Wednesday, March 23, 2022

Studying the Stones: Learning a Centuries-old Chinese Grand Strategy from the Game of Go



The two oldest games in the world are Chess (about 800 years) and Go or Weiqi (about 4000 years). Why study the oldest game in the world (other than if you want to play it)? Here are several reasons:

1. The differences in the game objective and effective tactics between the two gives us a keen insight into the differences in strategic philosophy between China and most of the Western powers;

2. As with any business or political environment, learning your competitor or opponent’s thinking gives you a leg up on winning and protects your Moat from invasion;

3. If Weiqi is the core Chinese Grand Strategy, or one of them, learning it will give us more insight that can be used in negotiations;

4. The strategy upon which Weiqi is based can be very effective in general, not just with China;

5. Learning something new that your opponent may know that you don’t makes you stronger (if you do it without prejudice).

So what is this game about and what does it have to do with Grand Strategy? The strategy of the game is based on the teachings of Sun Tzu, who is recognized globally as a master strategist whose principles are equally as important and effective as they were 2500 years ago.

Quick summary of the game: The game is played on a board with gridlines forming a space of 19 x 19, 13 x 13 or 9 x 9 (the more spaces, the more the level of difficulty). The pieces are black and white stones, all of which are exactly the same. Once the pieces are placed on the board, they do not move. The play space looks something like what is pictured above.

The objective of the game is to capture more territory than your opponent; also, when they are properly surrounded, opponent’s pieces may be captured, in which case they are removed from the board by the capturer. The game ends when either no more moves are possible or one player resigns. The player with the most territory plus captured stones is the winner.

What, then, does the game have to do with Grand Strategy?

Before we explore that, let’s look at the main difference between Chess and Go. In chess, the pieces can be moved on the board; they have defined movement patterns, and the winner is determined by who captures the opponent’s king first;

In Weiqi, all the pieces are the same and they are placed on the board and then not moved unless they are captured. The goal, as stated before, is to capture the most territory and, in order to succeed, surrounding the opponent so their movements are limited.

In chess, while there are many strategies available, the choices are limited and strategies can be named or defined based on the situation; in Go, there are literally unlimited strategies available. Each game, depending on the situation, requires a different strategy.

While both games require that one player’s strategy is better than the other, Weiqi requires a more deliberate strategy which may develop slowly and include many sub-strategies, such as diversion or distraction. In general, success at the game is generally known to be based on two things: balance and judgment. To that I would add patience; an impulsive or aggressive strategy may work in chess, but it has very little chance of success in Go.

When I taught in China in 1990, my students introduced me to the game. Needless to say, I didn’t have the patience to play it well; when I restarted playing online recently, it was clear that patience was a virtue that I still did not have enough of (although more than in 1990). The American spirit of git er done does not equip the player to win at Weiqi. There is no doubt that, in the game of Go or business or life, sometimes patience is the best strategy. So what is the strategic basis of the game of Go and how does China apply it in their Grand Strategy?

To begin, the game is based on the teachings and principles of Sun Tzu. For example, his principle of “Win All Without Fighting” encourages a diversionary or stealthful strategy that the opponent may not recognize or understand until it is too late. “Deception and Foreknowledge” encourages the player to learn as much about the player as she can and never let the opponent know what your plans are; this may dictate some moves that are specifically designed to mislead or confuse the opponent as to the real plan (if there is one- in Go, very rarely does what you thought in the beginning of the game lead to success, because your opponent is also thinking). “Shape Your Opponent” would encourage the player to induce the opponent to follow, rather than lead—and they may be following in the wrong direction. 

At times, Western strategists have used this type of maneuver in battle. The most famous one happened before D-Day in WWII, where the Allies created an elaborate ruse to convince Hitler that the landing would take place at Calais. So this type of strategy has been used in the West, but in China it forms the core. 

This type of strategic thinking not only forms the core of Chinese military and geopolitical strategy; it is embedded in the culture. In Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club Waverly says,

"we're two-faced," explaining, that means "we're looking one way, while following another. We're for one side and also the other. We mean what we say, but our intentions are different" (266). And having twice the faces can, in turn, mean twice the number of possible advantages. 

The game of Weiqi and the principles upon which it is based will create knowledge and understanding (experience if you try the game) in every facet of interaction with Chinese: Geopolitical, business, personal.

A more in-depth study of the game reveals a main Sun Tzu principle upon which it is based called Shi. 

David Lai, a faculty at the US Air War College, wrote an article in 2004 entitled, “Learning From the Stones: A Go Approach to Mastering China’s Strategic Concept, SHI” in which he demonstrates with the use of pictures of Weiqi games in progress how this concept originated and how it is played out on the board (and in reality).

Lai describes shi as ““the alignment of forces,” the “propensity of things,” or the “potential born of disposition,” that only a skilled strategist can exploit to ensure victory over a superior force. Similarly, only a sophisticated assessment by an adversary can recognize the potential exploitation of “shi.” 

He further explains that Shi, which constitutes a chapter in Sun Tzu’s famous The Art of War, consists of four key aspects:

1. The idea of qi and zheng- Zheng is the given; the known knowns that can be revealed by position, overt action, history, geography etc. Qi, on the other hand is a hopefully ingenious variation whose variety and possibilities are endless, as in the board game. (all six Sun Tzu principles—see footnote-- put together in an ingenious and irresistible way)

2. The second aspect is about unleashing an irresistible power which would not have been expected by the foe (he uses the example of a hawk striking its prey- a decisive strike). (Win all without fighting)

3. The third aspect is about creating a favorable situation with which to gain one’s objectives. (deception and foreknowledge)

4. The fourth aspect is about taking and maintaining the initiative (shape your opponent)

How does China put this into practice in its geopolitical strategy? In the Game of Go App Blog, Matthew Chalifant has written an article entitled, “Surround and Conquer: Geopolitical Strategies Influenced by Weiqi (Go)” He points out that the Western world perceives strategy as a game of chess, and that China is playing an entirely different game.

He says about the psyche and principle behind Weiqi: “Originating from China, Weiqi has infused itself into the Chinese psyche. Nearly every aspect of Chinese strategic thinking is deeply influenced by Weiqi. The principle (sic) strategy in Weiqi is to surround your opponent with overwhelming control over territory. The ancient wisdom in Weiqi, is in how to do that well. Secretly the true battle is not against the opponent, but within yourself as a participant.” 

Hearkening back to Sun Tzu, the author characterizes the patient strategy as akin to “a frog in boiling water.” By the time the frog realizes what is happening, he is boiled frog. He characterizes this strategy as Salami Slicing. “Salami slicing places an emphasis on incremental gain over time rather than total immediate gain. Take a little now and have a little more later. It is a slow boil type game as with the frog in hot water. Perform it too fast and become noticed, move too slow and the gain is hardly profitable, but take at just the right rate and your opponents will be none-the-wiser.” 

The strategy China used to grow to its current power lies in expertly and sometimes unnoticeably slicing the salami. While American Presidents like Bush, Clinton, Obama and Trump were in arrogant ignorance of what the ramifications of what was happening in China, or arrogant denial, China is at the top of the heap globally now. Not totally their fault- neither they nor anyone who worked for them was trained to recognize the strategy of our key trading partner, later competitor. President Biden, forced to recognize this, is out to prove that the US is not the boiled frog. Does he have the horses?

What can the US do about it now? The article recommends, “The single thing we can do is learn how to play Weiqi. As China grows in influence and eminence, it will become all the more necessary for the West to comprehend how China, and the East in general, processes geopolitical variables.”

This is the main theme of my book, “The Culture Factor: Understanding the Plain Truth About US-China Relations:” The US cannot win the competition for geopolitical dominance without truly understanding what’s in the heart of China’s culture and how it plays out in strategy. Weiqi is it, can be understood all rolled into a simple game. That said, there is little chance of President Biden or Mitch McConnell or Charles Schumer etc. sitting down to learn the game. 

So who will help? Those of us who have been ignored or, like my book, not PC enough to be taken seriously, but who understand the game. Again, what is the chance of that? 

In academia and in business, gamification has become a popular vehicle for learning and creating scenarios and strategies. Over and above their role in understanding China, the strategies taught by Sun Tzu are very effective on their own.

Will you start playing the game?

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