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.

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