Article Image
Columbia Spectator Staff

Most people go to the Hungarian Pastry Shop expecting a little peace and quiet—and maybe a shot of espresso.

But on Tuesday nights, the shop on Amsterdam Avenue at 111th Street plays host to a more energetic crowd—a group of gamers who challenge each other in the ancient Chinese game of Go.

Founded in October 2011 by Upper West Side resident Peter Armenia, the informal group of Go enthusiasts meets once a week and plays for about an hour or two with each other and strangers.

Go, which originated in China more than 2,500 years ago, is a board game in which two players take turns placing black and white stones on a board with a 19-by-19 grid. The object of the game is to surround a larger total area of the board than the opponent. Pieces can be captured but not moved once placed. At the end of the game, the player with the most territory and the most captured stones wins.

Hunched over boards scattered throughout the shop, the players scrutinize every move and evaluate every strategy. Armenia, who has been playing the game for over 20 years, said that the joy of Go lies in its simplicity.

"There's an abstract beauty about it," he said. "It has a little more grace than chess."

The number of attendees varies from week to week, but Armenia said that about 10 to 15 people consistently show up.

While there are only six rules to the game, it is known as one of the most complex games in the world. Many of the players at Hungarian said that the game's complexity is what drives their interest in and commitment to it. 

Alex Shilen, CC '15, learned how to play the game in high school and started a Columbia Go club this year. He said that there are more possible permutations in a single game of Go than there are atoms in the known universe.

Shilen, a computer science major, was also eager to point out that Go is the only game in which computers do not have the upper hand against humans.

Jasper DeAntonio, a math teacher in Harlem, said that he has been coming to weekly games at Hungarian since November and that the way Go surprises him has kept him coming back.

"I just enjoy the patterns and the critical thinking of it," he said.

DeAntonio added that part of the challenge of the game is the seemingly endless number of permutations.

"Every game, there's a moment where I go, ‘Woah, I just learned something completely new and will probably never have the chance to use again,'" he said.

Thomas Miller, a Lower East Side resident, said he has loved Go since his father first taught him the game when he was seven.

Miller owns a collection of books about Go that serves as a teaching tool, mapping different scenarios and asking the reader to construct winning outcomes. He said that he often studies strategies by laying out the diagrams on his Go board and contemplating the tactics that might be used.

Matthew Hershberger, a Queens resident, has been playing for more than 10 years. He said that when he found Go, he felt like he was discovering a new way to think.

"It's kind of hard to describe," he said. "I started playing chess when I was three—before I learned how to talk—and when I started playing chess, I felt like it changed the way I thought about everything. I never felt that way again until I started playing Go."

Hershberger, who has traveled to Korea to attend a school specializing in Go, said that when he first began playing, the game consumed his thoughts. He said that he would even dream about Go moves.

"It's like its own language," he said.

While most of the players on Tuesday nights are avid gamers who have studied Go for years, Armenia said that the group welcomes beginners as well.  

Karen Raphaeli, an Upper West Side resident and self-proclaimed beginner, said she was having tea in the shop when she noticed two men playing an intense game of Go. Her initial curiosity eventually led her to join in.

"It takes all of your brain and just fizzles it away because it's so challenging," she said. "After my first game, I felt like my brain was hungover. There was so much thinking." | @TraceyDWang

An earlier version of this article incorrectly said that gamers meet on Wednesday nights. Spectator regrets the error.

hungarian pastry shop games