The day begins early - much earlier than most Sundays. I’m out the door at 8:15, for a tournament that starts at 9:00. I usually sleep in on the weekends; I didn’t even know Sundays had a 9 o’clock.
The day is rainy and grey, but bright in that clean Spring way where the contrast between everything is sharpened and it feels like you can see forever. I drive in the rain to NC State campus, a twenty minute drive through the odd combination of semi-urban and rural landscape that makes up Raleigh. Once on campus, I’m a bit confused - GPS helps me get to the right general area, but I’ve lost my GPS signal now and end up parked in a deserted-feeling area in front of a row of buildings. There is no one else walking around here, and as I’m looking around and trying to get my bearings I hear a rumbling noise. On the far side of the road, a train goes rushing by on tracks I hadn’t noticed.
The lack of people and the light rain and the sudden noise - suddenly everything feels surreal, just to the left of normal. It’s a dizzying experience - this always happens when I am stepping into the unknown, especially when I don’t have anyone familiar nearby. It isn’t a negative sensation, though; it’s pleasant in an “I might be stepping into fairyland and I may never find my way back” sort of way. I check my phone, which has gotten its GPS lock back, and realize I need to drive a block further. I spot a sign for the building I’m looking for, and park.
The surreal feeling persists as I cross the street. I realize I’m at the back of the building, which explains why things feel so deserted. I find the front entrance, and enter to find… a deserted building. No one in the lobby, no signs posted, and no obvious Go-related activity occurring. I check my email (thank the gods for smartphones) and realize I missed a detail - room 404. Great. I’ll never find it.
I do find an elevator, though, and while I wait for it several other people arrive, obviously Go players (exactly how this is obvious is lost on me, but it is clear they are Go players). One of them, an older man, smiles at me in greeting, and with that, normalcy returns.
The tournament takes about an hour to get going. The organizers seem to be having trouble with their tournament software. While we wait, I say hi to the players I know from the Triangle Go Club, and end up in a conversation with someone who is about my age. We start to play a warm-up game. He gives me 9 stones, and I’m doing pretty well about 50 moves in, when we notice that the tournament organizers have set up a projector and are projecting the first round pairings. We clean up our game, and I grab a bottle of water and head over to my assigned table.
My first game is against Andrew, rank 15 kyu. Andrew is young - probably no older than 12. He is also very polite: He introduces himself and shakes my hand before he sits down.
As I entered at 19 kyu, I have black with 3 handicap stones. I had a chance during my warm-up game to figure out how the Ing bowls work, but it takes me a minute to work out how to program and use the game clock1. They’re pretty intuitive, though, and I am soon hearing an amazingly cheerful voice (it reminds me of Sumomo) telling me my timer has started counting. Since I have handicap stones, my opponent actually goes first, so I immediately press my button to make it white’s turn, and hear the same message repeated again, with ‘White’ in place of ‘Black’.
Andrew plays his first move in less than a second. This isn’t too surprising - in a 3 stone handicap game, playing the 4th hoshi is an obvious opening move. I respond aggressively, approaching his stone, and now the tournament really feels underway. I throw myself into the mental space of Go, of territory and influence, attack and counter-attack.
Andrew responds almost immediately to every move I make, while I feel lumbering by comparison, often thinking for several seconds before responding. This trend continues throughout the game, and his fast moves make me feel like I need to respond equally fast, which leads to several mistakes.
His play is surprising - he pretty much discards joseki and instead favours attaching to any approach move I make. I’m admittedly weak against strange openings - even if they’re technically weaker, I haven’t seen them as much and so the best response isn’t obvious and automatic.
More importantly, Andrew is very good, especially at local fighting. I cede more and more territory, and lose several sizable groups of stones. My opponent is the tide and I fall back before his steady and relentless onslaught. I know enough about the game to build a seawall, though, and eventually the board starts to settle. Then I see it - a critical point in one of my opponent’s shape in the south-west side of the board that, if I can play there, will kill two large groups, giving me some 40 points. It’s monumental, and it could turn the tide of the game. And it’s my opponent’s turn. If he sees the weakness and plays the point, these stones will be alive.
My hands start to shake, and I can feel my pulse in my neck, speeding up. My face flushes, and I’m afraid I might actually break into a sweat. Adrenaline. I’ve always had strong adrenaline reactions, but I’ve learned to usually keep up a calm front in the face of an adrenaline storm. Still, I feel light-headed and it’s hard to think.
I stare at a different part of the board, afraid of drawing his attention to the weakness.
He makes his move, attacking my stones in the northeast corner. A few points there doesn’t matter, though. This play is bigger. I put my stone on the board firmly, and it makes a satisfying click. I press the game clock, and it chirps, signaling to Andrew that it is his turn.
The game is over shortly after this. After some confusion about how to count, we calculate the score. Even with my 40-point comeback, I lose by 20 points. Still, I feel like this is a good result. He was clearly better than me, and I had some really clever play near the end.
I finish the first game pretty early, and have a chance to watch the other games and socialize with other players who have already finished. After everyone is done, it takes the organizers a while to enter the results and pair up the contestants for the next round. This is a repeated theme throughout the tournament, but I don’t mind - it’s a good chance to rest my mind and let my nerves calm down a little.
This time I’m up against Larry, another young player. He is ranked at 20 kyu, so we play an even game, with Larry taking black and me taking white. Larry is very intense; he doesn’t say hi, just sits down and we begin playing.
After the first round, I’m expecting to have to fight hard in this tournament, so I play very aggressively at first, overextending myself a bit. It quickly becomes apparent that I have a strong advantage in both tactical and strategic play. There are still several tricky points, and I manage to kill a large group with some pretty clever play.
The clock is running pretty low - I have less than two minutes of thinking time remaining. The smell of pizza intrudes - I’m starving. Most of the games have finished, and people are walking around while they eat. Several of the younger players are whispering nearby.. Needless to say, this is a distraction. I’m not blaming this for what happens next, but it was probably a factor. I make a huge mistake and let my opponent revive a large dead group. This probably costs me 30 points.
But I’ve taken all the corners and three of the sides, and pushed a wedge into the center. I win easily, by 76 points. I would suggest that Larry overestimated his strength, except he finished the tournament 3-1. I suppose my play style was just strong against his.
Next comes some surprisingly delicious spinach pizza (in the sense that spinach pizza is not usually delicious) and Yet More Difficulty generating pairings. Now the problem is obvious - the children are competing as part of teams, so that their totaled wins and losses are considered. The pairing code doesn’t have a way to represent this, though, so the organizers are manually re-pairing the team members so that they don’t face each other.
I get paired with Dale, a stronger player than me - I take a 4 stone handicap. Dale is an older man, and the only adult I play against in the tournament. He is sociable and friendly, and this puts me at my ease, a relief after the previous two rounds.
Dale plays in a more relaxed style than Andrew (the only other game in which I had a handicap), and I’m able to make some pretty solid play against him. It is a very peaceful game until the end - only a small handful of captures. Still, the game is very intense and intricate as we test each other’s weak spots.
When the board feels settled, Dale keeps studying it, running his time down to less than a minute. Then he makes a desperate invasion into the widest part of my territory. I know he’s a stronger player, so I take a long time to respond. This stretches the game out for several more minutes as I carefully try to avoid mistakes. My fortifications hold, though, and his invasion fails.
The total comes to 67 points for me, and 65 points for him. We count again - it turns out he missed a space in his territory. 67 to 66. I win by a single point. This is the closest game of Go I’ve ever played.
Even though I’m in one of the last games to finish in round 3, I know it will take a while to get the next round set up, so I take a walk to stretch. The rest of the floor is quiet - a couple students in a computer lab, and two of the young girls from the tournament playing in one of the study lounges. It strikes me how cold it is in the hall - I didn’t notice how warm it was in the room where the tournament is being held. Too many bodies.
I return to the room just as things are getting set up. I look up at the projector that shows the matches, and find my name.
|14||Wiggins Anna||Evans Violet||7|
I’ve been paired with a 27 kyu player, and I’m giving her a 7-stone handicap. The tournament organizer actually walks over and apologizes. He explains that they try to avoid handicaps this large, but it was the best they could do with pairing.
But I’m intrigued. This should be a challenge. I’m not great at handicap games, and with 7 stones even a beginner will have a good chance.
Violet sits down across from me. I say hi as she places her handicap stones. She returns my greeting, but reluctantly - she seems a bit shy, or maybe she’s just distracted.
I scatter my opening moves around the board, approaching the corners. She repeatedly blocks by attaching high (I typically approach a 4-4 corner play via the low approach). This leaves her open to a 3-3 invasion, which I am able to exploit on all four corners. I am also able to capture a few sizable groups early on.
So, this may not be as hard as I was afraid it would be. But there’s another problem - as we play, she is building a very solid wall around my territory, claiming the entire center of the board. Normally this is not a sound strategy - there isn’t as much territory in the center as there appears to be, and it is harder to hold. Building that wall takes a lot of moves, and lets me firmly establish my own territory. But I’m backed against the edge pretty effectively here, and it looks like she may have enough points to win.
I manage to connect my corners, taking three sides. Violet is determined to hold the last side, though, and this is, ironically, my chance. I attack a section of her wall that isn’t fully connected. Then another. And another. Eventually I’ve formed a couple of cracks, and I move to drive a wedge into her territory. I don’t try to capture territory, just consume it. This is scorched earth - I just want to make sure nothing will ever grow here again.
I succeed, and we count the stones. I win by 25 points, which means the territory I succeeded in reducing gave me the win. Salting the earth made all the difference.
The projector is now displaying the tournament results. I can see that I did pretty well - my standing based on strength of schedule is listed, and my score is double the person below me. That win in round 3 really helped.
In the lull after the last round, people have started talking pretty loudly, and we’ve achieved the sort of din that only 30+ people in a confined space can make. The organizer has to try a few times to start speaking. They have divided the players into 4 sections based on strength:
|C||27kyu - 19kyu|
|B||15kyu - 6kyu|
|A||5kyu - 1dan|
I’m excited by this, because sorted like this, I’m at the top of section C. When they actually announce winners, though, they announce a 3-way tie for first; they are only using wins and losses to determine who ‘wins’ here.
This seems an odd choice; surely, in a ranked tournament, one unambiguous winner per group is preferable to 2 or 3? Especially given how likely it is that, in a given group of 5-10 players, several players will finish with 3 wins and nobody will finish with 4. This is basically why strength of schedule even exists.
I’m not concerned about it, though. Some pictures are taken, and I hang around with a few other players to help clean the place up. We turn out the lights and head downstairs.
At the front of the building, I say goodbye to the people still standing around and head back to my car. The rain has stopped now, and the late afternoon air is crisp and clean.
1For anyone who is unfamiliar with Go game clocks, the clock has (in addition to some setup buttons hidden under a panel) 2 buttons for each side - one with your colour and a smaller one with your opponent’s colour. They also have an indicator that tells you how much time you have left and how many moves have been played. You press your colour after you move to indicate your move is done (it stops your game clock and starts theirs). You can press and hold the opponent’s colour to have your display show how much time their clock has left. In this tournament, we had 30 minutes main thinking time plus 5 30-second byo-yomi periods. Tournament time in Go is very different than in Chess and many other games.