Berkeley’s Patron Saint of Go

How an ancient board game spawned its own Bay Area subculture.

Herb Doughty is the absent-minded professor from Central Casting. Now in his seventies, he’s fond of wearing black tights with a blazer and fanny pack. He speaks with a lot of digressions and asides, often punctuating sentences with the words “Well, actually ….” Doughty spent most of his intellectual life trying to fire out an algebraic structure for the universe. He thinks the universe is finite, and that everything within it is discrete — everything, that is, except Doughty’s descriptions, “which go on forever,” he jokes. For all these eccentricities, Doughty is often characterized as a Johnny Appleseed figure in Berkeley because of his role in cultivating a rather arcane subculture based around the ancient board game, Go.

Doughty’s current operation, the Berkeley Go Club, is the grandchild of a group he started in 1967 after moving to Berkeley from Lima, Ohio. Formerly a math graduate student and amateur astronomer, Doughty had come to Berkeley to take a more lucrative job as a computer programmer for the university’s Project on Linguistic Analysis. (UC Berkeley had a giant CDC 6400 campus computer in those days, with about 480 bytes of RAM and not quite as much power as an old desktop Macintosh.)

He launched the Go club a couple months after settling in Berkeley, and it met every Thursday night in the student union building for 28 years. In 1999, he relaunched the club with some help from East Bay Go Association, a spinoff group formed in 1991. They relocated to a large Tudor-style building on Adeline Avenue that’s best known for housing the Fifth String musical instrument shop downstairs. In its current iteration, Berkeley Go retains some original members from the campus group (who are now in their seventies), plus some younger math students in their twenties. They meet Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays, often playing late into the night.

To anyone not thoroughly obsessed with the ancient board game, it would seem a strange way to spend a Friday or Saturday night. The room where Berkeley Go meets lies at the end of a very long and very dark corridor. It’s musty, with Top Ramen cases stacked on the floor and bound volumes of The Monthly Go Review lining the bookshelves. The eight to twelve people who show up — mostly men — play on long tables that fit about three Go boards apiece. Regulars include John Givens, another ex-UC Berkeley math grad student who started playing Go in 1957. On Friday night, he played against John Zhang, an undergrad in the UC Berkeley physics department who helms the current Go club on campus. Roger Schrag, also present that night, is a retired computer consultant who learned to play Go in college and returned to the game a few years ago, inspired by the Russell Crowe character in A Beautiful Mind. He now volunteers for the nonprofit Bay Area Go Players Association, which promotes local clubs and holds monthly tournaments, the next of which happens April 25 at Oakland Asian Cultural Center.

Conversation is scarce throughout the night, drowned out by jazz CDs on the stereo and the clacking or shuffling of stones. Games continue on long after they’re officially over: Zhang beat Givens then left to get something to eat, while Givens obsessively recreated their game board and plotted out what would have been the right move.

Doughty patiently explains the rules. Two players each get a set of stones (black or white). They take turns placing these stones at intersections along the board, trying to cluster them in large groups. The object, said Doughty, is to fence in more territory along the board while capturing the groups formed by your opponent. (Your score is determined by the area you enclose, plus the number of stones you capture.) Usually, one player gets a handicap depending on how far he ranks behind the other player — Givens has consistently spotted Doughty nine stones since they started playing together in the 1960s.

“It’s a bizarre game in that there’s a real duality to it,” said Schrag. “You could know all the rules in fifteen minutes, but it’s very deep strategy.” In fact, he continued, it’s the only game that computers haven’t mastered yet. “Computers have totally mastered chess, but computers can’t really beat people at Go.”

Doughty started playing Go in 1961, nine years after founding the first-ever astronomy club in Lima, Ohio. He actually found out about the game the year he started the astronomy club, from a 1952 National Geographic article about the astronomers at Palomar Observatory, who were Doughty’s idols at the time. The last page of the article showed what the Palomar astronomers did for fun. There was a black-and-white photograph of all of them huddled around a Go board. Doughty had never seen one before, but one of his friends recognized it as the game that German Chessmaster Emanuel Lasker preferred over chess. Doughty was awestruck. He finally learned to play after mail-ordering a Go set from San Francisco Chinatown — a gift to himself for winning the Ohio State University math competition. Doughty got his hands on a couple books and found some friends who were willing to play. “We ground in by rote the habit of playing terribly,” he said.

Doughty said his game hasn’t improved much since the 1960s. He blames severe attention deficit disorder. Givens blames the fact that Doughty spends all his time teaching beginners. But that doesn’t bother Doughty so much, since he’s more invested in the scene at large than in his own personal glory. He’s thrilled that UC Berkeley math professor, Elwyn Berlekamp, has cultivated a passion for Go, inspiring three of his doctoral students to write their dissertations on the game. (Doughty pulls out one of them, by a Ph.D named David Wolfe, who rigorously tried to prove that one move was better than another.) Doughty is even more thrilled that he’s managed to teach so many young players, many of whom are several levels ahead of him by now. He says it teaches kids how to make decisions at a level of generality that applies off the board.

“Kids take it up so fast,” said Schrag. “There’s a boy named Sammy who I played three years ago, and I had to give him a big handicap. He takes lessons and has parents who teach him Go. At this point he’s 10-12 ranks ahead.”

Go also encourages a kind of precision that proves useful in other parts of life. Or perhaps it appeals to people with an obsession for detail. Both Doughty and Givens seem to have a photographic memory. Doughty can recall exact dates as though his mind were a Google calendar. August 1, 1967: The day he arrived in Berkeley. October 12, 1967: The day he started Berkeley Go club. November 21, 1971: The day he got to play against a man who’s considered a genius of Go. Givens, meanwhile, can replicate the exact placement of stones on a game board long after a game is over. By midnight on Friday, Zhang had left with his friends, and only a few diehards remained hovered around the boards at Berkeley Go Club. Givens stayed put at the table, obsessively plotting one move.


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