Research assistant brought ancient Chinese game to youngest students on OSU campus

An intense game of Go

Intense concentration is a must in a game of Go, played here by Robert O'Malley, who brought the game to OSU's Adventures in Learning, and Ira Hecht, who now instructs the class. (photo: Ed Curtin)

In late summer, Robert O’Malley spent a week of his own time mostly moving stones and boards back and forth in Portland for hundreds of complete strangers from around the country.

On most Wednesday evenings, he’s downtown at a local bakery placing stones on a board or sometimes just watching others do the same.
In both instances, O’Malley, a senior research assistant in Botany and Plant Pathology, is supporting one of his life’s passions, the ancient Chinese game of Go.

Players of Go, an Asian board game first referenced by Confucius about 2,400 years ago but probably much older, strive to create “living groups” of black or white markers, called stones, on a board with a 19-by-19 grid. Their intent is to surround as much space as possible during matches that usually take 250 moves – and serious matches can go over a span of one or two hours to complete.

“It’s very much a martial arts game – but on the mental side,” said O’Malley, who started the Go class at OSU’s Adventures in Learning summer program for middle school students four years ago.

Players move Go stones with first two fingers instead of index finger and thumb and strive to create "living groups" within the 19-by-19 grid. (photo: Ed Curtin)

Players move Go stones with first two fingers instead of index finger and thumb and strive to create "living groups" within the 19-by-19 grid. (photo: Ed Curtin)

Players learn to attack and defend, he said, but other critical strategies challenge the person’s entire mental framework: Lose concentration and you lose track of the whole board. Stay focused or you’ll get rattled and make mistakes.

“It even works on the emotional qualities of a person,” O’Malley said. “The greedy person gets punished for trying to take too much. The timid person needs encouragement to know when to stand on their own.”

No wonder, then, that Go has “big time connections” with the ancient Taoists and Buddhists, who “loved the game” and played it for centuries in China, Japan, and Korea, O’Malley said. Their legacy lives on, too; Go is played by more people in the world than any other board game, he said.

Strength comes from “reading the board,” said O’Malley, who also has helped a friend teach school children as young as second grade at after-school programs around Corvallis. “It’s not uncommon to be thinking 10 or more moves ahead on any given branch,” he explained. “And to be able to win you just need to think one move further than your opponent.”

“But it’s no fun playing against a clairvoyant!” he laughs.

For students, Go offers “a huge array of problem-solving capacities,” said O’Malley, who is organizer of the Corvallis Go group and who organized the hardware part of the annual Go tournament in Portland in late summer.

“These are life practices that are very unique to Go,” he said, including:

  • Contingency planning
  • Discovering different options to achieve goals
  • Understanding where things could go wrong, and
  • Recognizing when you realistically can or cannot do something.

“Reaching a master level in Go makes any term paper – all the planning, execution, etc. – look trivial,” O’Malley said.

Playing Go instills a “fighting spirit,” in the terminology of the game, O’Malley said. “When something goes wrong, you dig in. It’s not a time to resign.”

Go helps create good manners and social skills because each move is a kind of conversation with one’s opponent, he said. “You’re talking with stones; each move has subtleties that send implied messages to the person sitting across the board from you.”

O’Malley learned the game a long time ago but was stymied because there was no Go group in Corvallis. Then, walking one day across campus, he saw a picture of a Go board in Tim Cowles’s office in Oceanography, stopped, and started playing.

Since then, the senior research assistant has helped restart seasonal Go tournaments up and down the Willamette Valley, takes instruction once a week from a professional in Amsterdam using the Internet, and has promoted the game to young people in schools.

“Go is not an easy game,” O’Malley said. “Either you improving or getting frustrated – ha, ha!”

But for those who enjoy it, O’Malley said of himself and millions more around the world, “it’s a very rewarding game.”

~ by Ed Curtin

If you ‘Go’ . . . or want to learn!

Robert O’Malley and about a dozen other Go players meet every Wednesday late afternoon and evening at New Morning Bakery on First Street in downtown Corvallis to play, watch, and learn. It’s a very informal gathering, and people come and go between after work and when the bakery closes at 9 p.m.

For those wanting to learn some by reading, the Botany and Plant Pathology senior researcher recommends the “Learn to Play Go” books by Janice Kim, a U.S. professional who has come to Corvallis twice to lead workshops.

And if you’re looking for partners to play, try the Go server KGS online, where games can be played any time of the day or night from around the world.

GO players don’t even have to speak any language in common, O’Malley said. There are enough conventions to determine such things as who goes first and “I resign” in a proper, unoffending way.

Comments are closed.