A flavour of oriental OXO

If we ever make contact with beings from another galaxy, it would be very surprising to discover that they played chess, bridge or backgammon. The rules are too intricate and arbitrary to expect them to have evolved independently among a different intelligence. They might just play a form of Go, though probably not on our 19 by 19 boards. What they would almost certainly do, however - if they have discovered the joys of games at all - is to play some version of Noughts and Crosses. The idea of making connected lines of symbols on a square grid is so natural, they must surely do it everywhere in the universe.

They would know, of course, that the traditional three-by-three game always ends in a draw if the players know what they are doing. (Unlike the opponent of the little girl in the picture, who has already gone fatally wrong. She has only to put her Nought in the centre now, and she will win in a couple more moves). Our alients might also have discovered - if their gravity is strong enough to support the game at all - that Connect- 4 (in which pieces must drop to the lowest available point in vertical lines on a seven-by-seven grid) is a win for the player who goes first. (Though it took a good computer program to find the strategy leading by force to a winning line of four in a row.) But where would our alien friends stand on the game of five-in-a-row, also known as Go-Moku or, in its more refined form, Renju?

In its casual form, the game is played on sheets of graph paper, just like an extended game of noughts-and-crosses, and the winner is the first to make five in a row. There is some evidence that such a game existed in China around 4,000 years ago, though the Ancient Greeks and pre-Columbian Americans seems also to have discovered it independently.

The game took a more formal shape around 700AD, when it began to be played in Japan with black and white stones on a Go board. It was not until towards the end of the 19th century, however, that books began to appear on the theory of the game. At around the same time, a general suspicion appeared to emerge that the player who moved first had too much of an advantage. More recently, thanks to the availability of computer analysis, it has been proved that there is a forced win for the player who starts, and that is where the history of the game becomes most interesting.

There are two options when you discover that a popular and challenging game has a basic fault: you can throw it away, or you can change the rules. Most of the world - including Britain - seems to have opted for the former solution. Five-in-a-row is still played here by school-children who have moved beyond old-fashioned noughts-and-crosses, but no form of it ever seems to have been taken seriously enough for formal competitions to have been instigated.

In Japan and some other countries, however, they repaired the game well enough for it to take its place alongside the traditional boardgames of Go and Shogi (Japanese chess). The rule-changes were made in 1899, when the name of the formal game was changed to Renju - which means "string of five pearls" in Japanese.

The new rules form a set of restrictions on types of move that the players are allowed to make. For example, the simplest way to ensure that you will form a line of five in a row is to form a row of four, open at both ends: -0000-. Your opponent cannot block both threats simultaneously. And the simplest way to ensure that you will be able to form such a row of four is to form two distinct open-ended rows of three (in different directions) with a single move. The new rules specified a 15 by 15 board and banned such "double-three" formations. They also banned "double-fours" and "overlines" (lines of more than five in a row), and anyone making such a formation would lose the game instantly. This introduced a new possibility to win a game by creating a threat that could only be met by making one of the proscribed patterns.

The new game of Renju was rapidly seen as more than just a repair of the traditional Go-moku. It was a game of strategy in its own right. And its champions quickly became respected alongside those of other traditional Japanese board games. In the novel "The Master of Go" by Yasunari Kawabata (available in the Penguin Modern Classics series) there is an account of an exclusive gathering at the opening ceremony of the 1938 world Go championship match: "All told, four masters were in the assembly: on Shusai's left, Sekine, thirteenth in the line of Grand Masters of Shogi, as well as Kimura, Master of Shogi, and Takagi, Master of Renju, all brough together for this, the commencement of the Master's last match."

The game, however, has been slow to spread beyond Japan. The International Renju Federation was formed in 1988 and international tournaments are now held in Japan, Sweden, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Latvia and Russia. According to the current rating list, the world's top twenty players include 12 Japanese, four Russians, two Latvians and two Estonians.

But why has Renju never become popular in England? Surely it is just the sort of game to appeal to our large population of game-players. I suspect the answer is as simple as the game itself. One can get away with playing bridge because it is a team game and therefore ostensibly sociable. Backgammon and poker players are admired for their ability to gamble without flinching. One can now (thanks to the efforts of Nigel Short) describe oneself as a chessplayer without inviting looks of pity. But Renju? Deep down, games players like to be taken seriously. Noughts and crosses is a step far.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Ashdown Group: Front-End UI Application Developer

    £30000 - £40000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Front-End UI Application ...

    Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive

    £18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

    Recruitment Genius: Service Engineers - Doncaster / Hull

    £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Domestic Service Only Engineers are requ...

    Recruitment Genius: Employability / Recruitment Adviser

    £23600 - £27500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The Employability Service withi...

    Day In a Page

    Where the spooks get their coffee fix: The busiest Starbucks in the US is also the most secretive

    The secret CIA Starbucks

    The coffee shop is deep inside the agency's forested Virginia compound
    Revealed: How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Loch Ness Monster 'sighting'

    How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Nessie 'sighting'

    The Natural History Museum's chief scientist was dismissed for declaring he had found the monster
    One million Britons using food banks, according to Trussell Trust

    One million Britons using food banks

    Huge surge in number of families dependent on emergency food aid
    Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths 2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

    2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

    Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths trove
    The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey, 25 years on

    The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey 25 years on

    The space telescope was seen as a costly flop on its first release
    Did Conservative peer Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

    Did Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

    A document seen by The Independent shows that a week after he resigned from the Lords he sold 350,000 shares in an American company - netting him $11.2m
    Apple's ethnic emojis are being used to make racist comments on social media

    Ethnic emojis used in racist comments

    They were intended to promote harmony, but have achieved the opposite
    Sir Kenneth Branagh interview: 'My bones are in the theatre'

    Sir Kenneth Branagh: 'My bones are in the theatre'

    The actor-turned-director’s new company will stage five plays from October – including works by Shakespeare and John Osborne
    The sloth is now the face (and furry body) of three big advertising campaigns

    The sloth is the face of three ad campaigns

    Priya Elan discovers why slow and sleepy wins the race for brands in need of a new image
    How to run a restaurant: As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food

    How to run a restaurant

    As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food
    Record Store Day: Remembering an era when buying and selling discs were labours of love

    Record Store Day: The vinyl countdown

    For Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
    Usher, Mary J Blige and Will.i.am to give free concert as part of the Global Poverty Project

    Mary J Blige and Will.i.am to give free concert

    The concert in Washington is part of the Global Citizen project, which aims to encourage young people to donate to charity
    10 best tote bags

    Accessorise with a stylish shopper this spring: 10 best tote bags

    We find carriers with room for all your essentials (and a bit more)
    Paul Scholes column: I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England

    Paul Scholes column

    I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England
    Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

    Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

    The heptathlete has gone from the toast of the nation to being a sleep-deprived mum - but she’s ready to compete again. She just doesn't know how well she'll do...