10 September 2008

Some board games

Last year, I was involved in a blog chain letter, where I was supposed to reveal eight secrets about myself; one of those secrets was my former membership in the US Chess Federation, though I was a thorough novice even after years of tournament play.

As I continue to count down toward my Korean trip, I am renewing my interest in strategic board games, partly to distract myself from the reactionary Republican-Grand National-Moonie international political machine, and partly to think more strategically. One game that I will witness quite often, once I arrive, will be the Koreans' own version of chess, known as janggi (將棋). It is usually played as a casual game by the masses, and has a reputation as a gambling game, though I won't go that far. (In any case, it's rare for a woman to play janggi.) Janggi is based on an older version of Chinese chess, or xiangqi (象棋), and the sets are interchangeable, though there are enough differences to require a whole different strategy. Specifically, the Koreans put more restrictions on the Cannon (包, no equivalent in Western chess) while enhancing the value of the Elephant (象, bishop in Western chess), though there are even more differences from Chinese chess. It's also to be noted that Japanese chess, shogi (also written as 將棋), is much more different, and rarely understood in Korea, much less played.

Wikipedia on janggi

Another game I will witness, and most likely play, is baduk (바둑), which originated in China as weiqi (圍棋). The rest of the world refers to baduk under its Japanese name, Go (碁), however, as it was the Japanese that modernized the game, developed its modern strategy, and spread it around the world. In fact, most Go concepts and vocabulary use Japanese terms internationally; even in Korea, a few Japanese Go terms, such as "atari" and "dame," are commonly used, though all terms have Korean equivalents, and I'll have to learn some. Some are simply Korean readings of equivalent Japanese kanji (such as "poseok" (布石) instead of "fuseki," the initial laying out of stones at the beginning), while others are completely different ("nalilja" (日), instead of "keima," a shogi term, translated into English as "Knight's Move").

"Go" should be written capitalized, to differentiate it from the English verb.

Back when I lived in the Bay Area, I was an active Go player, being ranked as a low-level intermediate ("8 kyu" under the Japanese-style kyu-dan ranking system), but I haven't played a game in years, so I look forward to re-acquainting myself with the game. In Korea, as in China, Go is considered more upscale and strategical than janggi/xiangqi, which is often seen as a working-class game.

Because Go is more abstract than chess, using lots of identical stones to sketch out one's territory on the board, it's more difficult to understand. The rules take only a few minutes to learn, however. Nevertheless, the possibilities are endless - so much so, that computer Go programs rarely play better than my level, and professional players have to spend their entire lives just to perfect a few concepts. The game requires a high degree of intuition, to balance between aggressive play for big gains and conservative play for safety. Also, because of the game's territorial nature, Communists have tended to ban the game (including China under the Cultural Revolution).

Wikipedia on Go, including basic concepts required to understand the game

Until I depart, the best I can do will be to witness and kibitz online Go games. KGS Go Server is one place where I can do exactly that; in fact, I watched a few expert-level games live, though due to my relatively low-level skills and comprehension of the game, some good moves at first looked questionable to me, and vice versa.

One Korean game that I won't see much this time is yut (윷). It has some strategy involved, but also involves chance. It is an extremely social game, usually played in large family gatherings over a holiday weekend, usually New Year's Day - and that's the reason why I won't see the game this time.