Go, or igo (pronounced ee-go) in Japanese, is an ancient board game with Chinese origins that I have fallen in love with in the seven months we’ve been here.  The game itself has a rich history that dates back thousands of years.  Although it is less popular in Japan today than in recent decades, it is still played by people young and old alike who delight in the game’s simple rules and complex strategies.

Go is a two player game.  Players take turns placing stones on a board in an effort to create the largest amount of territory.  One player plays with white stones, the other black stones.  The board is made up of a series of perpendicular lines and stones are placed where the lines intersect.  Stones of the same color that come into contact with each other are considered connected.  Let’s look at a diagram:

In the game above, white has 25 points and black has 29.  All of white’s stones are connected to each other, as are black’s.  Before I start writing about what I really want to write about, let’s look at one more rule:  If a stone, or group of stones, become completely surrounded by the stones of the opposing player, they become captured.  Another diagram illustrates this rule nicely:

The black stone is captured.

Everything else you need to learn about how to play Go are natural consequences of the rules outlined and diagrammed above (with one important exception that I won’t go into today).

If this is your first time learning about Go, you may be wondering where that complex strategy comes in that I hinted at in the beginning of this post.  Well, most games are played on a 19 x 19 board.  One last example:

When this game was played, the two players originally placed their stones far apart and then worked on connecting them to larger groups while simultaneously trying to cut the opponent’s territory.  Although connecting stones together to form a wall creates a structure that’s very strong, it’s too slow.  Go is a game of balance.  You must find a way to attack aggressively while protecting your stones.

Here’s how a 19 x 19 game can end.  Note, this is not the same 19 x 19 game pictured above.

If you were to just glance at this diagram without counting or thinking too hard you might think that black had the upper hand in the match.  The truth is, white won in convincing fashion because he/she built a lot of territory on the sides.  This is the most efficient way to build territory as it requires much fewer stones.

I could continue to discuss joseki, fuseki, tesuji, false eyes, the middle game, the end game, and so on, but I think I’ll stop here.  Go is a game that takes ten minutes to learn but a lifetime to master.

My Personal Experience

As I’ve mentioned in earlier entries, I have been regularly attending a Go Club on Saturday afternoons at a community center in Noheji.  On my first day, I knew the rules but had not played enough games to emerge from complete beginner status.  After many weekends of playing with a small group of patient men, most in their 60s and lifelong Go players, I began to see some noticeable improvement.

For Christmas, Julie bought me a Nintendo DS and a Go game.  All the diagrams in this post were photos taken from that aforementioned portable video game console.  Anyway, it’s been a great help.  I was able to practice playing every day as opposed to once a week.  I’ve also accumulated a few books on Go that I use to study common and important moves, good opening sequences, and advice on when to attack and when to defend.   One of the members of the Go Club is about as high ranking as one can get and has also given me some books in Japanese.  Though I can’t read the text, I study the diagrams at home.

I also watch the other members of the club play between my own matches.  Watching one player in particular (the super-professional mentioned above) can be breathtaking.  Watching him play a match is like watching a professional athlete compete at a high level or a professional musician perform a piece of music.  He’s that good.

I met another professional of the same caliber in Aomori City a few months ago.  My school told me about a Go tournament happening over that weekend.  They said it was for high school students but I could probably play some of the teachers, coaches, or other members of the crowd who were there to just hang out.  On account of some nasty weather, I ended up arriving late and was surprised to see that only high school students were playing each other.  I explained my situation to the officials and the head organizer of the event took pity on me and challenged me to a game.   At first I thought I was doing pretty good but then I realized that we were playing a teaching game.  He was testing my ability.  After we finished the game, the man recreated the entire game perfectly from memory.  For every mistake I made he would say, “The best move would have been here, but since you played here you should have countered with this.  However, since you didn’t do that, you also could have saved yourself with this move…” and so on.  It was incredible.

That man estimated my rank at the time to be 14 kyu, a casual player.  Last week, about a month after the tournament, I asked the members of my Go club what rank they thought I was.  10 kyu, they said.  I was pretty happy.  Even though I’m still not very good, if I can break my rank into single digits it means I am an intermediate player as opposed to a casual player.

Why do I enjoy Go so much?  It’s great brain exercise.  There is an obvious logical quality to it that satisfies the math major in me but it also works the right side of the brain as well.  Often times a player will make a move because it feels right or because the placement and shape has a certain aesthetic that looks promising.  As long as you know what you’re doing, creativity is encouraged.  Also, sometimes a move that is normally considered terrible can turn out to be good in the right situation.

Go also has a great handicap system.  A very strong player can still get an interesting, competitive game from a weak opponent by allowing him/her to start with extra stones.  Even though I’m still a newcomer to the game, when I play the people at my Go Club the games are closer than you might expect.

If you’re interested in learning more about the game of Go, check out:

Books (my favorite is Lessons in the Fundamentals of Go)

Web References

Online Play



3 Responses to “Go”

  1. Jamie Says:

    Kaizu sense used to be the senior English Teacher / Guidance councelor at Noheji while I was there. He patiently taught me to play Go some nights after school. Even when he gave himself a severe handicap I would always get soundly defeated. I don’t think I ever even reached 20 kyu status, let alone 10… so well done!

    • pacificloons Says:

      I’m jealous there was a teacher in your office who played Go, and an English teacher no less! in a few weeks I know I’ll have to say good bye to a few of my colleagues. it’ll be tough but I’m hoping one of the new additions plays Go in his/her spare time.

      I’d love to have a copy of some of those songs. will send you an email momentarily.

  2. Jamie Says:

    *Make that Kaizuka Sensei.

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