The Search for Truth and Beauty in the Game of Go


Peter Schumer, John C. Baldwin Professor of Mathematics and Natural Philosophy, joined Middlebury’s faculty in 1983. He has a deep and long-winded passion for the East Asian board game “Go,” and gave a presentation on its history and the strategy it demands on Friday Nov. 3. Go, as he described at the beginning of the presentation, is an art form as much as a game for sharpening intellect and deductive reasoning skills. He opened the discussion by telling his audience that the package Go comes in reads that the game “takes fifteen minutes to learn, and a lifetime to master.” Schumer added that “both are gross underestimations.”

Interested in the game since he was an undergrad, Schumer now teaches a freshman seminar around the game and has since the 1980s. The Japanese word for the game, Shudon, translates to “hand-talk,” and Schumer emphasized how appropriate this title is. The one-on-one game brings people together, encouraging friendly competition and an artistic, movement-driven “conversation,” talking-between-hands. Really, it’s a way to communicate with another person over the game board, and it ends with mutual agreement; no one wins at Go. Schumer continued to describe the ways in which people read each other and communicate across board, telling us that one can often tell when their opponent is greedy, or timid, or impulsive, by observing their moves.

“Mysteries of psychology often play out in the game,” said Schumer.  He continued to explain, however, that the game is thought of as a struggle within yourself, not really against the other person. Players will sometimes think for hours before making a move, constantly asking themselves: “What’s the best that you can do?” It is not regionally or culturally bound, Schumer said. He described his time playing last summer in the Japanese Go Congress, as one of just a few foreigners, playing with Japanese players from all over Japan. It is the grace of movement and skill within the two-person game that Schumer seeks to celebrate in his seminar and in the talk he gave on Friday.

Schumer’s talk sought to give the audience a basic understanding of the game, centering around slides and pictures of the game board in different stages of a typical game. The game features a wooden board and “stones” as the pieces. Originally, the pieces really were stones, though they are now black and white glass and sometimes clam shells. Schumer, in his travels to Japan (he has visited the country 10 times in the last 15 years), often visits the places where they make and sell game pieces. The board and pieces are constructed beautifully and with great care, as much an art form as the game’s graceful strategy. The moves are placed on intersections of the board’s grid rather than the actual squares, and the object of the game is to surround the opponent’s pieces, marking their “territory.” Schumer shared with the audience the different types of math equations to calculate the number of possible places one could move a stone in a given game. With this, Schumer demonstrated the deductive reasoning side of the game, and why he, as a math professor, is so passionate about the specific strategies within it. The end score is based on the space on the board where a player’s stones are not.

“I think this is really interesting, and related to art; how do you use negative space?” Schumer said. He continued on to project traditional Chinese and Japanese prints depicting people playing the game: one of six men playing in a Japanese internment camp, and another of a girl playing with an older man.

“[The game] shows the good will between people,” Schumer said in describing the photographs. The next slide featured a quote from Emmanuel Lasker, a mathematician and avid Go player, that read, “If there are sentient beings on other planets, then they play Go.”

“The game definitely appeals to people who have a problem-solving, math interest,” Schumer said. “But it also appeals to people with an artistic sense. The game is quite unusual, in that intuition and artistic aspects play a very big part in the game, since you can’t really figure everything out.” The game, too, attracts people with a passion for East Asian culture. Schumer, in his presentation, spoke of his love not only for Go but for Japanese gardens, woodblock prints and Sangaku, which are Japanese geometric prints that merge mathematical ratios with graphic, colorful art.

“I think of the course as sort of a window into East Asian culture, especially Japan,” Schumer said, describing what draws students to his freshman seminar. “I have had students who have a special interest or background either in Japanese things, or in other artistic pursuits. I’ve had students go on to be music majors, dance majors, certainly Japanese majors. There aren’t as many math majors as you’d think.”

The seminar is far more intense than others, as Schumer has his students meet around six hours a week rather than the standard three. During a class, students often play a full game, sometimes in teams of two rather than one-on-one. Schumer, in one of the first classes of every semester, plays each person in the class, each of the 16 students at their own board and him walking around making moves on each board. Students then write up their thoughts and do reflective writing exercises on what moves they could’ve played differently. There is a deep level of reflection involved with the game, even at the highest level, so the structure of a writing-heavy freshman seminar is suited to the introspective, artistic game.

        Last summer, Professor Schumer was in Osaka, Japan, studying at an international Go camp. There were about 25 people from 14 different countries.

“For me, that’s like, a fun way to spend three or four weeks,” Schumer said.  Every day, he plays Go online against the other online players from all over the world and reads about Go from the literature he’s collected on the shelf in his office. He brought his passion for the Game of Go with him in his move to Vermont, and created the Vermont Go club. The group of eight to ten still meets every Wednesday at a cafe in Burlington. He goes to tournaments seven or eight times a year in Boston, New York, and Montreal. The Math department has game nights once a month, where sometimes Professor Schumer teaches the group to play Go. Anyone can email him, he said, or come by his office, and he would be overjoyed to teach anyone interested.

“I’m always encouraging and promoting the game,” Schumer said. Schumer’s presentation emphasized the skills both required for and gained from being a longtime Go player. He projected a long list of them on the wall: problem solving, analysis, intuition, dedication, patience, goodwill, respect. It is, he wrote on the slide, a lifelong pursuit.

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