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The Game of Go

Updated on August 20, 2014

The simplist, most complex game in the world

The board game commonly called "Go" in English, originated in Asia. It is basically a war game, where each side tries to take territory and capture the opponent's assets. A board (usually wooden) is crosshatched with straight lines, 19 in each direction. The pieces consist of black stones traditionally made of slate and white stones traditionally made of shell. As with most games, players take turns making moves.

The rules are deceptively simple. A player places a stone on the board, on an intersection of a horizontal and a vertical line. Then the other player places one. An empty space, or collection of intersections, is surrounded whenever there are stones adjacent to each other, either in line or diagonally, all around the space. Two stones placed diagonally is only an offensive connection. It cannot be used defensively, because the other player can place two of his stones in the other two intersections, diagonally in the opposite direction, and he has a connection, too. Horizontal or vertical connections are both offensive and defensive.

In order to be able to keep a territory, there must be sufficient area so that double eyes can be formed, or the double eyes have to exist. A double eye consists of two empty intersections, surrounded by a single connected group of stones.

I first learned Go when I was in high school. I had been an avid chess fan, playing over lunch each schoolday, but the moment I learned Go, I abandoned chess cold turkey!

The stones in this image show that black will take the corner, which is desirable because it takes fewer stones (however, it is a stronger position for white because it walls off black and faces an empty center). The image is part of a larger image by Brian Jeffery Beggerly, under the Creative Commons generic license 2.0, attribution and share alike. I use the same image in its entirety later on in the Lens. The other image is in the public domain.

Rank, Handicaps

Players are ranked according to wins and losses, and the ranks of opponents. There are 27 kyu ranks. The lowest rank is 27 kyu, and highest is 1 kyu. There are also 9 or 10 dan ranks, depending on the rules of the organization, and the ranks of players in one organization may be two below or above the equivalent rank in another organization. The lowest dan rank is 1 dan or shodan. There are only a couple of players in the world who have earned the rank of 9 or 10 dan.

Black is given to the weaker player. If there is no handicap, he plays first. Handicaps are given according to the scores of previous games. If a black player consistently loses by about 40 points, to a particular opponent, he will get a 4 stone handicap. The highest handicap normally given is 9 stones. They are placed on the prominent intersections on the board, and then white goes first. The handicap system makes the play more competitive and interesting.

I rarely play Go anymore, even though I am still fascinated by the game. At the time I played regularly, I think I had a rank of around 5 kyu.

To illustrate just how difficult this game is, writing a computer program that can play against any dan player and stand a chance of winning, is virtually impossible. Usually even a 1 dan will wipe the computer out. There have been some improvements in computer programs, but as far as I know, they are still fairly primitive. This is a problem that has been worked on for decades.

Holding and playing the stones - Asian formalities

Typically, anything developed in Asia has some very complex forms of protocol.

In Go, the stones are held as shown, between the 2nd and 3rd finger (piano fingering), and are slapped down on the board with a distinct klunk! They don't have to be dead-on center on the intersection.

Go is called Weiqi in China and Baduk in Korea. Betting on games is common in Korea. Our son sent us a photo of people playing Baduk in the snow, outside, at night, in Korea. They are very serious about the game.

In Japan, people are also very serious. It is pursued to excellence. It takes many years to learn to play well.

I don't know offhand how much Weiqi is played in China.

Books on Go

These are available on Amazon. Go sets, boards, and stones are also available.

Go for Beginners

by Kaoru Iwamoto

Lessons in the Fundamentals of Go (Beginner and Elementary Go Books)

by Toshiro Kageyama

Learn to Play Go: A Master's Guide to the Ultimate Game (Volume I) (Learn to Play Go Series)

by Janice Kim, Soo-hyun Jeong

First of multiple volumes

Playing and surrounding territory

The object of the moves is to surround territory and the stones of opponents. During play, if you place a final stone so that your stones completely surround a group of the opponent's stones, so that there are no empty intersections, you then remove them from the board. You keep these stones in a separate pile. They will be used in scoring. The fact that some groups of stones may have two eyes means that this can never be done, because if you place your stone in a place where it is completely surrounded without completely surrounding your opponent's stones, your opponent takes it off the board.

Interesting formations of stones

Sometimes, a particular configuration of stones will present some interesting opportunities. The most widely encountered is called a Ko. This is a space that can be taken by either side by alternately placing a stone in the space and removing the opponent's stone just surrounded. What can happen is called a Ko fight. Typically, the surrounded intersection has three stones with two only offensive connections. If someone plays in the Ko and takes the opponent's stone, the opponent must play a stone elsewhere on the board before he can re-take the intersection UNLESS by playing back in the Ko, he can take the entire group of stones belonging to his opponent. Ko fights can go on for a long time, with each player trying to place other stones that will help save his entire group from capture on the next move of his opponent. This may seem a bit obscure, but it is something a player learns quickly.

A ladder is a group of stones such that the inner stones of one player form a zig-zag pattern, all connected with defensive connections. Along the edge of his formation, the other player has placed a line of stones which are only offensively connected. The player with the inner stones will lose the entire group when it is played to the edge of the board.

A Seki is an intersection which at the end of a game belongs to neither side.

Beginning and end play

and in between

In the photo above, the game has just started. Typically, good players will stake out territory by a few strategically placed stones here and there, rather than immediately fighting for a corner as shown in the photo. To a less experienced player, the stones may appear to be randomly placed, but certain intersections carry greater possibilities that the territory can be captured.

In between, people start placing stones to surround territory. This takes place for the bulk of the game.

In the end, various slightly contested territories will be finalized, and all owned territories completely surrounded.

At that point, any dead stones (stones not completely surrounded, but inside someone else's territory) will be removed. Then the black stones taken off the board are placed inside black territory, and white stones are placed inside white territory. They may be rearranged for easier counting. Sekis are filled in with stones of either color. The player with the most empty intersections inside his territories wins.

Family play

In our family, we taught each of the kids to play Go. My husband frequently played Go with various of the kids, and some of them still will play occasionally. It is an excellent game for stretching the mind and teaching critical thinking skills. The benefit is in terms of mental growth, not always readily visible as a specific accomplishment.

I highly recommend this same practice to any family. It draws the family together, and it is good for the children.

Nowadays, my husband has a Go buddy. They get together fairly often, once a week, to play, and usually they are the only two players present. When two people play so much together, the one of lesser rank and accomplishment tends to learn from the other, until they are more or less evenly matched, though that may take a considerable length of time.

It never pays to be TOO passionate about the game, but that doesn't stop people. :)

People keep track of strings of wins and losses. If a player wins three games in a row, the third of which is called Katoban (not sure how it's spelled in Romanji), he will gain one point in rank against his opponent.

Go Clubs and Tournaments

Playing online

Typically, a city of any reasonable size in the United States will have at least one Go club. People get together regularly to play Go. There are several Go tournaments held each year. One of them is fully financed by a rich entrepreneur with an intense interest in Go. Players only have to pay transportation, if I recall correctly. The others will set a person back $1000 or more in costs, for transportation, lodging, and food, plus the entry fee.

In the next section, I give links to various sites where you can play Go online with other players from around the world.

Go board

This is an expensive Go board or table, from Japan. The board itself is made of solid wood. You can see round bowls on the left. This is for holding Go stones. These are also made of wood. Usually round bowls are used, though other shapes can also be used.

Take a look at the pattern on the board and see if you can figure out who owns which territory, and which player is likely to win.

Do you play Go?

People who enter the restaurants are often known to approach the Go players and ask what game they are playing. Apparently, most people don't know about the game in the United States. How about you?

Do you play Go, or have you ever played it? Would you like to learn?

See results

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