Go is unique among games.
The history of Go stretches back some 3,000 years, yet throughout this time the rules have remained essentially the same. The game is thought to have originated in China or the Himalayas. Mythology has it that the future of Tibet was once decided over a Go board. It is said that a Buddhist ruler refused to go into battle and instead challenged the aggressor to a game of Go to avoid bloodshed. In the Far East, Go enjoys great popularity today, and interest in the game is growing steadily in the rest of the world.
Go is a territorial game. The board, marked with a grid constructed of 19 by 19 lines, may be thought of as a piece of land to be shared between the two players. One player has a supply of black pieces, referred to as stones, the other a supply of white ones. The game starts with an empty board. Players take turns placing stones on the vacant intersecting points. Black plays the first stone. Once played, stones are not moved; however, if they become surrounded by the opponent’s stones they will be captured and taken off the board as prisoners.
The players normally start by staking out their claims to parts of the board which they intend eventually to surround and thereby make into territory. However, fights between enemy groups of stones can arise in a game and can result in dramatic exchanges of territory. At the end of the game the players count one point for each intersection they control and one point for every stone they have captured. The one with the larger total is the winner. Capturing stones is certainly one way of gaining territory, but one of the subtleties of Go is that aggression does not always pay. The strategic and tactical possibilities of the game are endless, providing a challenge and enjoyment to players of all levels. The personalities of the players and their mood can emerge very clearly on the Go board. The game reflects the skills of the players in balancing attack and defence, making stones work efficiently, remaining flexible in response to changing situations, timing, analysing accurately, and recognising the strengths and weaknesses of the opponent.
What makes Go so special?
As an intellectual challenge Go is extraordinary. Its rules are exceedingly simple, yet it was not until 2016 that a computer program, AlphaGo, became able to defeat the world champion of Go.
Go offers major attractions to anyone who enjoys games of skill:
- There is great scope for intuition and experiment in a game of Go, especially in the opening. Go has its opening strategies and tactics but players can become quite strong knowing no more than a few basic patterns.
- Go has a very effective handicapping system. This enables players of widely differing strengths to play each other on equal terms without distorting the character of the game.
- The object in Go is to make more territory than the other player by surrounding it more efficiently, or by attacking the opponent’s stones to greater effect. On such a large board, it’s possible to do somewhat badly in one area but make up for it on the rest of the board to pull out a win.
- Every game of Go quickly takes on a character of its own, no two games are alike, and the outcome may hang in the balance until the very end.
Compared to other classic games, Go proved notoriously difficult to crack for computers. The sheer number of possible plays means complete calculation is impossible except in a few local situations (such as life and death positions). Also, Go relies more on shape recognition and judgement of strength and weakness, which are hard to program. Throughout the end of the last century several programmers tried hard to get programs good enough to win the top prizes that were on offer, but all failed – the best being about mid-club-player level. In 2016, a Go AI called AlphaGo by Google’s DeepMind finally managed to defeat the world champion Lee Sedol in a five-game match. AlphaGo implemented a neural network that predicted where expert players would play in a given board position, combined with a staple of modern computer Go programs, an algorithm that plays lots of random games on each move to determine the move that gives the most wins. Nowadays there are numerous superhuman Go AIs that can be operated on relatively modest hardware, such as smartphones.
Go and the Media
A key element of Go is that in East Asia it is popular also as a spectator sport. Traditionally the games between top players attract great attention. Many newspapers support their own Go title match in return for the exclusive right to cover the event. A fine example of the status of Go is the book ‘The Master of Go’ by Yasunari Kawabata, Go journalist and winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature. In China and South Korea, many television networks are covering Go. Some Beijing press organisations focus on Go all the time. Japan’s national TV Station organises a yearlong tournament which is shown every Sunday for two hours with a very high number of viewers. In addition, among the commercial TV stations that cover Go, there is a special Go channel.
The New Media
The possibility of playing Go on the Internet has changed the world of Go. The Internet connects Go players around the world, which is especially essential in those parts of the world not densely populated by Go fans. A survey estimates that over 100,000 players outside Asia use the Internet to play Go. In Korea over 3 million people are experienced in Internet Go games. The Internet furthermore creates huge possibilities for promoting and teaching Go. The first website of the IGF was officially opened in August 2002 and is used for posting information and creating a network among members. In reporting on our events and activities, the IGF works together with several partners.