Little emperors learning a brain game

Go, or Weiqi, is an ancient Chinese game that mirrors life. A game of strategic encirclement through intutition and acumen, it holds out important lessons for young novices, artificially intelligent ones included.

March 28, 2016 02:28 am | Updated December 09, 2016 08:48 pm IST

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Mao Laoshi (Teacher Mao) holds a long ruler in his hand.

Ominous , I think, as I quietly make my way to the back of the small classroom filled with about ten preschoolers.

He holds the ruler against the backs of the little children, urging them to sit straight with their hands on their knees. With some relief, I note that his face sports a small smile.

I am uncertain of what a typical Chinese instructor of the traditional game of Weiqi (popularly known as Go abroad) should look like. Although I didn’t expect a bearded, wrinkly, wise old man, I am not sure what else to expect — of the man or the game.

‘Weiqi is a game of the brain,’ Mao Laoshi introduces Go, slowly making his way along the two rows of children, checking for straight backs. ‘So, you need to sit straight with your hands on your knees.’

People like Henry Kissinger have also used the ‘game of encirclement’ to explain modern Chinese state’s strategic thinking

Inspection over, he breaks into a wide smile, handing out playful stickers as he identifies the right sitters, eventually covering every child. He goes on to introduce the Weiqi board using the projector, introducing the black and white stone pieces as sweet xigua (watermelon) and sour suan putao (sour grape) respectively. ‘The suan putao wants to eat the xigua ,’ he says, placing a white piece next to the first black. ‘This new xigua bites the suan putao ’s pigu [bottom].’ All children giggle as a new black piece is placed next to the white one to prevent the encirclement of its predecessor. Weiqi is a ‘game of encirclement’.

The class, I realise, is a very modern way of teaching an ancient game, complete with computer visuals, an Ice Age-2 movie clip for a break, and stickers.

Weiqi, or Go as it is called globally, is an ancient Chinese game dating back thousands of years. It is also immensely popular among China's neighbours, Korea, Japan and Taiwan. Weiqi was >recently in the news for a very modern reason , though. AlphaGo, a program developed by Google, recently defeated the world champion, Lee Sedol. This wasn’t something that many people saw coming, given the high level of intuitiveness (not the strong suit of a ratiocinative computer) required to achieve victory in a game of Go.

Weiqi, being a brain game, is mainly an urban pursuit in China. A few hundred years ago, it was even considered amongst the ‘Four Accomplishments’ of the Chinese bhadralok (along with painting, calligraphy and playing the Chinese lute).

While not as popular and widespread as Mahjong, it is embedded in the Chinese psyche in subtle ways. Classic of Weiqi , an 11th-century essay, uses Chinese philosophy to explain the objectives of Weiqi. It also provides insight into Chinese thinking. Here's a famous quote from it:

‘As the best victory is gained without a fight, so the excellent position is one which does not cause conflict.’

Many a western employer today bemoans the conflict-avoidance orientation of his Chinese employee. People like Henry Kissinger have also used the ‘game of encirclement’ to explain modern Chinese state’s strategic thinking.

Far from its geopolitical applications, my interest in the game is more humble in its ambitions. I am curious about the ordinary person who teaches it. Mao Laoshi was quite old when he started playing in his small town. Fourteen, in fact, he tells me. ‘I didn’t have a teacher. I just played with as many people as I could. That’s the best way to learn it. Of course, if one has to go to very high levels, one needs a good teacher.’

It is said that like life, one’s mistakes stare one in the face on the Weiqi board

That was then, of course. Today, he seems very busy giving classes to school-children at one of the biggest Weiqi schools in our current town of Shenzhen in China. Unfortunately, most children leave by grade 3 or 4, citing homework pressures. I wonder whether a certain kind of child has more aptitude for this ‘brain game’, one considered more complex than chess. ‘It helps if a child can sit for long time,’ he admits. ‘But ultimately, it’s about whether the child likes the game.’ In today’s world of gadgets, could games like Weiqi have any practical value? Mao Laoshi insists it does. ‘It teaches them important things about life, like hard work and patience.’

Young, single Chinese children have been getting a bad rap these past few years, being called various names — ‘little emperors’; or ‘ba ling hou’ and ‘jiu ling hou’ (80s and 90s generation), the Chinese version of the Millennials, characterised supposedly by reduced self-sufficiency, a larger sense of entitlement and a prodigal attitude. Surely the attitudes exhibited by this generation would be reflected in the Weiqi world too, I wonder. Were they more ambitious, impatient and less hard-working? He pauses to give it a thought. ‘Children are children. I think, more than them, the parents have changed,’ he finally replies.

‘Earlier, they used to be very strict about their children coming to class regularly. Now, the children often miss class because they go off on holidays.’ A reflection of the growing mobility that has accompanied China’s economic rise? A reflection also of modern urban parents’ desire to give their children a wider environment and exposure? I see this trend towards a different balance everywhere around me. Even as the Chinese competition remains fierce in schools, some parents, if they can afford it, are turning away from it, often by sending their children to the West. Many others are making smaller changes in their life such as trying to squeeze more play-time for the children every day.

I look at the honour roll on the walls. Third- and Fourth-graders who’d achieved the very respectable amateur ranks of four and five dan . Next door, an older children’s Chess class is in earnest progress. Still in their school uniform past 8 p.m., pairs of children aged 10-12 make their calculated moves. The Weiqi children return from their toilet-break to resume their learning of the art of encirclement.

In a sense, Weiqi is a metaphor for life. It is said that like life, one’s mistakes stare one in the face on the Weiqi board. Like life, we also have a chance to reflect and learn from those mistakes.

In that sense, AlphaGo, by learning as it plays, seems very much in line with the Weiqi way.

As I prepare to leave, the children are starting a game. They face each other across their boards and close their eyes for a minute or so to focus their concentration. Then, in a sentiment similar to the Vedic opening prayer ‘ Om Sahanaa Vavatu ’, where the teacher and the student both pray that their learning together be enlightening and not lead to hostility, I hear the little Chinese children address their Weiqi partners: ‘ Qǐng duōduō zhǐjiào ’... ‘I invite your comments and corrections’.

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