Even ancient Chinese games aren’t safe

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I recently played a few games of Fly or Die Go, an online go server running a client you can download as a free Chrome app, possibly also available on other platforms. You log into a lobby with a bunch of other players, and can challenge or be challenged to go games on various size boards, from 9×9 up to the conventional 19×19. There’s not a whole lot of chatter, games are fast, but mostly people use common courtesy in playing the game.

After the jump, I played a game with a monster.

On this server, you get numeric ratings based on your play. They have little bearing on anything, but you at least have some idea that if you challenge someone more than 100 points higher than you, you will probably lose, and that you should offer handicap stones if you want to challenge someone that much weaker.

So someone 150 points higher than me challenges me. The game randomly assigns me white with no komi, so I am starting off at what looks like a 2 to 3 stone disadvantage based on what I’ve seen of skill differences associated with that rating gap, combined with the lack of komi. But of course I don’t mind, as even games are more fun than handicap games, and it’s more interesting to play stronger opponents.

The game proceeds more or less normally at first, with no chat at all. I notice that the opponent is using a very greedy approach of always playing to the 3-3 point and trying to grab as much secure small territory as possible. This is generally a losing strategy in an even game as it builds up too much opponent influence on the outside and the 3-3 winds up with too little territory on its own, especially if it’s part of an invasion (he invaded beneath both my 4-4 points and got sealed in as is usual). But it’s not necessarily bizarre when played for fun by a stronger player, who may reasonably believe they can eliminate the outside influence later on.

So play proceeds, and without much effort, I build up this huge central territory, so big it actually directly counters the opponent’s little corners even before the end-game. It’s easy to do this because my opponent is obsessively sealing off his own little territories. I’m wondering how he got such a high rating, but maybe it’s just an off game or something. The middle-game concludes with me building more advantage.

Then it starts to get weird. I finish up the normal end-game in sente throughout, another sign I’m actually playing an inferior player, as better players are generally able to maintain initiative in this phase of the game.

Then just as it’s time to pass and finish up, he invades a living space of mine which already has two eyes. There is a legitimate kind of aggressive play by a strong player who is suffering a big handicap; with a big handicap, white really has to play somewhat dubious invasions to challenge the weaker player to respond appropriately. A really good player plays light invasions that provoke panicky responses they can take advantage of elsewhere, even if the invasion fails.

But in this game, I’m white, and as I said the group already has two eyes, and unless I play like an absolute moron, this invasion is completely doomed. In fact, I can even pass a turn and nothing bad will happen to me. All I have to do is avoid a seki, which is trivial in the situation.

In go terms, this is really offensive play in any circumstances, but especially with nothing at stake in a no-name go server like Fly or Die. But what the hell, so I make sure the invasion fails, which only requires playing the simplest and most obvious moves.

Then he does it again in another area. By this time I’ve made a few chat comments about how these groups are alive, and there’s nothing that can be gained. No reply. But he plows manfully onward, even after my response to the bad invasion makes it completely clear there is no chance of success.

Fine, fine. Eventually we run out of stupid black moves, and the game should be over. Should be over. But it’s not.

The Fly or Die app is too stupid to identify dead groups on its own, so after both players pass, players have to take turns marking the dead groups. Black goes first and marks my few dead white stones, and now it’s my turn. I mark the huge number of dead black stones, and I’m about to press the “commit” button, when I notice he’s marked one of my live white stones as dead. If I accept his judgement, my position will be completely destroyed, and it’s very easy to overlook this, as no one would expect such a dick move.

So I reject his assignment, and we have to do it over again. He marks yet more of my living stones as dead, yet another attempt to cheat in the same identical way. I reject them again. Meanwhile his timer is winding down, and he’s already used up much more time than I have anyway. He does it yet a third time, and I reject the assignment again. Finally as he is running out of time, he cuts his connection, presumably in the hope that the game won’t judge a loss. But it does, and he loses a hundred rating points or so.

So now I know how an inferior player got such a high rating, and why he was challenging players with much lower ratings. He’s not very good at all, and he cheats whenever and however he can. How bizarre. Oddly enough if I saw a similar thing happening in a PvP MMO or a FPS or something like that, I wouldn’t think twice about it, as it seems like those kinds of games encourage immaturity, but it really surprised me in playing go.

Sure, you could say that this is just a random troll — a go troll — but the behavior was so immature, greedy, and pointlessly self-destructive that I find it hard to believe any merely malicious human could have been on the other side of the board. I’m imagining some kind of evil Japanese spirit-beast of the more childish and stupid sort, or maybe a kobold or a goblin who has somehow learned the rules and obtained access to an Internet connection.

Miramon is the Seneschal of Gontaron and the Entelechy of Dreams. He is also a very old gamer who has followed the industry since Pong. In what is curiously and quaintly known as “real life”, he works with the Internet and telecom R&D, but he also suffered a brief excursion into the game industry as a MMO content designer. He is still recovering.

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