A Soccer Mom Discovers Go

by Susan Weir, 1998 AGF Teacher of the year

Discovering Go

You would probably call me a typical soccer mom. I am married to a wonderful man, Lou, and we have two sons, Marshall, 14, and Quentin, 12. I run a home-based wholesaling and mail order business, selling dolls, dollmaking kits, and supplies. I like to organize things - I usually have my hands in many different projects, ranging from tutoring math in the schools and training docents on local geology for school field trips, to teaching Zen Sunday school.

In the fall of 1994, Lou and I went to Marshall's fifth grade parent teacher conference. His teacher, Sasha Orr, told us that he was teaching go in his classroom, and that Marshall had shown interest and ability in the game. He suggested that we might get Marshall a game set for Christmas. As we left, Lou looked at me quizzically and said, "Go?"

Marshall got his go set that Christmas, and it has led us down a path into a whole new world.

Finding other players

After Christmas, I found a listing in the local paper for a go club, meeting at the University of Michigan on Tuesday evenings and Saturday afternoons. Marshall and I made the trek out several Tuesdays in a row, hoping to find some action. Nothing. Each week we arrived to find the designated room locked and darkened. Then one Saturday we found half a dozen real live players. Marshall played all afternoon and got a good estimate of his strength. We came home excited.

Encouraged by this experience, we called Marshall's classmates. The next weekend our van full of kids arrived at the go club - nothing. Door locked, no one there. The kids looked at me expectantly. Panic. On the way home, I made photocopies of a game board, and when we arrived I searched the house for something, anything, that might serve as stones. We played raisins against Cheerios, M&Ms against pennies. Over a series of Saturday afternoon go sessions that followed at our house I began to learn the game from the kids, an exquisitely frustrating experience.

My early interest in go was mostly as a parenting move. I wanted to create opportunities for Marshall to pursue his interest, and saw it as a whole family activity we could enjoy together. Also, the kids who tend to be drawn to this game are kids you want your own children to hang around with, bright and creative.

After Marshall's exposure to go in fifth grade, Sasha and I spoke about creating a middle school go club so the students could continue to play. The Forsythe Middle School Go Club began in the fall of 1995, and continues its operations. We worked hard that next year creating club activities, go parties, and food - no kidding, food is a major consideration for doing.

A trip to The US Go Congress

In the spring, we started putting together a trip for the Forsythe kids to the Go Congress in Cleveland. I sent out a letter to parents and drove up a van full of kids for the last two days of the congress. I had no idea how it would work out. In case the kids got "goed out' after the first afternoon, I planned on taking them bowling or to a movie in the evening. To my surprise, they couldn't be pried away from the game room. They played and played, and enjoyed meeting the other kids. They played late into the night. I finally went to bed telling them to knock on my door when they came in to the dorm to let me know they were back. Yi-Lun Yang, a professional 6- Dan gave a great lesson for the children the next day.

In the fall of 1996, having survived the frustrations of learning go from the fifth graders, I decided to form a go class for parents. I put out an announcement at the school and set up meetings with a local cafe. We never got more than a couple of parents, but it led to the re-forming of the Ann Arbor Go Club.

We needed to meet better players in order to improve. I wrote to the AGA for help, and they sent me a set of mailing labels for all the AGA members in our area. I sent out a mailing and put a notice in the local city magazine. I remember the night when a genuine player, a 5 Dan, actually showed up in the cafe where we were meeting. I was thrilled, and also crushed that none of us, in the teen kyu levels, could offer him much of a game. More players began coming to regular weekly meetings.

Organizing a go club is a lot of work and a lot of gratification. I really enjoy the individuals who are part of our go community. We have had three tournaments, a go picnic (where it poured rain), and we traveled to Cleveland to meet the club there for a match.

Cleveland player to an Ann Arbor player: 'How long was the drive?" Ann Arbor player: 'Oh, about two games."

That winter, I began working with a class of fifth graders at Eberwhile elementary school. I had picked up some Ing sets in Cleveland, from the stockpile they retained from the Cleveland Go Congress. It was a small but enthusiastic group. On the first glorious spring clay, after weeks of cold rain, the whole class was outside at recess, - except my group, hunched over the game boards. At one point, one of their classmates peeked inside the door, looking with disbelief at the players. "What can you possibly say about yourselves for missing recess on such a great day!?" she asked. Steve Dean looked up from his board in surprise and answered, "Lucky!"

Go for girls?

At the same time, my younger son, Quentin, was in Sasha's class. I watched and became concerned over the lack of participation by the girls in the class. My go friend Sandy Brent, a child psychologist, offered me some suggestions. Sasha allowed me to take the girls out by themselves one afternoon to play. I found that the girls, who are often intimidated by the up-front competition of the boys, were more comfortable being able to talk about their moves together, preferably playing in teams of two. I put on a four-week go workshop just for girls, and invited some of the middle school girl players to mentor and teach the younger ones. Girls are pretty active in my classes. I believe that simply being a woman myself sends the clear message that this sport is definitely for girls. I remember playing in chess tournaments as a teenager, and I never ever saw a woman in competition. The implication was clear - being a girl, I would not last as a chess player.

That spring, I organized the first Ann Arbor Spring Go Fest. Thanks to a grant from the AGA's Ing fund, arranged through Central VP Jeff Shaevel, pro 1-Dan Janice Kim was able to attend. Jeff sent not only the amount we needed for Janice to visit, but also some extra to beef up the prize fund. Janice played simultaneous games, lectured and came to my class, where she played all the kids 9x9 games. She also visited the Forsythe Go club.

I wrote up a flyer for a special "kids tournament", and went round to the stores to get discounts and donations for cool prizes. 26 kids showed up, in a field of about 70 players. As it was our first event, it was pretty intense. Drew Chuppe, a club member who was a veteran tournament director, co- directed with me and really helped make the process flow smoothly. I had set up a schedule where Janice would give a workshop for the kids when they tired of playing. But . . . they didn't tire of playing. We used a self-pairing format, and kids kept coming back to be rnatched again and again, and ended up playing the entire day. Lou set up a special problem table for kids to work on who were waiting for rematches, with small chocolate bars as rewards. This idea was so popular that we used it again at the Congress. Janice stayed at our home, and after it was over, we were celebrating with champagne. Janice told us she was interested in trying out a new idea - a Go Camp just for kids. Go in the mornings, beach in the afternoons. Would we organize it? I was intrigued.

With support from the AGA, this camp has become a reality, with dozens of go-minded youngsters, beginners and experienced players, learning go while playing sports, canoeing and enjoying cookouts on the beach.

We went to the Congress again when it was held in Pennsylvania the next year. AGA Education Coordinator None Redmond had asked me to help set up a program for the children at Congress, so I knew the kids coming with us would have a great week together. We brought up the idea of a summer camp at the board meeting, and found the AGA willing to support the venture. Driving home in the van, I was eager and excited about new ideas for spreading go.

In the fall, I went back to Eberwhite. Larry Gross, who administers the AGA's funds for children's programs, told me that starter sets were available from the AGA for the asking, along with an indispensable item for classroom - a demo board.

My own class

For the first time, I had the whole year with a whole class that had no previous exposure to go. A blank slate to write on. In a letter the school sent home to parents the week before the program started, I explained the beauty and challenge of the game and why kids should learn it. Plugging the program in this way, you can begin to build some excitement and line up important parent support early on. Don't underestimate how much help parents can and will give if they understand the benefits their children will accrue from such a program. After getting the letter, some parents called asking for go sets before I even came to class the first time.

On the first day, several other teachers sat in and observed. Before I left, other fifth grade teacher asked me to work with his class too. A teacher from the university and another from a private school also asked for go programs. I am working in the other class at Eberwhite but sadly, at the limit what I could do as a volunteer, those and subsequent requests for go instruction in other schools have been as yet unmet.

The Eberwhite program was a wonderful learning process. Wednesday afternoons with these kids were often the highlight of my week. As we graduated from the 9x9 boards, I had larger boards copied onto card stock and laminated at a very low cost at the copy shop. One of our club members very graciously bought me a number of sets of plastic stones to use with the boards. Ing stones also are available from the AGA.

When Jim Kerwin came in January to do a workshop for the Ann Arbor Go Club, he also visited my and Sasha's classrooms. Zhu-jiu Jiang 9-Dan, came as well when he was here for our 1998 Go Fest. I'm not sure if these kids can appreciate exactly how fortunate they were to meet these teachers! Near the end of the Eberwhite program, the classes had an elimination tournament, which ended with the top child from one class playing the top player in the other class. We also had a round robin tourney for kids eliminated from the first one. The AGF generously supported us with prizes of movie tickets, a go set and certificates to the local toy and book stores. Their excitement was really intense.

Working with teachers

In March, our school district put on a "March into Technology" program, featuring how computers were being used in the classroom. Eberwhite school asked me if I would represent the school with a presentation about how we were playing go on the IGS. Middle-school teachers from around the area who attended the presentation want to make go a part of their interdisciplinary program. In a pilot program I am developing, a non-go playing teacher does most of the actual instruction. I come in once a week for support, and to put together lesson plans for the rest of the week. Using AGA Starter Sets, the kids play every day for an hour. Goe Basics, a video available from American Ing Goe in San Francisco, is also available on request. Teachers will need materials to use when the "go specialist" isn't there. With feedback from the students and the teacher, we hope to develop a workable program.

Last week, kids from two other middle schools came in to help the pilot students one on one. The kids are beginning to use the IGS, so one of Sasha's elementary school students was on the server at his school during the class period to be an IGS opponent, helping the middle schoolers learn to play on line. I was proud of how these kids from several different go programs came together to help each other out.

As for the future? One of the most pressing needs I see is to create more of a world around go for kids. In Asia, go has a big presence, prestigious tournaments, news and TV coverage, and top go players are household names. In the US, none of this is available to help encourage the kids to keep playing and growing in go.

I want to start matching schools up with each other. Kids need to see and connect with other go-minded children around the country. Whether in a buddy system, or for intramural Go tournaments, we need to create some excitement and visibility for the game and the students who play it. As Lou points out, parents are willing to drive ten hours to take their kids to weekend soccer tournaments. If we make it worthwhile, they will make efforts for go tournaments as well. Imagine the school pride and interest in an intramural go trophy displayed in the school hallway! Whether in person or over the Internet, we need to find ways to form a larger network.

I also plan to get a couple of local strong players, who are also good teachers, to give private go lessons for kids, either individually or in small groups, so that the best players in the classes can improve more quickly than in a large class setting. And, importantly, if kids do not keep on improving, they lose interest in playing.

Wow - so much to do, so little time. The Greeks had a word - "protreptis." It meant for people to put their shoulders together and push a heavy wheel up a hill. Working together, in our lifetimes we can "protrept" to make go as American as apple pie. I'm very grateful for the opportunity to be a part of it.

-- from The Game of Go A Beginners Manual for Teachers, Students, and Organizers by William Cobb, pp. 40-43.