University of Rochester

Board-Game Rivals Lock Horns -- on the Internet

May 19, 1994

For centuries devotees of the Chinese board game "go" have faced off in person, matching wits as they attempt to conquer the opponent by moving penny-sized stones around a grid.

Now even the 4,000-year-old game has come to the Internet. This week a University of Rochester engineer took top honors in a new kind of world-wide competition where 300 players competed -- from desk tops scattered across the globe -- to become go champion.

Thomas Hsiang wasn't crowded into some noisy auditorium with other players, as so often happens at tournaments for games like chess, checkers, and go. Instead, these participants played at their leisure, using the Internet to do battle with competitors known simply as "Raptor," "Blitz," "Zoro," "Niceguy," and "Raven."

"What good is the information highway unless you can have fun with it?" asks Hsiang, professor of electrical engineering.

When Hsiang's victory was announced on the network yesterday, a cascade of congratulations -- "Clap clap," "Nomad rules," "Applause," "Hail to Nomad," "I am Nomad fodder" and dozens of others -- flashed across his computer screen.

People regularly navigate the Internet for a variety of entertainment purposes. Some scout out favorite recipes, others trade barbs about the latest Star Trek episode, and a few cruise the Internet for dates. Now board game enthusiasts are hanging out their shingle -- specialized computer networks where they hang out with others who have similar interests looking for playing partners, advice, and a good time. They've set up networks for chess, bridge, backgammon and a variety of games.

The tournament was sponsored by a Taiwan industrialist and was organized by the International Go Service (IGS), organized by Go enthusiasts in Finland, Paris, San Francisco and Philadelphia. IGS is like a giant meeting ground for Go players looking for fun and competition. Its 5,000 players swap advice, solicit games from one another, and even watch games in progress to spy on the competition.

Go is an ancient Chinese board game played on a grid that involves each player attempting to surround areas of the board with disk-shaped black and white stones. Games typically last 2-4 hours, and each player's time limit is monitored by computer. The game is a national pastime in Japan, China and Korea.

Hsiang and the other participants played six games over a six-week period; Hsiang played his on weekends, during his spare time. Competitors hailed from Korea, the Netherlands, the U.S., Australia, Europe, Russia, South America -- virtually anywhere with both computers and go players.

Hsiang, who goes by the go handle "Nomad," was seeded ninth going into the tournament but knocked off the favorites to take the top spot. He thinks that playing at a distance may have contributed to his victory. "When you play in person, there are more distractions," says Hsiang, who took part in a week-long go- fest that drew 200 players to the University three years ago. "I have one opponent who always made remarks about how poorly he was playing; later he admitted it was all just a ploy to distract me. Over the Internet there are no such distractions."

A Go player since age 17 when a friend introduced him to the game in Taiwan, Hsiang joined the network last fall and ranks in the top 20 with a 36-14 record.

"I use the Internet mainly as a research tool," says Hsiang. "Every day I communicate with other scientists, exchange results, or check new findings. But to be able to do something fun on the Internet -- that definitely makes it useful." tr