Kaoru Iwamoto, one of the greatest professional players of the ancient board game Go, lost the most important match of his career.
The title match, being played seven miles outside Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945, was halted amid shattered windows in the blast of the atomic bomb.
Unaware of the chaos nearby, players resumed their game and Iwamoto went on to lose, even as streams of horrifically injured refugees filed out of the city. What he saw later that evening affected the Go master so deeply that he eventually gave up his professional career and became a unique ambassador for the 3,000-year-old game, using it to try to bring together people of different cultures.
“He dedicated his life to promoting peace in the way that made sense for him, which was to teach people to play Go,” said Chris Kirschner, vice president of the board of the Seattle Go Center. The Seattle facility, and another center in New York, were founded by the late Go master.
“The last time I saw him, he was here in 1996 for our third anniversary, and he was 96 then,” Kirschner said. “He was very happy to see what we had here, because he saw all people playing together: Korean, Japanese, Chinese, Caucasians.”
On a recent Tuesday night--beginner’s night--a rotating but steady crowd of about 15 players of various ethnicities matched wits at the center’s dozen Go boards while Kirschner, center manager Jon Boley and other advanced players offered advice.
“I saw people play this in China, and I never tried it,” said Roo Lee-Wright, a native of Shanghai who works as a medical records clerk.
This was her first visit to the center, which serves as an occasional meeting place for the mostly on-again, off-again Go clubs in Seattle.
“I really like it,” she said of the game. “It’s like a practice of wisdom. You have to think to get better. It’s really good practice for your brain.”
Go originated in China and is wildly popular in Japan, where tournament games are broadcast on weekend TV. In South Korea, a 24-hour Go channel offers games, news and tutorials.
The full-sized Go board, or playing field, has 19 vertical and 19 horizontal lines. Polished black or white stones are placed on the intersections of lines, called points. The aim of the game is to capture territory, or surround more points of territory than your opponent, and in the process capture your opponent’s stones.
The stones are placed on the points, and a stone is captured when all the points around it are taken by the opponent’s stones.
Akira Sato, 68, an architect who moved to the United States from Japan in 1963, said he recently began playing Go after a hiatus of nearly 40 years.
“This is a fascinating exercise,” he said. “At the beginning of the game, it’s kind of a design process. You come up with a strategy, a scheme--sometimes successful, sometimes not. You try to maintain that original design scheme.”
Players of any age and skill level can enjoy the game, but skill and strategy will determine the outcome.
At a corner table, Cheng Choi, 70, sat studying advanced Go strategy in an instruction book. Luke Allen, 8, who is in elementary school, floated around the room, facing off with various adult players.
His mother, Deborah Niedermeyer, said she was drawn to the center by its vibrant cultural mix as well as its mission.
Luke likes the fight for position that takes place on the board.
Actually, Go’s martial connections are much more subtle than those of chess.
“Chess is a really good game, but this is larger scale and more interesting,” said Rick Hubbell, a volunteer instructor at the center. “There’s more strategic potential in Go.”
Boley does regular outreach to elementary schools, teaching basic Go strategies to classes.
“What we really try to do to make it work is find an individual in the school who is willing to run a Go club,” he said.
The New York Go Center has had difficulty attracting younger players because of a relative lack of schools around it, manager Tom Tracey said.
For that center, Iwamoto bought a four-story brownstone on East 52nd Street. Tracey said the center’s proximity to the thousands of workers at the United Nations building has helped it attract adult players. Even so, the center struggles to draw a diverse group of regulars.
“About half are Japanese and maybe a quarter are Jewish,” he said. “We’re trying, but that’s the way it’s been for 30 years” in area clubs.
The Seattle Go Center also owns its own building, an unassuming two-story structure on a busy street about a mile from the University of Washington in north Seattle. A bronze bust of Iwamoto greets visitors as they ascend the inside stairs.
Outside is a more subtle tribute: an oversized Go board that serves as the center’s sign. On it, black and white stones are placed in the exact pattern that had emerged in Iwamoto’s title game, just before the Hiroshima blast.