AlphaGo vs. Ke Jie: Game One

Yesterday, on the first day of the Future of Go Summit in Wuzhen, China, Google DeepMind’s AlphaGo (9 dan professional) neatly defeated Ke Jie (9 dan professional), the nineteen-year-old ‘final hope’ for human players of the ancient game. I watched the live-stream and saw the thing unfold.

I have been playing Go for many years and I am currently ranked in the middle of the “single-digit kyu” section of the amateur rank table in both Europe and South Africa. I watched, mused and wrote while last year’s Google DeepMind Challenge Match saw the upstart’s robot beat Lee Sedol (9 dan professional) – the Roger Federer of Go. In March 2016, this was a huge surprise to me as a computer scientist and Go player: it was too soon. It was a decade too soon!

I watched as Deep Zen – another of these new-generation of deep-learning-powered hybrids – failed to repeat DeepMind’s achievement when matched against Cho Chikun (9 dan professional) – he of the crazy hair, the tea drinker, almost definitely the most well-known Go player alive.

I read the stories and perused the records from the sixty games played online by the mysterious character who identified as Magist or Master and was later revealed to be none other than a new revision of DeepMind’s AlphaGo. The engine won fifty-nine of those games – all sixty if you grant her a victory for one game that ended prematurely due to technical troubles on the human-player’s end – but, by the end of the year 2016, this outcome was a foregone conclusion in my mind.

From all the evidence, it appears that AlphaGo has walked the path from first victory by an algorithm against human champion to last victory of a human champion against an algorithm in about one year. In the Chess world, this took a decade or more.

I might be wrong. Tomorrow, Ke Jie might strike back – I hope he does. It seems unlikely.


Ke Jie (9 dan professional) and AlphaGo’s handler – I think thought he was Fán Huī (2 dan professional) but he was actually Aja Huang (5 dan amateur) – took their places at the game-board and, with a few official statements by the coordinators and the formality of nigiri, the colours where assigned and the game began. Ke Jie placed the first, black stone at the three-four point: komoku.

The first surprise of the game was Ke Jie’s second move: the three-three point in the corner opposite to his first. The second was white’s creation of a two-space corner-enclosure with both stones high, on the fourth-line. Ke Jie invaded a white corner insanely early and white played a cut that seemed, at first, to be a little senseless. The game was certainly not boring in any way, although none of these anti-traditional plays appeared crazy to the eyes of the audience: amateur and professional players, alike, who had had their eyes and minds opened to such new possibilities by previous AlphaGo games.

The fashion in which AlphaGo calmly but inexorably drew ahead was reminiscent of last year’s event. There were no major upsets. Trades and exchanges of territory happened without drama but they are to be expected at such a high level. By the end-game, white’s advantage was so marked that she could afford a few inefficiencies for the sake of certainty and safety.

The result was another victory for the software: white won by half a point.


Numerically, half a point is the smallest margin for victory that the rules of the game permit and such an outcome is only possible for reasons of tradition and aesthetics: a draw would be considered undesirable and so white is granted the half-point as a tie-breaker. Despite all that, this was a very comfortable victory for the bot.

You could see evidence of the bot’s confidence of victory in the moves that were played during the latter stages of the game as well as the moves that were not. Ke Jie was the one who seemed desperate to claim super-optimal points while AlphaGo seemed content to capture stones that might present a later risk and to sacrifice a point here or there to ensure safety over all.

After the game, during the atrociously translated press conference, Ke Jie praised AlphaGo as a deity, stated his will to learn from the bot and, somewhat contradictorily, mentioned that this event will be the last time he plays against an artificial intelligence.

Ke vowed never again to subject himself to the ‘horrible experience’,” wrote The Guardian.

The Guardian and many other western news-sources painted Ke Jie as a sore loser, siezing his words and quoting them next to an unfortunate photograph, both out of context. They called him glum and, if one did not know better, one might simply swallow such a tale.

Go is a intense, immersive and deeply emotional game even at my middling amateur level. I can only believe that it is more so at the top. Horror and displeasure are emotions. Humans feel them. I am sure that all professionals have had moments of horror in many games – perhaps in all their games. Not for a moment will I accept that Ke Jie was complaining about his plight.

I think he was actually talking in general about the experience of playing against a machine – a stance that is further supported by the fact that he went on to say that he found games against other human beings to be more rewarding and more enjoyable.

I agree with Ke Jie on this count. Playing against another human player adds emotional, psychological and social dimensions that are simply absent from machines and are even somewhat lacking when playing across the Internet. Between two humans, Go is a sharing of mental creativity and an intimate communication that has nothing to do with words or language.

It is also less of a blow to lose to another living person than to a machine or a nameless avatar. Be they your sworn enemy, life-long rival or simply a personality who grates on your nerves, there is still some camaraderie, good-will and friendship.


I will watch tomorrow’s game, eagerly, and I am seriously intrigued by the pair-go and team matches that will follow on Friday and Saturday but, for me, the novelty of this style of contest is starting to wear thin.

I feel there is no artistry in the Go that is played by the algorithm. The beauty and poetry is missing. That it approaches optimality is not in question but optimality is somewhat boring.

When a master studies the record of a game he can tell at which point greed overtook the pupil, when he became tired, when he fell into stupidity, and when the maid came in with the tea.” – anonymous.

Robots neither drink tea nor require rest. They feel no emotion and no such impulse from their opponent will flavour their actions.

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