Baduk is one game among thousands. Why would somebody take it up? Why should they?
Here are three reasons:
1. Baduk brings people together
Catholics have a saying: “I will see you in the Eucharist.” This means that a person attending Mass is linked to all the faithful, past and present, when the host is consecrated. For Catholics this the “source and summit of Christian spirituality.”1 The relation of baduk to this theological statement is in its witness to the ideas of continuity and continuation. The settings and circumstances may change, but the reality being celebrated is the same. Baduk gamers achieve something similar – at least in concept – in the sense that, when they play, they partake in the shared experiences of generations and continue it in their own time.
It is difficult perhaps for Westerners, like me, to appreciate this aspect of baduk in its totality, because there is a cultural and linguistic disconnect. There is no tradition in the United States, or other Western nations, of baduk as a national pastime as there is, for instance, in Japan. Baduk was introduced to most non-Asian countries by immigrants and travelers. The nearest analogue is chess, but even so the comparison fails to approach the extent to which baduk is ingrained in the cultures that originated the game. In China there is a definite philosophical, if not spiritual, dimension to the game, such that the hierarchy of moves (on the basis of importance) accords with the five elements: metal (or gold), wood, water, fire, and earth.
This cultural disconnect is compounded by the linguistic barrier: Most westerners cannot read Asiatic languages, thus the majority of baduk’s written history, which has not been translated, is unknowable. Yet by simply playing the game we take the first steps in overcoming these limitations and participating in a wider reality. Like the accretions of sedimentary stone, we build upon the experience of ages without departing from it.
The implication, then, is that wherever baduk gamers gather, they are linked across generation, locality, and time with one another – and I think this is a key aspect of baduk’s enduring appeal. Where two or more are gathered…
On a related note, Go Seigen’s father declared that he would pass along his go skills to his then-unborn son. He succeeded and Go Seigen became one of the most famous players of the twentieth century. That transmission of experience is what every baduk gamer participates in each time they sit before the goban.
2. Baduk teaches important life skills
Cognitive research on the benefits of playing baduk is available here, here, and here. I won’t reference the science, however, because it represents only a sliver of lived experience. The collected anecdotal testimony of generations is more powerful than any brain scan. Baduk engages a person’s memory, logic, and imagination. It also provides an analogy for life. Baduk starts with perfect freedom – a literal blank slate – and it is up to the gamer to populate the goban with their actions. The player, however, is limited by two factors: their own actions and those of their opponent. The one they can control, the other they can only influence.
The only way in which a person can both control their own actions and influence those of an external entity are through self mastery. To paraphrase Sun Tzu: If you know yourself and know the enemy you need not fear one hundred battles. Baduk helps facilitate mastery by providing a proving ground for a person’s actions. In real life we only get once chance, but in baduk, like the Cylons in Battlestar Galactica, we have infinite lives. Early experience of baduk should temper our expectations of winning quickly and easily all the time, because we won’t! Just like in life where things are often mixed – both good and bad – so too in baduk one has to tolerate unclear circumstances, often because of our own limited judgement or poor decision making.
Baduk is a school of life. I can point to learning outcomes, such as critical thinking, counting, judgement, and positional analysis, but baduk (like Mr. Miyagi) teaches us these things without our knowing. Who knows when being able to read out a ladder will be useful in real life? But certainly the skill that is developed – i.e., careful reading of the situation – will prove useful in diverse situations. Rather than teaching gamers what to do, in a programmatic sense, baduk teaches higher level abilities, the fundamentals for doing well in life, if you will, such as discipline and adaptability. Thought of another way, baduk instructs people in prudence, justice, temperance, and fortitude, which are the four cardinal virtues.
3. Baduk provides creative entertainment
Baduk also provides creative entertainment. Elegant in its simplicity, the game has an infinite depth. New patterns emerge with every game, and no two games are exactly alike. The mathematics behind baduk’s probabilities are mind-boggling! This is one reason why it’s been nearly impossible for computers to master the game.
The board is the starting point. At the beginning it stands empty, a blank canvas waiting to receive its artists – the players. As the game progresses the board reflects their creative actions. It displays their art. An unknown source said it best: “The board is a mirror of the mind of the players as the moments pass. When a master studies the record of a game he can tell at what point greed overtook the pupil, when he became tired, when he fell into stupidity, and when the maid came by with tea.” This is one reason why baduk always remains fresh.
Almost all modern economies – that is to say, almost all modern societies – are premised upon consumption. Products, food, education, sex, etc. are packaged, stamped with expiration dates, sold or destroyed. Every person is raised as a consumer – treated as a product. (If you don’t think that’s true just try putting together a resume and “selling yourself.”) Often the aspects of life that make people whole – family life, for instance, or leisure time – are relegated to second place or else harnessed for consumer ends. Within this “stressed out, overly scheduled world, every adult needs to make more time to play,” contends the Art of Manliness. Baduk affords this opportunity to play, and to play well.
Baduk is a great combination: It is both fun and good for you. Attractive in its simplicity, but devilishly hard to master, baduk offers players the opportunity to join in a centuries’ old pursuit and deposit their modicum of experience for future generations. Baduk benefits mind, body, and soul – and it is a school of life.
Baduk is a vital pastime.
Why do you play baduk? Contact me and share your thoughts.
1. Catechism of the Catholic Church #1324↩