Keys to the game: Understanding igo 囲碁


This 90-year-old member of Kure’s Go Club, playing white, appears to be winning this game by at least 10 points. (Photo by Jonathan Fisher)

By Jonathan Fisher

The hollow clicking sound grows louder as you approach the door on the second floor of an old downtown building. As the door swings open, the source of the clicking becomes clear: around 40 ojiisan clustered around low tables. Looking pensive as they slurp green tea, they take turns forcefully smacking stones down on wooden game boards, occasionally bursting out with a surprised “Ehh!” or frustrated “Bakanaa!”

The men are playing one of the oldest, most complex strategy games on the planet. It is the game the Japanese call igo, or simply go, alternatively called baduk in Korean, and weiqi in Chinese.

The game board is a 19-by-19 square grid of black lines often etched into a single thick block of wood. The black and white pieces, called ishi, or stones, are usually made of slate and clamshell. And the object of the game, simply stated, is to surround as many points on the grid as you can with your color stones, and do so as efficiently as possible.

The rules of the game are fairly easy to learn. Players take turns placing one stone at a time on any point of the grid. Black plays first, and the board may not have exactly the same configuration after any two consecutive turns at any time during the game. A player may pass at any time, but two consecutive passes end the game. If, at any time, a stone or group of adjacent stones of one color is completely surrounded by stones of another color, they are considered “captured,” are removed from the board. The final score is the number of points of territory each player has surrounded, plus the number of stones each player has captured. And the player with the greatest score wins. The average game lasts about 45 minutes, but some historical games have been played over the course of several months.

Japan, China and Korea each have their own myths about the origin of the game. But go in its primeval form was probably invented in Northern India around the time of the Buddha (circa 500 BCE), making it one of the oldest games of its kind in the world. Go is a game of great cultural importance across East Asia. And although its popularity in Japan has been waning since the end of World War II, go remains an extremely valuable cultural and historical artifact in this country. Go figured prominently in the court of the Tokugawa Shogunate, when nationally supported go schools and officially sanctioned tournaments (some of which still survive to the present day) became important vehicles of fame, entertainment and enlightenment for the samurai, courtesans and other men and women of leisure of the day. Important go games from that era, and even earlier have been recorded move by move, and are available for study to avid students of the game today. Go has seeped into other art forms as well, from Heian Era painted scrolls, to popular manga of the 20th century like Hikaru No Go, which embellishes on the seemingly charmed career of a historical Japanese 19th century go master named Shusaku.

Go is surprisingly complex. Strategy must be applied not only to win small fights for the “life” of important stones, but also to ensure the most efficient control over valuable territory across the board. As a testament to go’s complexity, many of the strongest computer versions of the game are still no match for even a mediocre amateur such as myself, whereas the strongest human chess players are now often bested in that game by computer programs. Indeed, go is often mistakenly referred to as “Chinese” or “Japanese chess,” but there are striking differences between go and chess. Unlike chess, in which pieces are continually removed from the board, each turn of go sees the addition of a new piece to the board. Thus, the possibilities available in a game of go quickly multiply on the order of trillions of moves, while over the course of a chess game, the choices of moves shrink to near zero as the final checkmate approaches.

Go is a fascinating if not addictive game. It has only been three years since a friend of mine challenged me to my first game, and now I spend upwards of 10 hours a week studying and practicing it. Go is a game that has been likened to calligraphy or poetry in its artistic beauty, and also to Zen meditation in its deceptive simplicity and mystical spiritual potential. To quote a well-known go aphorism, “The board is a mirror of the mind of the players as the moments pass. When a master studies the record of a game he can tell at what point greed overtook the pupil, when he became tired, when he fell into stupidity, and when the maid came by with tea.”

Learning Igo

If you’re interested in learning go or improving your skill, the best thing to do first is to ask Japanese people you know if they are familiar with the game (men older than 50 are probably your best bet). You may be lucky enough to find a co-worker who can teach you.

But, barring that option, there are go clubs, like the one I frequent in Kure, all over the prefecture. In fact, I am told that Hiroshima-ken is one of the better areas in Japan for studying go, as it is home to some of the most renowned historical masters of the game including Shusaku, who was born on Inoshima.

If you cannot find a go club nearby, or if you are (understandably) intimidated by the prospect of hanging out in a smoky go parlor with a bunch of ojiisan who speak nothing but the thickest Hiroshima dialect, you can check out any of the following Web sites for helpful hints, tips and practice.

The KGS Server
A great site to learn about go by challenging people from around the world to real-time games. Use of this JAVA client is completely free.

A great place to catch up on go news from around the world. Also, for a one-time donation of $10, you get unlimited access to a huge, searchable repository of hundreds of historical go games to study.

Sensei’s Library
A comprehensive go wiki with loads of information on Japanese go terminology (including some kana, and kanji entries).

Go Problems
Another easily accessible database of go information, this time in the form of quick puzzles. Find the best move, or sequence of moves, and hone your skills.