The Way Of Endless Go
Endless Go is a variant of Go played either on an infinitely large board or without rules for ending the game. But why play such a game?
About this series
Go, also known as Baduk or Weiqi, is an ancient board game developed in China over 4000 years ago, and still played by millions today. But what elevates Go from that of other board games enough to be considered an art, a spiritual practice, even an expression of divine cosmology?
In this series, I’ll offer some of my reflections on what the game has to teach.
- The Rules And History of Go: A Brief Introduction
- The First Distinction: Letting Go Of Go
- Balance In All Things: How To Walk The Golden Middle Way In Go
- Why Do Anything? The Art Of Interaction In The Game Of Go
- The Way Of Endless Go: Playing With Infinity
The two core rules of Go (rule of liberty, rule of Ko) dictate only what happens when a stone is placed and that the state of the board can not reverse to the previous state. This ensures, except in very few occasions, an endlessly progressing game.
Like life, the game ends only when there’s a lack of will or ability to play more. There are some rules that dictate how the game flows but not who’s winning or when it ends, unless employing house rules.
Playing an endless game of Go seems pointless, if no one wins. Yet, we do interact in life which is equally indefinite.
The Necessity Of Rules
Besides the physical laws, it seems we are ultimately free to choose what we want to live by and for. This notion can easily lead to an existential crisis of why do any particular thing.
Rules then, seems necessary. We cannot play without rules.
Children make their own games and explore the boundaries they just made up. Similarly, adults create abstract notions of careers and status and money and fame, all of which we can compete for within the loose framework of rules we call law.
In an endless game then, it seems we must make our own rules and objectives beyond those describing what does what.
No wonder option paralysis is a very real thing when even the boundaries defining those options are in most cases also merely a choice!
In this way, I feel the idea of a game of endless Go can offer some reflections on how we would like to approach life.
If there are only the most basic of rules, as is the case for Go, we can dig into what shapes and forms those rules can produce.
While there is no end game and no clear determinant of good or bad (at least in endless Go, and life), there are other players who you can show your particular shape of stones to and say, “hey, try to capture this!”
Thus, within the endless game of Go there are an infinite amount of arbitrary rules and objectives to create, like “how efficiently can I surround this area if my opponent tries the same?”. There are infinite variations and additional rules that can constrain or open up new strategies and tactics. The only determinant is willingness to play and explore.
While you can play with yourself, facing an opponent adds the benefit of a bit of chaos and some constraints on what you can do as both needs to agree on a particular set of rules and objectives. While this seems limiting (because it by definition is), and it is tempting to scoff at such arbitrary restrictions, it also adds an element you cannot gain by yourself: pushing boundaries.
While the default mindset in any game or endeavor is that of competition (winning over an opponent, beating the system, master the rules and consequences), it is really about cooperation.
When we sit down with another player to play a finite or infinite game of Go, we are cooperating by creating obstacles and boundaries for each other, and prompting the “opponent” to interact with those boundaries.
When I build a shape of stones on the board, I want my opponent to interact with it. It is not only more exciting to test my hypothesis (my shape) against the world (my opponent) but it can also be beneficial for learning and for extending my shape in response to outside forces.
Cooperation stretches further than playing itself, but also to the nature of games. Someone defined the rules and the boundaries of an activity which allows you to play. You can then make new rules and offer them to others for them to explore.
However, don’t fall in the trap of making rules that will crush exploration and mastery. When I was a kid, I would make my own games and then alter the rules after every iteration if I found that play didn’t develop the way I wanted.
While it is interesting to create frameworks and see how things behave within it, I forgot the rules must allow players to explore and exploit, else there’s no fun to be had.
Possibility and potential
Endless Go, and life, offer almost infinite possibility and potential. Rules and frameworks should amplify this by limiting us just enough to facilitate the next level of exploration.
Go does this better than most other games, in my view. The feeling is that of continuous mastery, but also humility. In fact, a common saying is that for every increase in rank you learn only how much more you have to learn!
This echoes Socrate’s famous words, “I only know that I know nothing.” It might feel frustrating to never master Go, but this is valuable because even though you’ll never master the game, there’s always new understanding to be had and skills to perfect.
Whenever I play, I might feel that I’m in control and at other times I have absolutely no clue. Some times these feelings are correct, other times they are not.
Life is similar in this regard. There’s absolutely no sense of how far one has come or what one should do to “win”, but there is a sense of progress. But like Go, context changes everything.
Go, the spiritual game
This is why I find Go such an invaluable metaphor for life. It carries so many elements within it, so many aspects that map easily over to daily experiences, and so many lessons to teach.
While everything is a metaphor for everything else (if one wants it to be), Go, more than any other game, makes me reflect on life, the universe, and everything.
No small feat for a nearly 4000-year-old game, and perhaps why Go was so heavily entrenched in Zen Buddhism and Samurai class of medieval Japan.