The object of go is simple: use your stones to surround territory and to prevent your opponent from doing the same. Stones connect orthogonally in order to share liberties, i.e. the open intersections orthogonally adjacent to them. Stones may be captured if the opponent deprives them of their last liberty. Stones can only be placed on intersections where it has at least one liberty or can make a liberty through capture. A situation where captures may occur infinitely back and forth invokes the ko rule, where the other player must allow the person who just captured one turn to connect the stone back to a friendly group before he can capture in return. Two secure and unconnected liberties within a group ensure the group’s safety. If a situation occurs where neither side can move without losing their group, a truce is declared and neither side gains points from that area. Players play stones alternately on the intersections, and the game ends when both players pass or one resigns.
How can a game with so few rules take a lifetime to learn?
Yes, my dear readers, my first paragraph offers all the rules to this game. The problem comes in perfecting one’s play. How does one play lightly and efficiently rather than heavily and wastefully? How does one retain the initiative? What threats may be ignored for a greater good? How should I invade here without playing too deeply or too shallowly? Playing on what space would radiate the most influence on the board? Should I strive now for territory or influence in the center? How might I save my beleaguered group? How might I kill my opponent’s group? Should I go for the kill or just threaten and constrict that group? Which joseki should I use in response to that attack on the corner? Am I playing too aggressively? Have I read all the possible variations of that fight correctly? There are times when all of these questions must be answered before one can make a single move! No other game I know can so frazzle the nerves. Often, sweat would bead my brow, my mouth would dry out, and my hands would tremble from the sheer excitement of playing on the edge of a knife.
It is a wonder that more people do not play this great game! In my own case, I must confess to losing touch with my usual partners in playing this game and thus the game itself. Now that I am trying to get back into playing, it is frustrating to lose to people online whose skills are less than those I once attained! At one time, I could give an entertaining game for a professional Chinese 6-dan. Note well that I say entertaining, not great! However, my two favorite partners declared my first game with her the greatest they had ever witnessed! Unfortunately, my fear of her killer instinct soon led to me playing so conservatively that the games stopped being as entertaining.
An artistic representation of how badly I lost to the 6-dan.
Oddly enough, I started learning the game because my father bought me a set for Christmas one year. (A friend in Alabama now has this set.) The proper way to play eluded my father, and he quickly lost interest in the game. (Do not play on the edge of the board unless necessary to reducing your opponent’s territory or saving your own group.) In sophomore year of college, I discovered that a good friend of mine loved the game, and we engaged in many stirring battles. Like a Mongol, he preferred battles in the open center where precise calculation determined victory or defeat. He often had the edge and it took me a while to develop a more defensive style and willingness to sacrifice in order to deal with his finesse.
During the summer, I stumbled upon two of the greatest resources for the beginning go player: Game of Go: The National Game of Japan by Arthur Smith and Hikaru no Go. The latter has a surprising amount of information pertinent to the beginner, while the former stands as perhaps the best introduction to the game. These works combined with much playing on Fly or Die led to a lopsided victory over my friend on my return to college. I had learned the importance of controlling the corners and the sides in order to gain advantage in the battle for the center. The Mongol cavalry met solid squares of Swiss pike and, like the French cavalry at Waterloo, dashed itself against the fighting square. He took the loss with good humor. Though he seldom afterwards beat me at this game, he was still an opponent to be reckoned with for his skillful tactics in the center and ability to calculate with exactitude.
I should watch the anime again or read the manga. Such a good story!
These victories turned me into a fervent apostle of the game, and I preached its virtues to Jew and Gentile. Devouring every work I could get my hands on, I established myself as the greatest authority of the game at college until the 6-dan arrived. To my surprise and chagrin, my dominance on the board earned me the nickname of “the Go Rapist” among my friends. But, those defects which cause the downfall of every champion began to gnaw at me: boredom in not finding an equal on the board (go is best played with equals, despite whatever advantage handicaps accrue to the weaker player) and the fear of losing. The more I feared losing, the more conservative and uninteresting my play became. At the same time, my roommate doggedly studied the game with the goal of beating me, and, during senior year shortly after one game where I only won by a single point, he became the dominant player! Though at present we are both out of practice, I’d say that he still remains the superior player.
Now, I am no longer the masterful player of five years ago, but I’d like to be. There is a certain pleasure in starting again from the bottom. The game does not bore me at all, and winning or losing is a lesser concern to playing well. To my dear readers who love games of reason, skill, and intuition, be sure to give go a shot and to have a cup of tea next to you when you do!