Off the Clock: Physics Professor Touts Merits of Go

Posted: June 25, 2009 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: June 24, 2009 at 3:40 pm


Bob Ehrlich. Photo by Evan Cantwell

From Aug. 1 to 9, Mason’s Fairfax Campus will be host to the American Go Congress, the premier event in American go, according to Bob Ehrlich, chair of the Department of Physics and Astronomy and avid go player. He submitted the following article about the game and his longtime interest in it.

By Bob Ehrlich

Go is a fascinating board game that originated in China more than 4,000 years ago. Also known as baduk, wei ch’i, weiqi, and igo, it is played today by millions of people, including thousands in the United States.

In Japan, Korea, China and Taiwan, it is far more popular than chess is in the West. In fact, the congress will probably bring to Mason more than 100 players from Japan, as well as 400 others from all over the world.

It is said that the rules of go can be learned in minutes, but that it can take a lifetime to master the game.

The rules couldn’t be simpler. Two players alternate in placing black and white stones on a large ruled board, with the aim of surrounding territory.

Stones never move and are only removed from the board if they are completely surrounded.

The game rewards patience and balance over aggression and greed; the balance of influence and territory may shift many times in the course of a game; and a strong player must be prepared to be flexible but resolute.

Like the Eastern martial arts, go can teach concentration, balance and discipline. Each person’s style of play reflects their personality and can serve as a medium for self-reflection.

Go combines beauty and intellectual challenge. “Good shape” is one of the highest compliments one can pay to a move in the game of go. In fact, my passion for the game in part is due to the lessons the game teaches that are applicable to everyday life.

Go-board-animatedThe patterns formed by the black and white stones are visually striking and can exercise an almost hypnotic attraction as one “sees” more and more in the constantly evolving positions.

While I am a physicist, the game appeals to many kinds of minds ― to musicians and artists, to mathematicians and computer programmers, to entrepreneurs and options traders.

Ability in the game does not respect age; children learn the game readily and can reach high levels of mastery. I recall on more than one occasion being completely outclassed in a tournament by an elementary school kid!

Because go lends itself to a uniquely reliable system of handicaps, players of widely disparate strengths can enjoy relatively even contests. The game can be a casual pastime for the idle hour ― or a way of life.

Michael Redmond, the only Western player to have won status as a top-grade professional player in Asia, when asked why he had devoted his life to go, replied, “Because I love the game.”

Although I fall far short of Redmond’s level of skill and generally find myself in the middle of the pack in tournaments, I share the love of the game that all go players have.

Interested parties who want to learn more about the upcoming Go Congress should see

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