By Hillel Aron
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By Jill Stewart
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Photo by Brett Panelli
"Ai-goo cham-nah," sighs the middle-aged Korean man sitting next to me. It’s a common Korean expression, and presently it means something between "Oh shit" and "Jesus." It’s the kind of sigh that takes all the breath his tar-stained lungs can muster.
"What should I do?" he asks himself in Korean. He inhales slowly on a half-gone cigarette. "It looks like I’m dead."
He reaches into a worn wooden bowl and runs his fingers through the smooth glass stones — they make a soft crackling noise. His eyes, however, remain fixed on the 361 intersections, or "points," of the Go board grid in front of him. After a long minute, he takes a black stone between his index and middle finger and makes his move.
His opponent, another Korean man with puffy eyelids, reads him like a book. In half a second, he lays down his white stone to block black’s escape.
"Ai-goo cham-nah," the middle-aged man sighs again. He takes the last drag of his cigarette and lights another. "What should I do?" he mutters.
And so goes the soundtrack of most of the games played at Na Sung Hangook Gi Won, Koreatown’s oldest Go club.
Go, as it’s known in Japan, Baduk in Korea, and Weiqi in its homeland, China, dates back some 4,000 years. Though it contends with backgammon as one of the oldest games played in its original form, it’s most often compared to chess. Both are games of battle, but to put two difficult games into one simple analogy: Go stones are to chess pieces as guerrillas are to infantrymen. What’s a guerrilla or two in a rice paddy in enemy territory? This attitude, of course, brings an unfortunate end.
Learning to play Go takes only a couple of hours, but learning to play a decent game takes years. Mao Zedong thought so highly of the game that he required his generals to play it. In Japan, the warlords went as far as giving the annual Go champ a Cabinet position. Here in the United States, Go fans, like those in the 1,500-strong American Go Association, believe the game can make you Zen. "A strong player must be prepared to be flexible but resolute," reads the association’s Web site. "Like the Eastern martial arts, Go can teach concentration, balance and discipline."
But Go players, regardless of nationality, are mostly men — and Korean women, particularly wives and mothers, think they’re full of shit.
"You know the people who play the Baduk," my mother answered disgustedly when I asked her about the game. "They are just the lazy people who like to smoking."
My friend Mia has a more dramatic tale. One day her mom came home to find Mia’s dad teaching her and her brother Go. She immediately grabbed the kids by their shirt collars and carried them out of the room. I will not allow you to turn mychildren into Baduk players, she informed her husband. "She wouldn’t let us learn," Mia explained, "because Baduk sucks your life away."
So is Go an art or an opiate?
It is a little past 7 on a Saturday night when I walk into the Na Sung Hangook Gi Won — L.A. Korean Go Club — in a rundown strip mall on Western Avenue. Like a bachelor pad, this place is more about function than aesthetics: a dozen collapsible tables, folding chairs, Go boards and a couple of sickly houseplants. The tables along the windows are full of players contemplatively and competitively drawing stones. In the center of the room, a crowd of men stand watching a game. My presence, however, soon disrupts the scene, and one by one, I feel each of the 60 or so pairs of eyes fall on me, the lone woman.
While most of the men go back to their games, the pack standing in the center give me the kind of hard stares boys give to girls who ignore the proverbial "NO GIRLS ALLOWED" sign and enter the clubhouse. They are in their mid-40s and bear dark tans. In Koreatown, such tans mean one of two things: either they play a lot of golf or they labor outdoors. Their mismatched clothes (dark checked shirts and plaid pants) and soiled Korean baseball caps (reading "Free Life" in neon calligraphy) suggest the latter. There isn’t really any exclusionary policy at the club, but seeing that I’m Asian, they know I’ve disregarded the cultural signposts. Their glares seem to say, Didn’t your family teach you any better?
Just as I start to squirm, a voice calls out, "You’ve arrived." It’s Choi, a thin man with a long face and a short peppered beard. Choi is the club’s Wonjang-neem, which is how Koreans address the head of such establishments. It was the Wonjang-neem’s game that the men were watching, and a simple greeting from him is enough to soften the hard stares into curious ones.
"Does she play?" asks a slight, wiry man elbowing his way through the crowd. He is wearing dark slacks and a neatly pressed polo shirt. His jittery manner coupled with his jet-black hair gives the immediate impression of youth, but the wrinkles on his face place him in his late 50s.