The dots history. Part I

The origin of the game

board logic game dots play on paper

It is simple and complex at the same time to tell the story of dots. It is simple because the game has begun its independent existence quite recently and the main stages of its development took place before the most of today’s players’ eyes. It is difficult, because dots is the people’s game by its origin and status. No one can say exactly when and who invented the dots game. And the record, of course, also has not been conducted due to the absence of the official chroniclers. The game firmly occupied a niche as the fun of pupils and students, and it almost did not go beyond it. The maximum that could be achieved by a player was the honorary title of the champion of the school. The other players had to be satisfied with the titles of the medalists of their classes or the holders of the back of the classroom’s cup. In addition to the difficulties, the aforesaid created a real problem for the game’s history researchers. The players were divided into a huge number of isolated groups which almost didn’t intersect with each other. This led to the confusion in the interpretation of the game rules. The rules had to be negotiated almost before each game. Therefore, worse yet, this impeded the exchange of experience, limited the growth of the players’ skills, hindered the development of the game theory, and prevented the accumulation of any kind of traditions. As a result, the huge combinative potential of dots remained untapped. Promising young players had no paths for growth and they just gave up their passion. No one dedicated more than a few school or university years to the dots. No one generalized and codified the experience, no one wrote theoretical works and manuals. No one tried to popularize the game or tried to create at least some official entourage. Surely there were no true champions who could become examples to follow. So where can the history come from?

It can be stated for certain that the dots appeared in the Soviet Union and it arose as a variation of the go game. Then we can only guess. When did the dots appear? Why? Where? Let’s try to figure it out using the thematic press, memories of the players and elementary logic.

young technician magazine cover

Direct references to the dots haven’t been found in the Soviet newspapers and magazines yet. However, the articles devoted to go occasionally appeared. The earliest article written by the associate professor S. Ryshkov was published in the “Young technician” magazine in February 1962. The article was short, but the rules of go and the game equipment were described quite accurately without any distortions and simplifications. The author, of course, understood that the goban and the stones of two colors were hardly available to the readers of the magazine. Therefore he advised to use the chess board, buttons, pieces of cardboard and even sea pebbles. He didn’t mention the possibility of playing on paper. This publication became the starting point for the development of go in the Soviet Union. The official website of Karelian Go Federation describes this process as follows: "1965 may be considered the year of birth…. It was then in Leningrad… the go game enthusiast Filatov Y.P. created the first go club based in the Chigorin chess club in Leningrad. A year later dozens of sections and clubs were organized in institutes and enterprises of Leningrad. The mass tournaments with hundreds of participants were held. Due to the objective reasons Filatov Y.P. had to withdraw from his activity in spreading the go game. Having lost its ideological leader the movement of the go game fans was on the verge of collapse. However, there remained a handful of ardent followers who set another goal for themselves. Before fighting for the mass character of the game, it was necessary to improve their skills".

science and life magazine cover

Many years later the popular and authoritative “Science and Life” magazine turned to the subject of the go game. In August 1975 the first article in a series of publications under the general title of “School of go” was published (authors – Valery Astashkin and George Nilov). This series eventually stretched to 12 issues. It was already quite a serious and richly illustrated work with a detailed description of rules, analysis of the best players’ games and collection of exercises. The following points are interesting for us in this case. Firstly, the authors admitted that at that time the go game in the Soviet Union was cultivated only in Leningrad, where the clubs were and the competitions were held (the issue of November, 1975). Secondly, they ascertained the existence of the objective obstacle to the game spread: the lack of inventory. The issue of August 1975 had an interesting comment that some companies only considered the possibility of mass production of the inventory. Apparently, the authors themselves didn’t quite believe in the quick implementation of these plans. Therefore in the same issue we find such a recommendation: “A sheet of squared paper can be used for a single game. The playing field can be outlined with the bold lines. The moves in the game in this case should be drawn on paper“. Thirdly, having analyzed the correspondence with the readers, Astashkin and Nilov complained that the Soviet and the European players in general were brought up on the chess logic and they couldn’t fully understand the essence of the struggle for territory as well as the complex and ambiguous rules of the end of the game. Moreover, it was difficult for them to abandon the manner of playing by capturing the stones (the issues of December 1975 and June 1976).

Go game fans admit that a series of articles in the “Science and Life” gave a powerful stimulus to the development of the go game in the Soviet Union. Once again we resort to the site of the Karelian federation: “In these articles a competition in solving the go puzzles was announced. There were more than 2,500 participants from various parts of the Soviet Union. As a result, about 85 clubs of the go game were formed in more than 30 cities across the country… In 1976-1979 the go game was rapidly developing. There appeared plenty of enthusiasts who were ready to try their hand at go. It was then that a number of largest clubs of go emerged… Big tournaments were held in Leningrad, Kazan, Sochi, Moscow“.

Let’s carry out an elementary analysis of the foresaid.

It is obvious that the dots couldn’t appear before the widespread of the game, which became its prototype. Considering initially amateur status of dots, the request for its emergence and distribution could be generated only by a fairly massive interest in go. Especially since the main audience of dots has always been the studying young people who were divided, due to the objective reasons, into a large number of isolated communities. Such communities were united by nothing but youth and popular scientific publications (there was no printed or oral evidence that the Komsomol or the Young Pioneers participated in the distribution of dots). The spontaneous process of dots emergence is confirmed by the numerous variations of rules and also by the fact that no one has ever tried to claim the authorship.

The article in “Young technician” in 1962 led to the emergence of a small group of go enthusiasts in Leningrad, but it didn’t and couldn’t cause the mass interest. Neither the laconism of the article nor the small publication circulation of 250 thousand copies contributed to it. The series of publications in the “Science and Life” was quite another matter. In the Soviet Union this magazine enjoyed the well-deserved reputation and had the circulation of 3 million copies. If we consider the fact that the “School of go” was printed for twelve consecutive months, the colossal scale of audience coverage will become clear: about 36 million copies were spread across the country.

There exists an assumption that the go game was brought to the Soviet Union in the 1950s by the Chinese communists, and the dots appeared in the 1960s. This version seems wrong. Firstly, if the game had been really brought to the Soviet Union by the Chinese people, it would have been called weiqi. We believe there is no need to explain why the use of the Japanese names by the Chinese was absolutely impossible, especially only a few years after the end of World War II. Secondly, such “cultural exchange” has not been mentioned in the Soviet press.

Consequently, the dots could appear neither in the 1960s nor in the early 1970s, because there were no prerequisites for this (technical included). We shouldn’t forget that the ballpoint pens came into mass use at the Soviet schools only in the early 1970s. It is hard to imagine the dots game played with an ink pen. Also the paper ceased to be something valuable only with the growth of its manufacture which reached its peak in the early 1980s.

On the other hand, there is a lot of evidence that the dots were quite common at the Soviet schools and other educational institutions in the mid-1980s. Some witnesses say that they played dots even in the late 1970s. Taking into account the aforementioned fragmentation of the students’ community as well as the absence of the electronic media we can confidently assume that the dots would have needed several years to gain the universal popularity.

As a result, we can trace a fairly clear correlation between the series of articles in the “Science and Life”, the rapid growth of interest in the go game and the emergence of the dots game as its people’s version. Therefore, we should refer the dots’ date of birth to the second half of the 1970s.

science and life magazine

The causes of the dots appearance are quite clear. The huge interest in the go game, roused by Astashkin’s and Nilov’s articles, demanded realization. Competitive and combination potential of go was visible with the naked eye. The charm of novelty also took its effect. However, the indispensable attributes of go (the board and the stones) were unavailable for the vast majority of Soviet schoolchildren and students. But everyone could see the obvious analogue of the goban – a sheet of squared paper. Moreover, the authors of the “School of go” hinted at such an alternative in their first article. But it was impossible to play a classic go game on paper because the painted stones couldn’t be taken off, and it was not convenient to constantly cross them out and draw them again. Apparently, this contradiction became the crucial factor that made go’s and dots’ ways part for the first time. Then the other factors took their effect. Firstly, the complex and vague rules of go and the sophisticated terms for the numerous game elements couldn’t be described briefly. It took 12 articles by Astashkin and Nilov. But not every potential player had the opportunity to collect all of them. Someone could have a few issues of the magazine, and someone could have just one. Therefore, the creative adaptation was inevitable. Secondly, a lot of rules of go were really illogical from the Europeans’ point of view. They required a clear goal of the game, a definite criterion for determining the winner and a simple method of scoring. Along with the inability to remove the stones from the board, this led to the solution which lay on the surface: to play for the capture of dots paying no attention to the territory. The philosophical component of go had a vague chance to settle down because the Soviet youth was primarily interested in the competition and not in the alien ideology.

We believe there was no single center of the dots appearance. Millions of copies of the “Science and Life” magazine were quickly spread across the country. The geography of the reader’s response was very wide and the go adaptation methods were predictable. Then, apparently, the so called “pioneers’ radio” played its part. Pupils from the different parts of the Soviet Union met in the summer camps, and the students met at the various gatherings, the Komsomol congresses and harvesting. A simple and fascinating game fell into the ideal environment and quickly became popular.

How dots got to the countries of the Eastern Europe is debatable. On the one hand, the Polish rules of dots differ from those to which the Soviet and Russian players are accustomed, because the Poles consider not only the captured dots, but the territory as well. On the other hand, both variants are practiced in the Czech Republic. It seems likely that dots came to these countries from the Soviet Union, but the development of the game rules was influenced by the fact that the classical go had become widespread in Europe much earlier than in the Soviet Union. Therefore, the rejection of its basic principles was not so radical.

The 1980s and the 1990s were the golden age of the “paper” dots. The basic rules of the game, which are still used nowadays, were determined at that time. The game usually continued until the whole field was filled, the players tried to encircle the rival’s dots using the maximum path. An extra move after the capture of the opponent’s dots was widely practiced. “Houses” were not common. It was not usually allowed to put the dots into the encircled area (even empty).

intellectual games magazine cover

Towards the end of that period the main stereotypes of dots were established. The game was considered nothing but a frivolous fun puzzle for the pupils and students. No one thought about the game’s prospects. The growth of the popularity of go in the 1990s and the 2000s only intensified these negative trends. The relation to the ancient oriental game that had given dots its start in life earlier, became a kind of curse. It’s not a secret that the go players have always treated dots with disdain, considering it only a simpler copy of the original and, at best, the first step towards it. The typical example of such attitude is seen in the following passage: “You may try to play on the squared paper, but it will be a popular school game “feudal” or “dots”. One go player told me that once he had met the school’s champion in “dots”. Having a vague idea about the rules, he had easily beaten the champion. This had caused the tears and disbelief (“And you said that you couldn’t play!”). No, it is not a conversation in the smoking room, it is a passage from the article “Elementary technique of go” published in the “Mind games” magazine in January 2005. It is difficult to say either snobbery or stupidity prevails in this passage. Even if we pay no attention to the style that suits a spiteful, but not very clever pupil, more than the fan of the philosophy-based game, as well as to the credibility of such a source as “one go player” (that strongly resembles the popular stamp “an old woman said”), we should admit that the author doesn’t understand or doesn’t want to understand the obvious things. How can you compare the amateur who has played for a few years with the fans like himself, with a player belonging to the long-existing sports discipline, with a rich information basis and a well-established competitive mechanism (a “vague” knowledge of rules is an absurd excuse, because the games are very alike)? It’s like organizing the fight between the professional middle-weight boxer and the best fighter of the school playground. What will the result of this fight prove? Nothing but the dishonesty of the organizer.

The confrontation between the “go players” and the “dots players” is a separate subject. Meantime, we will try to answer one very important question. Is the dots game necessary at all? Isn’t it really just a parody of go?

The game is necessary! It’s not a parody!

Dots has existed for over thirty years. Millions of people fell in love with this game over these years. No one can ignore this fact. Especially when we consider that the popularity of dots is based solely on the amateur enthusiasm. Dots has never been artificially spread or promoted. Nothing had been invested in dots until the recent period (in contrast to the go game). However, the game is still alive.

Children’s fun? It’s a silly stereotype. We know a lot of middle-aged people who enjoy playing dots in their free time.

Too simple? But who said that the quality of the game depended on its complexity and the vague rules? Under such criteria, chess and checkers as well can’t be called full-fledged intellectual combat too. Besides, it is not possible to estimate the real sports potential of dots without their reaching more or less professional level.

They say the dots game hasn’t got any traditions. But where can they come from? Go has accumulated them for the thousands of years. Dots had only thirty years for this. Accusing it in the lack of traditions is like blaming the baby for the inability to distinguish between the cognac and the beer glasses.

Dots hasn’t got the formal structure and the regular competitions aren’t held. But a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. Go also began as a single club in Leningrad nestling close by its senior fellows - chess players.

Dots is not a part of the rich philosophical system. Isn’t the value of this phenomenon a bit exaggerated? It’s widely known that the Asian culture tends to creating abstract concepts on any occasion. These concepts are always elegantly and vaguely described and richly illustrated. Should we copy all this thoughtlessly? There was the time when our country had a craze for oriental martial arts roused by the legends about the secret knowledge and the unprecedented power of the Chinese monks and the Japanese ninjas. And all this left nothing behind but a pair of beautiful hieroglyphs, gymnastics of the Chinese pensioners and some absurd Hollywood movies which can’t be watched without laughing.

dots game the position

Dots is a domestic phenomenon, as well as Sambo or the Russian hockey. It was not specially invented. It appeared spontaneously as a reflection of our (in this case we mean all the republics of the former USSR) ideas of how a strategy game combining the analysis and the spatial thinking should look like. This game is not better or worse than go. It’s a different game. Thereupon I would like to object to the author of the set stamp, which was even stated in the Wikipedia article devoted to dots: «the game ... appeared ... because of the incorrect interpretation of the rules ... of go». The concept of correctness can’t be applied in this case. As it can’t be applied, for example, in the case of the American football. We believe that no one in their right mind would try to prove to the American that his favorite sport appeared due to the incorrect interpretation of Soccer rules. He just wouldn’t understand. And he would be right.

Alexander Parfenov. October 24, 2015

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