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Asymmetrical Symmetry

Originally published May 16, 2014

Go intrigues me. It is lauded in most circles as the thinking man’s chess, a game played by luminaries for 2500 years. It is used in movies and TV shows to hint at the ideas of Zen and east Asian religion. I have never successfully played a complete game, though I enjoy reading about the culture that surrounds it.

Recently, reading about the design of the Go board itself, I learned that each board is not perfectly square. Instead, its sides have a ratio of 15:14 — imperceptibly rectangular. This means that when seated next to it, the board appears square due to the foreshortening effect of perspective.

In addition, the stones are each slightly larger than a single square of the 19x19 grid, a fact that only becomes apparent as the board becomes full. Near the end of a game, stones must be placed very carefully, as to not displace other stones. As the game comes to a conclusion, the stones squeeze each other in a very literal manner.

Black stones are slightly larger than their white counterparts. This is to account for the visual illusion that occurs between the stones: white pieces appear larger than black ones. This discrepancy is eliminated by the difference in sizes. In Japan, the stones are traditionally convex on both sides, making each piece wobble at the slightest disturbance.

The math of Go is asymmetrical, too: the grid is 19x19. 19 is an indivisible (prime) number, so the board cannot be split into smaller equal components. The number of total points — 19 times 19, or 361 — is odd, so there are 181 black stones and 180 white stones.

The game only has 2 rules. But when played by experienced players, games stretch on for hours, often pivoted around a single point on the board. It is so complex a game that, despite its place in finitude (there is no element of chance, so theoretically, perfect play is possible), no computer has so far reliably bested its champions.

The lesson I draw from these observations is that disharmony and harmony are inextricably linked. One causes the other. Or, perhaps it would be better to say that one necessitates the other. In my work, I strive for mathematical precision, perfect adherence to grid systems and type scales, color theory and compositional structures. This quest for rigor often results in chaos.

Instead, I should open the door to chaos and imperfection; maybe the result will be much closer to the elegance I strive for.