LA GRANDE — On Sunday afternoons, a group meets at Brother Bear Cafe in downtown La Grande to play one of the world’s oldest board games — go.
Throughout the afternoon, the local players trickle into the small cafe on Adams Avenue to play each other. Ty Bowen, the de facto leader of the club, is normally the first one at the cafe.
He started playing go in college. At the time, he would play matches against his roommate, Forest Farris, with a board Farris had purchased online.
“He comes into my room one day and he had found some Buzzfeed-esque list of ‘the 10 philosophical arts that all wise men should know’ — something stupid like that — and one of them was the game of go,” said Bowen “So he buys it, we look up the rules and just start playing.”
At the start, the pair knew little about the game and simply enjoyed passing the time between classes and playing through the evening.
“We played, probably, 200 to 300 games never studying any theory,” said Bowen “He beat me probably 80% of the time, but we were both really bad.”
Bowen later would end up meeting Zaquarie Mendenhall, a college student who also was interested in go, and who had been playing it for nearly seven years. But it wasn’t until the two met that Mendenhall played his first live, over-the-board game. Until then, Mendenhall only had played online matches versus strangers.
Unknown to Bowen then, Mendenhall fought for a perfect draw in their match — an outcome common with chess that is exceptionally difficult to achieve in go.
After the match, Bowen’s interest in go grew, and he began studying and playing regularly with Mendenhall. Once he had grown in strength he began beating Farris, who in turn became more enthralled with the game and started studying as well.
By chance, the group met members of the Walla Walla Go Club during an event at Art Center East in La Grande. The players had come to town to promote and garner an interest in the game. At the behest of Steve Tanner, an associate professor of mathematics at Eastern Oregon University, they decided to found the La Grande Go Club.
As a history major, Bowen holds a keen interest in famous games that were played throughout antiquity — particularly, a story about a young go player named Honinbo Shusaku who had played a famous move against Japan’s strongest player, Inoue Gennan Inseki, at the annual castle games during the Edo period.
During the game, a doctor in attendance noticed Inseki’s ears became red after Shusaku placed his stone, a sign Inseki was flustered. Shusaku, who was only 17, would end up winning the match by two points. The “ear-reddening game” and Shusaku’s “ear-reddening move” entered into go history.
Another favorite story of Bowen’s is the match between Honinbo Jowa and Akaboshi Intetsu, when the latter vomited blood onto the go board in the middle of the match.
The group meets at the cafe every Sunday, boards in hand with two small pots containing 180 white stones and 181 black stones — the maximum number of points on the board, though nearly all games end long before the stones cover the board.
Much like chess, go is full of tactics. But while chess follows a hierarchical structure where pieces hold varying degrees of value, go is imperialistic. The goal isn’t to capture pieces but the collection of territory — points along the board that your stones surround and control.
Players place stones on a board with a grid in an attempt to gain territory and subsequently score more points than their opponent. Players cannot move stones once they place them. As the game progresses, complex shapes and tactics emerge and players fight to hold on to territory and to deny space to their opponent. Corners, in general, are easier to defend and hold, but a well-played invasion can be devastating.
There are thousands of these opening variations, called joseki, and stacks of books outlining their strengths and weaknesses.
Tanner is the club’s strongest player and Mendenhall is the second strongest. The two are close in rankings, so battles between them can be fierce but elegant.
“Watching the enjoyment they get out of playing each other,” Bowen said, “really spurred me on.”
Achieving a dan ranking — equivalent to earning a master title in chess — makes the list of the go group members’ life goals. But for now, they are content with sandwiches, coffee and ruthlessly attacking one another over the go board.