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An Introduction to Go: Basic Rules and Game Overview

On first glance, Go appears deceptively simple. All that is required to play this most ancient of board games, after all, is a board, some stones, and two players. The rules, upon first glance, seem basic.

But Go’s simplicity hides a strategic depth unmatched by almost any other board game there is. It takes years to truly master a game like Go, so read on to get started with your journey towards true Go mastery.

How to Play Go, the Traditional Board Game

How to Play Go: A Game With a Legacy

With a history stretching back more than four thousand years, Go is a game that is almost as old as human civilization.

First appearing in China, where it is called “weiqi“, Go spread outside of China’s borders when it started to gain popularity in Japan 1,500 years ago.

In the centuries since then, Go’s addictive blend of depth and simplicity has made it a hit all over the world. Today, Go masters are ranked with dans, much like martial artists.

Minutes to Learn, A Lifetime to Master

A lot of people have described Go as the Eastern equivalent of chess. Both games have a long, storied history, high level competitions between peerless grand masters, and a limitless variety and depth of strategic options for play.

Like chess, Go requires not only an understanding of the rules of play, but also of one’s opponent. The ability to think tactically, and predict your opponent’s reactions and strategies, is key to mastering Go.

But there is one key area in which Go has a clear advantage over its western cousin.

While chess masters from all corners have seen defeat at the hands of complex artificial intelligences, Go remains one of the few strategic, competitive games where human masters reliably beat computers.

Related: Learn how to play Mancala

The Rules of Go

At its most fundamental level, Go is a game about surrounding. Indeed, one of the meanings of the ‘wei’ character in its Chinese name means “to surround.”

This basic philosophy, of placing stones in an attempt to capture territory, might seem simple in theory. In practice, it is anything but.

  • Board: Go is played on a set of intersecting lines that create squares. And while the game can in theory be played on a board of any size, regulation boards come in 9 x 9, 13 x 13, and 19 x 19 sizes. The 19 x 19 board is considered the standard for competitive play.
  • Stones: Generally, Go stones come in black and white. The more experienced player takes the white stones, while the less experienced player takes the black. Black stones always go first.
  • Handicap: If both players are of roughly equal skill levels, the advantage gained by the black player by going first is compensated for at the end of play. Once play has finished, the black player can choose between losing seven and a half points from his own score, or adding them to the score of his opponent.
  • Placing Stones: Stones can be placed on any open point of intersection between the lines on the board, so long as that point has adjacent empty points (referred to as ‘liberties’) connected to it. Note that diagonals do not count in Go, only the cardinal directions as indicated by the lines on the board.
  • Play Order: Players take turns placing their stones one at a time on any open intersection of lines. Once a stone has been placed on a spot, players are prohibited from moving it, or changing their minds. Generally, in it is wise to place your stones next to other stones you have previously placed.
  • Objective: The objective of Go is to claim as much territory as possible
  • Claiming Territory: Surrounding a point of intersection, or even a group of points, counts as claiming that territory. As long as there are points with open liberties in that claimed territory, however, either player can continue to place stones inside that territory in order to try and claim some of the points for themselves.
  • Capturing Stones: A stone that is completely surrounded by opposing pieces has been captured, and is worth one point.
  • The “ko” rule: Taken from the Japanese word for eternity, the ko rule is intended to stop players from endlessly capturing and recapturing the same single stone pieces, preventing the game from progressing. The ko rule states that once captured, a player must wait at least one turn before recapturing, even if they have the capability to do so right away. Note that the ko rule only applies to single stone captures.
  • Scoring: One point is granted for each intersection point in claimed territory, and each enemy stone captured. Note that once captured, stones are removed from the game board, meaning that the open point vacated by the captured piece will also count as a point for the player who captured it.
  • The Three Phases of Play:
    • Open (Fuseki): The beginning of play is characterized by players taking territory on the empty board. In the early phases of play, players tend to seize control of corners and edges, as side and corner points have fewer liberties.
    • Middle Game (Chuban): Once the sides and corners have all been taken, players begin to compete for points and enter the second stage of the game, which is marked by much more competitive jockeying for territory.
    • End Game (Yose): As open territory becomes harder to find, players begin to compete for the few remaining areas that are still in contention. This is the phase in which most players aim to secure as much of their already claimed territory as possible against their opponent’s attempts to steal it.
    • The game ends until it is impossible for either player to capture any more territory, or until both players come to a mutual agreement that there is nothing to be gained by continuing.

Terminology

  • Atari: A stone (or group of stones) with only one liberty is often referred to as being ‘in atari’, and the move immediately preceding the capture move is referred to as the ‘atari move’. Placing a stone which leaves one of your own pieces exposed for capture with only one liberty is known as a self-atari.
  • Illegal Point: Placing a stone in a spot that has zero liberties is known as an illegal point.
  • Sente: The player whose turn it is
  • Gote: The player who will go next
  • Snapback (recapture): Sacrificing one stone in order to capture a larger group on your next turn
  • Liberty: The amount of free points directly connected to a point of intersection.
  • Komi: Another term for the handicap rule

If there’s one constant about playing Go, it’s that there’s always more to learn, whether you’re an amateur setting out to play your first game, or an expert looking to transition to true mastery.

It never hurts to brush up on some more advanced play strategies. So if you think you’re really ready to go, make sure to check out part two of How to Play Go, where we’ll discuss the inside knowledge you’ll need to get to the next level of play.

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