When thinking about where eccentrics spend their time, Barnes and Nobles is not what I had imagined. But as I walk past its children’s section, I skim the shoulder of a man in his forties wearing a muscle shirt that shows all of his bulges.
He and seven other men hunch over four small tables nestled in the Starbucks at the back of the bookstore, behind a pair of escalators. Grimacing and sometimes grunting, they’re members of the Evanston Go Club. None play professionally, but for some Go is more than two people placing black and white chips on a gridded board.
Metin Ozsarfati is a Northwestern senior majoring in math and physics. He began playing the game in Turkey the summer before college and quickly became obsessed. “After a tournament, I felt so intense I couldn’t sleep at night,” he says. He talks nervously, backtracking and repeating himself often.
That summer, he drove an hour each way to attend bi-weekly Go meetings in an Istanbul coffee shop. He played eight hours a week face-to-face and an additional six online; he also read books. The friends he started playing with quickly lost interest. “They said it was just a game,” he says. “I didn’t.”
Go is the game’s Japanese name, but the word for it in China, where it originated thousands of years ago, is more descriptive. Wéiqi means “surround,” and that is how the game is won: You want to surround as many of your opponent’s stones as you can. Though it’s a game meant to mirror war, it’s not violent. Rather, it’s slow and methodical.
When Ozsarfati, an Istanbul native, came to Northwestern as a freshman, he only took three classes so that he’d have enough time for Go. He even dropped a class later.
“There are missionaries that preach the Bible. I used to preach Go,” he says. He entered tournaments, which resulted in an eighth-place finish at last year’s Turkish nationals. He made friends based on how good they were as players, and dreamed of becoming one of the certified professionals who play around the world.
According to Michael Skalak, a Weinberg senior and an avid player who thinks of the game as more hobby than religion, “[Ozsarfati] is something more of a ‘Go mystic. I think he likes to consider Go as unraveling deep secrets, where as I view it as an interesting mental exercise and problem to solve.”
Two years ago, Ozsarfati tried to start a Northwestern Go club. Only one person came the first time, he says, though he had expected 15 or so. More people came in subsequent weeks, but most didn’t come back. He wasn’t perturbed though, because someone always came to play.
The people eventually stopped coming. A reporter from The Daily Northwestern called one day, asking to profile the club. When she arrived, there was only him. She said she’d come back the next week but he told her not to. He disbanded the club.
He called the other two regular NU Go Club members and told them to attend the Evanston club. They did not show up the next week, though Ozsarfati now says he’s “not so obsessed with it anymore that it hurts my feelings.”
The same disappointment met his aspirations of being a professional Go player. He found that he wasn’t getting better, and the realization that he’d never be good enough to be professional did not come easily.
“You want something so bad and it doesn’t work out,” he says. “It’s like you’re building a house and someone just runs in and tears it apart.”
The fact that he’d never succeed as a pro gave him the out he needed. He had never listened to the people who said it was just a game, he says, but now he understands. Since then, he’s spent more time on schoolwork and building friendships.
Ozsarfati’s even changed his view on games, seeing them in social terms. When he first began playing, he preferred playing online, or at least in complete silence. Now he enjoys playing with people and having sporadic conversations. He no longer decides a person’s virtue based on his or her skill level.
“I am not naïve anymore,” he says. “People are different. It is good they are different.”
Back at Starbucks, Ozsarfati sits with his back straight and legs purposefully placed on the floor as he plays Mark Rubenstein, the club’s president. As Ozsarfati’s pieces get surrounded, one by one, his face falls. “I was pulling out my hairs trying to figure it out,” he says. He falls short by two and a half points.
Losing at the game he loves is still hard. He lost a game last week and, step by step, he explains the moves he played incorrectly. He had missed a meeting because he was depressed that he’d lost badly two weeks in a row.
“I shouldn’t look to win every game. I shouldn’t look to keep improving,” he concedes.
Loving a game that bills itself as taking minutes to learn and a lifetime to master isn’t easy, he says. “In a way you’re playing against yourself.”