Of Go and God

I want to share this story about something that happened over Thanksgiving weekend three weeks ago, that, although embarrassing, left an indelible impression on me. What I experienced paralleled the Christian journey so neatly that I felt that it would be remiss of me not to testify to the lesson therein. H, if you’re reading this, please be kind to me. ^^;;

Beginnings

Go is one of the oldest and most beautiful games ever invented. It is a played on a board comprising a 19×19 grid, with two opponents vying for control over “territory” by placing stones on the intersections. Its elegance derives from both the simplicity of its ruleset and the immensity of the game space (the number of possible go games), lending itself well to the adage, “It takes a few moments to learn, but a lifetime to master.”

My interest in this game during the last several years grew, of all things, from the Japanese anime Hikaru no Go, and my early go education consisted primarily of watching YouTube lectures. While I focused on a few online teachers (mainly Nick Sibicky) whose styles of teaching I found interesting and understandable, occasionally I would explore the go video space and check out content from other YouTubers.

Somehow, I found my way to a channel wherein a high-level go player commentated live as she played against other high-level players on an online go server. Different from other channels, her videos were short and her explanations were simple. It also helped that 1) she was a strong female player, 2) she had a cute way of speaking, and 3) she had a cute lamb avatar.

She also kept winning. (She ranked up with a perfect game record until game 36.) Curiously, she wanted to remain anonymous, but her identity was eventually revealed by a commenter on one of those videos: She turned out to be the Korean professional go player Hajin Lee, or as her former colleagues called her, “Master Lee.”1

Because the level of gameplay was so high in her later videos, I had trouble following and eventually stopped watching them. However, as I continued to watch other go channels, her name popped up every now and then, and after the Lee Sedol matches against AlphaGo, I finally learned of her prominent place in the go community. At that time, her autobiographical work Outside the Board: Diary of a Professional Go Player had just been published, so I grabbed myself a copy. I read a few pages, but having to deal with other more urgent things in life, I did not return to it for over a year.

Encounters

Two months ago, an item on my Facebook feed caught my eye. Haylee (Hajin’s YouTube name) was back to making videos again, and the title of her latest one gave me a jolt: it began with “Mountain View.”

Now, I live in a town called Mountain View that has a population in the five digits. But whether this was that Mountain View I did not know. I debated for a while on whether to message her and ask, but why would a celebrity respond to a random stranger on the Internet?

Still, my desire to message her was overwhelming: this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to connect (potentially in person) with a great go player whom I had followed for some time, and who happened—possibly—to be moving to my town. We might even end up being neighbors! Those words that I had heard all too often in high school bubbled to the surface of my mind: Carpe diem. If there was any opportunity for which to seize the day, this was it.2

So I sent her a message, asking about which Mountain View it was and whether she was offering go lessons. I didn’t dare hope for an answer, so when I received her response the next day, I was excited. She said she wasn’t giving lessons but she would be open to meeting up sometime.

A lot of thing went through my head, but the short of it is that a week later, I asked her to brunch, and she agreed to it. One of the world’s top go players just agreed to have brunch with a stranger whose level of go was lightyears below hers. It felt unreal. I was like a Warriors fan receiving a reply from Stephen Curry, or like a political science student receiving a personalized letter from the former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. (Haylee was the Secretary-General of the International Go Federation from 2014 to 2016, after all.)

To prepare, I opened her book once again and read with renewed interest. I learned about what she liked, how she grew up, whom she met, how she trained, what she thought, where she traveled, how she felt—all in a one-way conversation. By the day of our brunch, I felt like I was catching up with an old friend.

Brunch was pleasant. She, her husband Dan, and I shared about our backgrounds and our startups and the nature of our work—typical first conversation topics in Silicon Valley. I even got two of her books signed: my own copy and a new copy I had bought just a few days prior for my friend Daniel (not to be confused with Hajin’s husband), who also shares an interest in go and to whom I had been harping about Haylee for the longest time. (He had no idea I was surreptitiously meeting with Haylee, or the other machinations I had in my head.)

As brunch was ending, I invited Hajin and Dan to my birthday celebration that was happening the next week. (I thought Daniel would definitely get a kick out of seeing her in person.) To my surprise, they were open to it, and so I looked forward to the dinner all week.

I never considered myself a fanboy, but this whole experience of meeting a celebrity was new to me, and as we were waiting for a table at my Korean restaurant of choice, I found myself introducing her to every one of my guests that walked in. I felt like I had found a treasure and wanted to show her off to all my friends.

Turns

Shortly after by birthday dinner, a week before Thanksgiving, I invited Hajin and her husband to my place. I usually host a turkey dinner, and I wanted to show off my above-average cooking. Though she and Dan had plans already for Thanksgiving Day, Hajin was able to make it the day after to hang out and play some games. Like before, I was excited and eagerly waited for Friday to arrive.

A couple of other friends showed up on Friday, and we decided to play some go. Up to that point, I had not any idea what it’s like to play Hajin in a game of go. I had watched many of her videos, so I had heard her commentate. But it’s one thing to watch someone play and nod as they explain their moves. It is totally another thing to play the game with her, a professional player no less, and my “hero” to boot.

I wanted to impress her. In my fantasy world, I wanted to impress my hero with how far I’ve come. Maybe I had some latent talent that only a professional could spot (spoiler alert: I have no such talent). She offered me six handicap stones, to which Daniel added one more. I was definitely going to need them.

I chose to play cautiously to maximize my chance of winning, but not having that many games under my belt, I had trouble deciding how to respond to Hajin’s unusual moves. Nevertheless, by the middle game, I had a big territory on one side of the board, and she had a decently sized territory on the opposite side. I had a couple of corners thanks to the handicap stones, and towards the late middle game, she considered resigning.

And then it was lunchtime.

We interrupted our game and joined with Daniel and Ed to eat (Thanksgiving leftovers), drink (Martinelli’s apple cider), and be merry (with conversation). When we returned to the board after lunch, Hajin decided to finish the game.

It all happened so fast. By the beginning of the endgame, I had made quite a few bad moves, but none were decisively bad; I still had a chance of winning.

But then came move 182. Not noticing one of my groups was in grave danger the move before, I played away from where I should have played. Hajin, seizing the opportunity, wasted no time in laying down the punishment with move 183, after which I had no choice but to resign.3

The moment she placed her stone, I had a sinking feeling, and all my giddiness vaporized in an instant. It wasn’t so much that I had lost as it was the fact that I had just made a game-changing (not in a good way), stupid, preventable oversight. It was a flip-the-table kind of moment. In a game where there are no take-backs, I had committed a mortal mistake that negated all my previous efforts. With one error came death, and I couldn’t help but think of the fall of man when Adam and Eve ate of the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in the garden in Eden.4

Here is Haylee calling out my inadequacy, when I felt complacent and even a bit prideful. Here she was confronting me with my weakness, keeping me honest, telling me through her impeccable play, “You’re not as good as you think you are.” When God walked in the cool of the day in the garden looking for Adam, He knew what Adam and Eve had done; nothing was hidden from Him. At a subconscious level, I somehow thought I could mask my weakness from a (former) professional player. But Hajin knew how bad I was. I needed to know how bad I was.

For curiosity’s sake and for a more interesting ending, she allowed me to take back my blunder, and we continued to play. After move 209, we counted the score, and she won 72-71, a result that surprised her (she thought she was losing the whole time). Haylee graciously reviewed the game with me, pointing out where I could have played better (blunder aside), and for that I was very grateful. She also offered to reduce my handicap stones by one next time. I suppose one could interpret that as a compliment.

But there was no peace in my heart. I knew the truth, and 72-71 was not the truth. It was not the actual game, and I couldn’t pretend that the blunder did not happen. Whichever way I looked at it, something was wrong about that game: either I lost after move 183 by resignation due to a really stupid move that misrepresented my real ability, or I had to treat the blunder as if it didn’t happen and misrepresent reality. The problem couldn’t go away; I was powerless to change the past. In a strange way, it felt like debt; it needed reconciling.

For the rest of the day and the next, I kept dwelling on move 182—that preventable error, the transgression that brought death, if you will, and it weighed on me heavily. I temporarily lost my joy for the game. I thought to myself, “What was the point of all my studying, if I still made a mistake like that? Is it even worth continuing to learn? Why have I not made any progress?” I had sought praise, but instead I felt shame, and in my failure, my face (heart) became downcast like Cain’s.

Lessons

To the world, to society, it is silly to feel this way about a game. It was, after all, only a game of go.5

But to me, that game was special.

I wanted to remember and forget it at the same time. I wanted to remember because it was a historic moment in my life, my first game with a professional player, someone whom I admired, whom I felt a personal tie to, even.

I wanted to forget because I was embarrassed about what had transpired. (As I’m writing this, I’m wondering how Adam or any of the biblical figures, if they were alive today, must feel to have their sins inscribed in the Word of God, displayed for all posterity to see.)

That night, I tried to replay the game from memory, but didn’t get very far. I reached out to Hajin to help me remember, and out of her kindness, she offered to send me the full game record later (go pros have an incredible memory; they can remember the entire game after just playing it, and typical games last a few hundred moves).

At first, I told her not to worry about it and that I should move on, but a few minutes later, I thought better of it. I knew I would regret it if I lost this chance to have this precious memory recorded, regardless of how I played. So I confessed my change of mind, and the next morning, I found the SGF file sitting in my inbox.

At first, I was afraid to open it. I was afraid of seeing move 182 (the “takeback” move) inscribed in the permanent game record, forever reminding me of my shame. I did not want to confront the move that I thought made me lesser in her eyes. So I dawdled a while. When I finally opened it, I immediately scrolled to the end to read the ending of the “story.” And it was not there. The original move 182 was not there. Instead, the record showed the entire game until counting.

Now which game Hajin considered to be the “real” game, I did not know. Perhaps she intended it to be an act of mercy, or maybe she just wanted to record the more interesting ending. But at that moment, I had a clear view of the Christian life and the Kingdom of God:

It is the story of the unworthy follower who learns about the Master through reading the Author’s book; who eventually has a personal encounter with the One far above his level; who nevertheless tries to impress someone who cannot conceivably be impressed; through trial and failure does he learn of his mistake and sees himself for what he truly is, and upon confession, he is met with grace upon grace. Rather than shunning him, the Master calls him “friend.”

It is the story in which the follower’s most grievous of errors are forgiven and erased from the permanent Record by none other than the Master Himself6, whose ultimate verdict isn’t, “I don’t want to have anything to do with you,” but rather, “Let’s play again.”


Beginnings

My motivation for inviting Hajin to my birthday and to my home was because I wanted to be her friend. I wanted to make a good impression and I wanted her to like me as a person. Deep inside, I sought validation from someone I viewed as greater. I believed that if a person of her stature would call me friend, then perhaps I would be someone by association. To be honest, when I failed to impress with my 9-kyu go skills, doubts came to mind, ever so briefly, about whether she’d want to spend any more time with me.

But I realized that our friendship was never about that, despite my subconscious bent to make everything about performance; it is about who we are—people who love the game of go. And as such, I hope that our friendship is only at the beginning, and that it may continue to deepen and grow as we learn more about each other.

This is a familiar pattern among Christians in relation to God. We want to be known, be valued, and ultimately be loved. That is natural because God is our Father in heaven. But our natural selves also try to earn the Father’s favor through works, even if subconsciously. We try to present our sincerity, our prayers, our fasting, our giving, or even our abstaining from “major” sins. When we do “well,” we feel full of ourselves. When we fall flat, we become insecure and we wonder whether God still cares about us.

But as with true friendship, God’s relationship with us was never and will never be based on how we perform, and that is good news, because there is nothing we can do to impress Him. Indeed, we have all failed at one point or another. The gospel tells us this: that while we were still enemies, God loved us and gave His Son for us. In His mercy, He sent Jesus as a propitiation for our sins, so that our sins may be wiped away and not considered in the final accounting. So the answer to the question, “Does He still want to have anything to do with me?” is a resounding, unequivocal, perpetual, “I have called you friends” (John 15:15). Our present knowledge and relationship with God is just a foretaste of the best that is yet to come.


1 Apparently, the workers at the Korean Baduk Association (KBA) called her Master Lee when she was working there. Koreans treat their professional go players with deference, as go is like a national sport; the entire country is familiar with the game, and the general population knows how to play it.

2 I also recalled a lesson I had learned just a few weeks prior, probably through a business article, about how to distinguish oneself from the competition. There was a story of a man who got the attention and favor of a celebrity by offering his knowledge of the local region to him. I thought that perhaps Haylee wasn’t familiar with the local region, and I could offer my guidance (if she indeed was moving to Mountain View).

3 Incidentally, in her favorite game with her hero, she won with move 181, after which her opponent resigned.

4 “Life” and “death” are specific go terms, but they fit here quite appropriately.

5 As I was watching the Korean drama Misaeng (미생) that night, the ending of one of the episodes struck me (Episode 10 for the curious). In it, the protagonist of the drama aptly captured how I felt in a poignant narration:

(그래) 왜 이렇게 처절하게 치열하게 바둑을 두십니까? 바둑일 뿐인데 —그래도 바둑이니까. 내 바둑이니까. (Why do you so desperately and fiercely play the game of go? After all, it’s just go. —Because it’s still the game of go. Because it’s my game of go.)

And while go isn’t my life as it is for the narrator, the game of go can be viewed as a microcosm of life. It is like a mirror, reflecting the players’ emotions, personalities, intentions, distractions, discipline, and understanding. It is like a conversation, a series of asks and answers, assertions and denials, settling and fighting. Viewed in this way, it is easy to pour one’s heart into the game, and get caught up in the emotions because it is so personal.

6 Even with the modified game record, Hajin will probably remember my blunder for a long time to come. She is powerless to bend space-time to undo history. But God promises thus, “I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more” (Jeremiah 31:34). The One who is sovereign over every atom and every femtosecond will not only choose to forget, but has the power to do so, because the debt incurred by our sin has been paid by the sacrifice of Jesus.