How should we teach go to new players?

Published 10 May 2020 by antti (last edited 21 May 2020)
tags: tldr

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:

  1. The board is empty at the onset of the game (unless players agree to place a handicap).
  2. Black makes the first move, after which White and Black alternate.
  3. A move consists of placing one stone of one’s own colour on an empty intersection on the board.
  4. A player may pass their turn at any time.
  5. A stone or solidly connected group of stones of one colour is captured and removed from the board when all the intersections directly adjacent to it are occupied by the enemy. (Capture of the enemy takes precedence over self-capture.)
  6. No stone may be played so as to recreate a former board position.
  7. Two consecutive passes end the game.
  8. A player’s area consists of all the points the player has either occupied or surrounded.
  9. The player with more area wins.

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:

  1. Basic setting: A square grid board usually of 19×19 lines; two players, one has black and the other has white stones.
  2. Procedure: Players take turns to either place one stone of their colour on an empty intersection on the board or pass. Black starts.
  3. Capturing: If after a player’s move a stone or stone chain gets completely surrounded by opposing stones, so that it has no empty neighbouring intersections (called ‘liberties’) horizontally or vertically, it is captured. Horizontally or vertically neighbouring stones of the same colour are form a stone chain and share their liberties. The opponent’s stones take precedence.
  4. No repetition: A player cannot play a move that would repeat an earlier whole-board position.
  5. End of game: A game ends when two consecutive passes occur (in other words, when neither player no longer wants to continue playing). The winner is the player with more stones on the board.

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:

  1. Basic setting: Same as above
  2. Procedure: Players take turns to either place one stone of their colour on an empty intersection on the board or to pass add a stone to the opponent’s captures. Black starts.
  3. Capturing: Same as above
  4. No repetition: Same as above
  5. End of game: A game ends when two consecutive passes occur (in other words, when neither player no longer wants to continue playing). The winner is the player with more stones on the board who has captured more stones from the opponent.

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?

Comments (4)

tam1998 wrote 4 years, 2 months ago:

I wouldn't consider myself one of the highest experience go-instructors around, but once a year we have a games fair in Stuttgart, Germany that lasts for 4 days. Usually i spend between one and 4 days there to explain go to people for 10 hours non-stop, and usually its more then 10 people per hour that i explain the game to, so i'd estimate that by now i explained the game to >1000 people.
The way i do it is pretty similar to what you/O Meien propose. However, I try to simplify it even more, to get people playing asap, since i believe that a) go is very easy and b) people will enjoy being able to play after 2-3 minutes.
I usually explain to people 2 rules:
1. We take turns in go, black begins by placing the stone on an intersection and then its always the other players turn. No way to get double-moves or move the stones in any way (except...)
2. Liberties. Stones usually have 4 adjacent intersections, if the opponent manages to get them all, the stone is captured. If you have stones that are adjacent to each other, they now share their liberties (but can still be captured with enough stones).
Then i let them start playing. Since i'm mostly near them, i tell them they can ask questions if they have some, and also i'll have somewhat of a look on the board regularily, to explain them how/when the game ends.
Some People aren't fooled by me skipping over the 'goal of the game' and ask me about that anyways, then i explain to them that we have this empty board in the beginning and it is being shared up between black and white. Whoever has the larger share in the end wins. I still don't go into more detail and tell them i will come back when they finished.
Also in general i don't explain about ko. I just don't think it matters as much in your very first game. Some people (i'd say about 10%) manage to create a ko-position and realise by themselves that this is repeating. Thats the only case i'll explain it to them.
I'm certainly not sure if my approach is the best, or even near that, however from my experience it has created enjoyable ~30 minutes sessions for people who didn't know about go before. To me that sounds like what we should try to achieve to get more people hooked to this great hobby.

gerryg wrote 4 years, 2 months ago:

Your modification to rule 2 exists already in AGA rules "passing stones"

gerryg wrote 4 years, 2 months ago:

While I think about it, bored primary school students (in my day) at the back of the class used to play "boxes" creating a grid of dots and taking turns to connect two dots in order to create a box but without allowing their opponent to create a box.

Creating a box generated a second turn. I have found this game to be a useful jumping off point for explaining Go.

antti wrote 4 years, 2 months ago:

I think the way of teaching beginners that tam1998 described is one of the most practical ones; in the beginning, less is definitely more, and abstract-sounding rules like the no repetition rule also make more sense if you’ve seen an example of it first. Counting stones on the board rather than surrounded territories is probably best employed when beginners don’t readily have a teacher at hand.

In response to gerryg, my rule 2 modification indeed came from the AGA rules. The AGA pass stone rule in turn was (presumably) created to make Chinese and Japanese counting give the same result, but it also lets weaker players clarify the board position for themselves without the score getting affected (after the dame have been played, of course). In ancient China, where both area and territory score had been used, the same was achieved by the extra rule that the players must place an equal number of stones on the board.

The boxes game sounds a lot like mökki, which I and probably many other Finns around my age (and older) have played! Funny that I never realised how similar that game is to go.