Thomas Hsiang recently won the U.S. Open, but he didn't do it by peppering Patrick Rafter or Andre Agassi with shots from the baseline. Rather, Hsiang sat quietly and nudged small stones around a game board to take first place in the U.S. Open of Go, the ancient Chinese game, making him the game's reigning U.S. champion.
Hsiang, professor of electrical engineering at the University of Rochester, was seeded sixth going into the August 18-24 tournament in Lancaster, Pa., but outperformed some 250 competitors in six rounds of play to claim the title. Well known in Go circles, Hsiang has taken first place in numerous tournaments, including a pioneering contest three years ago that was conducted over the Internet and involved 300 players scattered all over the globe. He says he rarely competes in Go tourneys -- just one or two each year, on average -- although he does join fellow Go devotee David Weimer, a Rochester political scientist, for a friendly game over lunch each week.
Go, a game of strategy in which players attempt to claim large regions of a 19-by-19 grid by engulfing them with coin-sized black and white stones, is a national pastime in Japan, Korea, and China, where it has been played for more than 4,000 years. While at first glance it looks like a simplified form of chess -- since all the pieces are equivalent, without the distinctions chess makes between kings, bishops, knights, and so forth -- Go actually ranks among the most intellectual of games. Even as computers have bested chess world champions, the subtle patterns of colored stones that Go players analyze have, so far, eluded computers' capabilities.
Go players try to capture their opponent's stones by surrounding them with their own; once an "army" of Go stones has been irretrievably hemmed in, those stones are knocked out of the game. Two players take turns building their bulwarks stone by stone, each trying to surround the other's pieces while defending his own. While chess resembles a battle, it's been said that Go is more like a world war, with minor skirmishes playing out all over the board at any given time.
Players even use a host of techniques to distract their opponents during the games, which typically last two to four hours. Hsiang says an opponent once spent the entire game lamenting his own poor playing, only to confess later that it had all been a ploy.
Hsiang took up Go at age 17, when a friend in Taiwan introduced him to the game.
"It was a fun game for a young mind," Hsiang says. "Go requires a great deal of organized thinking and reading. I think it was to me mostly a mental challenge."
In Go's complex hierarchy -- which Hsiang likens to the colored belts used to identify skill in karate -- he now ranks as an "amateur 6 dan," placing him in the most elite class among those who aren't professional players. Hsiang is also known internationally as an expert in a much more modern field: ultrafast superconducting electronics and optoelectronics.