I have recently been spending more of my free time playing and studying the ancient Chinese board game Wéiqí. In the West, Wéiqí is more commonly known by its Japanese name, Go. My enthusiasm for this incredible game has finally grown enough to start a dedicated blog about it.
I first encountered Baduk (as it is called in Korea) as a child at my grandmother’s house in Uijeongbu. However, I did not learn the beautifully simple rules until years later, and initially, I was just intrigued by the lack of strong computer Go technology; the strongest computer Go programs of the early 2000’s floundered in the beginner ranks. I found this particularly puzzling since it only takes about fifteen minutes or so to learn the rules. Curiosity drove me to a local Austin, Texas game shop where I picked up a couple of books on Go and an inexpensive set.
In rather short order, I found it difficult to further advance my understanding of the game. Learning by yourself without a support network is a long, grueling process. Go, like Chess and other great games, is fundamentally social phenomena; you need players, teachers, clubs, tournaments and so forth.
Unfortunately, unlike Chess in the United States, Go has never had a figure in the popular consciousness to bolster its troops. The fear-mongering, real and imagined, around the Cold War veritably sealed the hero status to be endowed upon Bobby Fischer after his victory over Boris Spassky. Overnight, a curious intellectual pastime became a nationalistic act.
Over the years the popularity of chess has waned and it’s once again viewed as a somewhat obscure activity. Still, the shift of the 1970s can be felt, finding a strong chess enthusiast to learn from or joining a local chess club in the States does not stretch the imagination.
The on-ramping story for Go is significantly less inviting. The problem in many ways boils down to language barriers. The vast majority of contemporary Go literature, and thus pedagogy, is only available in Chinese, Japanese and Korean. Many of the good books available in English are Japanese translations from the 70s, 80s, and 90s and while unquestionably classics, they suffer from an old fashioned approach to teaching Go.
I believe a couple factors are swinging things in the right direction for a whole new level of popularity for Go in the States - the wide availability of inexpensive mobile touch-enabled technology, and the embrace of the Internet by the growing English friendly Go community.
In this post I hope to draw a map for the would-be Go enthusiast. Go information is unevenly distributed across the World Wide Web and requires a surprising amount of dedicated stumbling about. I hope to save the next adventurer some time; the following links and suggestions are meant to quickly introduce a newcomer to the wonderful world of Go and give a reasonable path to consistent improvement at the game without an undue expenditure of effort.
Photo of SmartGo Kifu by Anders Kierulf
Who would have thought a 3000 year old-game would be so well suited for our touch-enabled mobile computing present? There’s quite a few Go applications for mobile devices but the SmartGo series is a complete game changer for anyone armed with an iOS device that wants to pick up Go at a reasonable clip.
A couple of years ago I purchased SmartGo Player for a couple of bucks. I was so impressed by the experience that I quickly upgraded to SmartGo Kifu. This is a one stop shop for playing against the computer, practicing problems (2000+), studying professional Go games (80,000+), and reviewing and annotating your own games. It works perfectly with the SGF format (unsurprising, as the app author, Anders Kierulf, invented the SGF format in the late 1980s). Whether you save your games via DropBox, encounter games via web browser links, or copy games from SmartGo Books (more on this later), you can easily open up a SGF file and try variations and make annotations on lines of play.
Prior to SmartGo, digging into a game or problem required breaking out the goban (Go board) and working through the variations. Eventually this will become good practice but it requires far more memory dexterity than can be expected from beginners trying to build an interest in the game. I can’t say enough good things about SmartGo. Just get it.
While playing and studying by yourself is an important part of your growth as a Go player, it’s tough to stay enthuasiastic when you don’t feel like you’re a part of a larger community. For a time it even seemed the English speaking online Go community was waning - many once popular English Go blogs are now inactive or unavailable. But in reality, I believe the community just shifted towards more modern forms of community building better suited to drawing people into the game - specifically, high quality video commentary.
Game commentary is a deeply important activity in the Go world, but prior to the last few years you either had to read a book or understand enough Chinese, Korean, or Japanese to watch a Go television show.
So where’s the best place to watch free English friendly Go commentary videos you ask?
My current favorite of all the Go commentary channels on YouTube is Lee Hajin’s (Korean 3p) Haylee’s World of Go/Baduk. Lee Hajin, who is also the Secretary General of the International Go Federation, plays relatively fast paced games on Tygem or the Kiseido Go Server while speaking in a highly engaging way about her thought process. Her channel cannot be over-recommended:
Nick Sibicky records his Go lectures and like Lee Hajin’s channel is a treasure trove of Go commentary. His delivery style on classic games is filled with drama and history:
Go Game Guru has become an essential source of Go news for an English speaking audience. An Younggil (Korean 8p) gives deep, deep commentary on a variety of games. His style is highly analytical, and to be honest his lectures often move so quickly as to be completely over my head, but that just makes me that much more excited to deepen my understanding of the game!
The American Go Association (AGA) has started delivering live coverage of AGA tournaments and as well as notable events from the broader Go world. The live commentary of the final game between two of the world’s top players, Ke Jie (China 9p) and Lee Sedol (Korea 9p), drew a record breaking 14,000 viewers:
Internet Go Servers
Eventually you’ll want to try to play some games. Unless there’s a very active Go club in your neighborhood, an online Go server will be the easiest way to put theory into practice.
There are several Internet Go servers to choose from and I’ll only talk about the ones I am active on. Notably missing here are Tygem and the Online-Go Server. My impression is that they are both fantastic places to play and in particular the Online-Go Server may be better suited for people just starting out who want to play a friendly game. Tygem has many Korean players which usually means you may have a harder time getting your bearings as the community is considerably stronger on average.
I only have extensive experience with the Dragon Go Server and the Kiseido Go Server so I will focus on these for now.
Dragon Go Server
Dragon Go Server (DGS) is a simple turn based server with clients for both Android and iOS. For your first games you may want to try a couple of 9x9s (the full game is 19x19) with a stranger or a friend who is also interested in the game.
Turn based Go means you get to spend a lot of time on each move. It’s a great way to work on your reading skills without working up your blood pressure due to a ticking clock.
However being able to think quickly on your feet is another valuable Go skill to develop so you should also spend adequate time playing faster paced games on a server with a strong post-game review culture.
Kiseido Go Server
The Kiseido Go Server (KGS) requires using a very clunky-looking Java application that is actually surprisingly stable, featureful and intuitive to use.
When you are just starting out with Go, one of the hardest things to come by is a game where you’re actively learning something. The biggest issue with low double-digit kyu games (25k-15k) is that you have two people pitted against each other neither whom have a good feel for the mechanics of the game yet.
For this reason it’s important to reach out to stronger players and request a teaching game. You’ll find yourself improving at a much more rapid rate and soon enough you’ll be able to return the favor by showing the next low double-digit kyu (DDK) the ropes.
The strong teaching and review culture of KGS is absolutely the best thing going for it. KGS also regularly broadcasts Go tournaments from around the world and lots of players gather around to banter and occasionally predict the next move.
Suffice to say, KGS is a whole lot of fun. Properly navigated it will kick start your love of the game in no time.
Just watching videos and playing online won’t alone be enough to improve your understanding of the game. Eventually you’ll want to spend some time with a book to give some definite shape to what at this point are only vague intuitions.
Thankfully learning to play Go has never ever been as straightforward as it is today. I’ve found SmartGo’s Go Books to be another indispensable and convenient tool on the path to achieving further insights about the nature of Go.
Many classic titles are available for Go Books - having a treasure trove like Invincible: The Games of Shusaku literally in the palm of your hand is really something else.
There are a few good modern books for beginners in English these days but the following I can vouch for without hesitation having read them several times.
Learn To Play Go by Janice Kim & Soo-hyun Jeong Volumes 1-5. These books are a great way to get a feel for the big ideas of the game delivered in an intuitive style. They don’t work completely by themselves since there aren’t enough problems, so you should supplement these books with Graded Go Problems for Beginners Volumes 1-4.
These 9 books can be easily consumed in a few months but they could just as well keep you busy for a year if combined with active play. With the exception of the first volumes of each series, these books warrant repeat reading.
If you somehow devour all of this, you’ll be ready to switch to meatier material. I strongly recommend a book that I only recently picked up, Yilun Yang’s The Fundamental Princples of Go. Until I read this book I frankly found most other books on opening theory as well as joseki (standard opening patterns) fairly bewildering. This is a very hard book, but like the other books it gives more with each read. The book while thorough, also gives you an easy to recall set of principles that you can bring to each game you play.
I’ve also enjoyed Lessons in the Fundamentals of Go as well as all the books in the Elementary Go Series. The problems presented in the later series are significantly more challenging than the Graded Go series but if you’ve gotten this far I think you’ll find that you’ll absorb far more than you won’t.
Tsumego & Game Review
Learning Go feels much more like learning a new language than learning a game. If you want to pick up a new language you have to practice a little bit each day. Probably more than anything else Go is about reading, that is, the ability to visualize lines of play without actually placing stones on the board.
You’ll probably find Graded Go Problems for Beginners Volumes 1 & 2 relatively simple to get through. Even for absolute beginners the problems rarely take longer than a minute to solve. Starting with Volume 3 things become significantly more challenging. Often the obvious move does not actually work and you should take a moment to find your opponent’s best counter play. Contrary to what some people suggest, I don’t believe it’s a issue to look at the answer if you cannot solve a problem in a reasonable amount of time. Often problems which you find difficult involve some fundamental insight you either haven’t encountered before or haven’t fully driven home. When you return to do the problem again in a later reading you’ll have forgotten the answer but will be armed with the new knowledge needed to reach the solution this time around.
Graded Go Problems for Beginners Volume 4 is very challenging. You may find yourself starting this one several times and being quite bewildered. Stick with it. By the time you feel these problem are within reach you’ll be stunned how much you can visualize in your head.
Again expect to read these books several times.
The other important piece of advice is to take the time to review your games, wins and losses.
Playing Slow, Playing Fast
In The Natural Way to Draw, Nicolaides emphasizes the importance of drawing both very slowly (3 hour studies) and very quickly (3 second studies). It’s no different with Go. It’s just as important to play very slow games where you have ample time to consider your options as it to play against the clock where the speed and accuracy of your reading ability is put to the test.
Divide your time between turn based servers where you have ample time and timed games. I started out favoring 30 minutes of main time and 5 byo-yomi periods of 30 seconds for my KGS games. After watching Lee Hajin’s videos I’ve now switched to 10 minutes of main time with 3 byo-yomi periods of 30 seconds. This time control setting means the game lasts 40-50 minutes at most - a reasonable amount when you have a lot of other things to attend to in your life.
Playing Lots of Games
Some people play many, many games back to back in rapid succession. Doing this to recover from losses for fear of losing a rank or two is especially missing the big picture. Win or lose, a game isn’t any good if you don’t take time to review it. It’s highly likely that your winning games have just as many bad moves and blunders as your losing games.
I play a couple of games a week on KGS and I have 3-4 games going at a time on DGS. I find that this is enough to keep me busy and if I’m hitting the books and watching commentary, my game keeps on improving anyhow.
Caveats & Conclusions
This post is of course my very idiosyncratic take on how to go about learning and enjoying the game of Go. Everybody has different tastes and inclinations so what works for me might not work for you at all. Still, I hope this first post gets you excited about diving into the world of Go. If you stick with it I guarantee you’ll discover a game that will keep you intrigued for a lifetime!
More Useful Links
Here’s a variety of useful links that I’ve cobbled together from various sources that didn’t fit into the main body of the post.