Do not pass go

Charles Arthur explains the attractions of an ancient oriental game

As a child, I used to enjoy chess. Any small boy can find something appealing in the game's medieval names and executionary gestures of capture, made across the conveniently-sized board. But how frustrating, as one improves, to find that the two sides' destructive efforts often leave them both unable to muster enough force to win, wandering the empty wastelands of the battle until a draw is agreed and the bloodshed can start afresh.

Now a touch older, I find chess a cramped, limited game, whose greatest complexity is in the wrong part - its rules. I prefer go, an Oriental game (Chinese or Japanese, depending on whom you ask) which is nearly twice as old as chess, but whose rules are far simpler and board far larger.

As you might guess, having simpler rules makes it harder. In fact, go seems to me a far better preparation for the subtleties of life than chess. It teaches the value of weighing tactics against strategy, and the diplomatic method of allowing one's opponent a small victory in order to win a bigger one later.

To the beginner, go has two advantages over chess. First, there are no fancy moves to learn. All the pieces (called "stones", either black or white) are alike, and remain where they are placed on the board unless captured. Second, a golf-like "handicapping" system lets novices play experienced players on level terms by giving them a calculated number of extra moves before the game starts.

The full board consists of a 19 x 19 grid of lines, giving it 361 playing points, compared to chess's paltry 64. (To simplify matters, beginners tend to start on a 9 x 9 board.) The object is to place the stones on points of the grid so as to surround unoccupied grid points - "territory" - on the board. The winner is the one with more territory when no more moves are possible.

The tussles begin as the stones accumulate. Placing stones on adjacent points of the grid connects them, forming a "group", which may be of any size. A group is "alive" if it encircles at least two separated points of the grid.

Groups that are not alive can be captured by completely surrounding them, which nets one point per captured stone, plus the points of territory they vacate when removed from the board. Groups that are alive cannot be captured. So battles tend to consist of one side trying to make a group alive, against the opponent's efforts. The result looks, to the inexperienced eye, like a knitting pattern using Imperial Mints and Liquorice Allsorts.

At the end, captured stones are removed and subtracted from their owner's points total. The winning margin can be huge, or just half a point (White always plays second in go, and receives a start of five-and-a-half points in return). Which is another thing: you always get a definite result.

Every game is a voyage into a huge sea of possibility. There are an estimated 10700 possible games of go, compared to 10120 in chess. Go players operate on intuition and feel, based on experience; while tactical struggles do demand careful reading, many moves on the open board cannot be criticised or praised, except in hindsight.

This artistic component forces one to consider subtle Japanese ideas such as "shape" and "efficiency" (how well a group of stones encloses an area), of a group of stones being "light" or "heavy" (meaning they can evade capture easily or with difficulty), of "thickness" (a group which can be used for attack) and "aji" (a Japanese word referring to the potential of apparently captured stones to cause trouble for the captor).

Such concepts are difficult to express in words, let alone computer programs. Thus, while there are plenty of go-playing computer games, none can beat a professional - there's a million-dollar prize awaiting the first person to write such a program. In fact, none can yet even beat a competent amateur on level terms - though they offer entertainment to learners and those looking for a distraction.

Those incapable (like me) of learning chess openings will be delighted to hear that go has no standard openings. There are common opening moves, but after about 40 moves - 20 by each side - the game will have barely begun, yet will be different from any that either side has played before.

The middle game sees battles and a general settling of territorial areas, and the endgame proceeds quite rapidly because there are fewer possible moves as the board fills up, though it becomes important to calculate the order of moves - at this stage, every extra point helps. A standard game between competent amateurs takes about an hour and consists of more than 200 moves.

Go also forces one to develop true strategy. The size of the board means you can lose a sizeable group in one corner, and yet not lose the game, since you can start almost afresh elsewhere. Better players may give up a large group, or let the opponent gain territory, in order to win bigger gains elsewhere - the idea of "compensation". It is the requirement to consider the broader picture, weighing up events across the whole board, which makes go such a fascinating challenge.

A final recommendation? The thought processes that go promotes - of observing balance in one's forces, of letting the opponent win a little so that you can win a lot - closely resemble Japanese industrial strategy. Whenever I hear a manager compare business to chess, I know I am listening to a loser. The boss of Nintendo, for example, is a top-ranked go amateur; one of the first Western companies to win a contract from him got it when its boss - also a go player - offered a challenge game. In its way, playing go is like winning market share. You don't need to get everything - just more than the opposition.

There are many local go clubs, and a number of schools where the game is played. Contact the British Go Association on the Internet at http://www.britgo.demon.co.uk or write to 6 Meynell Crescent, Hackney, London E9 7AS (enclosing a large sae) for more information.

Suggested Topics
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
Life and Style
Suited and booted in the Lanvin show at the Paris menswear collections
fashionParis Fashion Week
Arts and Entertainment
Kara Tointon and Jeremy Piven star in Mr Selfridge
tvActress Kara Tointon on what to expect from Series 3
Voices
Winston Churchill, then prime minister, outside No 10 in June 1943
voicesA C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
News
i100
News
An asteroid is set to pass so close to Earth it will be visible with binoculars
news
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch has spoken about the lack of opportunities for black British actors in the UK
film
News
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Austen Lloyd: Private Client Solicitor - Oxford

    Excellent Salary : Austen Lloyd: OXFORD - REGIONAL FIRM - An excellent opportu...

    Austen Lloyd: Clinical Negligence Associate / Partner - Bristol

    Super Package: Austen Lloyd: BRISTOL - SENIOR CLINICAL NEGLIGENCE - An outstan...

    Recruitment Genius: Sales Consultant - Solar Energy - OTE £50,000

    £15000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Fantastic opportunities are ava...

    Recruitment Genius: Compute Engineer

    Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Compute Engineer is required to join a globa...

    Day In a Page

    Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

    Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

    One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
    The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

    The enemy within

    People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
    Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

    Autumn/winter menswear 2015

    The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    Army general planning to come out
    Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

    What the six wise men told Tony Blair

    Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
    25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

    25 years of The Independent on Sunday

    The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
    Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

    Smash hit go under the hammer

    It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
    Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

    The geeks who rocked the world

    A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
    Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

    Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

    Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
    Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

    Growing mussels

    Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project