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Playing Go - the Rules

Do not let a pastime upset true affection
You can still accord with kind and say "I win."
The contest over, black and white are collected into two boxes
And where is there any trace of loss or gain?


The 11th century Chinese statesman Wang An-Shih

The Ideal Game

Traditionally, there is a table of finest kaya wood, some 45cm by 42cm square, 15cm thick and with four short, intricately carven legs. On the table top a grid of black lines, 19 in each direction, is marked, with slight spots at the hoshi points. Two plain, highly polished bowls of mulberry wood, some 14cm in diameter and 12cm high, with lids which when removed can act as smaller boards, sit nearby. One bowl contains 181 round black "stones", made of nachi-guro slate mined in the Wakayama Prefecture of Japan. The other holds 180 white "stones" shaped from the shell of the hamaguri clam. These "stones" will be approximately 2cm in diameter, with black slightly larger to take into account differing optical effects, and something under 1cm thick. They are usually convex on both sides, though they may be flat on one side.

In a formal game, players kneel on either side of the board, although in a less formal setting it is permissable to cross one's legs. The weaker player addresses the stronger and makes the traditional request for a game: "Will you teach me?" The stronger assents and takes the bowl containing the white stones. The game commences. It takes place in comparative silence, each player taking the time he (or she: some of the finest players are female) needs to make each move. Players may smoke, and a maid brings tea. When the game has been finished, and the points counted, each player clears away his own stones, thanking the other for what he has learnt. At this time, discussion may take place on what has happened during the game.

The Rules

Go is a game of territory. The stones are played on the intersections of the lines, and once played, are not moved unless captured. A player's territory consists of the intersections upon which there are no stones and which are surrounded by stones of his colour. A point is gained for each intersection and (assuming the most conventional, Japanese, method of counting) also for each stone of the other colour which has been captured during the game. A stone is connected to another stone if they are touching each other along the line. A stone or group of stones is captured by surrounding it with stones of the other colour on all the lines around it.

That's it, basically.

There are three rules about where you cannot play. You cannot, of course, play on top of another stone. You cannot capture a stone which has in its last move captured one of yours - this is called ko. And you cannot "commit suicide", i.e. play in a place where the stone you had played would immediately be captured, without your opponent playing.

Playing

One of the major benefits that Go has over games like Chess is that it possesses a handicap system which makes it possible for a good player to play a very weak one and both players still have an interesting and challenging game. This works by putting black stones on the hoshi points before the game starts - thus giving black, the weaker player, a framework on which to build. These points are marked on the board with a small black spot, and there are usually nine marked on a standard 19x19 board. However, the number of points actually used can vary from 2 up to 13 depending on the comparative strengths of the players.

A group of stones can be described as "alive" when it has two "eyes"; in other words, when it is a fully connected group and there are two places in it where the opponent cannot play without committing suicide. If there were only one such place, it would not be alive, because the opponent could surround it, then play in the "eye" and capture the group. But if there are two, it is safe.

A game ends by mutual consent, in effect. When a player feels there is nothing further for them to do on the board, they "pass". If their opponent thinks there is something left to do, they can do it, and the first player can then respond if they wish. Usually, however, they will decide to "pass" at the same time.

Normally a game is played on a 19x19 board but a beginner will usually start on a 9x9 board, moving on to 13x13 when they have gained some more experience, then finally 19x19 for the real fun once they are feeling reasonably confident.

Concluding

The rules of Go are very simple to pick up. Because it is so simple, however, the outcomes can be very beautiful and very complicated - the sheer number of possible moves at any point is so high that a computer cannot "force" a win by just predicting all the moves possible, because the power required is far, far more than the power available in any machine currently available. The game is, therefore, very "human", played by pattern-matching and intuition. It expands the mind by concentrating it.

Three of the "five Confucian virtues" are considered to be applied to Go - they are li, propriety; chih, wisdom; and jen, human-heartedness, or kindness.

There are several good sources of further information listed on our links page. Or even better, come to our meetings.

This was written by Jenny Radcliffe for Durham Go Club, largely from material on the website of the British Go Association or from the 2001 Go Players' Almanac.


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