The First British Go Congresses

These are personal reminiscences by Francis Roads, first published in BGJ 185 in 2018.

In this golden jubilee year of the British Go Congress, I offer a few reminiscences about the earliest ones, for those with shorter memories than mine. As far as I know the first time that players from more than one British club met to play tournament Go was at the 1966 European Go Congress at Avery Hill College in South East London. This was organised by our first president, John Barrs, and was the first of the six European Congresses that the BGA has organised. At that time there were half-a-dozen or so British Go clubs, including Bristol, Cambridge, Edinburgh, London, Manchester, and one or two others.

Unfortunately this event clashed with our honeymoon, so I decided to miss it (the congress, that is). In 1967 there was a short afternoon tournament in Oxford with only two rounds, and played on handicap.

Now the taste for tournaments had developed, and in 1968 the Oxford University club organised a weekend tournament at Jesus College, the first British Go Congress. There were thirty plus of us there. There were six rounds, all played on handicap, and the draw was worked out completely in advance, so that you knew at the beginning who all your opponents would be. Three-and-a-half rounds were played on the Saturday, with round four being suspended in the evening, and the playing room was locked overnight, the positions left on the board.

The six strongest players, who had reached the lofty rank of shodan, played in a separate even-game tournament to decide the British Championship. This system drew adverse comment from the 1-kyus, (or grade 20 as it was then) who had no chance to play stronger players.

After play had finished on the Saturday, some of us went out pubbing. When we got back to the college, we found it locked; they closed the gates at 11 pm during the vacation. I treasure the memory of John Barrs, then in his fifties, climbing into college with the rest of us in the traditional Oxford manner. You couldn’t do that nowadays, of course.

After round six the AGM of the BGA was held outside London for the first time, and was followed by an analysis of one of the championship games, I think involving Jon Diamond, John Tilley and Tony Goddard (now deceased).

The 1969 congress was held in Bristol, by way of being a dry run for the European Congress which was to be held there in 1971. The more sensible idea of playing three complete games on the Sunday was adopted at that stage. The format was the same as the previous year, but some effort was put into keeping opponents broadly of similar grades. At the AGM the numerical grading system was abandoned in favour of Japanese style dans and kyus.

In 1970 Cambridge University Go Club, following in Oxford’s footsteps, ran the congress in St John’s College. On the Saturday night a dinner party was held, a feature not repeated at any further congresses. Here the famous tetrahedron joke was related in public for the first time.

It was time to abandon the draw system which prevented 1-kyus from playing stronger players, the very people that they needed to beat in order to achieve dan status. After several alternatives had been considered, the BGA Committee as it was then, and on which I served, adopted the McMahon draw, which has since become standard in many parts of the world. It was based on a club grading system used at the New York Go Club, and introduced for the first time at the 1971 congress in Leeds.

And we got it wrong! As well as increasing your McMahon score by one point for a win, you also went down one for a loss. This meant that your score had a parity, and except for where a player was drawn up or down, we were in effect running two separate tournaments. That error was corrected at the 1972 congress in Woodford, North-East London. This tournament had a substantial French entry, as Go had yet to be organised in France.

The 1973 congress was in Edinburgh, and had the unique feature of lasting three days with seven rounds. It was felt that as many players would have had to travel a distance, they’d prefer a longer congress. The experiment has not been repeated.

From 1974 (Reading) the congress has had more or less its present pattern. In that year we had generous sponsorship from JAL, of a kind which we have never had since. There were BBC cameras about, in preparation for the Open Door TV programme which we made, which brought in 3,600 enquiries.

Moving the AGM to Saturday was my idea, during my presidency 1971-76. But there has been little further change in the format. As with other tournaments, there has been a gradual decline in attendance, partly because of Internet Go, and partly because of the availability of so many other tournaments. Until the first of the Wessex Tournaments started at Marlborough in 1970, there were no others.

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