The Surrounding Game

With our very own Wei Chi Cafe happening in The Forums, started by contributor uncalledfor9, The Surrounding Game is particularly relevant. This is a recent piece by Mr. Wingrove about “the world’s most elegant game” that was posted to the official Chung Kuo site, but seems to have dropped off the end. Full text after the break…


The Surrounding Game
By David Wingrove

Any first time round reader of Chung Kuo will know just how much the game of Go – or Wei Chi, as it’s known in China: “the surrounding game” – is interwoven into the threads of the story. Back in 1989, when The Middle Kingdom first appeared, I introduced the game – as one of the story’s major themes – very early in the proceedings, seventy pages into that opening volume.

The thoughts that follow belong to Major Howard DeVore, the dark villain of the piece. Nearby, one of his victims lies dead, and while he awaits the dead man’s partner – intending to kill him – he studies the games machine in the corner of the room –

“He glanced at the machine again. It was a complex game, and he prided himself on a certain mastery of it. Strange, though, how much it spoke of the difference between East and West. At least, of the old West, hidden beneath the levels of the Han city, the layers of Han culture and Han history. The games of the West had been played on similar boards to those of the East, but the West played between the lines, not on the intersecting points. And the games of the West had been flexible, each individual piece given breath, allowed to move, as though each had an independent life. That was not so in Wei Chi. In Wei Chi once a piece was placed it remained, unless it was surrounded and its ‘breath’ taken from it. It was a game of static patterns; patterns built patiently over hours or days – sometimes even months. A game where the point was not to eliminate but to enclose.

East and West – they were the inverse of each other. Forever alien. Yet one must ultimately triumph. For now it was the Han. But now was not forever.”

[from Book Three, The Middle Kingdom, to be published in January 2011]

The board, supposedly, is China, the stones its people. And when the board is full…?

I owe my interest in the game, and almost everything I know about it, to my dear friend Rob Carter, who introduced me to the game one evening at the Rochester Castle, in Stoke Newington. Once or twice a week, for a number of years, we would meet to discuss writing – Rob wrote and published some wonderful historical novels and a superb fantasy trilogy – and play Go/Wei Chi.  Rob would give me (playing black) a seven stone advantage, the stones set in a figure H upon the 19 by 19 board, and even so he would regularly beat me, not by a stone or two but sometimes by a dozen stones, occasionally more. On the odd very good night I would win a couple of games and bring my ‘handicap’ down from seven to five. Once I brought it down to three. But I was never as good as Rob. Even so, I thought I’d got quite good at the game – having learned to see both the greater picture and the fine detail of Rob’s strategy. But then, when I went to visit the London Go Club, up in Covent Garden, I was given a lesson in humility, as the young Japanese guy I was playing stopped the game after little more than thirty plays and showed me how I’d lost, picking up the stones one by one between his fingers and commenting on what was wrong with each play. Just the fact that he remembered the order of play of the stones amazed me, let alone what else he said concerning the weaknesses of my play.

The one thing I quickly learned about Wei Chi is that the game is a mirror to your personality. Forget psychiatry, try Wei Chi, instead, and you’ll quickly see how much the game reveals of you. Are you timid? Then so will your play be. Aggressive. Again, the game will mirror this. Thoughtful and sage-like? Then Wei Chi is definitely for you, because it is, without doubt, the most intelligent and complex game there is, despite the fact that there are only five basic rules.

Within the series, Wei Chi is linked closely to the Tao and to T’ai Chi, the original or One, from which the duality of all things (yin and yang) developed according to Chinese cosmology. And according to such patterning – such duality – we have not merely DeVore, but also Tuan Ti Fo, ancient sage and Grand Master of Wei Chi, within the tale, as his natural counterbalance. I see him very much as a Chinese Gandalf – a great power for good in a dark world.

But whilst such patternings underscore the story, all is not black and white. As is said later on in the sequence, it is DeVore’s mistake to see life as one great game of Wei Chi. Because life is lived out very much in shades of grey. It is, I feel, one of the chief elements that distinguish it as science fiction, not fantasy.

I’ve never been a great chess player. There’s something about it – an artificiality, call it, or maybe an arbitrariness – that I can’t get used to. I mean, where does that knight’s move come from? Whereas Wei Chi… well, I fell in love with the game instantly, the very first time I ever played. Its simple elegance seduced me.

Before I leave this topic, two things. One is to mention D. Pecorini and T. Shu’s wonderful book, The Game Of Wei Chi. For my own copy of this little classic, first published back in 1929 by Longmans, I had Brian Aldiss to thank, and in the Author’s Note to The Middle Kingdom, back in 1989, I said – and I quote – “It’s my fond hope that its use herein might someday lead to the re-publication of this slender classic.” Lo and behold, in 1991, Federal Books published a hardcover edition, and, two years later, a trade paperback of this wonderful little classic. And maybe I played a part in that. I hope so.

And the second thing? Just that it is said that the game of Wei Chi was invented by the legendary Chinese Emperor Yao in the year 2350 BC, to train the mind of his son, Tan Chu, and teach him to think like an Emperor. Whatever the truth, it is certainly the world’s oldest game, and its most elegant.

PS: I was there, Saturday, when Arsenal’s Samir Nasri wove his two little spells of magic and conjured a brace of goals from nowhere. Sheer magic. The kind you wait half a lifetime to see.

David Wingrove   Monday 6 December 2010

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