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The oldest game of strategy

The Indiana University Go Club meets every Wednesday from 5 p.m.-7 p.m. in the IU Asian Culture Center, 807 E. 10th St., in Bloomington. Food is served each week and sessions are open to the public. The club will host its annual IU Go Game Competition on April 11 at 4 p.m. at the ACC. Registration is required for competitors and can be done via e-mail to Prizes will include T-shirts and gift certificates.

What is the difference between Zoran Rilak playing Go and a man playing Go 4,000 years ago? How about a pair of jeans.

Crouched over a board staring intently down at a seemingly random pattern of black and white stones, Rilak plays by the same rules and uses the same strategies as a person would have used 4,000 years ago in ancient China, where the origins of the game of Go have been traced.

Go game

Photo by: Heather Brogden

Contemplative, deceivingly simplistic -- this game of strategy reveals your flaws

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On the second floor of the Asian Culture center, a dozen members of the Indiana University Go Club crowd around a table, pairing off to face each other in one of the oldest known board games. Down the table, an IU sophomore plays against a Bloomington high school girl, a 14 year-old boy squares off against an IU junior, and Rilak, a visiting scholar at IU Bloomington, faces off against an international student. Despite the differences in age and language, the game is always intense.

Go is a deceivingly simplistic game, played by two players who take turns placing white and black stones on the board. The board is divided into 19 x 19 squares, but unlike checkers or chess, the game is played by placing the stones on the intersections of lines, rather than inside the squares. The object of the game is to encircle sections of the board, or to surround your opponent's pieces so you can "capture" them.

"Those are the basics," explains Rilak, with a grin. "You're actually quite able to play your first game."

Despite the simplicity of the rules, Go is actually one of the most complicated board games in existence, surpassing chess in complexity. Unlike chess, there is no Deep Blue or computer program capable of taking on the best player.

"There is no comparison," says Rilak. "The best computer programs when you run them on the best hardware available will get to 1 dan, which is the level an average human can reach in one to three years of playing."

There are 361 positions to place a stone on the board, so the possible moves are almost limitless. In professional level games, each player can have up to five hours to place a single piece, and it's no exaggeration that the first day of play may be spent just placing the first 10 stones.

The weekly meetings on Wednesdays at the Asian Culture Center are a much more social experience, where a mix of students and locals come to play once a week. Every week there's food, and new players are taught the rules and given handicaps to balance out the games.

Once a strictly East Asian phenomenon, Go is picking up popularity in the United States, especially with the help of the Internet. Sites like offer tutorial sessions in English, and a chance to play against distant opponents.

Despite the emerging Internet scene, the ACC still attracts a number of people interested in a more social gathering for Go. The room hums with banter, as players throw comments back and forth, sniping each other with good-humored criticism. The social atmosphere in the room reflects the way many members learned the game.

"I was taught by a friend who's a math professor and just wanted someone to play against," said Jake Woolan, a high school sophomore.

"She taught me," said a high school girl, pointing across the board at her opponent.

But even as the room buzzes with chatter, the players' foreheads are clenched in concentration, planning their next move.

"The game is very contemplative," says Rilak. "It exposes your flaws and thinking and emotional overreacting. If you're unfocused, if you overreact, or if you get angry and place a stone, it shows on the board and it stays there for the rest of the game. There's no re-shaping the pieces like chess. If you did something bad it will be there until the end of the game to haunt you or for the other person to take advantage of you somehow."