In an age in which computers routinely give grandmasters an absolute drubbing on the chessboard, it is somewhat heartening that a similar kind of board game exists whereby our humble gray matter can still outfox the best efforts that silicon can muster. In contrast to the exotically named pieces in chess and its variants, the game consists simply of black and white pieces called stones, which are placed alternately on a large wooden grid. The game goes by the name of go, and despite its apparent simplicity people have been captivated by its enormously rich strategy for thousands of years.
Legend has it that go was dreamed up over 4,000 years ago by a Chinese emperor as a means of teaching his errant playboy son the sound merits of discipline and concentration. According to other accounts, the game developed in India. Whatever its origins, go came to hold a lofty status in ancient China and was regarded as one of the four cultivated arts of the gentleman scholar. Eventually, the game made its way from China to Korea and then on to Japan around the fifth or sixth century.
For most of Japanese history, go was strictly the preserve of aristocrats, monks and scholars. Its popularity in the Japan of a millennium ago is evident by its appearance in a famous scene in the eleventh-century literary masterpiece The Tale of Genji. The modern history of go dates back to 1612, when the Japanese government set up four go schools to advance the game, and competitions were held to establish the country’s first generation of professional players.
The board (goban) upon which players bend their wits in its standard format features nineteen vertical and horizontal lines, which produce 361 intersections on which the stones are placed. The traditional Japanese wooden goban is 10 to 18 centimeters thick and fitted with legs so that it can sit on the tatami floor like a low table. With high-quality sets, the black stones are traditionally made from a slate found near Nachi Falls in Wakayama Prefecture, and the white stones are fashioned from clamshells. Black plays first, and so there are 181 black stones to the 180 white. The stones are kept in wooden bowls shaped like flattened spheres, and at the beginning of play the lid of the bowl is upturned to receive captured stones.
In go, the aim is not so much the taking of one’s opponent’s stones but to secure as much territory as possible while ensuring that the opponent does not encroach on one’s own area. Players are allowed to place their stones on any free intersection. According to custom, the stones are held between the forefinger and middle finger before being placed on the board, which emits a satisfying clack upon contact. Except in the case of capture, no stone can be moved after it has been played. Stones are considered captured, or “dead,” if they are completely surrounded by the opponent’s stones, and the captured stones are removed from the board.
The rules of go are simple and few, and they can be grasped very quickly, though go is much more of an abstract game than chess. Pure analytical thought certainly plays a role, but go relies more on an intuitive approach based on pattern recognition. Go also lacks the dramatic end to the game that occurs with checkmate in chess. Indeed, many players new to go have trouble deciding when a game is over.
Recent decades have seen go extend beyond its traditional East Asian home in terms of popularity. Go societies thrive in many countries, and the rise of online go means that players living on opposite sides of the world are able to pit their skills against each other. And once someone has discovered the attractions of this fine game, they will probably not lose interest: estimates put the number of possible go games at 10750 (1 followed by 750 zeros). Since by comparison, the number of atoms in the observable universe is around a paltry 1080, thoughts along the lines of “same old, same old” are hardly likely to flicker through the go player’s mind.
David Capel is a journalist living in Tokyo.