Learning to play Go

We bumped into Robert at the last MathsJam conference. He spoke so enthusiastically about Go, and how easy it is to get started, that we asked him if he could write a guide for someone who wants to get into the game. Here it is!

Go is an ancient game from Asia (being deliberately vague here). The reasons I love this game are the simplicity of the rules and the fact it has an effective handicap system. The rule system means it is great to introduce to people who may not have a background in games. The handicap allows beginners to play world champions and for both to have a challenging game.

The board

The first things you need are a board and some counters, known as stones. I suggest you get a 9×9 board and approximately 100 stones/counters; 50 white and 50 black.

If you want to do this cheaply, I have found a shop on eBay selling plastic counters for not much, and I’ve designed a board to fit them which you can print out:

You can also play on boards of size 13×13 and 19×19, which lead to more in depth games and require more stones. Another nice thing about Go is that the rules from the 9×9 game don’t change when you swap to longer, more complex, games with larger boards.

The Rules

This is a set of simplified rules that cover the main points of the game. I wrote them from my own perspective so there are some minor points that aren’t covered and no strategy is included.

Aim: Surround the most empty crosses (territory)

Play: Turns consist of placing a piece on any empty cross on the board.

Taking: If a stone or area of stones is completely surrounded with no spaces; it is removed (take before suicide) and placed in a separate pile of prisoners.

Ko rule: You cannot play to immediately undo the other player’s move

The game ends: When a stalemate is reached and both players pass their turn to agree to it.

Scoring: Place all dead and prisoners you have taken in the opponent’s territory. The player with the most territory wins.

Playing

A famous Go proverb says, “Lose your first 50 games of go as quickly as possible”. The best way to learn is to make mistakes, so with the above rules you can just start playing. If you want you could try some things out on the board first; one idea is a “capture race” – the first player to capture one or more stones wins. That being said there are a few items that I would like to mention on strategy in the following three sections.

Game stages

There are roughly 3 stages to a game: you could say the beginning, middle, and end.

At the start of the game the stones mark out which area of the board you might be trying to claim.

Next, some skirmishes or battles might occur, though they may not involve any counters being lost.

Finally the areas are fortified and clearly defined. This is where the game reaches stalemate and the points are scored.

Remember, it isn’t the end of the world if you lose – the 9×9 games are pretty short and you can just play again. This leads me onto my next point.

Life and death

An eye

Although not stated in the rules of the game, a commonly agreed theme is to think of an area of stones as alive or dead (or somewhere in between). To explain: it doesn’t matter how big an area of stone is if it isn’t connected to an empty space or two. An empty single space that is surrounded by a connected colour is called an eye.

For any area of stone to live (not be removed) it needs two eyes or the space to make them if the opponent attacks. An area is dead if it can’t make 2 eyes. Warning; this can get complex and even more so on larger boards. Two opposing groups can even be symbiotic, i.e. only alive if the other lives.

Handicap

Just like life, games are never fair. The player who goes first (usually black) instantly has a small advantage. Once you have played a game or even a few you might realise one of you is “more advanced”. Then a handicap can be put in place where the black player not only gets to go first but starts with a few stones on the board. It sounds crazy but this actually makes the game more interesting for both players. The previous winner has a new challenge and the other guy gets to see what it’s like to have the upper hand. There is a ranking system for Go players allowing a handicap to be calculated.

Conclusion

Go has simple rules that make for a complicated game and the best way to learn is to start playing, with anyone, as the handicap system can balance it out again.

So enjoy playing!

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• Robert Woolley

An engineering and maths teacher from Oxford, Robert is a keen board game player who particularly loves to teach Go. His other hobbies include circus skills and bushcraft.

4 Responses to “Learning to play Go”

1. Linda P

I have never played Go and have no knowledge of it other than “it’s that game with the black and white stones”, so your introduction “This article is designed for those who want to learn Go …” seemed ideal.
I still don’t understand it – am I particularly fuzzy-brained? I’m confused by the explanation of Taking – does the surrounded area have to be completely filled in to be taken? e.g. if white surrounded the ‘eye’ in your diagram, could you ‘take’ those stones? And what is ‘suicide’?
“For any area of stone to live (not be removed) it needs two eyes” Who is doing the removing? Why is an area dead if it hasn’t got 2 eyes?

I’d be really interested in anybody else’s experience, especially others who are coming from a position of (almost) complete ignorance.