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Wednesday, October 29, 2008

The Laskers and the Go master

My father played Chess, Go and Bridge. I don't know much about the last two, but I recently came across this vignette from Edward Lasker (International Master and US Chess champion) about his and Emanuel Lasker's encounter with a Go master. Emanuel Lasker was world Chess champion for 27 years -- rated among the strongest players of all time -- and a mathematician as well.

Mr. Kitabatake one day told us that a Japanese mathematician was going to pass through Berlin on his way to London, and if we wanted to we could play a game with him at the Japanese Club. Dr. Lasker asked him whether he and I could perhaps play a game with him in consultation, and was wondering whether the master – he was a shodan – would give us a handicap.

“Well, of course,” said Mr. Kitabatake.
“How many stones do you think he would give us?" asked Lasker.
“Nine stones, naturally,” replied Mr. Kitabatake.
“Impossible!” said Lasker. “There isn’t a man in the world who can give me nine stones. I have studied the game for a year, and I know I understood what they were doing.”
Mr. Kitabatake only smiled.
“You will see,” he said.

The great day came when we were invited to the Japanese Club and met the master – I remember to this day how impressed I was by his technique – he actually spotted us nine stones, and we consulted on every move, playing very carefully. We were a little disconcerted by the speed with which the master responded to our deepest combinations. He never took more than a fraction of second. We were beaten so badly at the end, that Emanuel Lasker was quite heartbroken. On the way home he told me we must go to Japan and play with the masters there, then we would quickly improve and be able to play them on even terms. I doubted that very strongly, but I agreed that I was going to try to find a way to make the trip.

Edward Lasker:

While the baroque rules of Chess could only have been created by humans, the rules of Go are so elegant, organic, and rigorously logical that if intelligent life forms exist elsewhere in the universe, they almost certainly play Go.

I'm sympathetic to this point of view. The rules of Go seem to be a natural embodiment of two dimensional notions of encirclement and control of space. They are much simpler and less arbitrary than those of Chess. I can't say anything about the strategic and tactical subtlety of the game, since I don't play, but experts seem to think it is quite deep (certainly it is more challenging for AI than Chess, if only for combinatorial reasons). One problem with Lasker's contention is that Go doesn't seem to have been invented independently by any human civilizations other than ancient China (supposedly 4000 years ago)!

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