, who had shoulder-length hair and Paula Deen glasses, looked at me as though she were trying to contain her laughter. All of the xiao pengyou (little friends) on my team grumbled, and one boy, a six-year-old in the front row, slapped his forehead.
“You played wrong again!” he shouted.
"Don’t blame other people when they make mistakes,” Lin Laoshi said. “It could be you next time. How would you feel if they blamed you?"
I stood there, a 6’1” American with a mustache, in a class of Taiwanese children ages four to 10. The tops of my classmates’ heads barely reached my waist, and I felt like Alice in Wonderland after she drinks the growth elixir and bursts through the roof of the White Rabbit’s house. The children continued to groan, and I began to wonder why they had ever given me the nickname “Foreign Master.”
I had arrived in Taiwan a month and a half earlier, hoping to master the strategic board game “Go,” but I could not find a suitable place to learn. Until, that is, I discovered the Qi Ye Go School, which offers a beginners program for children. I convinced the director to let me take the class, and instead of bar-hopping and trying to meet members of the opposite sex (like most of my friends), I spent the next few Fridays at Qi Ye, playing this game with Taiwanese children.
Go is touted by enthusiasts as both the simplest and most complex game in existence. The game embodies many elements of Eastern philosophy—black and white stones that represent yin and yang, decisiveness and patience, strategy and intuition—and is widely played throughout China and much of Asia. Today, top players in China are seen as national celebrities, and children throughout the country are sent to special schools to learn to play.
After my embarrassing experience, I spent much of the next week in my dorm room with a Go board, reviewing what we had learned in class. A week later, I was back at Qi Ye.
I sat down with my first opponent of the night: a menacing 6-year-old. He was ranked 25 Dan, about average for the class, and had an awkward gap between his front two teeth. He was pudgy, especially in the cheeks, and had a broad forehead. (The Taiwanese would say his broad forehead indicates a big brain and a lot of smarts.)
As the less experienced player, I went first, making a conservative play in the lower righthand corner of the board. The tiny xiao pengyou grinned and played right back. Click. He seemed quite confident in his opening move, but I had a good feeling about this game.
After a few moves, he made a bad play, and he knew it. I suddenly felt bad for this young boy and became acutely aware of our age difference. I imagined how intimidating it must be to play a foreigner who could easily pick him up and toss him around. I scrunched my eyebrows and curled my lips, trying to make an expression that said, “Hey, it happens to the best of us.” Based on his confused look, I couldn’t tell if he thought I was being encouraging or had something caught in my eye.
A few moves later, I placed a stone on the board and realized I had just made a big, fat mistake. The xiao pengyou rocked back in his chair, his black eyebrows jumping with surprise, as if they had been caught on fish hooks. He couldn’t believe the mistake I had just made. He looked at me as though I were a puppy who had just done something silly.
Just then I noticed his black and yellow shirt that read, in English, “Don't resist! You can't go anywhere! Death head pirates will follow you forever!”
If he was trying to intimidate me, it was working.
After 100 moves, the game was close, and 20 moves later, when time was up, it wasn't clear who had won. Lin Laoshi came over to begin the scoring process. As she peered down at our board and began counting, my opponent and I looked each other in the eye and uttered the customary closing line.
“Xie xie zhi jiao.” Thank you for teaching me.
The game was so close that Lin Laoshi had to count every last stone to determine the winner. When she finished, she paused and inhaled, closing her eyes for a moment. My heart skipped a beat. Then, she squinted a little, trying to keep her face neutral, but smiling nonetheless.
“Foreign Master wins by three stones!”
I wanted to jump up and down and punch the air in celebration. But I quickly thought better of it. My opponent looked at the board thoughtfully—he didn’t look happy, but he didn’t look defeated, either. I gave him a concluding bow and said thank you once more. He smiled and did the same.
I have heard that professional Go players can replay entire matches from memory, move for move, forward and backward. According to legend, two Japanese professional players were playing a game in Nagasaki in 1945, when the United States dropped the atomic bomb. The players immediately suspended play and returned years later, perfectly replacing every piece on the board from memory and picking up the game where they left off.
Now, I watched as my six-year-old opponent studied the board with a concentrated stare. He appeared to be going over the game in his mind, processing where he had gone wrong and making calculations for next Friday night.
I went home, knowing that another busy week of preparation lay ahead.