How Go Works

The game of Go
All the equipment you need to play Go: a board, stones and containers for the stones. (Just add players.)

The game Go has only one objective: control the most territory. But this simple board game, easily played by children and novices, can take a lifetime to master. There are more possible ways for a game of Go to play out than there are subatomic particles in the known universe [source: American Go Association]. Even the most sophisticated computer programs can't come up with a definitive solution for winning at Go -- unlike chess, in which artificial intelligence can routinely trounce a human opponent.

Go is the oldest game -- ever -- that is still played in its original form. Go enthusiasts may debate whether the game originated in China or neighboring Tibet. And they haven't reached a consensus on whether it was invented a mere 3,000 years ago or nearly 4,000 years ago. But Go was so highly regarded that by the 1600s in China, it was considered one of the four skills a gentleman must master [source: The International Go Federation]. The game is known as weiqi in China, baduk in Korea and sometimes as igo instead of Go in Japan [source: 361 Points].


Beginning in about 1000 A.D., Go was played in Japan by the upper classes, but it wasn't until the Tokugawa period (1603-1867 A.D.) that Go became a cultural institution in Japan. Four schools were founded, each with the sole purpose of instructing students to play Go and then compete against each other [source: The International Go Federation]. After hundreds of years of play -- with varying levels of aristocratic enthusiasm -- a professional tournament system was launched. Popularity spread to Asian and European countries and the United States. By the late 1970s, organized Go tournaments were being held throughout the world. Today, more than 70 member countries participate in international play, which is given daily newspaper coverage in Japan while its players are given celebrity status. And new players are still discovering the game, which is played exactly as it was in the beginning [source: American Go Association].

So how do you make the first move? We'll share a step-by-step guide to Go on the next page.


How to Play the Game of Go

Holding a Go stone the proper way, between the pad of your middle finger and the nail of your index finger, will help you place it on the board precisely.

To play Go, one player places black stones and the other places white stones on a ruled board, traditionally made of carved wood, that forms a grid of 19x19 intersecting lines. There are 361 stones (181 black and 180 white) -- just enough for each of the board's 361 intersections. Smaller boards may be used -- for example, a 9x9 grid is enough to illustrate the basics of the game to beginners, and a 13x13 grid can provide a quick-play version of the game [source: Kiseido].

Players begin a game of Go with an empty board. The black-stone player places the first stone on the board at the intersection of any two lines. The players then alternate turns -- or pass without playing a stone if they wish -- as they attempt to control the majority of the board's territory (intersections) by setting up solid perimeters with their stones, and by preventing their opponent from doing the same by invading their opponent's territory and surrounding (thus capturing) their opponent's stones.


A stone can only be placed on an empty intersection and cannot be moved after it is played -- unless it is captured and taken off the board. A stone can be captured when its player cannot place another stone next to it because it is surrounded by opposing stones. The game ends when both players pass consecutively.

There are two main ways of determining scores in Go: Chinese (or area) scoring and Japanese (or territory) scoring. In Chinese scoring, points are calculated by adding the number of stones you have on the board to the number of empty intersections that your stones surround. In Japanese scoring, points are calculated by subtracting the number of your stones that were captured from the number of empty intersections that your stones surround. In both methods, the player with the highest number of points wins the game [source:, Online Go Server].

To level the field, players can institute the komidashi rule and award free points to the player with white stones. This helps even the score because the player with black stones made the first move of the game. Additional handicaps can be instated based on a player's professional or amateur rank; this allows players to compete even if they have different skill levels.

Ready to sign up for the nearest tournament? We'll explain how to find these hours-long competitions on the next page.


Tips for the Game of Go

Though the game might tax the patience of some kids (and some adults), children as young as five can learn to play Go.

In 1996, NASA astronaut Daniel Barry played the first extraterrestrial game of Go with a Japanese astronaut. However, you don't need extreme lengths to get in the game. You can play Go online, set up a game at home or participate in an amateur or professional tournament. Tournaments that are open to all players, regardless of skill, often include workshops and instruction opportunities, too [source: American Go Association].

Professional tournaments are serious business. A tournament can take eight days to run its course and award up to $500,000 to the overall winning player. A rule known as ko helps curtail the length of games by banning any move that would return the board to a previous state [source:].


If you're just starting out, concentrate on the basics. Practice common stone patterns, as well as strategy that will improve your odds of winning. For example, during your opening moves, place stones at the corners of the board. Then place them on the sides and play toward the center. You can read books like "Go for Beginners" by Kaoru Iwamoto to gain an overall understanding of Go; more advanced players will benefit from the strategy tips offered in "The Direction of Play" by Takeo Kajiwara.

As for other skill-builders, bone up on patience. Although you can learn how to play Go in just a few minutes, it will take years (at least!) to play the game to its full potential. Take Wu Qingyuan -- also known as Go Seigen -- for instance. He studied the game for many years before his successful professional career from 1930 to 1961. He once took three months to finish a single game.

You might also want to brush up on math: In the late 1960s, mathematician John Horton Conway connected Go to surreal number theory, which provides a way to organize numbers that includes real, infinite and infinitesimal numbers. In the 1990s, researchers Elwyn Berlekamp and David Wolfe picked up on Conway's work, adding a new way to evaluate end-stage Go games.

American moviegoers may be familiar with Go from its cameo in the 2001 movie "A Beautiful Mind," in which mathematician John Forbes Nash plays Go at Princeton and claims the game is flawed because he orchestrated a perfect game, yet lost.

Younger audiences have a pop culture in, too: The game was central to the manga series "Hikaru no Go" that was published in Japan from 1998 to 2003 and adapted into an anime from 2001 to 2003 [source:]. Both the manga and anime have also been released in English. Its popularity drew a new generation of Go players -- a popularity that seems only fitting for a game that's survived for thousands of years.


Lots More Information

Related Articles

  • "What is Go?" (July 27, 2011)
  • American Go Association. "What is the Game of Go?" (July 26, 2011)
  • Berlekamp, Elwyn. "Mathematical Go: Chilling Gets the Last Point." (July 25, 2011)
  • British Go Association. "Some Celebrities who have Played Go. (July 26, 2011)
  • "Hikaru no Go." (July 28, 2011)
  • "KGS Go Tutorial: Ko." (July 26, 2011)
  • "Rating System." (July 26, 2011)
  • The International Go Federation. "History of Go." (July 24, 2011)
  • "How to Play Go." (July 25, 2011)
  • "Baduk Legends." (July 26, 2011)
  • NASA Images. "Mission Specialists Dan Barry and Koichi Wakata play Japanese Game 'Go.'" Feb. 6, 1996. (July 26, 2011)
  • Online Go Server. "FAQ - Rules and Scoring." (July 29, 2011)
  • Scanlon, Charles. "Young Japanese Go for Go." BBC News World Edition. August 1, 2002. (July 29, 2011)
  • Sensei's Library. "Go Seigen." (July 26, 2011)
  • Sensei's Library. "How to Hold and Play a Go Stone." (July 29, 2011)
  • "Go Ranks." (July 26, 2011)
  • University of St. Andrews. "John Horton Conway." 2004. (July 26, 2011)