Board gamers Go to UMD for championships

Ancient game brings enthusiasts from across Prince George’s, state

Wednesday, Nov. 22, 2006

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Raphael Talisman⁄The Gazette
Jon Grantham of University Park competes in the second round of the 18th annual Mid-Atlantic Go tournament hosted by the University of Maryland, College Park, last weekend.

Twenty people gathered at the University of Maryland College Park over the weekend were hunched over a game board, silently calculating their next move as game pieces slowly covered the playing surface.

Roughly 4,000 years after the game originated in the Far East, men and women from across Maryland competed in the annual Mid-Atlantic Go tournament Nov. 18 and 19, where the field of players slowly whittled as players faced off one-on-one, doing their best to master the ‘‘patience and balance.”

Steve Mount, a faculty member at the university and a University Park resident, said people of all skill levels come to the Go gathering for one reason: to test their knowledge of the complex game against other immersed in the strategy of Go.

‘‘This gives people a chance to determine where they stand,” said Mount, a Go player for the last decade. ‘‘It gives them a chance to prove themselves.”

Go is played between two players, one with 180 white clamshell pieces, the other with 181 black pieces, made of slate. The board consists of 361 line intersections on which players place their pieces strategically, trying to surround and eliminate the opposing pieces while maintaining an invulnerable position.

With nearly countless maneuvers available to every player – Go Web sites estimates the total somewhere around 10 to the 75th power – Mount said Go naturally attracts those who excel in math and science, pointing out several university students at the tournament majoring in those fields.

‘‘They’re able to adapt because they are in quantitative fields,” he said.

One of those students was Neil Bernardo, president of the university’s Go Club, who said weekly Go gatherings helped bridge the gap between people who wouldn’t normally associate with each other.

When a deaf player came to the club earlier this year, Bernardo, 20, said Go was the only way he could communicate with the young man.

‘‘I don’t speak sign language,” Bernardo said. ‘‘But after we started playing, we didn’t need to talk or anything. Playing was our form of communication. It was pretty cool.”

Todd Blatt, Bernardo’s first round competition at the tournament on Saturday, said he has continued to study the art of Go after he used the game to distract from personal troubles.

‘‘It helped me focus my attention elsewhere,” said Blatt, 23, president of the Go Club at the University of Maryland Baltimore Campus. ‘‘It didn’t take long to learn how much more of a game Go is was compared with every other game.”

As a lover of ‘‘pure strategy games” since the 1960s, Laurel resident Joe Maia, 55, said Go has entertained and exercised his mind for countless hours as a teenager and an adult.

‘‘The rules are extremely simple,” said Maia, a longtime player at the university-based tournament. ‘‘But to become expert at it takes a lot of study and a lot of focus.”

Ken Koester, who traveled from Annapolis for the College Park tournament, said handicaps are used to even the games between Go novices and pros.

But if the handicaps are worlds apart — with one player starting with several pieces on the board — the experienced player can be in for a long afternoon.

‘‘It can turn into an exercise in tedium with periods of raw terror,” he said.

E-mail Dennis Carter at