Why I do what I do

Paul BarchilonI first learned Go when I was 16, that was 28 years ago for anyone who is counting. The guy who taught me was just a few years older, but he had his own apartment. It was about the size of a closet, but I thought it was the coolest thing in the world. He had Japanese prints up on the walls, and he asked if I wanted to learn how to play a really interesting game from Japan. He showed me the rules and I was immediately fascinated. I still remember being astonished at how every stone I played was basically just one more for him to capture. I knew I was smart, and I was good at chess, how was it that this guy could just demolish me so easily? I rapidly figured out that it was the game itself that held such complexity.

We began playing often, and frequently late into the night. I remember my parents were apprehensive about him coming over. They were sure we must be doing something illicit so late at night. Once my dad burst into the room un-announced, sure he was going to bust us, but no, we were just quietly playing Go.
It took me about six months to beat my first teacher in an even game. Shortly thereafter, he moved away and I lost my only real opponent. He was nice enough to give me his go board though, he was going to the west coast and said he could get a new one there. I tried teaching a bunch of my friends, but most of them didn’t get into it.

I heard there was a Go club at the University, so I tried going there once. I was nervous and insecure; here I was, a high school kid on the University campus. You would think the people there would have been excited to see a kid interested in playing go, but it was almost the opposite. They all stared at me gruffly, as if I was an unwelcome intruder. I think one of them condescended to play me, and proceeded to kill every stone on the board. Nobody offered me any support or help, or even invited me back to play again. I was so intimidated that I never returned. As a result, Go drifted completely out of my life for the next 17 years. I often feel that if someone had just been nice to me on that night, I would be 5 dan by now. Instead, my brain calcified and I lost the opportunity to learn while I was young. This experience was one of the things that has made me so devoted to youth Go. On my watch, no young player will ever be turned away like that!

Then in 2000 I met an elderly woman who knew how to play. She had had a stroke and was looking to recharge her mental capacities. Neither of us had played in years, but we started playing with each other and it was really fun. We were both lousy players, but we built up our courage playing each other. One day she said she thought we were ready to try going to the Go club at the University. Imagine my surprise, this was the exact same club I had gone to as a teenager. It was still there! We went and people were a little more welcoming this time around. ย When I started playing again it was like I had been holding my breath for 17 years, and suddenly I could breathe again. It felt so good to play! I felt I had reconnected with an essential intellectual activity, one as important as say, learning how to read. How had I lived without it all these years?

After I got back into Go, two things happened that made me start teaching children. The first was that my friend and teacher, Bob Mendenhall, got cancer and died. He was 53, and he left behind two kids aged 7 and 9, as well as his wife. He had been running a study group for us weak players for a couple of years, and it had made a huge difference in the club. He was a great guy, and I still totally miss him. You can read the obituary I wrote for him here if you are interested: http://www.usgo.org/CD2003/E-Journal/AGeJournal%2006.23.03.txt

I originally started my youth club in part to get his children interested in playing Go, and as a way for them to connect to him indirectly. Ironically, they never got into it and don’t come to my club. The other major factor was the release of Hikaru no Go in Shonen Jump. I had read the whole series in fansubs, and I knew that it had the potential to really bring Go to the masses. If there was ever a time to start a kid’s Go club, this was it! ย My friend Dave Weiss, agreed to help me run the club, and our library let us hold it in the children’s department. It took a lot of work, but we have built a very successful club together and we love seeing so many happy kids playing Go every week!

Nowadays I am the Vice President of the AGF, the Youth Coordinator for the AGA, and the webmaster of Tiger’s Mouth


3 Responses to “Why I do what I do”

  1. Tyler says:

    Wow, Paul, I never realized just *how* similar our early experiences with playing Go were! I too was gruffly shut-out of the first University club I attended when I was 16 (having finally attained my drivers’ license and being able to visit civilization when I could borrow the family car). I also responded almost identically to the event, and abandoned Go, and my dreams of studying it in Japan, for 15 years. ๐Ÿ™ We also have similar motivations in starting Youth clubs. It’s no wonder that we’re such good friends, since we coincidentally collaborated through the AGF! ๐Ÿ˜€ Pax, brother!

  2. Paul says:

    Hahaha, yeah I remember you telling me about your early experiences a few years back. I think I mentioned my story, but probably not in as much detail. I have heard similar stories from other organizers too, unfortunately much more common than one would hope.

    Too bad we didn’t meet all those years ago, and thank goodness the internet is now here to help Go players all over connect with each other!

  3. Mats says:

    Me too, though I was 19 I think and the players weren’t really hostile, only they didn’t care too much to explain things and the man I played played a “real” game at the same time as he crushed me on a 9×9 board.
    I got the idea, false or true, that they were all old friends and weren’t too interested in new players.
    Strange though that the club had the same number of members, or maybe even more back then than now when we are a bunch of really helpful and nice ๐Ÿ˜‰ players.
    I guess the Internet is both a blessing and a curse in this respect, many local players never comes to the club but just play on KGS instead.

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