By Besha Rodell
By Patrick Range McDonald
By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
The Wonjang-neem explains that I am a reporter doing a story on the club. He also tells him that I speak Korean, but the old man, who won’t give me his name, insists on believing that I don’t.
"Tell her I want to play with her," he says, motioning to a Go board that happens to be facing the restroom — the door to which is always propped open, so that the men can peep their heads out and even converse while pissing. And so the lesson begins.
The old man shows me how to make "houses." A series of casual passersby — still tucking in their shirts and zipping up their flies — wander over to our game. None of them will give me his name. "Don’t mention me, I’m nobody," they say before scurrying away. Nor do they bother to see if I am actually getting it — none except for Suk, who at 30 years of age is the club’s youngest regular.
As if to symbolize his relative youth, Suk’s the only guy at the club who wears shorts — khaki shorts that show his thick legs. He’s got sleepy eyes and a pleasant Korean round face. When Suk’s not at the club, he’s at USC working on a Ph.D. in economics. He’s been away from his home in Seoul for 10 years trying to get this Ph.D. — first at the University of Illinois and then at Emory in Atlanta. Tonight, Suk is the only player at the club who speaks English confidently, and the old man uses him as a translator.
"Ask her why she placed her stone there," the old man orders. I answer in Korean before Suk speaks.
"Tell her she’s wasting a turn by putting a stone there. That territory is secure. She needs to stake out new territory," replies the old man. In Go, one unnecessary move can cost you the game. In fact, according to Yasunari Kawabata, the Nobel Prize–winning author of the novel The Master of Go, by playing the first stone you have 7 in 10 chances of winning.
Like homesteading in the Old West, placing one stone on an empty part of the board is enough to make it yours, at least provisionally. When it’s my turn again, like a good cowgirl, I greedily stake out more ground. Again, the old man stops, this time to ask Suk why I’m not defending my territory — the same territory that was secure two moves ago. "Tell her in Go you must not act too hungry," the old man says.
And here is the most difficult challenge in Go: keeping your territory alive, and knowing when it’s dead, or in jeopardy. It’s an esoteric balancing act, one fluid motion of staking, building, securing and capturing territory. Understanding the complementary nature of these acts — to put it in the lingo of Eastern pop philosophy, the yin and yang of it — is the key to Go.
With Suk and a six-stone handicap, which means six free moves before the game even gets started, I beat the old man by one (games are usually won by a margin of 1 to 6 stones). My brain is fried, and I complain that after a while the game got so confusing I couldn’t figure out what was happening.
"That’s the fun of it!" the old man retorts. This gets a laugh from Suk and the Wonjang-neem. "If it wasn’t confusing, what would be the point in playing?" he says.
Go may be a confusing game, but it’s also what’s known as "a game of perfect information." Unlike poker, or Scrabble, there are no hidden data in Go. So that somewhere out there in the ethereal realm of mathematical game theory, there exists a perfect way to play. In Go lore, the pursuit of this "perfect play" is legendary, and at the club it’s what makes the minutes dissolve into hours and hours into days. Chances are that there will be at least two men laying stones as the sun rises.
"Never closes," says the Wonjang-neem of the Na Sung Hangook Gi Won, the city’s only 24-7 Go club.
It’s a late weekday afternoon, and the Wonjang-neem is leaning against the front counter, looking out the windows at another cloudy day. On the counter sit a burnt coffee pot, a large metallic hot pot filled with barley tea, and a cash register. Behind it, a glass case displays Snickers, 7-Up, Coke and Marlboros — the snack bar.
Since you only play if you pay, the Wonjang-neem spends a lot of time setting up games. The official fee for a day and night of unlimited play is six bucks — that’s what goes to the house. Then there’s the unofficial fee — the money that changes hands between players.
"A Baduk player’s lifeblood is gambling," the Wonjang-neem says in a hushed tone. Behind him, next to the cash register, there’s a sign that says in bold red letters, "State Law No Gambling Allowed."