What Is Go?

Go (also known as weiqi [wei-ch'i] in Chinese and paduk in Korean) is the world's oldest and most complex strategy game. Using round black and white counters (called `stones') on a 19x19-line board, each of the two players tries to surround a larger share of the territory while avoiding being surrounded by the opponent's stones. The few, simple rules can be learned in a matter of minutes, but a lifetime is not long enough to master the game. And although there is a wide range of skill among players, go employs an elegant handicapping system to even the chances in every game.

The origin of go is unknown, but the game has been played in China since pre-Confucian times. In classical China weiqi was considered one of the Four Accomplishments, along with calligraphy, music, and painting. The game spread to Korea and, about 1500 years ago, to Japan, probably in tandem with Buddhism. A favorite pastime of princes and poets, samurai and monks, go eventually developed into the Japanese national game. From the scholarly groves of Tang China to the executive suites of corporate Japan, skill at go has remained a mark of distinction.

Japan, the center of the go world at present, has an estimated ten million amateur enthusiasts, as well as a professional league of some 400 players, about ten percent of them women. The top pros compete for prizes that can exceed $100,000. Smaller professional leagues also flourish in South Korea, Taiwan, and the Peoples Republic of China. Westerners have been playing go for a little more than a century, and there are now an estimated 60,000 American players, of whom only three have achieved professional standing.

The basic law of go is the principle of (yin-yang) balance. Give and take, attack and defense, must be equally stressed. An advantage taken in one part of the board implies a deficit in another part. You cannot overcome or circumvent this principle through clever play; in fact, improving at go is tantamount to deepening your understanding of balance. Similarly, go requires, and trains, both the analytic and intuitive faculties of the brain. Many players find the game a form of meditation, good for developing patience, dispassion, and other useful habits of mind. Others find that go mirrors the personality, reflecting (and offering the opportunity to modify) the style and consequences of one's own behavior. Still others, appreciating the fact that go can be enjoyed at any level of skill, simply find the game a great deal of fun.