The strategic game of Go

The Japanese game of Go has fascinated me for many and I have included it in a scene in the novel I’m writing. In the scene, set in May 1917, the main point of view character Lieutenant “Wilkins” has been granted passage on the Japanese battle Cruiser Kasagi from Cape Town to England. On the ship he meets the ethnologist Yanagita and they begin a life long friendship.

"Go" a type of Asian chess

"Go" (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It was after midnight and only a minimal crew were on duty. Wilkins stepped through the hatch leading out onto the deck and inhaled, through his nose, the crisp air into his lungs. He held this breath, for a several long seconds before exhaling audibly and headed forward along the starboard deck.

The stars shone as brilliant pin points in the dark sky—perfect for navigation; clear skies and negligible swell would make taking readings from the sextant child’s play. The only sound was the quiet whirl of a breeze in his ears and an intermittent clicking sound coming from up forward.

Wilkins had always enjoyed walking, particularly early in the morning and again late at night just before sleep. Since his bout of influenza he had not returned to the habit. Maybe this was why he felt so constrained. The ship was just coasting along as if the world were not at war.

He maintained a solid pace around the perimeter of the ship. His body had grown accustomed to his enforced docility and soon his shins ached with every long stride. He had made about three circumnavigations of the ship before he heard a familiar voice call out.

‘Wilkins-san, please come and join us,’ called Yanagita from the shadows of the guns on the foredeck.

Yanagita sat cross-legged on a thick cushion, and opposite him was a grey haired man. Between them, in the moonlight, was a low wooden table—about knee height. Their eyes were bright and smiles wide.

‘Come sit with us a while,’ Yanagita said, raising his arm to welcome Wilkins to their table.

Despite the cool air, both the Japanese men were naked to the waist. Wilkins stood for a moment.

‘I’m sorry Yanagita-san, I’ve disturbed you both,’ he said and nodded to the older man.

‘No, do not worry, please, let me introduce Kawabata-san, ni go-shokai shimasu,’ Yanagita said nodding towards the grey haired man.

Wilkins put out his hand.

‘Good evening Kawabata-san, komban wa,’ he said and glanced to Yanagita to check his pronunciation.

Kawabata looked to be in his late fifties. His grey hair was cropped short and rough. He reminded Wilkins of the veteran sailors he had met in northern Canada and the Arctic.

Kawabata nodded his dark tanned head and motioned for Wilkins to join them.

‘Dozo,’ he said.

‘Thank-you, arigato,’ Wilkins said realising that Kawabata may not speak English.

He lowered himself to the ground and sat between them at the small low table.

‘Wilkins-san, you have walked passed us several times. You are, in a hurry, to get to this war?

‘Yes,’ he replied, ‘it’s a dire time for the Empire and our Allies.’

‘All the more reason to use this respite to recover your strength properly.’

‘I know,’ Wilkins sighed, ‘but I need to play my part.’

Wilkins was aware of Kawabata watching him. Did the old man understand?

Yanagita continued, ‘We all have a part to play but it is rarely what we expect.’ He paused and then gestured at the table. ‘This is Go.’

The table top looked to be one solid piece of wood about ten inches thick, and it had a square grid of lines etched upon it in black. Many small black and white stones had been placed haphazardly across the table, but always at the intersections of the gridded lines.

‘A cousin to the game of Chess,’ Yanagita continued.

Wilkins nodded.

‘Yes, checkers, Chinese Checkers I think we call it.’

‘Ah no, Wilkins-san, not Chinese Checkers, this is Go. It is a game of strategy, some say, invented by the Chinese Emperor Shun almost forty-one centuries ago. But I think an Emperor would have too many things on his mind to invent such a game.’

Wilkins’ travels had given him the opportunity to discover the customs of many indigenous peoples and he had learnt many Inuit games; becoming adept at seal fin puzzles.

‘What are the rules Yanagita-san, can you teach me to play?’

Yanagita smiled.

‘Samimasen, I am sorry Wilkins-san, not tonight. But you are most welcome to watch. You see Kawabata and I have a wager on this particular game.’

He picked up a black stone from the wooden bowl on the table closest to him and placed it with a click at the intersection of two lines in the grid.

Over a hundred of the black and white stones already lay on the board. Looking closer Wilkins began to see patterns in their placement; less like chess—where the pieces represented men on a battlefield—and more like the cities and borders of a continent, where areas of the board were encompassed by either black or white stones.

‘Who is winning,’ Wilkins asked without looking up at either of the Japanese men.

‘I am ahead by two,’ Yanagita said, ‘but it is not so simple. You see this is part of a long standing argument between us. We are re-enacting a game played over ninety years ago on the 19th of July, 1836, between Go Masters Yasui Shintetsu and Mizutani Takuma. Kawabata-san believes that Yasui made an error early in the game that eventually cost him the match. And so we test this theory.’

‘So you just take over from that point, to see who is right?’ Wilkins asked.

‘In a way yes,’ Yanagita explained, ‘but we must keep to the original strategies they used in that game.’

Kawabata then bowed to Yanagita and placed his white stone on a different section of the board. They then placed several more stones in quick succession without seeming to watch each other’s movements.

A doorway opened behind Kawabata and a swath of light flooded the deck. A young Japanese Ensign carried an exquisite wooden box toward them.

Kawabata jumped to his feet and looked up and down the ship.

‘Iie,’ he whispered, trying to take the box from the young man.

‘Dozo, dozo,’ the young man responded, turning his body to ensure Kawabata could not wrest the box from his grasp.

He bowed once, and then again, even deeper, until Kawabata returned his seat. He placed the box on the deck between Wilkins and Kawabata, nodding to Wilkins and then looking to Yanagita for reassurance. He opened the double sided top of the box to reveal a small kit stove.

‘Would you like some tea, Wilkins-san,’ Yanagita said.

Wilkins nodded to Yanagita and again to the young man, who responded with a cheerful grin. Wilkins now noticed the young man’s swollen jaw and several bruises on one side of his face.

‘Arigato, Takeshi-san,’ Yanagita said bowing to the young man.’

The game of Go resumed as the young man built a small fire with kindling wood and heated some water in a blackened steel kettle.

‘Takeshi-san,’ Yanagita said, ‘is one of Lieutenant Obata’s men, as is Seaman Kawabata. Kawabata was Takeshi-san’s Kenjitsu Sensei when he was a young boy.’

The game progressed and Wilkins began to comprehend some of the strategy. The object was to secure sections of the board for your colour. But unlike chess, once the pieces were placed on the board, they were not moved again; unless they were surrounded by an opponent’s stones, and then they were removed and placed alongside the playing area.

‘Was this a famous game?’ Wilkins asked.

Steam rose from the kettle and Takeshi took it from the stove and placed it on a small cloth he had laid out upon the deck.

‘Yes,’ Yanagita replied his speech slowing as Kawabata placed one of his gleaming white stones on the board.

Kawabata looked up to Yanagita with a rye smile.

‘Yes Wilkins-san, it was a famous game. Not one practiced by beginners, but famous.’ He fell silent for a moment. ‘Kawabata-san has provided me a great lesson tonight,’ he said bowing low. ‘And well timed,’ he said receiving his tea from the young Takeshi.

In this low light the bright green powdered tea had a pleasant contrast to the pale interior of the old tea cups. They looked like they had been bouncing around in Kawabata’s kit bag for decades. The cracks, chips and heavy stains on them gave tribute, like proud medals of honour, to their passage through time. The tea was tepid and very bitter. When Takeshi had served all three men, he put out the fire and packed up the stove, bowing to each of them; last of all to Kawabata who squirmed in his seat, and again looked about nervously. Yanagita and Kawabata continued to place stones on the board but now with little concentration.

‘So Kawabata has won the game?’ Wilkins asked.

‘Yes, he will win,’ Yanagita replied.

‘So he has the advantage and you are just playing it out.’

‘Iie, no Wilkins-san. I am still ahead but Kawabata has found suki—an opening—in the strategy played by Master Mizutani and will eventually win.’

He smiled towards at Kawabata.

‘We will try again another time, though, I am not convinced that Master Mizutani would have left this suki. Tonight it is my own skill that has been found wanting.’

G is for the strategic game of “Go”

Why can’t revolutionaries get their people to the end state?

Remember Those Who Starve! - 1921

Remember Those Who Starve! - 1921 Russian Poster by Ivan Simakov (1877-1925). Source: Wikipedia (public domain)

Wilkins was shocked by the devastation inflicted upon the Russian people when he visited there in the 1920’s. In a letter to his friend Yanagita he wrote:

Revolutionaries see only the end state. Their minds are rarely big enough to see how the people they hope to save cannot reach this place alone. They have to be carried. It’s like a parable my father once told me about: how Jesus carried a man through his most difficult times. We have to be the people’s Jesus if we want them to make it safely from where they have been to where we want them to be.

Can Richard Flanagan’s writing be considered propaganda? (2006)

In 2004 the Tasmanian Forests Minister labelled Richard Flanagan an ‘author-turned propagandist’. Certainly Flanagan is outspoken on many social and environmental issues and he does consciously and deliberately use his writing to raise their profile.  Nevertheless, Flanagan’s writing cannot be considered propaganda. To the ordinary person propaganda is associated with deliberately false or misleading information. Flanagan has a high profile in the Tasmanian arts community based on his successful novels and newspaper or magazine articles.  Accordingly he is regularly invited to speak publicly on many issues.  Flanagan has a self confessed love for the landscape, environment and history of Tasmania and he has infused this into his novels and much of his other writing.


What is Flanagan being accused of when described as a propagandist?  Although the Oxford dictionary defines propaganda as ‘ideas or rumours deliberately spread to help or harm a group, movement or institution’, no consensus has been reached on a definition ‘in eighty years of propaganda scholarship (Cone 2003)’.  The use of propaganda to mislead populations over the last century – in wartime and by religious or political groups – has resulted in it becoming synonymous with ‘lies, deceit, and brainwashing (Welch 1999)’. Therefore when Flanagan is labelled as a propagandist, this can only be interpreted as an accusation of writing deliberately misleading articles or at best withholding important information to support his own agenda.

No consensus has been reached on a definition ‘in eighty years of propaganda scholarship (Cone 2003)

In opposition to these accusations Richard Flanagan is well respected by most sections of the Tasmanian community.  His first three novels each received several literary awards and were all short-listed for the Miles-Franklin Award.  In the Miles-Franklin his first novel ‘The Death of a River Guide’ was beaten by Demidenko’s controversial novel ‘The Hand That Signed the Paper’. His second and third novels, ‘The Sound of One Hand Clapping’ and ‘Gould’s Book of Fish’ were placed, respectively, behind Peter Carey’s ‘Jack Maggs’ and Tim Winton’s ‘Dirt Music’. Flanagan is also one of a select few of Tasmania’s Rhodes Scholars; alongside people such as former federal minister Neal Blewett and United Nations administrator John Gee.  Landscape painter Geoffrey Dyer, who won the 2003 Archibald Prize for his portrait of Flanagan, describes him as ‘a local celebrity without trying to be one’ and ‘a breath of fresh air’.   Flanagan’s greatest success came in 2002 when he was awarded the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize (Overall Winner and Best Book) for ‘Gould’s Book of Fish’.  It was said to posses ‘a touch of genius’ by the judging panel.


Geoffrey Dyer won the 2003 Archibald Prize for his portrait of Flanagan

By his own admission Flanagan ‘has failed to control his persona; authorial, public or otherwise (Flanagan 2006)’ but there is no shortage of supporters for him and the issues he identifies with. When his article ‘Paradise lost – with napalm (The Guardian 21 April 2004) drew a vitriolic attack from the Tasmanian Forests minister, Bryan Green, there was an immediate response from several sections of the community.  The Wilderness Society’s Geoff Law called the attack ‘an untrue character assassination’ and ‘breathtaking nonsense’. The Greens Opposition leader, Peg Putt MHA said that Flanagan’s concern ‘is indicative of the emotions sweeping Tasmania’ and classified him as ‘one of the great living Tasmanians’.  And yet Flanagan has become unpopular with the local mainstream media for regularly chastising them for toadying to the State Government.  He wears his heart on his sleeve and there appears to be a transparency between his writing, his public speaking and what must dwell in his soul.  For instance when Forestry Tasmania became a sponsor of the ‘Ten Days on the Island’ readers and writers festival, Flanagan – alongside Peter Carey – withdrew his novel as an entry in the Tasmania Pacific Prize.  He does not ‘seek causes out, [he] just get[s] caught up in things (Waldren)’. In difference to the accusations of spawning propaganda he appears to act despite his own agenda rather than to progress it.

Flanagan has regularly written articles for the British newspaper ‘The Guardian’ and it is through this and other publications – outside Tasmania – that his opinions and rhetoric have gained their widest audiences.  In addition to his articles exposing the illegal forestry practices and political corruption in Tasmania he has also written about the history and ongoing controversies surrounding Tasmania’s aboriginal population.  In ‘Tasmanian Aboriginies: The Lost Tribe’ (The Guardian 14 October 2002) he questioned the processes by which a person’s aboriginality can be ascertained, and raised rumours about the in-fighting and ‘allegations of corruption and incompetence’ that have tarnished the reputation of the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre (TAC).  Although it is clear Flanagan wrote this article to highlight the plight of Tasmanian aboriginals he came under attack from the leader of the TAC for ‘exploit[ing]…an international audience who had no information to compare with his (Mansell 2002)’. Yet, even this attack was tempered with a description of Flanagan as normally ‘a progressive social writer (Mansell 2002)’.  Although often criticised for going outside the state to highlight local issues, this practice has forced the local mainstream media to cover them – and even prompted a response in State Parliament.

Flanagan is a fifth generation Tasmanian, descended from Irish convicts transported to Van Diemen’s Land and it is this place that reverberates like a quiet but ever present bass line through his first three novels.

In writing fiction Flanagan believes that if you wish to ‘write something of worth you’ve got to go back within yourself [and] dredge your soul (Hugo 2005)’.  Although he incorporates issues and events of Tasmania’s dark history in his fiction, his characters ‘don’t impose explanations or analysis (Waldren 1997)’.  In a radio interview, recorded in September 1995, Flanagan discussed Tasmanian writing prior to 1970 and said that there was a ‘sense that Tasmania wasn’t a fit subject for literature (Wessman 1995)’.  He explained: ‘Joyce never felt that awkwardness about calling Dublin, Dublin, or Dickens calling London, London’. It appears from his writing – in his mind at least – Tasmania and he are symbiotic and it is from this relationship that his best writing emerges. Blindly adding ‘place’ can be a trap for writers of fiction – name dropping and the like.  In contrast, the story in Flanagan’s fiction seems to transpire from this place and exist inside it – his stories could not occur in another place.

Richard Flanagan describes himself as a Watermelon Green: Green on the outside, red on the inside. He puts this ‘down to bloodlines – Irish Catholic convict …rooted in the Northern Tasmanian Peasantry (Waldren 1997)’.  The green campaigns of Lake Pedder and the Franklin River had a big effect on him.  He describes their influence on Tasmania as ‘a prism through which the light of a century of despair and hope was refracted into this glorious rainbow (Waldren 1997)’. Although Flanagan publicly distanced himself  – in his opening speech for the Launch of the Tasmanian Times – from either a particular political party or a specific green group, his writing clearly defines a leaning to the left and a concern with environmental issues.

Flanagan considers good writing as a craft not an art.  He is interested in things that work and enjoys working with a good editor who can point to things that are problematic or unclear.  Moreover he says ‘you’d be foolish not to listen to them (Hugo 1995)’.  He spends about four to five hours a day actually writing and compares his methods to that of Peter Carey.  For instance he writes passages and then goes back to them, building them from a sentence to a paragraph, from a paragraph to a page, a page into a chapter – constantly growing and evolving (Hugo 1995).

Richard Flanagan’s writing is synonymous with the environment and history of Tasmania.  Through his novels he has received prestigious literary awards including the 2002 Commonwealth Writers Prize – leading to his high profile in both the arts and general community.  Although he has acquired many supporters he has also had his detractors who accuse him of spawning propaganda.  Despite that there is no consensus on a simple definition of propaganda, and the fact that the term is widely misused and misunderstood in the community, there are a few criteria that can be agreed upon.  Firstly that it is designed to benefit the originator or their cause, and the secondly that there are either blatant untruths or it fails to provide all the truth. Contrary to benefiting his career and popularity with through this writing Flanagan has ‘invited the possibility of ostracism and unemployment (Law 2004)’ and suffered the wrath of the Tasmanian State government.  He was told by Premier Paul Lennon that he and his writing were not welcome in the new Tasmania.  Although his writing is always tinged with emotion and sometimes burns with an intense anger he encourages open debate and the free flow of information.  Based on this evidence it is clear that Flanagan’s writing – either fiction or non-fiction – cannot be considered propaganda.


 Cone, S. 2003, The Idea of Propaganda: A Reconstruction. Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly. Columbia: Autumn 2003. Vol.80, Iss. 3; pg. 747. (accessed October 2006).

Flanagan, R. 2002, “The Lost Tribe”, The Guardian, October 14, 2002, retrieved September 2006.

Flanagan, R. 2004, “Paradise lost – with napalm”, The Guardian, April 21, 2004, retrieved September 2006.

Flanagan, R. 2006, email, 21 September 2006, (email address withheld).

Hugo, G. 2005, Interview with Richard Flanagan. The Write Stuff. Hobart: 1995. Vol.1 Book reviews: Interviews with Writers. (accessed September 2006).

Law, G. 2004, Press Release: Lennon’s character assassination of Flanagan diverts from the real issue. Hobart: 23 July 2004. The Wilderness Society. (accessed September 2006).

Mansell, M. 2002, Press Release: Tasmania – Australia’s Answer to America’s Deep South, Hobart. 21 October 2002. Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre. (accessed September 2006).

Waldren, M. 1997, “Many Hands Clapping – An Interview with Richard Flanagan”, The Weekend Australian, 1997.

Welch, D. 1999, Powers of Persuasion. History Today. London: August 1999. Vol.49, Iss. 8; pg. 24, 3 pgs. (accessed October 2006).

Wessman, R. 1995, Conversations: and interview with Pete Hay & Richard Flanagan. Hobart: 29 September 1995. (accessed October 2006).

Who can be my hero?

Yesterday a television commentator, Mia Freedman from the Today Show, decided that it would be a good idea to tell us who we could hold up as heroes.  She has copped a lot of abuse for her short sited and ill informed rant and some of it went well beyond what is acceptable, which I do not condone.

There have been many educated responses too; such as that made by Dr Bridie O’Donnell in an open letter to Mia.

The incident was precipitated by the Australian Cyclist Cadel Evans’ win at the 2011 Tour de France and the outpouring of emotion from his long time supporters and those who tuned in to the coverage in the last week or so.

Cadel Evans is swamped by his BMC teammates after they cross the finish line.

Although I agree that we are occasionally too quick to class some sports people as heroes but having seen the adversity through which Cadel’s victory has emerged from, and knowing firsthand how tough the sport of road cycling is, I certainly classify Cadel as a hero of mine.

Mia’s argument is the same used to play down artistic or creative endeavours as being less than those of scientists and doctors. It is through witnessing the courage of people like Cadel that the world’s “would-be-scientists” keep slogging away at their study and research in the dark hours of the night.

We don’t live for scientific or medical breakthroughs, we strive for them so that humans can live and grow. What is more important – the doctor who saves a few lives or the writer/singer/sportsperson who inspires millions to keep on going even when the circumstances become difficult and the future looks bleak.

Chapeau Cadel!

What is the next power base for human society?

I’ve heard many arguments against the development of artificial intelligence (Ai) and the possibility of uploading our consciousness to similar artificial environments, or at least artificially enhancing our minds and bodies. They say that our governments will not let it happen, or that the churches will be able to put sufficient pressure to bear to prevent it. I disagree. Ai will have access to sufficient computational resources to be able to “what if” its way past our societal limiters; governments, churches etc. It will know what an un-enhanced human will do long before we ourselves do – or at least it will have worked out many millions of scenarios, with solutions to preserve themselves banked for each perceived action, ready to be deployed.

Once the singularity is close, it is inevitable. As to the question of how close, to have proposed this question is itself a strong indicator that the turning point of human engineering has passed and that a human engineered limiter is no longer possible.

Am I frightened? No!

Who should be frightened? The current powerbase. In any revolution, power shifts and those who cling longest and most desperately to the old ways will suffer the worst.

Lets look at a powerbase from recent history; the monarchy. The English monarchy still exists today and although they are still wealthy from a capital perspective, they do not have either the cash flow or the power of life or death over their people. It is quite the opposite; they exist at the mercy of their people, kept on life support in a human zoo or museum for the people’s amusement.

How did the English Monarchy survive when the Russian or French did not? They divested their power to the people; they set their people free and this act of grace and trust enabled them to avoid the fate of many other monarchies that clung too desperately to their historic powers.

So who amongst us will hold the power when the inevitable singularity occurs? I think it will be those who embrace the opportunities to enhance our intelligence; it will be those who are able to free their minds.

Moeraki Boulders - let go

I don’t know, and haven’t had enough time to digest the implications of these thoughts. If I hark back to the beginings of this note; I don’t have the neural capacity to “what if” my final opinion in the time it has taken to write the words from there to here!