Go as Communication, by Yasutoshi Yasuda. Slate & Shell; 2002.

This book, subtitled "The Educational and Therapeutic Value of the Game of Go", is written by a professional 9-dan who brought go to schools, homes for the elderly, and homes for the handicap, with remarkable results. (Here and throughout this review, I use "go" to refer to the capture game, not the full game.) It is divided up into three sections: the first talks about the author's motivation and gives a series of stories about what happened at the various institutions where he introduced go; the second goes into more detail about exactly what the author did when introducing go; and the third gives his and others' experiences with similar programs in other countries.

The stories in the first section really are quite remarkable: despite initial institutional resistance, it would seem that (almost) everybody loves go, that it has a capacity to bring out mental and physical capabilities that had previously been hidden in people, that it helps people develop new self-confidence and social skills that they can then transfer to other settings. But I confess that I read this section with a sort of bemused skepticism: while I had no reason to believe that the author is misrepresenting what actually happened, I also wondered how much of that was due to to the author's own charisma and talents, and whether or not it would be possible for other people to get similar results. Also, I've seen too many unsubstantiated claims about go as a sort of wonder drug for the youth, making them smarter, more able to concentrate, better disciplined, and in general turning kids into teacher's dream children. So I approach any such statements with a distrustful attitude by default.

Fortunately, the author went into enough detail in the second section of the book to allay some of my qualms. He seems to have a remarkably gentle way of breaking the ice and introducing the game. He involves the audience in the lessons right from the start, having them answer questions (go-related and otherwise), place stones on the demonstration board and even having them guess at the rules. He brings social forces to bear, applauding people whenever they do something, and having people play in teams. (But he also doesn't force people to play who don't want to; he's content to let them watch, leaving open the possibility that they might develop more interest later.) And, of course, using the capture game instead of the regular game of go is a great idea: the rules are so simple that almost anybody can figure them out and follow them. Though he's flexible on the rules as well: he's happy when kids just want to place stones on the board without regard for rules, and he marvels when students go beyond the rules (playing off of the edge of the board, for example), seeing this as evidence of ingenuity instead of evidence of stupidity or wrongdoing.

Another crucial point is that, unlike the vast majority of presentations of the capture game that I see, he doesn't present this as a stepping-stone to the full game of go. He's not interested in the game itself; he's interested in the benefits that he sees arising from playing the game, benefits that wouldn't be helped by presenting a richer game at the expense of alienating much of the audience. I was particularly amused by an anecdote where he got a group of 500 children interested enough to start a club; a local go player ran the club, and proceeded to try to teach the kids the real game and its strategy and tactics, and when the author returned only 5 of the kids were still in the club.

So I found this section of the book very impressive; I'm sure that it would still take some amount of trial-and-error to put the author's methods into practice, but the book gives a good starting place. It still raised two questions in my mind, however: how well would these efforts scale, and how much do they depend on teaching go, as opposed to some other game? My guess is that both these questions have a similar answer: schools (at least in the United States, and presumably in other countries) can create pathological situations, where demands of the teachers can, for some students, actually hinder learning and development of social skills. So whenever an outsider comes in to present something interesting in a low-pressure situation, that can help students who don't get along well with normal school situations. So I would guess that, the more teaching go becomes institutionalized, the less the benefits would be; if go became part of the regular curriculum, the sorts of dramatic benefits the author talks about would probably vanish entirely. But if you want to do an outside program, probably go is a pretty good choice (though doubtless there are other equally good choices): it's different from regular school curricula, it has a physical component as well as a mental component, it can be played in groups as well as individually.

Obviously this book isn't for everybody; reading it certainly won't help your go game! But I would encourage anybody considering teaching go to groups to give it a look; even if you disagree with its basic premise and find its promises overblown, you'll probably get something out of the second section of the book. People interested in education in general might get something out of it, too.

david carlton <carlton@bactrian.org>

Last modified: Sat Dec 25 20:57:54 PST 2004