Go in Russia

British Go Journal No. 40. February 1978. Page 6.

Brian Castledine lifts the Iron Curtain

Brian Castledine

It was only fours years ago that the rumour that there were 3-dans in Lenningrad was confirmed when a party of Japanese professionals visited the Soviet Union to find a sizable pocket of Go players. One of the main instigators of the Go movement in Russia was Valery Astashkin, who last year became the first Russian to play in a tournament outside his country when he took part in the first European Championship at Rijswijk.

Astashkin, a television engineer from Leningrad, first learnt of the game in 1965 and together with a few friends started to develop the game in their country from scratch. Although hampered by many difficulties such as the problem of aquiring foreign Go literature and the lack of State support, by 1972 the first Russian dan players had emerged, although activity was still concentrated in Leningrad and Moscow. In 1974 the first Japanese professional visitors awarded 3-dan diplomas to Atashkin and to his colleagues Vasilov and Nilov, and when a second Japanese party visited them in 1976, by which time the number of Go clubs in provincial centres had increased enormously, Astashkin and Vasilov were awarded 5-dan diplomas.

The appearance of Astashkin at last year's European Congress was naturally awaited with great interest, but he turned out to be a fairly normal sort of human being. He undertook the visit at this own personal expense and its cost was very substantial. He made a practice of presenting small gifts, such as laquered egg cups, to his opponents, including those who beat him. Perhaps this practice should gain wider acceptance. My favourite memroy of him is when he paddled in the sea at Schveningen wearing his grey suit with his trousers rolled up, and carrying an umbrella.

One of the strongest impressions of the Russian Go movement is their original and independent ideas on the playing and teaching of game. They are very keen on a structured program of theory and learning, in contrast to the more informal methods of the Japanese and, to a lesser extent, the Western nations. They also take their Go more seriously and care little for the more light-hearted aspects, such as the lightning Go tournaments. The top Russian tournament has time limits of 6 hours per player, with games lasting three days, two days for play and one day for commentary to 'the masses'. It is a condition of entry to this tournament that the player produces his own full and detailed analysis of each game he plays. The 3 hour time limit in the European Championship was regarded with some disdain.

While we in the West have been looking to the mysterious East for Go Truth, the Russians have worked out their own ideas, with some startling conclusions, which might be unnacceptable, for example, to a Japanese professional. These ideas give rise to a very distinctive 'Russian' style of Go playing, difficult to describe, but well ilustrated by these Russian Go proverbs: 'Never invade, except in yose.' 'Any group can be sacrificed if it is less than fifteen stones.' 'If you are winning, play sabaki, if you are losing play tesuji.' 'Play tesuji, even if it doesn't work.' (The Rusian conception of tesuji may be more restricted than ours.) When asked for the main difference between Western and Russian Go, Astashkin replied, 'Europeans like fighting too much. If they played like that in Russia they would be disqualified.' While Europeans try to kill groups, Russians are always trying to give theirs up.' The Russians also have their own method of evaluating a game to see who is ahead - a sort of tewari analysis - and also their own Go rules, to add to the Japanese, Chinese, Korean... I wouldn't recommend their ideas to someone who doesn't understand the 'Russian style' - I tried them for a while with very limited success.

What of the future? The Russians need 10,000 members before they can form an official Go Association and be entitled to generous state support and all that that implies; more representatives in foreign tournaments, widespread teaching of Go in schools, full-time paid organisers and other benefits. They now have half that number. Astashkin believes that, pursuing their own independent course, it will take ten years from the formation of their organisation until they have homegrown players of professional standard.

Whether this happens remains to be seen, but I have no doubt that, given the drive and enthusiasm of Valery Astashkin and his colleagues, and the attitude to sport in the Soveit Union, the day when Russians dominate the European Go scene is not very far off.

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This article is from the British Go Journal Issue 40
which is one of a series of back issues now available on the web.





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