Go is the English name for an ancient board game called go (碁) or igo (囲碁) in Japanese, wéiqí (圍棋/围棋) in Chinese and baduk (바둑) in Korean. The game originated in China at least 2,500 years ago, and it is still most popular in East Asia, especially China, Japan, Taiwan and South Korea. It was introduced to the West in the 19th century, and is now played all over the world.
There are professional players and tournaments with prizes in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. In Asia, some of the pros get the sort of adulation that is paid to sports stars or media stars anywhere. Many pros and some strong amateurs give lessons. Weaker players often get some help from stronger ones as just part of the game, but if you want intensive coaching you will usually have to pay for it.
Michael Redmond was the first Westerner (American) to reach the top (9 dan) rank in professional Go. His YouTube channel, Go TV, has many videos about the game. Redmond became extremely well-known among Go players in 2016 when he served as the English language commentator for a remarkable series of games that was televised worldwide. A computer program called AlphaGo beat one of the top human professionals four games out of five.
There are at least half a dozen other YouTube channels, discussion groups on Facebook and Reddit, online servers for playing the game, Go-playing programs for most computers and smartphones, and many web sites. See Sensei's Library for links to many of these.
- . . . [it is] something unearthly . . . If there are sentient beings on other planets, then they play Go.
- Emanuel Lasker, world chess champion for 27 years, 1894-1921
- . . . [it is] something unearthly . . . If there are sentient beings on other planets, then they play Go.
The rules for go are quite simple, perhaps about as complex as checkers. However playing well — both strategy and tactics — is at least as difficult as chess, arguably quite a bit more so.
The game originated in China, but it was introduced to the West via Japan, so most English speakers use the Japanese names for the game itself and the in-game terminology. English speakers in Singapore and Malaysia, though, use Chinese terms because the game was introduced to that region by Chinese immigrants. This article uses the Japanese-derived terms.
This section describes the basics of the rules and scoring and gives an introduction to the strategy and tactics. Different countries have slightly different sets of rules, scoring methods, and systems for ranking players, but they are all basically similar.
Each player places one stone on the board per turn; pieces are placed on the intersections of lines, not inside the squares as in chess. Pieces never move, though they may be captured and taken off the board. A player may pass his or her turn if there is no advantage to be gained by placing a stone, and the game ends when both players pass in succession.
The basic idea is to place stones efficiently so as to control more territory than the opponent. This is quite different from chess or xiangqi where the goal is to capture the king/general. A proverb says Chess is a battle; Go is a war, and another view claims Go is a negotiation. It is quite common to give up something in one area of the board in return for an advantage elsewhere, and keen judgement of such matters is one of the traits that make a strong player.
If a group of stones has no liberties (connections to empty intersections), then it is captured and its stones are taken off the board. The "before" part of the diagram shows a black group in atari; it could be killed by a single white move, at A. The "after" part shows the result of that white move. A black move at A would (at least in the short term) prevent the capture. Whether playing at A is a good idea for either player depends on the rest of the board, mainly on other stones nearby.
If a group still has liberties but is clearly bound to die, then the opponent need not complete the surrounding process; the stones remain in place until the end of the game and are then removed.
A group with two eyes cannot be killed. In the picture, black would need to play on two points inside the white group to kill it. He or she cannot play on both in one turn and cannot play them on successive turns because the first move would be suicide.
In general this means that any group which both encloses several empty points and is fairly well-connected can live; with a few more stones it can almost always form a fully connected group with two eyes. On the other hand, strong players sometimes manage to kill such groups before the eyes and connections are solidified, and they quite often find plays that give them profit while the opponent is forced to play solidifying moves. Wasting too many moves to shore up weak groups is one of the many ways to lose a game, but then so is letting too much die.
Under the more common sets of rules, suicidal moves are banned; a player may not play in a space that would leave his stones surrounded by the opponent's stones, unless it captures some of the opposing stones. However some suicidal moves are allowed in New Zealand or Taiwan rules.
A situation called ko arises fairly often; it looks as though one player could take one of the opponent's stones, the other could reply by taking the capturing stone, the first player could retake, and so on indefinitely. However, there is a rule to prevent such infinite repetitions; when one player takes a ko, the other is not allowed to take it back on the next move. If the ko is important, the other player will try to find a ko threat, a move the opponent cannot ignore without cost. If the opponent answers the threat, then take back the ko. If the opponent ignores the threat and resolves the ko, then make good on the threat to get compensation elsewhere for the loss of the ko.
Ko fights may go on for dozens of moves with the ko changing hands many times, and may involve threats by both players all over the board. Sometimes they can decide the outcome of a game, since the life of a group may depend on the outcome of a ko and ignoring a threat may be expensive. Various skills related to ko — judging whether to start or avoid a ko fight, finding ko threats, deciding whether or not to answer one, avoiding leaving ko threats an opponent can use, not making moves that eliminate your own ko threats, and so on — are required for strong play.
Strategy and tactics
The strategy involved in go is quite complex. Among the things a player considers early in a game are fuseki (whole-board opening patterns), joseki (patterns in a single corner) and how those interact.
Each player must strike several balances: between taking territory immediately and building up influence for later use, between keeping stones close to each other for a strong formation and spreading them out for more potential territory, and between attacking the opponent and building his or her own formations. The idea of making good shape with your stones is important, especially in the opening and middle game. Often the best plays are multi-purpose; a single stone might strengthen a group, expand its territorial claim and make good shape, while another might both expand your moyo (territorial framework) and threaten an attack.
Most joseki give some sort of more-or-less balanced trade; perhaps one player gets territory in the corner while the other gets influence toward the center, or both get decent shape and potential territory along different edges of the board. Usually, though, there are choices involved; which joseki sequence do you want, considering the rest of the board?
As in chess, in the middle game things become more complex and there may be intense fighting. Deep reading (looking many plays ahead) may be required to choose the next play. Parts of the end game are routine and can be dealt with by applying well-known formulae, but others require subtle judgement.
Often questions of timing and the order of moves are important. The proverb Urgent moves before big moves helps some but is far from a complete answer. Usually there will be several reasonable-looking moves in different areas of the board, but which one should you play now? Which moves are sente (the opponent must or at least should answer, so you retain the initiative) and which are gote (the opponent can more-or-less safely ignore your move and take the initiative with a move elsewhere). When should you tenuki, leave a joseki sequence or a fight in order to make an important move elsewhere?
Much of go revolves around the life and death of groups of stones. Most go problems (tsumego) ask the solver either to kill a group or to find a way to keep one alive. Similar questions routinely arise in actual play. Often you need to find the vital point of a group and play there; in other cases you need a clever move (tesuji).
In a capturing race (semai) one or more groups of each colour is in danger and each player tries to kill at least one enemy group. The outcome depends mainly on how many liberties (connections to empty points) each group has, though various tactical details may complicate things. Capturing an enemy group will strengthen one of your groups, and often it makes your group entirely safe.
Often connecting groups or cutting the opponent's connections are important. In a semai, a connected group may have enough liberties to win when neither of its parts would survive alone. In another simple example, two groups with one eye each will both die but connected they form an unkillable two-eyed group.
There are two main systems of scoring; area scoring is used in China and Taiwan, while territory scoring is used in Japan and South Korea, and is also the more common scoring system in Western countries. In both systems dead stones are removed before scoring, and each player scores one point for each empty space surrounded by his or her stones. In area scoring you then add the number of stones that player has on the board, while in territory scoring you subtract the number of stones captured by the opponent. In either system, white then gets some extra points called komi to compensate for black's advantage in playing first (usually 7.5 points in China and Taiwan, and 6.5 in Japan and South Korea), and the player with the higher score after komi wins. The two scoring systems rarely result in a difference in outcome, and players are usually able to switch between them without any major issues.
A situation called seki may arise, in which whoever moves first in a particular area of the board loses the fight there. Barring blunders, both players will refrain from playing there and the stones will remain on the board to the end of the game. In rare cases, this can create a situation where area scoring and territory scoring give different results. In territory scoring a seki counts nothing for either side since there is no territory to count, but in area scoring each player counts his or her stones on the board, including those in the seki. If the two players have different numbers of stones in the seki then one player gains by this.
In the example, white has ten more stones in the seki. If he or she loses by three points under territory scoring, then he or she wins by seven under area scoring (assuming the same komi).
Rank and handicap
Go has a ranking system similar to those used in martial arts. Using the Japanese terms which have been adopted into English, beginners start at around 30 kyu and work their way up to 1 kyu. The next level is 1 dan or shodan (black belt in martial arts) and amateur ranks continue above that up to 6 or 7 dan. The Chinese equivalents are ji for kyu and duan for dan. Pros have a separate ranking system from 1 dan to 9 dan.
In online discussions, amateur ranks are written as, for example, 6k or 5d while pro ranks are shown as, for example, 3p. It is also common to abbreviate single-digit kyu and double-digit kyu as "sdk" and "ddk".
Unlike most other board games, Go has an effective and routinely used handicap system which allows players of significantly different strength to have an interesting game. For players of approximately equal strength the board is initially empty, black plays first, and white gets komi; they may alternate colors in successive games.
When the strengths are unequal the stronger player always plays white, some black stones are placed on the board before play starts giving black an advantage, white plays first, and komi is half a point which makes drawn games impossible but does not otherwise affect the outcome. The number of stones is based on the difference in ranks; for example a 1k player would give a 7k six stones.
This works rather well; in an even game (no handicap) the stronger player might be bored and the weaker one overwhelmed. With handicap, the stronger player may still win more often than not but will usually have to work quite hard to do so, and the weaker player will probably win some games.
In East Asian countries newspaper columns and TV shows about the game are common, almost every town has at least one club, as do many schools and most universities, and it is moderately common to see people playing in parks. Visitors are generally welcome to play, and in some places a foreign player may attract considerable attention as a "dancing bear". (It is not how well it dances; what is amazing is that it can dance at all.)
Senseis Library has lists of local Go associations and of places to play on every continent. A site called Baduk Club has a map showing clubs; it is quite good for the Americas and Europe, but lists only a few places elsewhere.
- Wu Qingyuan Game of Go Club (吴清源围棋会馆). One of the finest players of the 20th century was a Chinese who lived most of his life in Japan and is known in the West by his Japanese name, Go Seigen. This is a museum named with his Chinese name and located in his hometown. It also hosts a local club. See Fuzhou#Do for details.
- Shanghai parks. Players are often found in Jing'an Park (mostly in the southeast corner) and Fuxing Park (the French park), especially on weekends.
- Museum of Chinese Go (中国围棋博物馆) (Hangzhou). A comprehensive museum about go. The museum is run by the Hangzhou Branch of the China Chess Institute. Information is available in both Chinese and English.
- Go Museum (Luoyang). A private museum founded and curated by a devoted player. She also founded a company in the same town which produces Go equipment including ceramic stones.
The cheapest sets include Chinese yunzi stones (flat on one side) in wicker baskets with a folding plastic board in one basket. These can be found in almost any Chinatown on Earth, often for under $25. In China, look for them in the sports section of department stores, generally under ¥100. These are good for travel since yunzi are lighter than typical Japanese or Korean stones, the board is not heavy or bulky, and the soft bowls are better than wooden bowls at both protecting the stones and withstanding minor abuse.
The really cheap Chinese sets with tiny stones in rather ugly plastic boxes are not a good buy; they are intended for a different game (gomoku in Japanese or five-in-row in English) and have a 15x15 board rather than the 19x19 that is standard for Go.
In China, the bird and flower markets found in many towns are often the best place to look for better equipment. In the West, stores that specialize in games often have some Go equipment; Chinese or Korean import shops are less certain to stock it but often have interesting items if they do.
Senseis Library has lists of places to buy equipment worldwide. They include many online sellers.
- Yunnan Weiqi Factory (website is nearly all in Chinese) (located outside Kunming). This company are the manufacturers of yunzi stones. There are various grades at prices from under ¥100 to several thousand; the more expensive ones come with nice wooden bowls in carved wooden boxes. They also have boards. Their top-of-the line products are fine enough that Mao presented a set to Queen Elizabeth.
- Kunming bird and flower market. Many of the Yunnan Weiqi Factory's products at a more convenient location.
- Dali. This scenic town on the Yunnan tourist trail is famous for marble, so much so that the Chinese name for marble is dali shi, Dali stone. A wide range of marble goods are available, including Go stones, bowls, boards and complete sets. Some players quite like these, but others find the bowls rather clunky and inelegant. They certainly make an unusual souvenir, though they are inconveniently heavy.
- Wuyi Mountain. This is a scenic site in China's Fujian province, on the UNESCO World Heritage List. The nearby town has shops with many fine wooden handicrafts including Go bowls. The plain ones are under $20 a set and look more-or-less identical to bowls sold in Japan or the West for $100 or more. More expensive ones are carved from tree roots and have a lovely pattern of knots. Be careful, however, to get bowls that are large enough; many of these will hold Chinese yunzi stones, but not a full set of the thicker Japanese or Korean stones.
- Jingdezhen. This town in Jiangxi province is one of China's most famous producers of porcelain. Products include ceramic go stones; these are fairly cheap but the only player commenting about them on Sensei's Library did not like them much.
- Ing stones. These are named after Taiwanese millionaire Ing Chang Ki who was a fanatic about the game and funded a foundation to promote it. The stones are large with a heavy metal center covered in a slightly soft plastic; some players prefer them and others detest them. They come in special bowls which make "Ing counting" (a type of area scoring) easier. They are common in Taiwan, less so anywhere else, and are low cost.
- Daiso Japan. This is a large chain (over 3000 stores in Japan, over 1500 elsewhere), mostly for low-to-moderate priced household goods; it has been called "the Japanese dollar store". They have many stores across Southeast Asia, mostly in large malls, and some of those carry Go equipment.
- Kuroki Goishi, 8491 Hiraiwa, Hyuga City, Miyazaki Prefecture, ☏ . A Japanese company that manufactures boards, bowls, and slate and clamshell stones. Located in Hyuga, the traditional source of clamshell stones. Not cheap, but reviews on Sensei's Library are very positive.
- Second-hand in Japan. Japanese generally do not like buying used goods, so prices in their "recycle shops" are often good. Sensei's Library discussion mentions flea markets in Kyoto as one good source.
High-end equipment can be quite expensive; for a fine set — a table board 5 cm thick, Japanese stones in the traditional materials (clamshell for white, slate for black) and high-grade bowls — the total would be around $1000 at Kiseido, an online vendor based in Japan. Full-size boards, as illustrated, are $1200 and up.
The traditional wood for Japanese boards, kaya, is from a species of yew, a slow-growing tree that needs several hundred years to get big enough to make Go boards out of and is rare enough to be a protected species. Also, its leaves contain a valuable anti-cancer drug, so poachers often remove them. Kaya is therefore in extremely short supply and incredibly expensive; new table boards are around $1,000, and full-size boards are much more. Most travellers' only hope of getting a kaya board would be a lucky find in a Japanese flea market.
Some vendors offer boards in shin kaya, which translates as 'new kaya'. This is really just spruce with good marketing; a shin kaya board can be a good buy, but not at anything close to the price of real kaya.
Fortunately there are also many more moderately priced alternatives; for example Kiseido's cheapest set is $50 and they have some quite fine ones for a few hundred; the cost is much lower, for example, with glass stones instead of slate-and-shell. Most vendors have sets under $100, perhaps not great examples of oriental traditions but quite pleasant to use.
Also, a traveller visiting East Asia will often find better selection and prices than are available at home or online; one who is in the market for high-end equipment might even save enough to cover much of the cost of a trip.