Playing the Japanese at their own game: Terry McCarthy in Tokyo meets an American master of the art of go

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The Independent Online
MICHAEL REDMOND is squatting in front of a go board, pointing to a series of black and white stones on the wood, and explaining how, 'when you get good', certain stone formations can be very beautiful.

Michael is 'good', acknowledged as such even by the Japanese who are generally slow to accept foreigners into their traditions. But after 15 years in Japan he has begun to think in Japanese ways: 'For go players, there is the feeling that you are doing art. . .'

This is the spirit of go, the world's most challenging board game which is played by one tenth of the Japanese population and is just starting to catch on in the West. Invented more than 3,000 years ago in China, the game has been dominated for the past four centuries by the Japanese. Korean and Chinese players have begun challenging the Japanese masters but now, for the first time, a young American has got within striking distance of the top titles in Japan's professional go system. His story is a remarkable one and, unlike the saga of resistance to Hawaiian sumo wrestlers, not marked by discrimination.

Go is deceptively simple. Two players take turns to place black and white 'stones' on a 19x19 grid with the aim of capturing as much territory on the board as possible. Each piece has the same value, and cannot be moved after it is placed on the board. But there are 181 black stones and 180 white stones, yielding so many permutations that chess looks trivial by comparison. It has been estimated that the number of different possible sequences of play in go amounts to 1 followed by 750 zeros, and not even the biggest supercomputers can be programmed to beat an average go player. A move that takes eight minutes for a chess computer to work out would take 15 years for a comparably sophisticated computer programme for go.

It goes without saying that go takes some time to master: Michael Redmond, 29, has been playing since he was 11. Most Japanese professionals have been playing since the age of six or seven.

Michael was brought to Japan for a visit by his go teacher when he was 13. After playing with some Japanese, he decided to devote his life to the game. With the reluctant agreement of his father, he left school in California at 14 and moved to Japan where he became a live-in pupil of a Japanese professional go player. He progressed rapidly, becoming a professional at 18. There are just over 400 go professionals in Japan.

Michael is now a seventh dan player - the highest ranking is nine, and he is confident of achieving this level. But his ambition is to reach the very top, a position occupied by 40-year-old Koichi Kobayashi. He still has some way to go, saying there are up to 15 players he would feel uncomfortable playing against.

Unlike sumo, with its stridently religious and nationalistic overtones, go belongs to the more contemplative part of the Japanese mind. It was originally spread throughout Japan by monks when it arrived from China in the seventh century.

Michael is currently the only Westerner playing professional go in Japan, but says he has never felt any hostility. Go has taken over his life. Two years ago he married a Chinese go player, and they have just had a baby daughter, which makes him more determined to reap the rewards of being a top go player. Last year Koichi Kobayashi made about 100m yen (pounds 570,000) in tournament prizes and fees.