Personality and GO

People play Chess to show how clever they are. They play Backgammon to show how lucky they are, but they play Go to find out who they are.”


I have been recently thinking again about the suggestion that Go can act in some ways as a mirror to the personality. To many people, even many long-term Go players, this does indeed seem a strange idea. At the end of the day, surely it is just a board game, a subtle, challenging and elegantly complex one, but just a board game after all. And of course, at least in part, this must be true. There are thousands of players around the world, particularly in the West where it exists as a cultural import, who consider Go to be just that – a diverting pastime, but at the end of the day, no more than just an interesting game.

However, I would like to present an alternative perspective on how we might view Go.

When we consider almost every area of human endeavour, be it simply working at our jobs, or doing something creative such as writing and performing music or painting and so on, three elements come into play that can be represented in the following diagram.

Knowledge is simply what it says on the tin. It is all the things we know, ordered and organised (sometimes) within our minds. It is information that we can draw on and put to work on the task at hand. As modern humans, we acquire knowledge in many different ways. We can read books, we can watch films or videos, we can acquire knowledge from a chat with a friend or we can be instructed by a learned teacher of professor. We might randomly pick up bits of information here and there, or we can systematically study in order to pass examinations and be awarded certificates that testify to the depth or degree of our knowledge.

Knowledge refers to the sum total of ‘all the things we know’ about a particular subject, regardless of how it has been obtained.

Skills are those physical and sometimes mental capabilities that we have acquired over time through repeated practice and improvement. Your life is full of these, from riding a bike, to playing a musical instrument, plumbing, engineering, software development and practically any other activity you can think of are all skills. What distinguishes the acquisition of skills from knowledge, is that you can’t perfect an ability by reading about it in books (although learning to study effectively is indeed a skill). You have to practice and this involves a feedback loop, where you, or a teacher, monitors your performance and then provides advice on how to improve that performance. Playing Go is certainly a skill and one that gives immediate and very precise feedback in terms of the score – Did I win? and by how much?

We can neatly represent this skill acquisition process with the following diagram.

We start out our learning process in the lower left box called Unconscious/Incompetence. If we’ve never heard of Go before, or indeed of any other skill-based activity, then we simply can’t know that we don’t know how to do it.

Once we become aware of the activity, we move up to the Conscious/Incompetence box, where we know that we do not possess a particular skill and are keen to learn, but we are not currently very good at it.

As we begin to practice, we move across to the Conscious/Competence box. Here, we can perform at a good level so long as we constantly pay attention to what we are doing. This a what it feels like to be a 7 Kyu Go player, or a new driver who has just passed their driving test.

Finally, we arrive at the Unconscious/Competence box. Here are the star performers, the people who break the rules, like Jimi Hendrix, Picasso or Lee Sedol. You are operating from this box, when you drive home from work, listening to music or chatting to a friend, while navigating multiple traffic lights and junctions and arrive home with no recollection of the journey!

It should be clear from the above that Go indeed involves both Knowledge and Skills, so let’s now take a look at Personal Qualities.

Our personal qualities are a bit more difficult to define than skills and knowledge, but at the same time, as human beings, we are completely familiar with this idea of individual differences and make use of it every day.

Consider for a moment your friends or family members. It should be clear that each one of them has a unique and distinct personality and that this personality or their character is made up of a combination of many more subtle elements.

You might think about a person and consider them to be warm, friendly, caring and patient. On the other hand, you might perceive someone as focussed, determined and passionate. Unfortunately, we also encounter people who are unfriendly, mean-spirited, or aggressive.

These are the personal qualities, sometimes mutable and sometimes fixed, that we bring to bear on any task, along with our knowledge and skills.

The soul of Go

So what happens when we play Go is that we bring together these three elements – our knowledge, skills and personal qualities – and we deploy them in an attempt to defeat an opponent who is equally determined to overcome us. Despite the rise of powerful AI, Go is still essentially a human activity where we still seek to sit down and engage with another player, be it online, or face-to-face, at clubs, tournaments or with friends.

And herein lies its secret…

When we play Go we draw equally on all three faculties. Our knowledge of Joseki or our skill at Tesuji will simply not be enough if our mind is not calm or we are not playing with a spirit of gratitude and respect for our opponent.

As the game progresses, it demands we make use of all our mental capacity, drawing on both the logical/analytical left hemisphere of our brain, as well as the creative, spatial, and relational right side. For many players, the intense focus that a Go game delivers, often results in a distortion of time itself, as the world falls away and the attention of the player is drawn ever deeper into the spiralling dance of the stones across the board.

Despite this intensity of focus, it is not unusual for a game to also deliver moments of levity and bathos as well as stirring excitement, trepidation, and sometimes fear.

It is in this way that Go provides us not only with a powerful and elegant tool that enables us to probe and explore the mind of our opponent, but also a mirror that gives us a glimpse, a brief moment of illumination into not only into how we are, but also who we are.

It is indeed our own face, reflected in the very soul of Go.

RD 08/07/20