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Illegal and Unethical Play

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Oni (Devil)

These days I am dismayed to find more and more violations of the social contract in all aspects of life. But it is particularly disturbing when this is encountered when playing go, a game noted for adherence to polite dealings with opponents.

This past weekend an opponent played a particularly despicable trick on me. I was at my Japanese go club, the South Bay Ki-in at the New Gardena Hotel, 1641 W. Redondo Beach Blvd., Gardena, CA 90247; Tel. (310) 327-5757, playing a game with an old rival. The game had come down to the end and all that was left was to fill the empty liberties. As usual, we took turns filling in the liberties one by one.

After my opponent filled the last liberty, he said to me in Japanese, "Owari?" ("End?"). I answered, "Owari." I had a comfortable lead at that point, and just waited to count the board with him.

But that is not what happened. My opponent immediately pounced. He placed a stone in one of my corners that was problematical. I stared at the board and wondered what I should do. I could have countered it, but I was shocked at my opponent’s act. So I let him kill the corner and win the game.

At that point he was gloating at his good luck. He sat smirking across the board, but I silently swept the stones off the board.

When my opponent saw how angry I was, he tried to justify his act. "I said, ‘Owari?’ didn’t I?" he asked. I told him that his act was illegal and unethical. At that, he scoffed, before scowling, and then started to sweep his own stones off the board with me, angrily throwing them into his bowl. When he finished, he jumped up to post his win on the tournament cross table posted on the wall behind him.

I just got up and left the club.

What does the reader think? Who was right? My opponent or me? Of course, I believe that his interpretation of the rules was improper, and I will explain why.

My opponent is of Germanic ancestry. I have been disturbed by the way that he has behaved on many occasions in the past. He often seems intent on winning games in any way possible. If I were to characterize his behavior in as impolite a manner as he acted, I would say that it harkens back to World War I, when such action was attributed to the ethics of the Huns.

But he is also a lawyer, and people with that background often act in just as abhorrent ways.

On the other hand, perhaps I am going overboard in venting my anger. After all, this still does not explain why I think his act was improper.

Well, it is simple. He played two moves in a row. That is a violation of the rules of the game. My opponent claims that he asked, "Owari," and when I answered in the affirmative, I had given up my right to move.

Of course, this is nonsense. In any civilized conversation, a question like that implies that the person who poses it is prepared to act in the same way as he has proposed. Remember: I just sat there waiting to see what he would do. He could have waited for me to suggest that the game was over. In English, that would be for me to say, "Pass." And then he could pounce with a clear conscience. I would have given up my move, so he would be fully justified in playing a move of his own.

Or he could have asked directly, "Do you pass?" But he must have been afraid that such a way of asking the question would have raised my suspicions. And he was so eager to get the win that he probably did not want to endanger that outcome in any way.

In my Japanese go club, everyone speaks Japanese almost exclusively. So it is not unusual for us to exchange words in that language. And Japanese is notable for its ambiguous syntax, which makes it easy to frame statements in ways that can be interpreted in a variety of ways. That can make for what I think today is all-too-common a term: "plausible denial ability." No doubt, this sounds legalistic to the reader, and so it is.

One more thing. On the walls of the club are posted all kinds of Japanese articles and reading material. Including a few pages that cover the ethics of the game of go. This situation is specifically covered there. What is ironic is that my opponent is the head of the club. One would imagine that it would be incumbent upon him to act in ways aligned with those ethics.

This was a very sad day for me, but it had nothing to do with this game. When I first came into the club, I saw that it had been reduced to a quarter of its size. That was the most shocking thing of all. Almost all of the room was taken up by mattresses and boxes filled with hotel supplies. The room was being turned into a storeroom. Instead of the rows of tables and chairs used to play go, there was just a single row.

The club is dying. Last year, the former leader of the club, who has also retired as manager of the hotel, warned the club members that this would happen, but everyone just continued acting in the same way as usual, ignoring what is inevitable.

My opponent’s actions were a manifestation of the same mindset. I have been a member of the club for 25 years, so it affected me more intensely. He only joined the club a few years ago, so what is happening is of much less concern to him.

C’est la vie. I take consolation in the fact that I now will never have to play another game of go with my opponent. I wonder how he will reflect upon this game in the future, when the go club is gone.

Those who wish to comment on the opinions expressed here may send their thoughts to info@GoWizardry.com. The most interesting responses will be addressed in future postings.

Robert J. Terry

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