Go: the perfect game

After a hiatus spanning almost a year and a half, I’m back in 2012 and my first article is about the board game of Go…. which coincidentally was also the primary reason for my absence. (^^;)

Hikaru no Go

Hikaru no Go

I first learned of the game at a small cafe in the outskirts of Nagoya. Like many small cafes in Japan, there was a small collection of miscellaneous reading material available. So I casually picked up the first volume of the manga Hikaru no Go while waiting for my lunch. Later that same day, on my way home after work I stopped by a used book store and bought three more. I was hooked.

Not only was the story compelling (I eventually read the whole series and watched the anime… more than once! I highly recommend it by the way.), I was fascinated by the game itself. It sounds kind of corny, but when I played for the first time, it felt like I was taking part in something much bigger and more important than a ‘game’. It was an experience more akin to meditation.

Go board with game in progress

a Go game in progress

Go has an aesthetic that is minimalist to the extreme; despite its Chinese origin, the game itself is culturally neutral. Fascinatingly, there are no arbitrary rules, except perhaps the rule that black goes first (more of a convention than a rule, if you ask me). Yet despite the simplicity of the rules—or rather, because of the simplicity—playing Go becomes a task so complex that today’s best computer software still struggles against high ranked players. Humans can still beat computers at Go not because of raw calculating power (at which we would surely be outmatched), but because we can sense both potential and danger in situations that are too wide open and vague to be calculable.

Sadly, I left Japan last autumn after a little over a year of frequent play, and Go is under-appreciated outside of Asia. Many people haven’t heard of the game and of those who have only a few know how to play. It’s my hope that this article will raise awareness of the game and maybe even inspire a few people to try it.

So, what is Go?

Go (from the Japanese term go or igo), also known as weiqi (Chinese) or baduk (Korean), was first played in China more than two millennia ago. It is a creative game played on a 19×19 grid where two players compete to surround a larger territory than their opponent. Note that by “creative”, I mean that the board starts empty, and players take turns adding one stone at a time.

Image at right: in Go, stones are captured if they are surrounded. So, White’s 3 stones are taken off the board if Black plays on the circled point. Simple, right? This is the basic rule on which the entire game is based.

Victory rests not only on a player’s reading ability, but also their strategic cunning, boldness, adaptability, instincts and sense of balance. In short, Go is a contest of many virtues. Furthermore, there is no need to annihilate your opponent; a single point win is a win all the same.

I won’t get into the rules of the game, because I think there are plenty of other sites on the internet that are already doing a great job of that. If you’re interested, here are some suggestions:


The Go World

Go is widely known and practiced in Asia, especially in China, Korea and Japan. These countries have large Go organizations, each employing hundreds of professional players. Children hardly in their teens can become well known professionals, and elite players can make a fortune by winning title matches and signing book deals. Weekly newspapers devoted to the game report on professional matches and offer tips for players.

I remember looking forward to Sunday afternoons in Japan, when NHK would air a professional game (complete with commentary by a host and lecturer who would explain the game as it was happening). Though the level of play was far too high for me to understand everything, it was still intriguing and strangely relaxing.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that in Asia, Go is given the attention and respect that in the west is only afforded to physical sports.

Let’s play Go!

If you live in Japan, South Korea, or China, check out your local Go salon, or head to your regional Go Association headquarters if you’re close enough. In my experience, go players are almost universally very friendly and accommodating to newcomers, so don’t be shy. We all love the game and want to see it spread.

Me playing a game with Yamashiro Hiroshi (9P)

Me vs. Yamashiro Hiroshi (9P)

If you live in America, you might have a tough time finding physical locations where players gather, but the American Go Association homepage provides an excellent list of local groupings across the US. Internet Go is also very popular. I play on KGS under the username LV3 (say hello if you see me!), but there are many other places to play such as Pandanet IGS (also on iPhone), Yuugen no Ma (Japanese only, available on Android, run by the Nihon Kiin a.k.a. Japanese Go Association), or Tygem (Korean origin with English available, with an iPad client).

If you live in Europe, I’m sorry but I can’t be much more help to you than to suggest the Internet Go options I already mentioned above, and also point you to the European Go Federation homepage. Good luck! :-P

Final warnings

A word of warning to all of you: Go is a very seductive game. If you’re anything like me, you’ll get pulled in quick and it will be very hard to be just a casual player.

It’s also extremely satisfying, so it might be detrimental to your desire to do other things (like me when I stopped blogging!).

Other Go-related links

Here are some of my favorite Go links for you to check out, should you be so inclined.

  • My Go Tumblog (Shameless self-promotion, I know. And I write in it in Japanese. Check it out anyway ;-))
  • Go article on Wikipedia (Great background information about the game.)
  • Sensei’s Library (The quintessential Go link. Tons of information here.)
  • Go Game Guru (The leading blog for Go news and other topics.)
  • Gokifu.com (Professional Go game records. Lots of them. I love this site.)
  • Life in 19×19 (The leading internet forum for Go players on the internet.)
  • Gocommentary.com (Great video lessons for more advanced players.)
  • Seattle Go Center (Possibly the best facility for Go in North America. I wish I could visit more often…)
Posted under Living & Enjoying Japan by Nihonshock.

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