The Orient's polite game 'is more beautiful than chess': William Hartston reports on the European Go Congress, held at the University of Kent

Click to follow
THE 278 men and women who have spent the past 10 days competing in the European Go Congress at the University of Kent are all agreed: go is bigger, better and more beautiful than chess. It has long been established as the principal intellectual board game in Japan and China, but is still struggling to establish itself in the West.

The game of go, which takes its name from a Japanese word meaning 'surround', is played by two players who place white and black stones alternately on a board of 18 squares by 18. Unlike chess and draughts, however, the go stones are placed not in the squares themselves, but on the vertices. The object of the game is to take command of space and capture the enemy stones by surrounding them. As with all good games, great strategic complexity stems from the simplest of rules and, as with all good oriental games, there is a code of etiquette running parallel with the rules.

You must respect your opponent and sit up straight, explained Alex Rix, the president of the British Go Association, though he conceded that the standard British slouch was more in evidence in Canterbury. Most of the players did, however, hold their stones between second and middle fingers, and slide them on to the boards in practised fashion to make the required clicking sound.

They always played their first stone in their opponent's half of the board - to do otherwise would be rude - and when tidying up at the end of a game, they never committed the gaffe of clearing their opponents' stones from the board.

The hugeness of the game, with each player having 180 stones with which to compete for the 360 points on the board, turns any contest into a sequence of interrelated skirmishes, each its own little territorial dispute, the whole linked by a grand strategy. Sensing which area of the board is most important at any given moment seems as much a matter of intuition as calculation.

How long would it take a Western player to learn to compete on equal terms with the top players in the world? Feng Yun, 26, one of 50 professional women players in China, who was helping and encouraging the Europeans in Canterbury, thought a talented player could do it 'in five to ten years after turning professional'.

Alex Rix, lamenting the fact that the membership of the British Go Association has remained at about 500 for almost 20 years, might consider that over-optimistic. 'Go just doesn't seem to fit into Western society,' he said.

With the European Open Championship, sponsored by Hitachi, won by T Matsutomo (Japan), ahead of W Miyakawa (Japan) and S Zhang (China), and all of them only amateurs, there is clearly a long way to go, though Miss Yun said that the Westerners were 'much better than four years ago', then giggled when told that there was no need to be polite.