Go: Life Itself
By GoStone in Culture
Thu Jul 11, 2002 at 09:36:19 AM EST
Tags: Culture (all tags)
Saying 'just one game'
There is one board game that stands above all others. The most beautiful, most ancient, most strategic, most subtle. The king of games. A game which teaches as much as it entertains, whose enthusiasts number tens of millions and which has often been compared to life itself.
they began to play...
That was yesterday
Japanese senryu poem
Curiously in our little multicultural global village, the game is only
faintly detectable on the periphery of the western cultural vision;
mentioned in passing in novels, and seen briefly in movies (Pi, A Beautiful
Mind), where it tends to symbolise an esoteric intellectualism. Geeks may
know it only for its resistance to computer attack. Mathematicians may know
it provided the inspiration for Combinatorial Game Theory, and
numbers. But despite an estimated 100,000 players in Europe, and a
similar number in the USA, it is fair to say that most people have never
even heard of the game. On this basis, l'd like to introduce Kuro5hin to the
game of go.
"The Master said, 'Hard is it to deal with him who will stuff
himself with food the whole day without applying his mind to anything good.
Are there not gamesters and go players? To be one of these would still be
better than doing nothing at all.' "
Go is thought to be 3,000 to 4,000 years old, making it contemporary with
Stonehenge. It began in China, where it is now known as Wei'Qi, possibly
growing out of the same framework as acupuncture, shiatsu and feng shui.
About 1,300 years ago it spread to Japan, where it blossomed, being
sponsored by the medieval state and becoming an essential samurai art. Most
recently the best players have come from Korea, where it is known as Baduk
and an estimated one person in ten plays the game regularly. In total
there are 25 to 50 million go players in the Far East.
Confucius (who had better
things to do)
Through these long millennia and cultural wanderings there has been little
alteration to the rules. No other game can make a similar claim to longevity
and stability. And for good reason. The rules of go are so simple, yet so
perfect, that it cannot be tinkered with without destroying it. Like a
mathematical truth, go appears to have always been there, beyond time and
space. It has been conjectured that if there are sentient beings on other
planets they may also be playing go.
Traditionally go is played on a polished wooden board (known as a Goban),
marked with a square grid in thin black lines. Nineteen lines in each
direction by convention, though sometimes smaller boards are used for a
quicker game. Each player has a bowl of lens-shaped 'stones', actually made
of slate for the black and shell for the white stones; 180 stones each,
effectively an unlimited supply.
"That play of black upon white, white upon black, has the
intent and takes the form of creative art. It has in it a flow of the spirit
and a harmony of music. Everything is lost when suddenly a false note is
struck, or one party in a duet suddenly launches forth on an eccentric
flight of his own. A masterpiece of a game can be ruined by insensitivity to
the feelings of an adversary."
A game starts with an empty board, like a bare canvas before two painters.
Starting with Black, the players alternately place single stones on the
intersections of the lines, gradually filling the board. Once played, the
stones do not move, unless captured and removed. With time the image of the
game reveals itself like a landscape through a mist, now this detail, now
that, where what seems clear now may later be revealed as illusion.
The Master of Go, by Yasunari
Kawabata, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature
For a while a sequence of stones may be played close to one another like the
cut and thrust of a sword-fight. But suddenly, seemingly unpredictably, play
jumps about the board to distant, unconnected regions. To some extent you
can tell how good a player is by the fractal quality of his play; a poorer
player will spend too long detailing an idea, where a master will sketch it
lightly before moving on. By the end of the game the stones press closely
against each other forming "a map of the contest of two minds".
"Lose your first fifty games as fast as possible"
There are only three rules in go. But that is only the beginning. These
rules have implications, and the implications have implications and so it
goes on, until after ten years of playing it still feels like you are
learning the game. There is often a period of frustration between learning
the rules and working out what you are trying to achieve. So, on the
understanding that these rules alone leave much unsaid, let me explain.
The first rule says that when you're surrounded, you come off. As stones sit
on the intersections they generally have four lines radiating out from under
them to neighbouring intersections (except on the edge where there may be
three or even just two neighbours). If a neighbour is empty it is called a
'liberty', or a 'life'. If all its lives are taken by the enemy a stone is
captured and removed. Captured stones count one point, and are usually
stored in the lid of the same bowl a player stores his own stones in.
. o . .
If two stones are adjacent they both live or die together. To capture them,
you must occupy all their liberties. A group of stones like this can be any
o x . .
. o . .
the black stone at x has one liberty
. o . .
o x A .
. o . .
if white plays at A he captures the black stone
. o . .
o . o .
. o . .
now the board looks like this
. o . .
Using this principle it is often possible to evade capture by 'running
away', i.e. building a bigger group with more liberties. But a bigger group
doesn't necessarily mean more liberties, and it is quite possible to run
into trouble rather than away from it.
o x x .
. o . .
this group of black stones still has three liberties
. o A .
o x x B
. o C .
if white gets to play A, B and C he captures two stones
. o o .
o . . o
. o o .
. . . . .
A further complication is that while White is surrounding Black, Black might
be surrounding White in a life or death struggle. Whoever gets there first
will remove the captures, freeing up liberties for his own stones. Certain
common formations are actually impossible to capture.
. x x x .
. . . . .
. x x . .
. x x . .
. . . . .
two black groups, each with eight liberties, though one is bigger than the
"The game of go is a vast territory for which the map will
never be complete"
All in all, capturing stones is not easy. They tend not to lie still and
accept their fate. And this is where the second rule comes in. Surrounded
empty intersections also count one point each, called territory.
. x x . .
Now territory is much easier to surround because it doesn't run away or
fight back, and there are huge swathes of it to go for right from the start.
So go is a game of territorial acquisition, often described as like two
races settling a new land, or even two companies trying to capture a market.
The emphasis is upon speed, efficiency and lightness, dropping stones into
empty spaces to stake a claim, then leaving them to prove themselves.
x . . x .
x . . x .
. x x . .
. . . . .
four intersections surrounded by black
So you play your stones, but paradoxically it is not your stones which
matter. You don't want them captured because they allow you to surround
territory etc., but they have little worth of their own. During the course
of a game many stones will be sacrificed deliberately by both sides. This
may offend modern notions of justice, and it certainly confuses play.
The stones can blind, swarming like flies. You know you can kill some, and
some will have to live, but which? Beginners will often, from pity, try to
rescue stones that were serving more effectively in sacrifice. The
temptation to become 'attached' to your stones, in the Buddhist sense,
increases as the groups become larger.
"The board has to be square, for it signifies the Earth, and
its right angles signify uprightness. The pieces of the two sides are yellow
and black; this difference signifies the Yin and the Yang; scattered in
groups all over the board, they represent the heavenly bodies. These
significances being manifest, it is up to the players to make the moves, and
this is connected with kingship. Following what the rules permit, both
opponents are subject to them; this is the rigor of the Tao."
One verse of the great Tao Te
Ching asserts the value of nonexistence, showing that the utility of a
cup is the emptiness inside it, and the utility of a wheel comes from the
inner hole on which it turns. These deep metaphors are found reflected in
go. At a simple level, it is not the number of stones connected into a group
that determines whether it lives, but the number of empty liberties you
haven't played on. Similarly your stones do not add to your score in
any way, only the empty territory they surround. Playing additional stones
in your territory actually deducts from your score.
Pan Ku, 1st century historian
"Yield, and maintain integrity.
Taoism stresses that flexibility and change are vital. This is fundamental
to go, as is the Tao's emphasis on harmony and balance. Enthusiasts of Judo,
Tae Kwan Do and other eastern martial arts will understand these ideas. Go,
too, was considered a martial art by the samurai, and the more you
understand go the greater becomes your appreciation of these Taoist
To bend is to be upright;
to be empty is to be full"
Tao Te Ching
"If this were go
There is a certain formation of black and white stones whereby one player
can capture a stone, but is then liable to immediate recapture, returning
the board exactly to its previous position. The captures could therefore
repeat indefinitely. This formation is not unreasonably called 'ko', the
Japanese for eternity. It occurs frequently, usually many times in a game.
Even worse, ko situations can arise where it is worth a lot of points to be
the last person to capture. Given the choice each player might repeat
I'd start a ko fight
and surely live,
but on the road to death
there's no move left at all."
Poem attributed to Sansa, the first Honinbo (leader of a prestigious
Japanese go school) and founder of that line. He is said to have composed it
on his deathbed in 1623.
The third rule provides an orderly escape. It says that after player A
captures a stone in a ko, player B cannot take back immediately. He must
play at least one move elsewhere first. This gives A an opportunity to
destroy the ko formation. If he doesn't do so, and the ko still exists on
B's subsequent turn, the roles may reverse. B may take back, forcing A to
'play away' for a turn.
It is not all bad for the person who has to play away from a big ko. If he
can find somewhere on the board where two consecutive moves would be worth
even more than winning the ko, the other player will be forced to respond,
leaving the ko intact and available. Good players deliberately leave
situations unresolved across the board to be used like this as 'ko threats'
later, and a ko can develop into a complex fight. Or if a situation is
resolving adversely for a player he may abandon it early, aiming to rescue
it later with the two free moves that a ko fight offers.
"Go is to Western chess what philosophy is to double entry
To many go players chess is the 'c' word, but the main reason to mention
chess in a go article is not to disrespect it, but to provide a reference
point. The two certainly seem like diametrical opposites. Chess has complex
rules, go simple ones. Chess eliminates, go accumulates. Chess pieces are
hierarchical, go pieces are equal. Chess is a battle, go is a war of many
battles. Someone famously wrote a PhD thesis on the theme that in the
Vietnam war, the Vietcong were using go strategy while the US military were
playing chess. Personally I like chess, but I think go is in a different
Shibumi, bestseller by
My favourite theory is that chess is a variant of go. Despite the received
wisdom that chess was invented in India or, even less likely, Persia, there
is evidence to suggest its origin may actually have been China. There are
more chess-variants in the Far East than anywhere else, and there is
controversial documentary evidence in China that precedes anything in India.
As it happens, Chinese chess, called "Xiangqi", is the only variant played
with small round medallions inscribed with the name of the piece. It is also
the only variant played on the intersections of the grid rather than inside
the squares. The board has 9 x 9 intersections, like many small go boards,
which corresponds to 8 x 8 squares. I'm not sure if anyone believes this but
me (and you?), but it is such a neat idea I would be disappointed if it were
disproved. It may be that go, chess, backgammon and playing cards were all
invented in China.
"A bad plan is better than no plan at all"
Emanuel Lasker, an early chess grandmaster and one of the first
western go enthusiasts, wrote "Chess is 99% tactics". He, like many others
since, was impressed by the contrasting strategic depth of go. Now go, like
chess, provides situations where the ability to read ahead is of paramount
importance. It even has a vast body of TsumeGo problems, equivalent to the chess problems
found in newspapers, and equally mindblowing. But in go the tactics are
nothing without a separate strategic vision, which must be revised
continually through a match.
"In the beginning, have no plan"
Go is often referred to as "intuitive"; not because it is obvious to one and
all, but because it is often not easy to explain rationally why one move is
better than another. It is simply impossible to follow through all the
continuations, so it comes down to experience. To help the task, Go has
developed a large vocabulary of esoteric terms such as influence, aji -
literally 'flavour', thickness, sabaki - 'lightness', and a folkloric list of proverbs, many of them conflicting,
but nonetheless true for that.
"Studying go is a wonderful way to develop both the creative
as well as
the logical abilities of children because to play it both sides of the
brain are necessary."
It is the intuitive nature of the game that makes it so hard to program. Currently the
best programs on the fastest computers play little better than beginners,
though the financial rewards for improving on this are huge. For twenty odd
years (until the recent death of the donor) there was prize of $1 million
for a program which could beat a professional player. This goal is still
unlikely in our lifetimes.
Cho Chikun, among the world's strongest players and one of the three great
prodigies in go history
The basis for computers playing games is the Minimax algorithm invented by
Claude Shannon, which examines the tree of possible moves and counter-moves
up to the limits of allowed time and computer resources. It evaluates all
the positions reachable at the outer edge of the tree, and then uses the
algorithm to prune the tree back down to the best first move.
The problems with computer go start with the size of the tree, due to the
large number of potential moves. Chess has an average 30 or so legal moves
per turn, generating of the order of a million possible positions within 5
moves. But go has an average of about 250 legal moves per turn, generating
of the order of a thousand billion positions. The real problems begin,
though, with the evaluation function. Computers have great difficulty
deciding which is the better of two go positions, and cannot even reliably
say who is the winner when the game is over.
Nevertheless, there are a number of programs available for beginners to
practice against. Gnugo for Unix is the
open-source choice (join the development team!). Igowin for Windows has an
excellent built-in tutorial for beginners, and is free in the beery sense
"Often times at my go club, enraged old men will take the
Goban and hurl it against the wall. This not only causes loud noises and
distractions but also many injuries due to the flying stones. The old man
then uppercuts his opponent and storms out of the room. If the man is
seriously injured, he must wait until a member of the club is not playing a
game before he can receive help. This is one of the worst habits in my
opinion. Main Reasons:
Internet go servers are the safest way to play! They are bringing go to a
new audience. The Kiseido Go Server
(KGS) is friendly to beginners and has the best client and protocol. Log on
as a guest and just watch some games. Be baffled! IGS is where the
pros hang out. The
Dragon go server is good for games at email speed. Most servers will
even calculate your rating automatically after you've played a few games.
Posting to the brilliant Sensei's
Library, under the section "Bad Habits"
- Death or serious injury may be caused to your opponent.
- Rushes all other games because the players are hurrying to finish in
order to give the injured opponent proper medical treatment.
- Less boards to play with in the club.
- Less appealing club location due to dent in wall."
"There are nine mental levels into which players are
first is called 'being in the spirit', the second 'seated in enlightenment',
third 'concreteness', the fourth 'understanding changes', the fifth
wisdom', the sixth 'ability', the seventh 'strength', the eighth 'being
inept', and the ninth and last 'being truly stupid'."
The rating system was developed originally by the old Japanese go schools
and is now used universally despite differences in calibration between
countries. It allows players of different strength to play even games by
giving the weaker player free moves ("handicap stones") at the beginning;
the number being determined by the difference in grade between the two
players. Traditionally there is a formal placement for these stones, to a
maximum of nine.
The Classic of Weiqi in
Thirteen Chapters, c.1054 AD
Experts are assigned a "dan" rating, rising from 1 to 9-dan. A 9-dan player
should therefore give a 1-dan player eight free handicap stones for an even
game. There are not many 9-dan amateurs, but professionals have a separate,
stronger dan scale, where a 1-dan professional is about the same strength as
a 7-dan amateur. There are many great 9-dan professionals, though the
professional scale doesn't really relate to handicap stones.
The rest of us get to play on the nursery slopes. We have our own "kyu"
scale which runs in reverse from a complete beginner at 30-kyu up to 1-kyu,
which is one point weaker than 1-dan. Again, every point on the scale
corresponds to a free handicap stone. As a 5-kyu player with many years
experience, I could start with twelve free moves against a top professional
and still probably lose.
"Monks who have a talent for it play go with women and become
To buy your own lover-board, try Kiseido, Samarkand or Yutopian.
Yamaoka Genrin (1631 - 1672), Edo-period essayist
For further reading, download The Way to Go by Karl
Baker. A more in depth introduction is given in Go for Beginners by Kaoru Iwamoto, but
there are dozens of other beginner's books to choose from.
The British Go Association and the
American Go Association also
sell equipment at a discount to members, as well as providing lots of other
real and virtual resources, including downloads. The European Go Association can help you
locate your nearest european club.
Jan van der Steen's go site is encyclopaedic,
up-to-the-minute and very well presented. Play through the latest tournament
games one move at a time.
Other interesting sites include the Mind Sports
Bradley's go pages, Harry Fearnley's go pages,
and the rec.games.go newsgroup.
The Go Teaching Ladder is an neat
way to improve. Send in your game records and the contributors here will
review them for free. Also try the online Interactive Go Tutorial.
If you are prepared to pay for tuition, Guo Juan is the real thing. A 5-dan
chinese professional living in Holland, who runs an internet based
go-school. She sometimes gives demonstration games on the Kiseido Go Server too.