Go is a notoriously difficult game to market to new people.
Just consider the proverb, ‘lose your first fifty games as quickly as possible’: an average game on a small board probably takes at least 15 minutes when you’re getting your bearings, so the proverb basically tells you to lose 12.5 hours in a row just to get started. When attention spans are reportedly narrowing and modern games are more and more optimised to create a short-term reward loop, how many people will actually want to go through the effort?
It turns out that at the same time, chess is doing as well as ever. A 2012 research estimates the number of fairly regular chess players at 605 million, while the British Go Association estimates the number of go players at 60 million. So, even though go is one of the more popular traditional Asian games, chess beats it tenfold in numbers. I take this as a sign that traditional skill-based games still have their place in the modern world – but whether the market has space for another traditional game rivalling chess is an entirely different question. Go also faces a big handicap in that, while its rules are less numerous than those of chess, they are nevertheless harder for beginners to grasp. In chess you know that when you capture the opponent’s king you win the game; but how exactly do you win a game of go? Territory – what’s that?
Let me quote from The Rules and Elements of Go by James Davies through Wikipedia:
The above rules explain how to determine the winner by Chinese counting; under Japanese rules we would say that ‘a player’s score is the sum of the empty intersections they surround with their stones and the stones they have captured;’ and ‘the player with the higher score wins.’
I don’t expect that I am the only one who has a problem with the above rules. For instance, ‘handicaps’ are mentioned in rule 1 but never elaborated after that; a player may certainly not pass on their opponent’s turn; and how stones are ‘solidly connected’ is also never explained. The above list is definitely not how you would explain the rules of the game to a person you want to start playing the game.
Many teachers often introduce new players to go through a proto-game, which is called the ‘stone-capturing game’ in Japan and ‘atari go’ in the West. The teacher would quickly explain how to capture the opponent’s stones and then have beginners play each other, gradually teaching additional stone-capturing techniques and basic concepts (such as the eye). Practice games might first end after a player captures one stone from the opponent; then maybe after one player scores three captures; etc.
While I think the atari go approach to teaching go to beginners is better than just unloading the semantically complicated rules from Mr Davies’s book, I think there is still room to improve. One problem is that, presumably, the new players have come to learn how to play go; and then the teacher starts by saying: ‘okay, I’ll first teach you a game which is a bit like go, but different.’ While this teaching method might be effective, it includes an obvious marketing mistake, and probably the students’ motivation to learn is damaged from the start. Another problem is that the transition from atari go to ‘real go’ will feel abrupt: up until one point you are concentrating on how to capture the opponent’s stones, and then you have to start caring about some difficult new concept called ‘territory.’
In Japan, recently, the professional go player Ō Meien has launched a commercial product called jun-go (literally ‘pure go’) – unfortunately, at the time of writing, there is no English version. Jun-go essentially replicates the rules of go into a beginner-friendly form. Below is how I would list its rules:
Don’t the above rules sound like the go that you learned? Where is the mention of ‘territory’? And why don’t you count captured stones?
‘Territory’ is the single most difficult concept that is taught to new players, and I suspect needlessly complicated or outright misleading explanations of territory are what drive so many new players away. The biggest merit of jun-go is that it does away with having to explain territory while still remaining the same game at the core – it is essentially go under Chinese rules with group tax. This makes the game easy to start even if you have nobody to explain it to you: when you and your beginner friend get tired of continuing the game, you can count the number of stones on the board and easily determine the winner.
Back when I was in the Finnish equivalent of high school, we had a go club there. I remember one time when a player there created an episode, complaining loudly that an upperclassman told him the purpose of the game was to capture the opponent’s stones rather than surround more territory, and that this had warped his whole go career. (I assume the upperclassman had started from explaining atari go and had not made the transition to ‘real go’ very smoothly.) Now I realise that, while you can explain go through the idea, ‘have more living stones on the board,’ you can actually also do the opposite: ‘capture more stones from the opponent’ can also be the goal of the game through a very minor rules change. Let:
Although these rules sound more ‘aggressive’ than the previous, they describe the same game: because the two players get to play the exact same number of stones, we only have to compare the difference of stones on the board; and we can do that either by comparing stones on the board (the Chinese approach) or captured stones (the Japanese approach). All that is needed then is to penalise passing, as otherwise players could avoid having their stones captured by simply not playing them – hence the change in rule 2.
I firmly believe that go could be much more easily and efficiently taught to new people if its goal was stated clearly, like in jun-go or my ‘shū-go’ (‘gathering go’; I just made the name up on the spot). From a marketing point of view, ‘capture the enemy king’ is memorable while ‘surround more territory’ doesn’t create a lasting impression. ‘Outnumber the opponent’ or ‘capture more enemy pieces,’ however, do not sound so bad, do they?
Jeff and Mikko stream on Twitch on Fridays at 6 pm Helsinki time