Go Board Graphic

What Is Go?

By Mindy McAdams

Having developed in China between 3,000 and 4,000 years ago, Go (called Wei Ch'i in China and Baduk in Korea) contends with backgammon for the right to be called the oldest game still played in its original form. Today it is played by millions in Asia and thousands elsewhere.

In this document:

I receive many e-mails asking me how to find Go books and equipment to give as gifts. Here is some advice about the best Go books and my links to online stores that sell Go equipment.

The game of Go is a vast territory
for which the map will never be complete.

A Little History

The game has had ups and downs in China, where Confucious looked on it as a waste of time, Mao Zedong required his generals to study it, and the Cultural Revolution condemned it as a pastime of intellectuals.

It was taken to Japan 1,200 to 1,400 years ago, reportedly by Buddhist priests who had visited China. It seems to have shown up in Korea before Japan, but it is widely believed that in Japan the game came to its full potential.

Praised by the shogun Tokugawa, Go was studied by Japan's warrior class and eventually institutionalized in four "Go houses," where families developed and passed down Go techniques in the same way that other Japanese families developed and passed down techniques of sword-making or the samurai code. Go never faded from popularity in Japan; it spread to all levels of society and by the 18th century had attained a status equal to that of the famed tea ceremony.

Meanwhile, in the Modern World ...

Today, Japanese newspapers run daily Go columns and spend the equivalent of millions of dollars to sponsor annual tournaments, which are followed by the general public at least as avidly as Americans follow the World Series. In these months-long contests of Go expertise, the top professionals win purses as large as those in professional golf tournaments.

For decades, Taiwanese and Korean players with great skill went to Japan to study the game. Now a system of professional competition has risen in those two countries, and masters are trained in their homeland. In China, Go climbed back to prominence after the Cultural Revolution, and an annual challenge called the China-Japan Super Go pits government-salaried Chinese players against the best Japan can offer, in a contest of rivalry more intense than that at any college-football bowl game.

Professionals, who study the game full-time under the tutelage of a master from childhood until their early twenties, play Go at its highest level. In ancient China, Go was one of the Four Arts, along with music, painting, and poetry, and in a professional game one can perceive the beauty of an art form.

Even today, a young Go scholar moves into the home of his or her master, or sensei, to train for the professional tournament circuit.

The Look of the Game

The design of a Go set is prescribed with a compelling simplicity dating back through centuries. The white stones, 180 in number, and the black, 181, must be round. The thickness may vary among sets, with thicker being better. Inexpensive sets include glass or plastic stones; in the best sets, the white are clamshell and the black are slate. But there the possibilities for variation end. A stone is meant to be held between the tips of the index and middle fingers, and the basic geometry cannot be changed.

There is more flexibility in the design of the board, or goban, although any good set will have a board made of wood, and the appearance of the playing surface does not invite alteration. Just as a chess board must have 64 squares arranged in an 8 x 8 matrix, a full-size Go board must have a grid of 19 horizontal and 19 vertical lines. (Simplified versions of the game can be played on a 9 x 9 or on a 13 x 13 board; it is strongly recommended that beginners learn on a 9 x 9 board.) The lines are thin and black, drawn on the wood by hand for a top-notch board, and the grid contains 361 intersections.

The stones are placed on the intersections, not the rectangles, of the grid.

A Go set is not complete without bowls to hold the stones. Like the board, the bowls (go ke) are typically made of wood (although plastic ones are available). The shape is a somewhat flattened sphere, with the lid shaped like a saucer. During a game, the upturned lid is used to hold stones that are captured from the opponent.

Fearful Asymmetry

At first glance, the board may appear to be square, but it is not. The standard size is roughly 16 1/2 in. by 18 in. It is always slightly longer than it is wide, just enough to prevent perfect symmetry. Thus when a game is finished and the black and white stones almost cover the board, the round stones butt together, reflecting the nature of the game: two players use their respective stones to compete for territory on the surface of the board, staking out areas that they want to own, while the opponent tries to push and squeeze those areas in order to gain more territory for himself.

The white stones invade a black-bordered area; the black stones creep in under the edge of a white-bordered area; and vice versa. Having jostled and poked and intruded, the stones at game's end touch one another's edges, illustrating the battles won and lost, forming a map of the contest of two minds.

The Go board begins bare, like an empty canvas. The game begins to take form after 30 to 50 moves, when the board resembles an artist's pencil study prior to beginning a painting. When a game is finished, after 200 to 250 moves, the lines and groups of black and white form a record of two players' plans and ideas. One of the old names for Go translates as "hand conversation," and in fact a game is really a series of discussions and arguments about the choice of moves.

Rules of the Game

An intellectual pursuit that most players say is more challenging than chess or bridge, Go has only a few simple rules, which can be learned in half an hour (see How to Teach Go). This game's complexity rises from the huge number of possibilities for board positions (said to be 10 to the 750th power) and a wealth of recurring situations that can be learned only from repeated play.

Plenty of English-language Go books exist for beginners to study, but the truth of Go is that you have to play to improve.

In fact, learning to play Go is something like learning to speak a foreign language. You can absorb enough in a few lessons to get along, but it will take years of study to become fluent.

Don't let that discourage you! Playing Go is a hundred times more fun than your high school French classes!

Who's Playing?

More than 25 million people currently play Go, most of them in the Far East. Europe may have as many as 100,000 players; the United States perhaps 20,000. Players from more than 30 countries compete in the annual World Amateur Go Championship. More than 200 players typically attend the U.S. Go Congress, which is held in a different city each year.

The 50-year-old American Go Association (P.O. Box 397, Old Chelsea Station, New York, N.Y. 10113) has more than 1,000 paying members, but many more U.S. players are not members. More than 150 Go clubs pay dues to the AGA, and most clubs in large cities have at least a few dozen members.

For more information, see How to Teach Go and the American Go Association Web site.

Thanks for taking an interest in Go,
the world's greatest game. It's the one computers can't beat us at.

This Web page was written and produced by Mindy McAdams.

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All images on this page are original and copyright ©1995, 1996 by Mindy McAdams.

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