Bridge Across The Sky: The Games of Go

The Games of Go

Go is a board game played at a very high level in China, Japan, and Korea. It’s basically the chess of Asia, though in my opinion, it’s a deeper and more beautiful game.

In the course of the novel, my protagonist Tai Go plays two games of Go with his grandfather and then hears his grandfather’s analysis of the second game. These three scenes occur at key points in the story, and the third scene, in which his grandfather explains a major principle of Go, plays a critical role in waking Tai Go to the action he needs to take to enter fully into his own future in America.

Here are all three of those scenes:

1. Game #1

This game occurs early in the novel.

Tai Go has joined a group of activists who want to take more vigorous action, maybe even violent action, against the mistreatment they’re receiving from their jailors. Tai Go’s father has been warning him not to get too involved with the group. At the end of this game, his grandfather tries to do the same in his own way.

As you’ll see, Tai Go fails (fortunately, it will turn out) to pick up on the message.

the whole board


Grandfather sits
at the Go board, across
from an empty seat.
Sow Fong has just begun
his daily lesson
with Yen Yi, and I
am on my way
to the far left corner
of the rec yard.

Come play!

He taught me
the game. I’ve always
enjoyed it. It’s the thing
we do together.

I sit.

Six stones?

I nod.

I place six black stones
on the board, the advantage
I’m given to offset
his greater skill.
He makes his first move,
approaching my near left corner
with a white stone
of his own.

The game

I was on my way
to the far left corner
of the rec yard and then
to do more surveillance
of the guards and possibly have
a recruitment chat or two,
but I find myself relaxing
into the game, this reminder
of my former life
that was free of care and full
of humble hopes.

For the rest
of the afternoon, the battle rages
from one sector of the board
to the next as I strain
to hold back Grandfather’s
relentless whittling
of my six-stone start.
Then we reach a position
where no more useful plays
are possible, and we count
the points.

I lose by five.

Good game,
he tells me. You still
need to work
on your vision.
You answer every threat
too automatically,
which lets me drive the action
where I will.

He lays a hand
on mine, pulling my eyes
from the stones
on the board.

You must learn
to see the whole board,
to not get so caught up
in local fighting that you miss
the bigger moves
that might be played.

It’s what
he always tells me,
and I suppose
it’s true. But I’m sure,
as always,
that I’ll get him
next time.

2. Game #2

The second game they play occurs at a high point in Tai Go’s time in detention. The activist group has succeeded in a massive action that improved their living conditions, and he’s making progress with a girl he has a crush on.

Then he runs into this wall of (Go) stones.

my dragon

Ten minutes later, still drunk
from the wine
of Yukiko’s letter (spiked
with Yen Yi’s rhetoric
of force and aggression),
I’m playing another game of Go
with Grandfather, this time
on even terms, refusing
my usual six stones
of help. Sick
of always defending
against his incursions and lured
by the strange blank slate
of an empty opening board,
I attack his stones
with abandon, refusing to cede
a single point of ground until—
I don’t get even now
how it happened—his groups
are suddenly all quite safe, and I
am the one on the run.

My enormous dragon
of a group—half my stones
on the board afloat
without a base—writhes
and twines but is cut off
again and again
from any escape, devours stones
of Grandfather’s only to find
the life it thought to gain
to be false, flies headlong
into a wall that might
as well have been
a literal
wall of stone.

It’s the most titanic battle
we’ve had—and then
I’m staring (and
trembling? Am
I trembling?) at the truth
of the board: my dragon
is dead.

I get up in disgust, though this
is the result I should have
more than expected
without my usual
six-stone advantage.

I begin
to walk away.

Come back!

Grandfather bangs a stone
repeatedly on the board
like an impatient rich man
ringing for a servant.

We have to talk
about this game!

But there are letters
to be written, too many other talks
to be had. I am reminded,
though, of the courtesies.

Good game, I call back
over my shoulder as I
go out the door.

3. Grandfather’s analysis

This final Go scene takes place at a desperate moment for Tai Go. A plan he set in motion to secure his future backfired, and his first attempt to fix things proved to be ill-considered. He’s at a loss for what to do next when his grandfather finally corrals him into hearing his analysis of their previous game.

That analysis proves to be the catalyst that helps him figure out how to deal with his problems and find his way to the conclusion of the novel.

the shapes

I thought
I knew what I had
to do. I still
need to do
something but know
I can no longer do
what I planned.

How many more
of my certainties
will crumble? What’s left
of what had to
be done?

I dream of action,
but it’s always set
in some world not
my own.

I wander
into the game room.
is sitting at the Go board,
alone, hunched
over a pattern
of stones.

Another game?

I shake my head
but smile. There’s comfort
in the small world
of his passions.

I laugh, you wiped me out
last time!

He smiles, rises,
gestures for me
to sit. Calls me
by my real name.

He’s smiling
still, so I can only guess
he forgot the proper
security precautions, but I find
I can’t ignore the invocation
of my true
and hidden self.

I sit.

He clears the board but moves
both bowls of stones
to his side
of the table and proceeds
to play the moves
for both sides in silence
broken only
by the click, click, click
of stones snapped down
onto the board without
a moment’s pause.

It takes me a while to see
he’s replaying
our last game.

He pauses
at the point he tried
to surround a group of mine
on the side of the board
and instead of defending it,
I turned around
to attack
his attackers.

Here, he says,
is where my heart
began to sing.

No kidding,
I think, but he goes on
to say, In every game
we played before, here
is where you would cower,
when you would retreat to safety
and let me surround you.
But why? Your group
is stronger than mine.
You have more stones
in the area. You should—
and finally did!—

Except, I want to retort,
that my attack
got smashed, and I think
not just of our game
but of my attack on Boocher
and how it, too, ended
in disaster. But Grandfather
continues playing moves
and talking.

was your first mistake.
My group is strong now, but you
continued to attack.
And this group of mine
was already connected
to its fellows and therefore
unassailable. Meanwhile,
your own attackers
were never connected, never
had a base. You see it
here? And here?

I do. Or do
begin to. We’ve never
done this, analyzed
a game we played. Unburdened
by the imperatives of battle,
I begin to see the board
as a whole.

You must attack
wherever your opponents
are weak. If you don’t,
you grant them
unearned profit. That
was the lesson
you learned and why
our last game
was the best
you’ve ever played.

The next lesson
is this: you must attack
from strength.

As if
the board were shaken
and all the stones
resettled into their exact
previous positions
but somehow different, I see,
for the first time, the shapes
of my stones.

— From Bridge Across The Sky, Atheneum Books for Young Readers (Simon & Schuster).

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