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GAMES : Don't Pass Go : Tactile Aesthetics Are a Stone's Throw From Aggressive Tactics

June 24, 1993|PATRICK MOTT | Patrick Mott is a free-lance writer who regularly contributes to The Times Orange County Edition

Let's say that you love chess for its ersatz warlike nature but that it doesn't quite satisfy the acquisitive side of your personality. Let's also assume that you have a real passion for Monopoly but that it's simply not aggressive enough to suit you (even if you do have hotels on Boardwalk and Park Place).

Given all that, you might want to take a crack at the oldest game in the world that is still played in its original form: the 4,000-year-old Asian board game called go .

Go is like playing the saxophone: It's a cinch to learn the basics, but it can take you years to learn how to play it really well. Originally from China and now played primarily in Japan, it combines qualities of artistry and analytical thought with a sense of boldness, acquisitiveness and even an appreciation for the tactile.

Go is a contest between two players who compete to secure territory, which consists of 361 points formed by the intersections of 19 vertical and 19 horizontal lines drawn on a wooden board. Players use lens-shaped discs, called stones, to surround pieces of territory, as well as opponents' stones. One opponent plays black stones, the other white, in alternating turns.

Unlike chess, in which playing pieces are removed as the game progresses, go begins with an empty board that gradually fills as the players place their stones. Once put on the board, a go stone is stationary unless surrounded and "captured," in which case it is removed from the board. The player controlling the largest total area at the end of the game wins.

Black always plays first, the player placing a stone at the intersection of any two lines on the board. Points are added to a player's score as he surrounds territory on the board, as well as any of the opponent's stones.

Gambits are almost limitless, and in Japan, where go is a national pastime, players are awarded rankings in somewhat the same way they are awarded in the martial arts. The game has gained in popularity in America, however, and there is today an American Go Assn., based in New York, that assigns rankings and holds tournaments.

Still, the game remains largely Japanese in spirit.

And, because of this, aesthetics--in the form of playing equipment--are an important part of the game.

According to Iwamoto, ideal go stones are made of shell and slate (other, cheaper stones are made of glass or plastic), and the highest quality are known as yuki -grade shell, distinguished by their perfectly parallel lines and opacity. The stones are stored in wooden bowls, called go ke, made of chestnut, mulberry, teak or rosewood. Boards, like stones, are available in a wide price range, but devotees prefer thick kaya wood boards with a chamber cut out on the underside to increase resonance when the stones are snapped down on the board, decisively, with the index and middle fingers--a traditional practice.

This is about as aggressive, physically, as the game gets, but it might be good, next time you're in a warlike or territorial mood, to heed the advice you've become so familiar with on the Monopoly board: Do not pass go.

Complete go sets, including board, stones and bowls, can be had for less than $20 at game stores or for as much as several hundred dollars at specialty shops.

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