Go Going Gone

By Ed Staskus

   When Matti Lavikka and I slowly stopped playing chess and started playing Go we didn’t know we were sitting down to the oldest board game played continuously to the present day. The game was invented in China more than 2,500 years ago, maybe longer. It is a strategy contest for two players in which the aim is to surround more territory than your opponent. 

   The playing pieces are called stones. One player uses the white ones and the other one the black ones, taking turns placing them on the vacant intersections of the board. Once placed, stones cannot be moved, but are removed from the board if it, or a group of stones, is surrounded by opposing stones on all adjacent points, in which case it is captured. The game goes on until both players survey the pickings and decide it’s not worth playing anymore. When a game is finished, the winner is determined by counting each player’s surrounded territory along with captured stones. 

   Games can also end when one player spent exhausted brain dead simply gives up.

   “Chess has only two outcomes, draw and checkmate,” said Henry Kissinger, one of America’s most idiosyncratic and ingenious strategists. “The objective of the game is total victory or defeat, and the battle is conducted head-on, in the center of the board. The aim of Go is relative advantage. The game is played all over the board, and the objective is to increase one’s options and reduce those of the adversary. The goal is less victory than persistent strategic progress.”

    The chess board starts with everything on it. The last man standing wins. The Go board starts with nothing on it. Whoever is the better master craftsman inevitably ends up on top. It’s the way of the world.

   Even though the rules of Go are simple, the play is complex, especially the longer the game goes on. It has a larger board with more scope for play and more alternatives to consider per move compared to chess. The number of legitimate board positions in Go has been calculated to be greater than the number of atoms in the observable universe. The Japanese back in the day considered the Go board to be a microcosm of the universe. They believed no two Go games have ever been or ever will the same, like snowflakes and running water.

   If we had known that we probably would never have started playing. By the time we found out it was too late. We had been sucked into the black hole of Go.

   Matti had served a tour of duty in the armed forces, was on an extensive tour of R & R, and was boning up for the tests for mailman, fireman, and policeman. He later got on the roster of the Bay Village Fire Department, which was like working at a posh nursery school. There were hardly any fires ever at the upper end lakefront suburb. There were, however, lots of older folks having heart attacks and strokes and the EMS trucks kept up their back and forth to St. John West Shore Hospital.

   One night Matti and his partner Chuck were called to a home where the husband was having serious chest pains. He was on his back on a bed, his eyes closed. When they went in the bedroom his wife whispered to them that she thought he was dead, “the poor man.” Chuck was in the lead. When he approached the bed, he slipped on a throw rug and flew headfirst on top of the man, body slamming him, the bedsprings groaning and complaining.

   If he’s not dead yet, he’s dead now, Matti thought.

   “What the goddamned hell!” the man blustered coming awake. “Get the hell off of me.”

   From then on Chuck was known as Lazarus at headquarters, even though through the day of his retirement he was never able to replicate the feat.

   My friend Virginia Sustarsic introduced me to Matti. How they knew each other was beyond me. She was a hippie through and through. He wasn’t, not by a long shot. He played chess, like me, and we played now and then. I had moved out of the Plaza Apartments, where Virginia lived, and was living in North Collinwood, near Bratenahl, a couple of blocks south of Lake Erie. It was a Polish double. I lived upstairs in a two-bedroom. Ray Sabaliauskas owned the house and lived downstairs with his Southeast Asian wife and prize German Shepherd. He had recently come back from the mess that was Vietnam.

   I found my Go game at a garage sale in the neighborhood. It was practically brand new, the instruction sheet still in the box. I paid a dollar for it in quarters. Reading the rules took less than five minutes. Explaining the rules to Matti took less than five minutes. Our first game took five hours and was suspended due to darkness. We were playing on the front porch when the sun went down.

   “When starting, the best strategy is to spread the pieces far apart and stretch them out, to encircle and attack the opponent, and thus win by having the most points vacant,” Huan Tan said nearly two thousand years ago. “The next best strategy is cutting off the enemy to seek advantage. In that case the outcome is uncertain, and calculation is necessary to decide the issue. The worst strategy is to defend the borders and corners, hastily building eyes to protect oneself in a small area.”

   We were both bug-eyed after our first game. It was like wrestling a gorilla. You don’t quit when you’re tired, you quit when the gorilla is tired. Go is considered the most difficult board game in the world. Sleeping became my new hobby after a long game.

   I started jogging on the sidewalks of Lakeshore Blvd. from the mean streets of North Collinwood through the village of Bratenahl, where everyone was tall thin attractive wealthy, to build stamina for the struggle. I had put exercise on the back burner in my early 20s. I never thought I would be working out to be able to sit quietly hour after hour staring at a square board of intersecting lines.

   When I was a teenager, I ran track and field as part and parcel of Zaibas. The Cleveland Lithuanian sports club was formed in 1950. In 1951, at the 1st North American Lithuanian Games, members participated in basketball, volleyball, and table tennis. The next year the club hosted the games in our hometown and fielded a team in track and field. The club became active in swimming in 1956, tennis in 1959, and skiing in 1969.

   In the 1960s I ran around in circles encouraged by Algirdas Bielskus. He was the director of a men’s vocal ensemble, co-founder of a choir, and concertmaster of the Ciurlonis Ensemble. He was also the community’s track and field coach for sixty years. He had the voice to make himself heard loud and clear from the far end of a quarter-mile track. Every weekend fair or foul all I heard was “go go go.”

   He always carried a briefcase, briefcases he was always losing, stuffed with notes about how we were progressing. Rita Kliorys made him a Christmas gift of a new one in 1966. “It was the accordion kind,” she said. “I remember it cost $100.00, and I collected one dollar from many people. He actually did not lose it, either.”

   He coached thousands of youngsters who ran hundreds of thousands of miles.

   “I always thought of him afterwards whenever I saw the turquoise and orange Howard Johnsons and would remember how he took us there for ice cream sometimes,” said Regina Thomas. “Although I was a talentless klutz at sports, he never made me feel like one. I never thought much about it as a kid, but what a commitment to youth and sports.”

   He was seemingly tireless, championing fitness among Cleveland’s Lithuanian off-spring.

   “He worked for my dad’s company, Transmission Research, in the basement of our house,” said Dalia Nasvytis. “Sometimes we would hear noises downstairs late at night and realize he was still down there running off schedules for the next athletic meet he was organizing.”

   Once we started playing Go, Matti and I made a commitment to it. We played all that spring summer and through the winter, two and three games a week. It wasn’t an obsession although it was. We played on the front porch until it got too cold to play outside. After that we played in the living room at a coffee table, sitting opposite one another, all four of our eyes glued to the board.

   We rarely talked, going for hours without saying a word. Every so often Matti smoked a Marlboro. After another hour he would tap another one out of the red and white flip-top box. Whenever I joined him, the living room filled with smoke, a gray-white cloud hovering over the entanglements of Go.

   The game demands concentration, which is born out of silence. Some of our best moves and long-term maneuvers were made quietly. I found out the more time I spent in silence, the more surprised I was about what went through my head.

   “Now all my teachers are dead except silence,” is how W. S. Merwin put it.

   When we first started playing it was with the object of capturing stones. We both saw that surrounding other stones and capturing them yielded points. It was like taking a piece in chess. After a while we discovered the object of Go is not to surround and capture the opponent’s stones. The object is to surround empty territory on the board. The way to do it is by building walls around empty intersections. If your territory includes some opposing stones, all the better. 

   From then on it became a contest to capture territory rather than capture stones.

   In the Eastern world Go was the war strategist’s game of choice for a long time. Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War” reads as an introduction and exposition to the game. Warlords of every stripe were always big on blockading their enemies and capturing territory back in the day. The times they are not a-changing, not anytime soon. 

   There’s an old saying, “Chess is a battle. Go is a war.” The more we played we discovered it was a war of attrition. It was like breaking stones in the hot sun.

   Oskar Korschelt, a German chemist, brought the game from Japan to Europe in the 1880s. Even though it was slow to catch on, by the 1950s championship-level tournaments were being organized. By the mid-70s it was filtering into the United States.

   Lithuanians are instinctively suspicious, somewhat superstitious, sometimes curious, usually sensible, always pragmatic, hard-working, conformist and communal, and punctual. They are often reserved except when they get together. Once they establish their bona fides it’s pick up a drink and run off at the mouth time. They play volleyball and basketball. I never met another Lithuanian who played Go. They probably couldn’t stand the prolonged silence.

   One night after a protracted back-and-forth game Matti and I went to the Harbor Inn on the west bank of the Cuyahoga River in the Flats. We were looking for some down time. It used to be a home-away-from-home for dockworkers. Anyone who didn’t mind a lumpy mattress could sleep upstairs. It might have been a dive back in the day, but it was no ifs ands or buts about it a dive now, slinging suds to third shifters in the morning and anybody else who had a buck the rest of the day and night. There was a coin operated bowling arcade game and mangled dart boards. We got bottles of Pride of Cleveland beer and a handful of beat-up bar darts.

  Nobody knew how long the Harbor Inn had been there, but we reckoned it had to be from the day after Moses Cleaveland settled the land centuries before. It smelled rank, like standing water hundreds of years old. It smelled like old smoke from innumerable cigars and cigarettes. It smelled like sweat. Looking around there was no doubt some of the men in the bar only bathed once a month.

   The beer was refreshing and playing darts was even more refreshing. We played 501 Up. Both players start with a score of 501 and take turns throwing three darts. Bullseye scores 50, the outer ring scores 25, and a dart in the double or treble ring counts double or triple. The tally is calculated and deducted from the player’s total. The goal is to be the first player to reduce the score to exactly zero, the only hitch being that the last dart thrown must land in a double or the bullseye. 

   The darts are front-weighted, flighted weapons a few inches long with a sharp point. A part of playing darts is the throwing part. The rest of it is mental toughness, staying on the button, sting the cork like a bee. It was like Go, except we could let ourselves go. After a couple more P. O. C.’s we got sloppy, but it was no matter.

   There weren’t a hundred or more darts crowding the dart board, like all the stones on a Go board during the endgame. Every throw was always at an empty target, every throw a new opportunity to get it right, unencumbered by the past. It was a relief to see the target and hit the target, except when we missed.

   When that happened, we yukked it up, not like Go, which was no laughing matter.

Ed Staskus posts feature stories on Paperback Yoga http://www.paperbackyoga.com 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Lithuanian Journal http://www.lithuanianjournal.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”

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