The Game of Go/Introduction
The game of Go belongs to the class of games of which our Chess, though very dissimilar, is an example. It is played on a board, and is a game of pure skill, into which the element of chance does not enter; moreover, it is an exceedingly difficult game to learn, and no one can expect to acquire the most superficial knowledge of it without many hours of hard work. It is said in Japan that a player with ordinary aptitude for the game would have to play ten thousand games in order to attain professional rank of the lowest degree. When we think that it would take twenty-seven years to play ten thousand games at the rate of one game per day, we can get some idea of the Japanese estimate of its difficulty. The difficulty of the game and the remarkable amount of time and labor which it is necessary to expend in order to become even a moderately good player, are the reasons why Go has not spread to other countries since Japan has been opened to foreign intercourse. For the same reasons few foreigners who live there have become familiar with it.
On the other hand, its intense interest is attested by the following saying of the Japanese: “Go uchi wa oya no shini me ni mo awanu,” which means that a man playing the game would not leave off even to be present at the death-bed of a parent. I have found that beginners in this country to whom I have shown the game always seem to find it interesting, although so far I have known no one who has progressed beyond the novice stage. The more it is played the more its beauties and opportunities for skill become apparent, and it may be unhesitatingly recommended to that part of the community, however small it may be, for whom games requiring skill and patience have an attraction.
It is natural to compare it with our Chess, and it may safely be said that Go has nothing to fear from the comparison. Indeed, it is not too much to say that it presents even greater opportunities for foresight and keen analysis.
The Japanese also play Chess, which they call “Shogi,” but it is slightly different from our Chess, and their game has not been so well developed.
Go, on the other hand, has been zealously played and scientifically developed for centuries, and as will appear more at length in the chapter on the History of the Game, it has, during part of this time, been recognized and fostered by the government. Until recently a systematic treatment of the game, such as we are accustomed to in our books on Chess, has been lacking in Japan. A copious literature had been produced, but it consisted mostly of collections of illustrative and annotated games, and the Go masters seem to have had a desire to make their marginal annotations as brief as possible, in order to compel the beginner to go to the master for instruction and to learn the game only by hard practice.
Chess and Go are both in a sense military games, but the military tactics that are represented in Chess are of a past age, in which the king himself entered the conflict — his fall generally meaning the loss of the battle — and in which the victory or defeat was brought about by the age of single noblemen rather than through the fighting of the common soldiers.
Go, on the other hand, is not merely a picture of a single battle like Chess, but of a whole campaign of a modern kind, in which the strategical movements of the masses in the end decide the victory. Battles occur in various parts of the board, and sometimes several are going on at the game time. Strong positions are besieged and captured, and whole armies are cut off from their line of communications and are taken prisoners unless they can fortify themselves in impregnable positions, and a far-reaching strategy alone assures the victory.
It is difficult to say which of the two games gives more pleasure. The combinations in Go suffer in comparison with those of Chess by reason of a certain monotony, because there are no pieces having different movements, and because the stones are not moved again after once being placed on the board. Also to a beginner the play, especially in the beginning of the game, seems vague; there are so many points on which the stones may be played, and the amount of territory obtainable by one move or the other seems hopelessly indefinite. This objection is more apparent than real, and as one’s knowledge of the game grows, it becomes apparent that the first stones must be played with great care, and that there are certain definite, advantageous positions, which limit the player in his choice of moves, just as the recognized Chess openings guide our play in that game. Stones so played in the opening are called “Joseki” by the Japanese. Nevertheless, I think that in the early part of the game the play is somewhat indefinite for any player of ordinary skill. On the other hand, these considerations are balanced by the greater number of combinations and by the greater number of places on the board where conflicts take place. As a rule it may be said that two average players of about equal strength will find more pleasure in Go than in Chess, for in Chess it is almost certain that the first of two such players who loses a piece will lose the game, and further play is mostly an unsuccessful struggle against certain defeat. In Go, on the other hand, a severe loss does not by any means entail the loss of the game, for the player temporarily worsted can betake himself to another portion of the field where, for the most part unaffected by the reverse already suffered, he may gain a compensating advantage.
A peculiar charm of Go lies in the fact that through the so-called “Ko” an apparently severe loss may often be made a means of securing a decisive advantage in another portion of the board. A game is so much the more interesting the oftener the opportunities for victory or defeat change, and in Chess these chances do not change often, seldom more than twice. In Go, on the other hand, they change much more frequently, and sometimes just at the end of the game, perhaps in the last moments, an almost certain defeat may by some clever move be changed into a victory.
There is another respect in which Go is distinctly superior to Chess. That is in the system of handicapping. When handicaps are given in Chess, the whole opening is more or less spoiled, and the scale of handicaps, from the Bishop’s Pawn to Queen’s Rook, is not very accurate; and in one variation of the Muzio gambit, so far from being a handicap, it is really an advantage to the first player to give up the Queen’s Knight. In Go, on the other hand, the handicaps are in a progressive scale of great accuracy, they have been given from the earliest times, and the openings with handicaps have been studied quite as much as those without handicaps.
In regard to the time required to play a game of Go, it may be said that ordinary players finish a game in an hour or two, but as in Chess, a championship game may be continued through several sittings, and may last eight or ten hours. There is on record, however, an authentic account of a game that was played for the championship at Yeddo during the Shogunate, which lasted continuously nine days and one night.
Before taking up a description of the board and stones and the rules of play, we will first outline a history of the game.