Pok's Go Space

Go — An Austrian Affair?

The Beginnings of Go in Austria and Central Europe

Bruno Rüger, the tireless long-term editor of the German Go Journal (Deutsche Go-Zeitung) between 1920 and 1944, once remarked that Go before the First World War was "a mostly Austrian affair." Subsequent authors of Austrian Go history have proudly recorded this statement (Susan 1987, p. 5) but is it really true? Was Go in Europe known at all before the First World War? And how was it possible to learn it at that time? In this short overview of Austrian Go history we will see that Austria was indeed among the leading go nations of the Western World, if almost always overshadowed by Germany. In the 1910s and in the 1970ies, however, Austrian players were for a short time truly at the top of the Western Go World.

The formative period of European Go

Up to the 19th century Go is mentioned in scattered travelogues, but we do not find any serious attempts to spread the game in Europe. According to Franco Pratesi (Eurogo I, S. 63-67), the first systematic description of Go was authored by the famous British scholar-diplomat Herbert Giles and was published as Weichi or the Chinese Game of War in 1877. If this description had found a broader readership, Go would be probably known by its Chinese name Weichi (or Weiqi) today. Yet, in spite of his own enthusiasm, Giles did not manage to spread the game effectively among his fellow countrymen.

Short time later, in 1880, a young German university lecturer in Tokyo, Oskar Korschelt (1853-1940), published a detailed essay on Go in the scientific journal Mitteilungen der Gesellschaft für Natur- und Völkerkunde Ostasiens. The essay was also published in 1881 as a monograph called “The Japanese-Chinese Game of Go, a rival of Chess“ (Das japanisch-chinesische Spiel Go, ein Concurrent des Schach). This publication initiated a modest Go boom in German speaking countries that occurred only much later at other places in Europe. Apparently, Korschelt's article was translated into English as early as 1902 by some Go-pioneers from New Zealand (see links below) but to a wider English-speaking audience it came to be known only in 1965, in the form of a book called The Theory and Practice of Go .

Korschelt's essay starts with a historical overview of the game, explains the rules in detail, and goes on to present twelve example games, about 150 Go problems of quite different levels of complicacy, and even some yose and fuseki theory. Korschelt himself, by the way, had learned the game from the then leading Japanese player Honinbo Murase Shuho (8 dan) who was also his main informant on Go. Since Korschelt himself understood probably only a small portion of the material presented, however, his essay was all but suited to teach Go to beginners. On the other hand, this might have been precisely the right strategy to arouse some interest for Go at all at that time. As Korschelt indicates in the subtitle, he tried to demonstrate that Go was at least as complex as Chess. While this claim generally met with disbelief, some Chess players were indeed the first to show interest in the game. Had Korschelt not exhibited the profound complexity of Go, no good Chess players may have found it worth studying.  

Korschelt’s seeds bore first fruits in the Chess circles of Leipzig where Korschelt himself settled down after his return to Germany. Already in 1882 Richard Schurig, a Chess player from Leipzig, published descriptions of Go in a German Chess magazine. They were clearly based on Korschelt but didactically more advanced and made Go known at least by name among German-speaking Chess communities.

The first German Go Journal

Around the turn of the century, Go-circles seem to have popped up at several places in Germany and Austria, but most of them did not last for long. In any case, the dominance of Austrian Go mentioned above was not yet visible. It became apparent only in the last years of the Austrian monarchy, when Leopold Pfaundler (1839-1920), a university professor of physics in Graz, became active in Go matters. In 1908 he published another introduction to the game in Leipzig(!) and in 1909 he started the first German Go Journal (Deutsche Gozeitung) which he issued at a monthly pace. Every issue contained only a few pages, but these were very neatly edited and even furnished with a special logo, while the text itself was written by hand. The Go material was mostly taken from Korschelt, but some problems were also invented by the readers of the journal themselves.

The first issue of Pfaundler’s journal contains a list of subscribers which is of great historical interest. It comprises 47 names, professions, and addresses of Go players that provide a first clue to the number and distribution of players at that time (see also the map to the left). Many players were scientists like Pfaundler himself. According to the former Austrian Go champion Helmut Wiltschek who studied physics in the 1960ies, the famous Austrian physicist Lise Meitner was also fond of Go and may even have played it with Albert Einstein but none of them is included in Pfaundler’s list.

In spite of these promising beginnings, Pfaundler reported after only one year of publishing work that the original circle of his readers had not expanded, but had dropped down from 47 to 44. This seems to have damped his enthusiasm and led to an early termination of the first German Go Journal. There was, however, a certain Bruno Rüger (1886-1972) from Berlin among Pfaundler's readers. Rüger followed Pfaundler's footsteps and soon became the most active author of Go literature in Germany. In the midst of the First World War, he wrote an introductory pamphlet on Go that was published in 10.000 copies. In 1920, a more comprehensive "Instruction to the Game of Go" (a "milestone" in the words of contemporary players) followed. In the same year, Rüger also started the Deutsche Go-Zeitung (DGoZ) again, which was no longer as carefully edited as Pfaundler's yet it met with more success. In fact, it has been continued (with a few interceptions) up to the present. Rüger's editorial activities were certainly the biggest contribution to the spread of Go before WW2, not only in Germany but also in Austria and other parts of Central Europe. The initiative to his work, however, came from Pfaundler in Graz, which is probably the reason why Rüger called the early history of Go in Europe a rather "Austrian affair."

Go in Berlin: the two Laskers

In Pfaundler’s subscription list we find two men by the name of Lasker. Both lived in Berlin, both were excellent Chess players and both learned Go at about the same time but they were, strangely enough, not directly related to each other. One of them — sources vary on which one — left the famous remark:

While the baroque rules of Chess could only have been created by humans, the rules of Go are so elegant, organic, and rigorously logical that if intelligent life forms exist elsewhere in the universe, they almost certainly play Go.

Emanuel Lasker (1868-1941) is certainly the more famous since he was world champion of Chess from 1897-1921. Like Edward, he started playing Go in the early years of the 20th century, but his most active time was at the end of his Chess career in the 1920ies and 30ies when he advanced far enough to beat the strongest player Felix Dueball one time or another. Since he was of Jewish origin, however, he had to leave Germany and ended his live 1941 in his New York exile.

Regarding the history of Go, Edward (Eduard) Lasker (1885-1981) was perhaps the greater enthusiast and the more important figure. According to his memoirs, he learned the game from reading Korschelt and from a newspaper left in a Chess café by a Japanese customer around 1905. Together with Emanuel Lasker he formed a small circle of chess players who studied Go under the guidance of a Japanese student. When the Laskers got the chance to play a Japanese Shodan and lost with nine stones, Edward decided to go to Japan to study the game more seriously. Due to the war, he ended up in New York in 1914. Being the strongest Go player of non-Asian origin he devoted much energy to the spread of the game in the United States. He became a co-founder of the American Go Association and published Go and Gomoku in 1934, a book on Go that became quite successful. Incidentally, he also went from rags to riches, becoming a wealthy businessman in the USA.

Go in the Navy of the Austrian Monarchy

pfaundlers logo

The fact, that Go circles existed at all in these days, was not only due to the scattered publications of a few academics or the escapades of some Chess players. A stubborn officer from the Imperial navy of Austria also played a certain role in this play. This man was Arthur Jonak von Freyenwald also known as "Go-god Jonak." Jonak seems to have come in touch with the game in the course of some military excursions to East Asia, shortly before the First World War. At the time of the War he served in Pola (now Pula, in the North of Croatia) then the biggest navy base of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy. Obviously he found enough leisure time there to study Go extensively. He studied the game not only by himself, however, he also forbade his underlings to indulge in the popular game of Chess and urged them to play Go instead. As is described in more detail in Alfred Nimmerrichter's article, he even had a Chinese soldier translate a book of Go that was, however, written in Japanese. When the Chinese soldier pointed out that Japanese and Chinese were different, Jonak refused to believe and put him in jail to translate the text there. Thus he finally got his translation (how ever meaningful it was).

Jonak also wrote letters to a Go friend from which we know that he corresponded with Pfaundler and Rüger and that he planned to establish a Go Association for German and Austrian players. In the last days of the war, however, Jonak fell victim to an accident that was due to his own obstinacy. He had soldiers fill a boat with mines and hurried them along until one of the mines exploded and killed him and eight of his men. In terms of the spread of Go, however, his inhumanity did not lead to such disastrous consequences. Among the officers under Jonak's command many contributed to the spread of Go after WW1. These players included Captain Carl Fröschl, later the leading Go player in Vienna, and Captain Erwin Fink, who founded Go in Slovenia.

According to Erwin Fink, Jonak's role appears in a more positive light than in the above account based on stories by Alfred Nimmerrichter and, ultimately, by Carl Fröschl. In any event it is safe to say that Jonak's contribution to the spread of European Go is by no means to be neglected. Let me underline this by citing directly from a report by Erwin Fink written in 1974:

With great will and energy did Jonak strive to acquire new converts to his game, mostly among younger Navy officers. In a short time he attracted a number of enthusiastic go players. They in their turn attracted yet more players, until it became rather like an epidemic. Go was played on board ships, in coffee houses, in Navy clubs etc. Soon go sets with glass stones and a folding board were available in a Pula bookshop. It was Jonak who did most to spread the game, and for his devotion and tireless activity he got the name "Jonak, god of Go". - After Jonak’s death in the war, our go club had no leader anymore. Flames of the "go-fire" in Pula died out and winds scattered the sparks of the glowing fire. There had been more than 200 active go players in our club, and I think it was the strongest, and certainly largest go club in Europe, at least before 1918.

Source: British Go Journal No. 55 , 1982

Before WW II

In the 1920ies, the center of European Go shifted back from Austria to Germany, primarily due to the activities of Bruno Rüger. Rüger’s Journal kept the Go community up-to-date with reports about the Japanese Go elite. In turn, Japan seems to have taken notice of European Go probably from the 1920ies onward. In 1925 Kageyama, a professional 5 dan, visited Germany, and in 1930 the leading German player, Felix Dueball (1879-1970), was invited by a Japanese millionaire to spend a year in Japan and study Go. At that time the readership of Rüger's Go-Zeitung went up to about one-hundred. The Austrian readers, however, dropped back to about ten subscribers.

On the other hand, Go players in Austria and Germany should not be seen as two different bodies of organization as today, but rather formed a single, loosely structured network. This development was of course politically strengthened after Austria's Anschluss to Nazi-Germany, but existed already long before. In the 1930ies, Felix Dueball and his son Fritz dominated the German-speaking scene, but in regard to the spread of Go information the Viennese "language genious" Dr. Eduard Nonnenmacher (1871-1942), a school teacher, contributed significantly to the Deutsche Go-Zeitung by providing loads of translations of Japanese material. German and Austrian players even developed their own, peculiar ranking system, which was only gradually replaced by kyu and dan ranks after WW2.

According to Franco Pratesi, the Nazi period influenced the spread of Go in two directions. On the one hand, large parts of the Go population were Jews who were either murdered or driven into exile. On the other hand, Go was supported by the Nazi regime since it belonged to the culture of allied Japan. In the Second World War, however, the first boom time of Go in the German speaking realm finally came to an end.

Post-war reconstruction

After the war it took some time until Go recovered and a new Go-scene took shape. In Vienna Go-veterans from the prewar period, such as Carl Fröschl and Friedrich Susan, were joined by younger players, as for instance Alfred Nimmerrichter who was very active in organizing tournaments. In the 1950ies, about 30 players met several times a week in Vienna's Cafe Bauernfeld. Thus, Vienna was one of the biggest centers of Go in the German-speaking realm of that time. Nimmerrichter who worked as a journalist also published a journal of Go and later acted for many years as the president of the Austrian Go Federation.

From 1953 a tournament to decide the Austrian champion was held on a regular base, and in 1957 a national Go association, the "Austrian Go-Club", was formed. Incidentally, in the same year the first "European Go-Congress" was held in Germany. The attribute "European" was probably added in the hope to attract players from various countries, but in reality only four out of 30 participants were not from Germany (besides two Austrians one came from the Netherlands and one from USA). At the next European Congress, which was held in Austria, Austrian players naturally increased, but it took several years before the event could be rightfully called a "European" championship.

Japan continued to take notice of these developments of European Go. This interest manifested itself in the distribution of Japanese Dan diploma to the German and Austrian playing elite. Pre-war champion Felix Dueball received several of such diplomas and on his 80th birthday was even knighted to Five Dan, while the leading Austrian player Friedrich Susan was recognized as Two Dan in 1959. His competitors Fröschl, Nimmerrichter and Grünauer received Shodan Diploma at the same occasion.

dan diplome

The 1960ies and 70ies were something like the Golden Age of Austrian Go, which saw the emergence of a new, strong generation of top players, such as Helmut Wiltschek and Manfred Wimmer. Later, Ernst Novak and finally Helmut Hasibeder counted among the top players of all Europe. Yet, for reasons, which appear to me at the same time too boring and too ridiculous to reconstruct them in detail, the Go-scene in Vienna split into two opposing camps in the late 70ies. This conflict entailed even a court-suit and paralyzed Austrian Go for years.

In the 1980ies these circumstances led to a steady decrease of the Austrian Go population which lasted until the first years of the new century. In recent years, however, new enthusiasm has inspired the scene and new faces are going to show up again.

Pok, 2003-2009

last changes added in Jan. 2009