There is a professional 6-dan Igo player in Okayama City who lovingly sketches his latest move on rice paper before formally notating (in traditional shodou) the move mathematically. Sometimes a famous Go adage is appended, though just as often it is a subtle jape the elderly gentleman attempts to pass off as learned. 1
The whole of this, to include (if read carefully enough) intent, is nestled between yet finer parchment, then gently fitted into a creamy bespoke and pre-stamped envelope (lest the moisture from the stamps seep though and smear his thoughts), which is in turn sealed with a rich red wax, deeply imprinted by a heavy signet ring.
I’m told a favored grandson always walks the missive down the hill to the local post which is nestled in the long shadows of Golden Crow Castle. A receipt is always politely begged and even more politely given.
After a brief stop for a hard candy (banana!) the boy returns to his grandfather’s and hands over the tiny slip; this is placed just so in Black’s futa 2 next to the the go-ban.
I know nothing of calligraphy but was once gifted – while in Cambridge at a university journalism dinner- a Visconti fountain pen. Through the years I have become adept enough that I don’t drool all over the paper while using it.
I keep a ream of wedding invitation card stock and envelopes at hand. 3 I use a quasi-artistic shorthand to render my response, practicing it first on plain copier paper before I commit to the good bond. I use a serif style, though with little flourish, for my written notation: neither crabbed or expansive. I strive for clarity.
Two weeks may elapse from the move of a white stone on a board in Japan to the responding move of a black stone in America.
I’m told that true old school style involved pigeons. 4 Go’s origins are Chinese; while a vast country perhaps the moves flew across that land relatively quickly, in just a few days? After all we’ve tracked birds over seven thousand air miles, non-stop, in nine days. It’s easy to imagine two players several thousand miles apart patiently waiting for a pigeon, mentally recounting their moves, anticipating their opponents probable plays, working out their corresponding possible responses, seeing the whole board.
Viewed this way fetishistic behavior over the pigeon’s actual arrival seems trivial and actually makes sense — a tin or silver tube unstrapped from the bird’s leg, deliberately laid aside; a ceremonial dinner or even just a cup of tea preceding; dislodging the message and laying it out flat to read; finally, ultimately, just thinking: how does your opponent’s play correspond to one’s anticipated move? A stronger or weaker play? Or worse, far worse — a play not understood, a play unforeseen?
The next move can not be undone once the bird is loosed. A week may thus pass before a response is decided upon and committed to the scrap of paper neatly rolled and tucked into the pigeon’s tiny carrier.
Picture a player standing outside his home, pigeon in hand, still reviewing every possible play up to the final second he tosses the bird to the breeze.
Japanese tradition holds that a Go player will only ever have two games with his teacher.
The first game occurs when one is formally accepted as a disciple 5, the second upon attaining professional shodan status. Often enough there is a third case where a second game is played early – one will never be a professional Go player and this game is part gift, part farewell.
Though the 6-dan in Okayama City is professional, I am not his student. Certainly not as the Japanese understand these things. And I will never be a professional caliber player — my goal is to attain amateur 3-dan rank before I die. It is a worthy goal I think. One I just might achieve. No, I am an outlier, a one off, the inexplicably worthless project the past master has allowed himself. I am his bad habit.
I keep a trunk of his correspondence. Thousands of carefully inscribed missives tied neatly into manageable bundles with ribbon, as though I were a young girl in love with a far away dream.
The professional 6-dan is 86. In his last letter he noted that his strength is failing, he has a hard time concentrating. He will pass in a year, 5 or 10 and I will greatly miss our distant friendship. But I will have every game we ever played.
Last night a young player asked me why we didn’t use Twitter to exchange moves. “Much faster,” he said.
“Bad aji,” I responded.
- Go players are known for their ribald humor, bad puns and complex practical jokes. ↩
- Futa is the lid to a goke, or Go bowl. The bowl is used to hold the stones used to play the game; during a game ‘captured’ stones will be placed in one’s futa. As the (far) weaker player in these matches, I am always black. As you might suspect, my futa nearly always contains but the latest mail receipt. I have seen many many Polaroids of this. The gokes used are made of Shimaguwa, both an honor and a criminal waste given my poor skills. We won’t comment on the exquisite subtlety of the go-ban itself. ↩
- Yes, the envelopes are pre-stamped. ↩
- Think 3rd century B.C., according to Analects of Confucius. ↩
- This is still the way in Japan, though less so than in previous centuries; Go is seen in many quarters of the ‘new’ Japan as an old man’s game, reflecting an ‘old’ Japan. ↩