Ian Davis / Decline

Sub-page of IanDavis

A short essay on the Decline of Go in the UK

The inspiration for this page came from [ext] Pok's Go Space, which is an excellent web site covering Go in Austria. It seems true to me that Go in the UK has somehow lost its way. This page is not about to point the finger of blame in anyone in particular. The BGA formed in the year 1953. Led by Jon Diamond and Tony Goddard, they became one of the 'big six' nations in European Go. Membership figures peaked during the time of the London Go Centre, at 1048 in 1975. The pinnacle of peformance came with Matthew Macfadyen's European titles in the 1980s. Since these highpoints, what has happened to British Go? Well, it has gradually gone downhill. There was no sudden implosion, no terrible incident, just a steady decline. What reasons could there be to explain this sad fact? Let us take a look at various candidates.

Tragedy

It is a sad fact of life that people die far too young. Would that the BGA be could be immune to that, but of course it is not the case. I would pick out two key persons in the short history so far, whose death can be said to have had a significant negative impact on British Go. Other key players have, of course, been lost to other circumstancial foes.

  • Brian Castledine. At the time of his death, not only was he a President, but he was also one of the strongest players, having challenged for the title in 1978. He was killed in an acidental cliff fall in 1979. Volunteers have always been hard to come by, so losing a key figure in such a sudden manner is a blow to any amateur organisation. Under Brian, the [ext] schools plan was being driven forward.
  • Terry Stacey. When we look at contenders for Macfadyen's crown, Terry is the only native player who actually got the better of him. Although he didn't quite share Matthew's success at the European Level, he was an active, and clearly beneficial player for the general scene. To lose him, in his prime, in a motorcyle accident, was a big loss indeed. Terry Stacey died in 1988.

Watford Gap Syndrome

Authority in BGA seems continually to have resided around London. This is not entirely surprising, given the population distribution of the UK. It is precisely these distributions, and the increasingly poor transportation networks of the UK, that can foster a sense of internal isolation. It is hard to see how the BGA can, or could have, countered this. Certainly, it moves the British Go Congress around the country in an effort to stay national. Nevertheless, the lack of activity in certain areas, is bound to prove a dampener on the uptake of Go there. One nice example of this is at around the time of the London Go Centre. Then, the BGA council sacked the journal editor team in Bristol, and gave the job to a team in London. [ext] Two letters then appear in the next journal. (I can't help but suspect that they were not both written in complete isolation.) In more modern times, you will hear people gripe a little at things like the Candidates tournament moving to Edinburgh 1 year. People will gripe from 2 angles of course, those who don't want to leave the population hub, and those who want the event to come outside the population hub.

Planning

It could be said that the BGA lacks whole board vision. I am not genuinely sure that this has been the case. However, one can find letters making said accusation throughout its history. David Mitchell's [ext] letter is a prime example of this, pointing out that progress is painfully slow, and that (sometimes) Go players can be brought together to do things. The two instances he cites (Go Press and Shusai) soon ceased to exist after his letter. It can be said that he does have a point, the BGA does not have a solid plan to expand its membership. Perhaps it has concluded that no viable plan exists. In the 1991 a [ext] letter appeared claiming that Go would never overtake Chess, it met with criticism, but it seems accurate. Eventually, when membership dropped by around 30%, the official response was to say "The BGA is doing okay, relatively". I still can't fathom how a President can state that and not meet with any open criticism from the membership base. Perhaps though, that is reflective of the fatigue existing members have, with knowing how hard it is to recruit new players.

Youth

Teachers who play Go are, as it were, a gift from heaven. Much of the youth work in the UK has been performed by them. By the 1970s, the BGA had realised it needed to create a structured program to break into schools. At that point in time, 3rd level education was well covered. Since then, it can be said that this is not an area that has been significantly neglected. GoZone?, the Youth Grand Prix, a Youth Championship, the DFK league. All of these initiatives are to the credit of the organisation. Peter Wendes also present the game to thousands of schoolchildren every year. What we can point to, is the lack of higher level tuition for any of the youth players. There is a curious lack of desire to drive the kids forward through the ranks. Should some kind of official youth squad exist?

Championship

The British Championship, in terms of player aspirations, should clearly be one of the focal points for ambitious improving players, as well as established top players. Yet, it is a system that has seen a good deal of instablilty over the years. In part, this can be put down to the changing shape of the organisation. In recent years, however, this excuse fades away. Probably the reforms instituted at around the turn of the century, are the key example of bad policy. Given the tournament system prevalent in the UK at that point, they served merely to perpetuate a static elite. Little, or no, encouragement was given to the upcoming players. See Charles Matthew's letters [ext] a and [ext] b for an accurate and withering attack on this.

International Representation

Most selection policies are based around certain key ideas. The basic strength of the players. The activity within the circuit or the game. The potential of the player to benefit. BGA policy initially focused on strength, but it was decided, quite rationally, that the benefits of a free trip to Japan, and the opportunity to learn, should be spread around a little more. The initial selection system chosen for the WAGC was, initially completely adequate. Initially. As time went by, you only had to look at the sprawling points table to notice the adjustment that was needed.

Subsequent systems, including those for other events, have had the same marked defect. Too much weight is placed upon the history of the player. That is, a player consistently scoring a paucity of points over a period of 30 years, may at last be chosen to travel to some international title event. This reward is at the expense of the up and coming players. Achieving a balance on this problem would not be a difficult task, but it is simply not attempted. This is, undoubtedly because it was never seen as a problem. When, in 2010, a change was made, it was then ignored the very next year.

Another point to make here, is that Council simply forgot to pick players for the European Student Championship for 3 years in a row. The European Pair Go Championships also suffered from such neglect. Such failures may seem minor, compared to its forgetting to send a candidate to the WAGC in 2012, but I believe they are not so. At precisely such a time as when there was a lack of new students emerging, the BGA neglected in its duty to encourage them via international selection. This all points to a suspicion on my part that the BGA does not rate highly the merits of international competition. When I say BGA here, I suppose that the natural assumption is that I am talking only about Council, but actually I would point the finger at the entire organisation. Even in 2015 the KPMC selection was ignored without comment.

Internet

Sometimes people playing Go on the internet is said to be a curse! It saps the hunger to meet up with other Go players in real life. Clubs, tournaments, membership will suffer.. blah, blah. Initially the BGA was anti-internet Go. I believe that this was a terrible mistake to make. In the beginning, there was absolutely no planning on how to use this new development. Even today, I think there is still little idea. Broadcasting Championship games, this is a useful activity! Where are the other activites? Structured teaching? Tournaments? National leagues? Friendship matches? It took a decade for any of these to come about, which is incredibly sad and backward. Especially so, considering the quality of the BGA's website, which has, from its inception, been a continuing example of best practice to others.

I'm alright Jack

This is more a question of prevailing social attitudes. The volunteer is proving to be more and more in short supply. This is probably because everyone is working longer hours these days, and doesn't have the time anymore. The consumer is also more demanding these days. Tolerance for what the BGA might offer may have dropped somewhat, and the questions of "What's in it for me mate?" and "I want me moneysworth guv'nor" are now asked with more venom than before. Not of course that this can be viewed only in a negative fashion, it is important for the BGA to able to highlight what it is actually good for, and why you should join it. In my opinion, that is something it's been able to do. It does however have a surprisingly large number of people who refuse to join up on principle, but demand to be a part of the community - something of an OpenForce? movement.

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A short essay on the Decline of KGS

When I was first starting out learning to play Go, really enjoying the game, no other server captured my imagination the way that KGS did. After 10 years, it goes without saying that I would struggle to find it new. After 10 years I also sometimes struggle to enjoy online Go there, but that's just me. What has changed for me is the organisation behind the server.
The first stream is development, which naturally enough went from vibrant to stagnant. Although you can cope with stagnant when it is fully functional, when things go wrong you want to fix them - Crashes, Security Holes, Stalled HTML5 Web App, Deteriorating Android Client, and even a broken Help wiki. Now, there is nobody (yes, nobody) to fix any of these issues, apart from crashes. Generally, this curtails new players arriving to the server, and annoys old players who can be forced to go elsewhere if they hadn't already felt like going elsewhere.
This is one aspect, which is an important and visible one. The second is the difference in management. KGS used to be run from France, and at some point, which we could go into but we don't really need to, it went to the USA & Germany. When I say run, I am talking not about development, but about management. Responding to day to day user queries, managing KGS+, managing admin activities, managing server policy. Probably as a consequence of what we already saw, this then ended up going to only the USA. The scope of what was done narrowed.
Whether or not the two are linked, you cannot say, but you can see that the popularity of KGS+, which was in itself an enormously great thing, has really, really dropped. As a former senior admin, who managed a lot of those events, that made me sad. It still churns out some great lectures for beginners, but participation in those is just embarrassingly low sometimes.
The last straw for me was really the realisation that there was a complete disconnect at some point in the mindset of those involved in running it from behind the scenes (or the back door). The basic mindset that KGS should be there to watch in silence (without any comments) a middling to slow game by a 9-dan, and that noisy children were thwarting that. That is to say W1 that the behaviour of the users of KGS were making KGS unpopular, and W2 that computer programs were making KGS unpopular. For W1 we have to raise an eyebrow and smile, for W2 it is important to understand the background a little. Playing a robot with handicap stones is a very popular activity to gain a rank, and by doing so you can gain a fake rank. People doing this, at high dan level only, was making KGS unpopular because 9 dans like to play against genuinely strong players rather than some n00b who has a fake rank. That's an idea which could gain some support, but the solution was not forthcoming: KGS GTP was not altered to help robot owners avoid handicap games, the ability to freely make Multiple accounts was not altered, KGS Policy on the subject was not even publicly altered.
Of course, the first two points cannot really be altered unless you have a developer, but if you have a developer you can quickly fix at least 1 of those. What annoyed me about the emerging mess was that there was no management opinion on this, an action point being outstanding on the last 1 of those points. It was then, that a series of backstage, unseen events which might seem relatively minor in the life of a senior admin, suddenly flashed up the red and amber light simultaneously. I realised that not only was there no development on KGS any longer, but there was also no communication with the users anymore on KGS. The road was closed, but there was no notice to that effect, and people were driving into a mucky puddle.


Ian Davis / Decline last edited by VanMorrison on May 28, 2018 - 15:57
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