Go Symbol The Cambridge Go Society Go Symbol

Charles Matthews: Go Years 1972-1996

I taught myself Go with one of the "Ariel" sets, age 13, and learned something from a book, which must have been Arthur Smith's "The Game of Go"; but failed to find anyone to play with at school. On arriving as a Cambridge undergraduate in 1972 I joined the club - only to give up shortly as a sub-20 kyu player after some rough handling by someone who should have known better. I did have time to borrow one of the club's sets. It was repossessed over a year later by an annoyed Brian Castledine. The point comes up now and again whether we should lend out equipment, and I don't know whether this story is in its favour or not, given that I was playing again with Clare (now my wife).

Brian was then the one and only shodan in Cambridge. I derived much of my theory of what makes for a dan player from the way he was uniformly modest, approachable and helpful at meetings (at that time in I6 Corpus). John Macleod and Paul Fage were the high kyu players. I was making my way up painfully from about 12 kyu, pursued by Clare about two grades behind, and in a rivalry with Peter Smith (now back in Waterbeach), who was a little ahead of me.

In 1975-6 Paul Fage was President; many a time I made my way back home to Beche Road where I lived from a Thursday meeting in his room at Sidney at 1 am or so, to be stopped by police on Newmarket Road (this was in my shoulder-length hair period). Paul went on to do a Physics D. Phil. in Oxford, and has had an interesting life subsequently - which I am not the person to relate.

I was President in 1976-7 and 1977-8, ably assisted by fellow-officers Mark Hardiman and Ian Morrison (both undergraduates at Queens' - I was a research student in DPMMS). The most memorable event was the time I was assaulted on the Backs while we were carrying equipment back from Clare Buttery; this led to a court appearance, and it was Ian who was asked "And what is Go?", the jury presumably needing assurance that the resemblance to Judo or Karate was minimal. Mark I last heard of with General Motors in Egypt.

The club at the time had the usual 40 or so members. Katsumi Matsumoto was one outstanding figure. He was in Cambridge to study Mycenean Greek, and hailed from Kanazawa. When I visited Japan in 1989 I tracked him down in Tsukuba, a "science city" north of Tokyo; I was still unable to beat him at Go, but drank sake and ate fugu (blowfish) at his home. He won Trigantius two years running, which makes him very good value strengthwise for a Japanese 4 dan. Two of his comments which stay with me - on Paul Prescott playing at Trigantius: "he has a Japanese style" (Paul was trying to sacrifice pieces rather than kill them); on the Japanese term nurui (lukewarm) "Very bad!" (better to make a mistake than to play half-baked, tepid stuff). And his short answer when I suggested that it was harder to get from 3 dan to 4 dan, than from 2 dan to 3 dan: "No!".

Other characters of the period were Laurie Marks, a chess player who made it to 1 kyu rapidly (and who now seems to be a solid-state academic in North Western University); and Geoff Walker (motto in those days - "I take being a dilettante very seriously") who is still a member. Dave Erbach, now in Canada and who turned up briefly this year, shared an office with me, and gave Trigantius its name when he organised it in 1977. The colourful Ross Anderson came along in those days; he is now back in Cambridge making a bid for respectability with a job in the Computer Lab, a wife Shireen, dogs and so on.

This was the hopeful era of the London Go Centre, and I spent a fortnight in Summer 1975 playing 48 games there and moving up one grade. That included the occasion on which I played Manfred Wimmer (who died recently - he was the first westerner to play as a professional in Japan); our six-stone game was unfinished because a cloudburst over north London broke the flat roof above us, coming down on our game and Stuart Dowsey's stock. I waded some of the way home through 18 inches of flood water.

I went to Paris for a year in 1978 and David Goto took over as President (last heard of writing software in Amsterdam). He was then a research student of the late Frank Adams, a stalwart of the club eventually reaching 2 kyu, one of the world's leading topologists and our Senior Treasurer for many years. While in France I learnt the sad news of Brian Castledine's accidental death; and encountered the formidable Lim Yoo-Jong, who gave me a hard time over my new BGA grade (3 dan), and compared my way with Go to Idi Amin's with politics. (His remark, that "the moves of strong players are soft", has haunted me ever since.) Both these events told on my interest in playing Go competitively, and the Candidates' in 1980 was the last event I entered for many years.

I believe the next President was George Barwood. I had first met him at a meeting where thedan-player's dream was enacted - someone walks into the club and announces "I don't see how anyone can give me nine stones". It was about fifty moves into the game before I was happy that I could.

It must have been the academic year 1980-81 when John Rickard started coming along, with Richard Borcherds* (Richard, doing Part III Maths, had no work to do because he didn't go to lectures - he is returning to Cambridge this autumn as a Royal Society Professor, but don't try this at home). They both made it to the top of the kyu grades in the year. John of course went on from there: to 4 dan, to challenge for the British Championship in 1990, for one thing, and to be the strongest local player over many years.

I spent another year away from Cambridge in 1981-2 (in the Other Cambridge in Massachusetts, where I has some interesting games against a Boston 4 dan, and briefly encountered the notorious Bruce Wilcox). On my return I found it hard to play Go in the evening and lecture the next morning, and began playing less. One of those years, when we were meeting in St.Catherine's, Piers Shepperson was in town to do Part III Maths. President for 1983-4 was Paul Maitland, who had played in Japan and consequently had a better style than most - he was nidan, and went off to a London software house.

I was involved with David Johnson-Davies in setting up the Acornsoft Computer Go competition in 1984 (the first ever) which can be read about in Go World and the BGJ. After that I did very little with Go for some years. I do recall dropping in on President Alison Franklin (before she was A. Jones); Andrew Jones remembers playing me more clearly than I him. Jeremy Roussak was a medic 1 kyu who struck me as endowed (on the board - naturally elsewhere too) with a measure of commonsense rarely found in the usual mathmos. Paul Smith was actually one of my pupils in my first year as a Fellow at Queens', but was not playing much then. I bring to mind just one three-stone game we played in the Armitage Room. I was hauled out of retirement for what might have been the last-but-one Varsity match (1987?), getting demolished by Edmund Shaw (nominally 2 dan).

My return to playing Go can be blamed almost entirely on Alex Selby. We played a long series of tea-time games, mostly on four stones, after he had challenged me (must have been in 1991). I rediscovered the dislike of losing I had once had, probably too abundantly for my further Go education. I am not prepared to claim any credit for how Alex plays now; that seems to have come much more from the time he spent in Texas, where the style is more that of Chinese amateurs (not very reasonable or technical, but at least committed and purposefully aggressive, especially in the central fighting). With my family growing up, I started participating in tournaments again in 1993, and the British Championship in 1994.

The Cambridge club has had its ups and downs. Players come, go, and return to what is a lasting passion. We have a tradition which does not rest just on one pair of shoulders; but it seems that, as with everything else in Go in this country, the individual makes a difference. Long may that be the case.

(Unpublished, written 1996. Corrections and additions welcome.)

Addition: Richard Borcherds won the fields medal in 1998 and mentioned in an interview with the Scientific American that the reason he didn't go to lectures was because he concentrated on his go instead.