Aikido and Go

Part 1

by Anne Beardsley

Go, (called Igo in Japan), was invented at least 3,000 years ago in China. It is a board game where two players take turns placing white or black stones upon a 19 by 19 grid. The rules are simple, but the complexity of the play is such that even today no computer in the world can match a human opponent. Confucius spoke highly of it, monks of many different sects played it to school and purify their minds, and at one point promotion in the Japanese army was largely dependent upon the ability to play this game. The Chinese called it the spirit-refining game; the Koreans named it Hand-talk (a conversation without words), and the Japanese described it as the thousand year passion. Considered the martial art of the mind, Go is the only intellectual pursuit in the world where strength is measured in terms of kyu and dan. As such, it may be the oldest still existing martial art in the world.

Training for Chinese generalsTraining for Chinese generals

I have now played Go for two and a half years. As a beginning Aikidoka, I have often been struck by some of the similarities between the two disciplines; more than once I have felt that I was simply playing Go with my body instead of with my mind. Like Go, I can tell that although the principles are simple, I could practice for sixty years and still have much to learn. Or as the ancient Go proverb puts it: “A few moments to learn, a lifetime to master”.

In these two years I have somehow taught quite a number of people from several different countries to play Go. Advanced players are without cultural boundaries, but in beginners there is a large difference between easterners and westerners…not in strength, but in style.

Western beginners usually try to meet force with force. Focusing on the attacking and capturing aspects of the game, they focus on sternly protecting their stones by force while trying to hammer their opponents into yielding territory. They tend not to know when to give up and play in another corner of the board. Any more advanced player will smile, give them the few stones or points they want to capture so desperately, and quietly play elsewhere….taking possession of the entire rest of the board, and winning by a landslide.

Women playing in the mist - JapanWomen playing in the mist – Japan

Easterners generally try not to meet force at all. Focusing on the territory-gaining aspects of the game, they ignore their opponent as long as possible. When attacked, they will retreat…but leaving already placed stones undefended. They will forget to protect themselves as they try to expand, and quickly abandon anything that is threatened. Any more advanced player will smile, pressure them till they fall apart, and then claim the rest of the board, winning by a landslide.

In between the two lies the true path. Great Go masters, like great Aikido masters, understand the harmony of accepting force without losing one’s own position. They know how to redirect and shape a threat without running from it or clashing with it. A great game of Go is, in its very essence, much as Aikido appears to many observers – a dance between two partners as much as a battle between two adversaries.

In Aikido, the Aikidoka does not throw himself recklessly against the strength of his uke. Instead, he seeks to isolate a piece of the body and use it to shape his partner’s motions. A key strategy in Go is to separate the stones of your opponent. If large groups of your opponents stones are working together, it will be not only impossible to take them, it will be impossible to shape their growth to your advantage. If you can isolate small parts of them, you can control the flow of your opponent’s play.

Lady defending with Naginata and Go boardLady defending with Naginata and Go board

As in Aikido, objectives in Go are gained not by a clash of strength but by focusing on your strength and bringing it to bear on weakness. You attempt to induce your opponent to run his weakness against your strength, to pit his small formations against the balanced and secure bulk of your stones.

About the author

Anne Beardsley is the mother of 3 children and a student of Aikido, Go, and Toyama Ryu iaido.

Continued—Aikido and Go – part 2

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