Wave in the Ocean

Projects and Perambulations

Harry Potter and the Art of Go

One of the more interesting intellectual games I have played, far more strategic than chess, is the game of Go. Unlike chess, the best computer programs are unable to beat even mediocre players. (Though they are still able to beat me handily; I have a lot of practice to do.)

While programs such as GNU Go are great for practicing tactics, the trouble with them is how difficult it is to glean strategic insights about the game. Computers never seem to explain their tactics after the fact, unlike rival players who enjoy helping each other grow stronger. I have found games played with real people to be far more rewarding — filled with the nuance of banter and the subtlety of trying to distract your opponent (computers are notoriously hard to trick). It is satisfying to be able to exploit your opponent’s stupid mistakes, as well to get away with a few mistakes of your own that a computer would have noticed immediately.

One of my personal weaknesses while playing Go is the inability to let go of past mistakes. I concoct elaborate plans and rely far too much on my opponent not noticing my (quite obvious) attempts at reclaiming half the board. While I am aware of this flaw in my strategy, it is still very difficult to let go of the temptation while playing. Therefore this particular passage from HPMOR struck a chord with me:

Again the rapid flickering of the snake’s tongue; the snakish laughter was stronger, dryer, this time. “Amateur foolisshnesss.”

“Pardon?” hissed Harry.

“You ssee misstake, think of undoing, ssetting time back to sstart. Yet not even with [magic] can time be undone. Musst move forward insstead. You think of convincing otherss they are misstaken. Far eassier to convince them they are right. Sso conssider, boy: what new happensstance would make [opponent] decide you [gave up that area of the board], ssimultaneoussly advance your other agendass?”

Eliezer Yudkowsky, Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality

One of the earliest proverbs I learned about this game is that Go is about sharing. To win you need not control the entire board, you only need more territory than your opponent. Moving forward, I must be able to sacrifice the past to move towards future victory.