Narrative, Games, and Go: An Interview with Professor Marco Caracciolo

Marco Caracciolo is Associate Professor of English and Literary Theory at Ghent University in Belgium. His work explores the phenomenology of narrative, or the structure of the experiences afforded by literary fiction and other narrative media. He is the author of five books, including most recently Narrating the Mesh: Form and Story in the Anthropocene (University of Virginia Press, 2021).

I had the honor of befriending Marco several years ago in Belgium. As I started to explore the relationship between Go, language, and narrative, I realized that his ideas would be an invaluable contribution to this journal. I have fond memories of getting decimated by Marco in games of chess, while I returned the favor by introducing him to Go over coffee. Not only is Marco incredibly thoughtful about literature, he is also an avid gamer: an ideal combination for a conversation about the relationship between Go and narrative. I hope you enjoy learning from him as much as I have over the years.

River: How would you describe narratology to a Go player?

Marco: Narratology is the study of narrative form. It emerged in France in the 1960s as a branch of literary studies, but it has since then expanded to other media: cinema, TV, theater, and video games. Narrative forms are patterns that recur across many instances of narrative, such as embedding a story within another story or “skipping” events in a flashforward. These patterns may resemble strategies or common situations in a game of Go. But while abstraction is important in narrative (and in its narratological study), narrative is—unlike Go—a representational practice through and through: it evokes characters, locations, and events that are in some significant way lifelike. Another way to put the same point is to say that the stakes of narrative depend on its representational content as well as its form; arguably, for some narrative audiences, the content (whether Jane Eyre marries Mr. Rochester or Walter White becomes a drug lord in Breaking Bad) is more important than the form. With abstract games like Go, only the formal patterns (strategies, positions, etc.) matter. Chess is an example of an abstract game that has a representational façade: in essence, chess represents a battle between two armies. But, ultimately, that representational dimension is secondary to the game: it doesn’t matter if the piece that moves diagonally is a bishop or an elephant (as in historical versions of chess); being a good chess player means understanding the abstract rules of the game. With Go, the representational element is even sparser. The game could be understood as a competition over territory, but there isn’t much more than that in terms of representation. So while games like Go foreground abstraction, narrative combines abstract patterns and representational content. Narratology is the study of those abstract patterns, but of course cannot afford to ignore the representational aspect of story.

R: What is immersion?

M: Immersion is a treacherous concept, and the fact that we have so many terms that seem interchangeable with it (absorption, engagement, flow, etc.) doesn’t help, either. But, in short, I would define immersion as a state of focused attention, in which we become intensely aware of a certain object, while losing awareness of our immediate physical surroundings. Depending on the object of attention, immersion can take multiple forms, which perhaps explains the diverse terminology.

R: How would you describe the relationship between “ludic” immersion in games and “narrative” immersion in, say, a novel? Would you even describe immersion in those terms?

M: We can be immersed in games like Go, in narrative, in music, or in many other activities. However, differences in the nature of these activities can lead to considerably different experiences of immersion. While playing Go, we become involved in the abstract patterning of moves and countermoves. There may be an emotional dimension to those patterns, but it seems to me (admittedly, without being a Go player) that the emotional gamut remains fairly limited: expectation, satisfaction, dejection, and so on. With narrative and music, we have a much broader range of emotional expression. These emotional values can give rise to immersive experiences in engaging with music and narrative: think about suspense, curiosity, or surprise (for narratologist Meir Sternberg, these are the emotional universals of narrative). Representation plays a much more significant role in narrative than it does in music, especially if we consider instrumental music, which has an emotional progression but no overt representational progression (at the level of what happens to whom). This has important implications for immersion, too, because being immersed in narrative means being transported to what we often describe as another “world.” With music, this is less often the case: the emotions register in our body, and they may well feel otherworldly, but the world being evoked is less clear-cut and particularized than the kinds of worlds opened up by narrative. With music, we’re transported to a purely emotional world, as opposed to the worlds of narrative, which have well-delineated physical characteristics and are inhabited by human-like individuals. This is in no way a ranking of immersive experiences, though! Subjective preferences are important, too. And, as I said before, these differences and nuances of immersion across various media and practices are perhaps the reason why we have so many different terms for experiences of focused attention.

R: Do we need stories to play games? Do we need games to experience stories?

M: The first question has occupied scholars in the field of game studies quite a bit, especially in the early 2010s. My preliminary answer is “no” to both questions. But it really depends on what you mean by “need.” Humans are storytelling animals—as well as animals that play. (Actually, human storytelling is far more unique in the animal world than play: many nonhuman animals play, only humans seem to have a language that is sophisticated enough for storytelling. Of course, games are not the same as play, but they have common roots. I digress, though.) We don’t need stories to play games, but because we are storytelling animals, we’re likely to reach for narrative in certain situations. Stories may well enrich our experience of games, or may make the rules of certain games more intelligible. Again, to return to chess, the representational façade (a battle between two armies) is not very important to the advanced player, but if you’re new to the game it may be useful to think about that military scenario, because it may help you grasp the differences between, say, a lowly pawn and a valuable rook. So turning the game into a narrative of sorts may have some advantages. I don’t think we need games to experience stories, but—again—games may offer a useful set of metaphors to understand, for instance, the “strategies” adopted by the author, or a particularly astute “gambit” performed by a literary writer.

R: What do you see on the horizons of narratology, particularly with respect to games?

M: I think video games are the most interesting medium from the perspective of the encounter between the abstract patterning of games and the representational dimension of story. Some video games are primarily abstract (think Tetris), others are mostly narrative, with very little interactivity. But between these extremes we find a vast landscape of games in which narrative coexists, productively, with game challenges. Narrative scholars such as Marie-Laure Ryan or, more recently, Dan Punday have already started developing a narratology of video games, but a lot remains to be done.

R: How would narratology make sense of a machine that could generate stories based on a Go game record?

M: I hate to be a killjoy here, but I doubt those would be interesting stories. You see, stories require a skilled storyteller, someone who knows the stakes of human action, can read the audience and anticipate their responses, manipulate their expectations, etc. A machine is no more likely to tell an interesting story than an intentionally funny joke. (“Intentionally” is important here, because, of course, a strange combination of events produced by a storytelling algorithm can be funny, but that humor isn’t deliberate.) By saying this I don’t want to shortchange the work of folks who are working on AI story generation, which I think is a fascinating endeavor—but I suspect its payoff is more theoretical than practical. Humans will always be the best storytellers, because story is intimately bound up with the physical, biological, and cognitive make-up of social animals like us.

R: What, exactly, is happening when we tell a story about a game? (I’m thinking about Yasunari Kawabata’s The Master of Go, or Shan Sa’s The Girl who Played Go).

M: I haven’t read those books, but I’m thinking of The Defense by Vladimir Nabokov, one of the best novels I know about chess… I would say that stories have the power to explore the social and cultural embedding of both concrete games and game-like metaphors. Nabokov’s novel probes the relationship between a professional chess player’s ludic pursuits and his emotional life—how the formal geometry of chess can help him manage anxieties that derive from a messy, socially complex, intimidating world. Unfortunately, it all goes awry. This is also a study in the potentially catastrophic ramifications of games, what happens when immersion borders on addiction. I happen to be watching The Wire at the moment, and “the game” is one of the most powerful metaphors for life in a world shaped by racial inequalities, brutal policing, and corruption. So this isn’t a show about a game, but a narrative that uses a game metaphor to convey the violent competitiveness of the illegal drug trade but also the characters’ powerlessness when it comes rewriting the rules of society.

R: From a narratological perspective, what is the most interesting game you’ve played? Is there something you think Go players can learn from it?

M: So many video games raise stimulating questions for narratology, but I want to mention Mobius Digital’s Outer Wilds (2019) here. This is a time-loop game that asks the player to explore a small solar system in bursts of twenty-two minutes—before the sun explodes and the player is returned to square one. There is so much to uncover about this world and the stories of the extinct civilization that inhabited it, but unlocking these secrets requires precise timing, meticulous attention to detail, and willingness to start over countless times. I can think of no better lesson for a Go player.

Review and Interview: Spindrift (2019) and Planet (2021) by Chen Hsi (Leon) 4P and Xiaocheng (Stephen) Hu

In Spindrift (2019) and its follow-up Planet (2021), Chen Hsi (Leon) 4P and Xiaocheng (Stephen) Hu have created astounding portraits of global life and culture through a unique synthesis of the worlds of Go and narrative. These tsumego collections—in which problems are eclectically paired with microfiction—are not to be missed. In the sometimes bleak landscape of post-AI Go, these works of art will reinvigorate your love of the game. They can previewed here and here on the Online Go Server (OGS), or ordered in full here. I was thrilled when Stephen asked me to review them, and could not think of a better way to communicate my overwhelmingly positive impressions than by writing some poems:


Walk the coast of liminality
With this treasure of philosophy.
Problems solved to sift and cycle
The old tide’s new elixirs.


Read the stardust line by line,
Pour a glass of the finest wine:
Dark shades, jubilant sparkles. 
Absolutely intercontinental. 

I also had the opportunity to interview Stephen about the collections. The depth and sincerity of his responses reflect, I think, the high quality of these galactic creations.

River: How would you describe these tsumego collections’ contribution to the Go world?

Stephen: Planet is our second original tsumego collection, which follows Spindrift (published in December 2019). We hope to continue developing this series and leave our unique legacy; there haven’t been many original tsumego books in the contemporary era that come with a title and a story for each puzzle, but maybe we’ll qualify for that list! 

I’ve always wanted to make a positive contribution to our wonderful Go community, just like all the great tsumego creators and the timeless masterpieces they have produced. Even though it’s hard to imagine that we will ever match the height of these giants in the Go world, I’m sure that we will reminisce fondly about these collections as souvenirs of our youth.

R: How did your collaboration with Chen Hsi (Leon) 4p come about? What was that collaboration like?

I first got to know Chen Hsi 4p as one of the top professional Go players in Taiwan. In November 2019, I accidentally came across one of his Facebook posts, in which he mentioned a desire to compile his original tsumego problems and perhaps publish them as a book. Having always wanted to do something similar, I reached out to him and asked if we could work together and write something to accompany a selection of his favorite puzzles.

That collaboration worked out fantastically, and since then we’ve been able to roll out Spindrift and Planet (the original plan was to release Planet in 2020, but the COVID-19 pandemic and the e-Go Congress made me delay my plans a little bit). I’ve really enjoyed working with Chen Hsi 4p, and I am quite happy to see that he’s also entertained by my stories. Very rarely does someone possess such a special talent to create so many tsumego problems of varying size and difficulty; in addition to that, his passion for the game really stands out among all the players I’ve got to know, and I feel very enriched by the hour-long conversations between us. I look forward to producing new collections with him in the future, and I really hope that more people will know and appreciate Chen Hsi 4p’s tsumego works!

R: What inspired these collections of tsumego/story pairs? Where do the stories come from?

S: My first inspiration came from Xuanxuan Qijing and The Book of Pure Pleasures and Forgotten Worries (Wangyou Qingle Ji), two of the best Go publications in ancient China. The tsumego content was obviously amazing, but I was in fact more impressed by the names beside every puzzle, which often reference a story in ancient folklore or compare the shape to a person, an animal, or a mythical object. In more recent times, the late greats Maeda Nobuaki and Hashimoto Utaro also made a name for themselves by publishing copious volumes of original tsumego, and it’s amazing to observe their meticulous attention to small details, as if they were trying to “carve” each tsumego into a worthy sculpture.

Even though all of the aforementioned authors have sadly passed away, their admirable craftsmanship still lives on in my heart. In Spindrift and Planet, I try to create a similar experience with the title and story text. The name of each puzzle can come from their original shape or the correct solution – of course, they won’t overtly point out the correct answer to the problem, but rather serve as a subtle hint. The stories themselves might be inspired by literary works, songs or movies, or personal experiences retold by me or Chen Hsi 4p with varying degrees of fictionality.

R: How would you describe the relationship between Go and narrative? Do we need storytelling to play Go?

I wrote the stories in Spindrift and Planet mostly for enjoyment, with the hope that they would perhaps paint a lively picture of each puzzle. A compelling narrative brings vigor to a stationary Go position, and enables the reader to unleash their imagination beyond black and white stones on a two-dimensional array of gridlines. It also allows the puzzle to stay longer in the reader’s memory; for instance, I can still recall the shape of all 272 puzzles (so far) in this series, and just thinking about some of the names might ring a bell about a particular shape on the goban, or a precious moment off the goban. It will be very interesting if I run into someone at a post-COVID Go congress, and they suddenly remind me of a particular puzzle and its narrative; that will most definitely make my day!

I would say that people learn to play Go in many different ways, just like they do in any trade. Some learn by intense reading and calculating, some learn by listening to a strong player’s commentary, and some can do just fine by simply imitating the moves that they observe. It’s not just about tsumego – even when you learn a new joseki or mid-game technique, you can still uncover a riveting plot of what’s actually going on. Maybe someone is trying to pull off an attack to psychologically intimidate their opponent, and the next response also tries to put up a resilient fight after weighing the pros and cons of different strategies… If you can achieve a deep comprehension of the story in an actual game, that might work out much better than any sort of pure, reasonless memorization.

R: How would you describe the role of narrative in your personal Go development?

S: Although I grew up in Beijing and lived close to a few of the Go academies, I’ve never really intended to attend full-time training in those places. However, I’m very lucky to have read and heard many brilliant narratives from stronger players; as a result, I have managed to improve over the years and climb to a 6.7 AGA rating, which I feel decent about for a modest amateur level. In my occasional teaching with fellow Go players, I’ve also tried to emphasize the importance of storytelling and creative imagining to them. To me, it’s just amazing how an ostensibly simple position can generate so many intriguing variations; that kind of mindfulness has helped me keep my enthusiasm in Go and carried me through the highs and lows of my career.

For Chen Hsi 4p, the perspective of a tsumego creator is far more unique than mine; I can think of very few people in the entire community who can grow a five-figure collection and work out more than a dozen new positions on a 30-minute train ride! Ever since his first original tsumego in 2017 (a.k.a. The title puzzle A-1 of Spindrift), he’s embarked on many new adventures and created all kinds of novel shapes. Sharing that kind of joy with fellow professional players and students is very special, as you get to participate in conversations that are just pricelessly enlightening. Of course winning competitive tournament games and taking cash prizes is also nice, but curating something for the benefit of the Go community will produce a longer-lasting moyo!

R: What is your favorite story/problem pair from the series, and how does it illustrate the relationship between Go and narrative? 

S: This is going to be a very difficult pick! In the interest of promoting the newer collection, I suppose that I should choose something from Planet. We typically select a couple of puzzles from each section (5-7 in total) and release them for free in the OGS preview, but I thought I could offer an exclusive sneak peek at one of the puzzles not in the preview. The story is based on an ancient Chinese parable, and those who speak the language might recognize it:

“There was an old man who lived in a small border town and unexpectedly lost his horse. When his neighbors came to console him, he replied, ‘this might not be a bad omen, but in fact a blessing in disguise!’ A few days later, the lost horse returned home safely and brought back a new, quicker horse.

Whether on or off the goban, we can always expect some unexpected gains or losses, but the old man’s wisdom has taught us to not gloat when capturing the opponent’s stones, and to not despair when getting captured by the opponent.

It’s nice that Go is a perfect information game, which allows one to precisely evaluate the worth of every trade. Please try to predict Black’s fate in this position.”

This puzzle is called “Blessing in Disguise” (Planet, D-19), which should be quite manageable for dan players. I’ve chosen it over some of the more difficult puzzles, because it’s nice to see everyone enjoy an achievement of solving a tsumego problem. The story will speak for itself – I won’t spoil the solution for you, but do note that there will be some gains and losses in every variation. As long as you’ve gained more than you’ve lost, things will turn out just fine!

R: You mentioned that elements of many of the stories resemble certain shapes appearing in the problems or their solutions. Is this the only way that the stories interact with the problems? 

Some of the stories do come from shapes in the original problems or their solution sequences, so it’s possible that the interaction becomes clearer after you solve a problem. The connection might not seem super obvious at first, but a deeper understanding of the variations will reveal the subtlety of the story text. At times, the story can be also related to the “manner” in which the puzzle is solved: sometimes a violent combination of tesuji moves will be required, but in other circumstances the calm move might be the only viable option. It’s like examining different techniques in the field of martial arts, which are also referenced in a considerable number of stories. Of course, if the reader is curious to know more about the origins of each tsumego/story pair, I am very happy to take questions about any of them!

R: What do you want readers and solvers of these collections to learn about Go? About stories?

I am not knowledgeable enough to impart wisdom on the readers and solvers of this collection, but I do hope that they will get the most out of this book by taking time with every tsumego problem; in fact, it will be nice to do the same for any Go position, not just the ones included in this series. When a puzzle has many interesting branches apart from the solution, it really multiplies and evolves into many similar puzzles with what can be completely opposite outcomes. Therefore, I believe that one should not skim through a puzzle too quickly, even if they manage to solve it from a quick glance; rather, they should treat every position with thorough care and reserve some extra time for self-reflection. 

A well-constructed tsumego will have a unique optimal solution, and every other method with different placement or order of moves will be countered by the opponent and led to a slightly worse result (e.g. unconditional vs conditional kill, and direct-step ko vs multistep ko). Knowing the tiny differences between success and failure will prepare you well for victory in a real game, or save you a few seconds of thinking time when the opponent strikes with an off-path response in byoyomi. In this spirit, a tsumego might not only help you improve your reading skills, but also become an intellectual dessert of life.  

I am constantly reminded of the fact that English is my second language when translating the stories, so my only hope is that people will still be amused or enthralled by them. Maybe it will be cool to see this series translated into more languages in the future!

R: How should we tell the story of AI’s ascendance in the Go world to young and beginning players?

I think that we should be optimistic about the future of AI’s influence in the Go world. It’s certainly a bittersweet moment for our generation, as we did enjoy all the great battles and teachings offered by our predecessors. Certainly, things like opening theory and mid-game strategies will be inevitably changed by AI recommendations, and the current generation of young players will enjoy the benefits of learning from a program of superhuman strength from the very beginning, without having to go through a “mental reset” like us in 2016! It will be very interesting to see how future talents from around the world will surpass us and write their unique narratives in the upcoming decades. 

Lucky for us, our tsumego solutions seem to have survived so far, but maybe we will get to see newer interpretations of them, just like the way Xuanxuan Qijing, Gokyo Shumyo and Igo Hatsuyoron have evolved. It’ll be an honor if they still remember our names by then!

Xiaocheng (Stephen) Hu is an AGA amateur 6 dan player who won the 2017 San Francisco Jujo Ing Cup and North American Collegiate Go League as captain of the UC Santa Barbara team. Aside from competition, he is also an executive producer at the AGA E-Journal broadcasting team and a regular organizer of the U.S. Go Congress. He is currently based in Beijing, China as a full-time Go content producer.

Chen Hsi is a Taiwanese professional 4 dan player, who took 3rd place in the Korean Prime Minister Cup at the age of 11. A regular quarterfinalist in multiple tournaments, he is frequently ranked among the top 10 Taiwanese professionals with the highest annual match winrate. He is a graduate of the NTU College of Law, and now runs a successful Go academy and a YouTube channel with his brother Chen Feng 5p. He is also a regular Go coach at multiple schools in Taipei.

Game 7 – Meeting the Czech Go Baron

I met Lukas Podpera, the Czech Go Baron, at the Västerås Go Tournament in Sweden, where he was the top-ranked player. As I was gathering a few wins and losses against opponents around my level, Lukas was busy smashing everyone away from the top board, which was kept in a separate room apart from the main playing areas. Because of this I did not see Lukas very often, so he seemed especially mysterious and powerful. At the end of the three-day tournament, I noticed him helping one of his opponents create a record of their game, so I decided that he could not be the Go monster I had been imagining sitting behind the top board. I worked up the courage to introduce myself and, before I even knew what I was doing, asked if he would be willing to teach me.

It turned out to be a good plan. Relative to Lukas, I am a beginner, and each lesson feels like a personalized masterclass. The fluidity and creativity of his play is astounding, and so is the way he reviews each game, anticipating all of my questions and problem areas with kindness and humility.

Below is our most recent game, commented by me with a few of Lukas’ suggestions, followed by an interview with him. In the game, I felt I did well given the difference in strength, but made a terrible blunder at the end because my brain was exhausted trying to keep up with Lukas.

And now, the interview.

River: How would you describe your teaching philosophy?

Lukas: I try to help my students understand that Go is not a fight, but rather a game about building. So, they should always prefer to build territory, and be aggressive only if necessary. Also, I teach my students that they should always understand what they are doing and, when they play moves, that they always have some plan behind them. My important task is also to prevent students from making errors in basic principles.

R: How would you describe your style of play?

L: I’m a calm player, focusing on having strong shapes and a lot of solid territory. I use brute force only if necessary—for example, to punish an opponent’s mistake. So, when someone is watching my game, one might have the feeling that I’m doing nothing. Mostly, I’m focusing on doing things right by myself and waiting for my opponent’s mistake. This strategy needs a lot of patience and often leads to close games. I had to study a lot of endgame to make it sharp. My half-year stay in China six years ago helped me with that a lot.

R: What was your experience in China like?

L: I spent half a year in Beijing in one of the most famous Chinese Go schools led by Mr. Ge Yuhong. I studied there with five other strong European players and something like a hundred Chinese youth. Training in the Asian professional development context was a really exhausting but unforgettable experience. From Monday to Friday, we studied Go for 12 hours per day. During the weekends we either had some friendship matches with Chinese players or we participated in a tournament. Occasionally we did some sightseeing, such as going to the Great Wall of China.

R: What do you enjoy most about Go?

L: This question I usually answer simply: the endless possibilities and variations for trying to win. Before each game I can always design a strategy about how I will try to get the victory. Thanks to that, I’m sure I will never get bored of playing. Also, Go has helped me to get to know a bit more about myself.           

R: What has Go helped you learn about yourself?

L: I believe that Go shows a lot about my personality, but that’s not the case for everyone. Go helped me learn to be patient and more decisive. Making the right decision in life has been always difficult for me, and I was always doubting myself. That doesn’t happen so often anymore. Go also taught me to tell the entire truth in any kind of situation, and to never lie to myself or anyone else.

R: How has your Go world changed since the rise of AI? What do you think the future holds?

L: At first, I was conservative and felt very suspicious about the new ways of playing that AI created. Eventually, I had to adopt a lot of new methods into my play, and in the end, it proved to be a positive decision. This gave me new opportunities to explore the game even more. Also, I realized that many moves that I would never think about before are now easily playable. However, I’m still careful about studying a lot with AI, because although it’s nice to learn some new moves or sequences, AI will not tell us the meaning. Therefore, I usually adopt a new method in my play only when it is explained to me by an Asian professional. Since I believe that the sure-win strategy will never be discovered, the arrival of AI should be judged positively. On the other hand, there is a negative aspect: I’m worried that, because AI applications are available to anyone in these days, it will kill online tournaments in the near future.

R: What is your most memorable game?

L: Immediately I think of my two most successful results: bronze medals in the European Championships in 2016 and 2019. I would probably pick my quarterfinal game from 2019 against European pro Ali Jabarin, which was one of my best performances ever.

R: Who are your Go heroes and why?

L: I would like to mention two. The first is Vladimir Danek 6-dan, a Czech player who was my teacher when I was a middle-dan player. He was a National Champion like 12 times, has been playing Go since 1970’s and basically built the Czech Go community from nearly zero. Even though he holds a PhD in mathematics and physics, he has spent his life with Go. He even had a big Go-shop of his own.

The second is Lee Changho – a famous Korean player who was world no. 1 15-20 years ago. I admire him for his calm and peaceful style, which was enough to beat the rest of the world. At that time, he had a winning rate similar to what Shin Jinseo has now. I was so lucky to meet Lee Changho three times in person.

R: What was it like organizing the Corona Cup?

L: Originally, I planned the first edition of the Corona Cup (Spring 2020) to be only a Central European event. However, the announcement about the tournament started to spread faster than the COVID-19 virus itself. In the end it became a huge event, which I was not really prepared for. It became a really big responsibility to make it run smoothly. Fortunately, I had prior experience organizing and refereeing tournaments. Anyway, those were a really exhausting 6 weeks for me, but despite that I enjoyed it and I think the participants did as well.

I made a second edition that autumn, but this time I had help from a team of organizers, so not everything was on my shoulders. It went even better than before, and the number of players reached 400. Because the pandemic situation is not getting much better, there is a good chance I will be making a third edition in the next few months.

R: Are there any upcoming Go-related events that you’re particularly excited about?

L: 2021 is a year when the European Pro Qualification will be held again. Of course, we need to wait for the moment when it’s possible to hold live tournaments and to be able to travel. I have already reached the final twice, so I hope that, should I reach a third one, that I will finally be successful. That is my main goal for this year. Otherwise, as usual I’m looking forward to the European Championship and the European Grand Slam. Hopefully, they will be allowed to be held live as well.

Game 6 – Meeting Camille Lévêque

Part of my inspiration to create and write in this journal comes from the work of Camille Lévêque, a 28-year-old Frenchwoman who has played Go since 2018, and has already achieved the rank of European 2-dan. For three years, she has drawn for the Go community behind the alias Stoned on the Goban and teaches at the Grenoble School of Go. I first discovered Camille’s work at the 2019 European Go Congress, where there was a table displaying her art. I didn’t have the opportunity to meet Camille at that time, but I continued to see her art appear on Facebook. When I noticed she was also participating in the Yunguseng program, I decided to subscribe to her Patreon and reach out. Camille kindly offered to play a game with me and agreed to participate in a short interview, both of which are included below.

I played Black with a two-stone handicap. The game was challenging and fun for me. I found Camille’s moves solid and calm, and I felt like I was being pushed to produce my best Go. Camille won by a comfortable margin, but according to Camille I played well.

To summarize, I handled my lower left corner group far too casually, and Camille found a great way to attack and kill it. Thanks to the handicap, I didn’t have to resign but I knew that winning was unlikely. Nevertheless, I made the game competitive by focusing on building a big moyo, which Camille reduced well with moves like White 73. Our review of the game was informative, and I learned some new techniques and shapes from Camille’s play (such as the capture with White 49, or the clever move of White 77).

And now, the interview.

River: How would you describe yourself and your role in the Go community?

Camille: I am very “young” in the Go community, as I started playing three years ago, but I entered the community fully very quickly, and I have not stopped playing and meeting new people. I felt so welcome that I absolutely wanted to participate in the game, too. It’s in my character: I don’t like to just be a consumer. Everyone can contribute to a community, I’m sure. This partly explains why today I devote myself almost exclusively to the Go community! I was previously a professor of agricultural technology; today, I am an illustrator and creator of content at 80% for the game of Go. I am currently in charge of the development of the Grenoble School of Go, where I have been teaching since September. I couldn’t have imagined this three years ago, especially teaching Go! I am creative and committed, and I have the great opportunity to be supported by a community, so I hope to participate in the promotion of Go, but especially for female players, who are often invisible.

R: How would you describe your style of play?

C: I have a very instinctive playstyle that is strongly inspired by the AI style, simply because I started playing long after such technology was born. I think instinct is my greatest strength; conversely, the more calculating and deep reading phases are difficult for me.

R: Who are your Go heroes and why?

C: There are a lot of inspiring people in Go, apart from the immense strength of the professional players, of whom I know little about. In France, women players have inspired and motivated me: Astrid Gautier, Dominique Cornuejols… strong women who cement the links between people. My heroes are those who work behind the scenes to make this game accessible to everyone, and there are many of them.

R: What do you enjoy most about playing Go?

C: My favorite thing is the atmosphere of a game surrounded by friends, when every move evokes a laugh or a nod. I like the sharing that games bring in general. When I play, on the other hand, I especially like the beauty of a goban that gradually fills up, with a story in each sequence.

R: How do you mentally prepare for a game?

C: I don’t really prepare myself. In tournament games I am extremely stressed out and always find it difficult to play calmly. Usually, games in public make me uncomfortable, because of the judgment of my game, I guess. When I master my game environment, I especially try to refocus on my feeling, which guides my game a lot. I know ignoring your opponent is important, but one can’t play on the goban without the other player.

R: How do you deal with unexpected setbacks, on or off the board?

C: I have a lot of difficulty recovering a game that has advanced badly for me. I naturally tend to “see” the winning percentage that an AI would give me, and therefore know that the game is badly started. Then, it’s mentally difficult to make a comeback, especially since I don’t like playing harsh moves and prefer to admit that my opponent played better. But overall, the defeats don’t bother me if I feel like I have given my best.

R: How would you describe the relationship between Go and art?

C: I think a lot of great players have done it better than me. I found Go to be beautiful immediately, because it balances simplicity and complexity. Its rules and materials are simple, but its depth is almost infinite. There aren’t many planks of wood and pebbles that can inspire humans so much.

R: Can you tell us about your Inktober series?

C: Inktober is an annual drawing challenge in which there is one new theme per each day of October. I have never managed to complete an Inktober yet, but I do better every year. This year I wanted a graphical consistency between all the illustrations, and to get out of my comfort zone: the sweet and cute characters who play Go. Some themes were extremely difficult, such as “chef.” I am happy with the result, which allowed me to test new techniques, and still inspires me for future illustrations.

R: How does Go relate to other parts of your life?

C: Go infuses almost all of my life today: my meetings, my work, and even my home, because I live with roommates … who are also Go players! Go has made me feel stronger and listened to, and it’s already a good result.

R: Are there any recent or upcoming Go-related events or activities that you’re particularly excited about?

C: Even though I appreciate the connection that digital technology allows us, the events that I look forward to more than anything are the return to real life, for example the next European Go Congress. But we’ll have to wait some more.