The way to Go

Go board

I was hunting around in Borders looking for something to buy for James, my eldest, and I found a boxed beginners Go set and book. For those of you who don't know what Go is, it is a 3,000 year old game that originated in China. Go is the European name for it, derived from the Japanese name, Igo. Other names for it are Wei Ch'i in China and Baduk in Korea. The game consists of a 19 x 19 grid, with one player playing black stones, and the other playing white. Unlike other board games, the pieces are played on the intersections of the lines rather than inside the squares. The objective of the game is to surround territory with stones of your color. Pieces can take each other, but that's a secondary objective - the winner is the person who has captured the most territory.

So that I wouldn't get hammered by my 10-year old son on Xmas day, I thought I'd better get a head start and find out how to play. It turns out there is an enormous amout of information on the net - not surprising as the game is played by an estimated 50 million people in the Far East. A good introduction can be found on the British Go Association website. There are also quite a few online Go servers, that allow you to play other people online - and having played a few games, I'm hooked!

At first sight the game appears to be straightforward - the rules are fairly simple, and it all seems pretty easy. However, having played a couple of games online and been soundly thrashed, it has really grabbed my interest. It's actually a far more complex game than chess - unlike chess the best Go-playing programs are of a distinctly crummy standard. The reason it is so much more difficult for computers than chess, according to this overview of computer Go is that at any given point in a Go game there are vastly more potential moves to be considered, and that in addition evaluating each potential move is far more difficult and costly, and to cap it off libraries of precomputed game openings and endings, which are used extensively in chess playing programs, really don't work very well for Go - in all it is thought that 10^27 more computer power is needed for a world-class Go program than is needed for chess. At least there is still one thing left where we are better than the goddam machines :-)

The largest online Go server is the Internet Go Server (IGS). Most of the Go servers are based on telnet, but there are a quite a few clients available that give you a graphical board to play on, and you can also watch other games that are in progress. I quite like gGo - it's written in Java so it is cross-platform. I shouldn't say this bearing in mind who I work for, but it is the first Java application I've come across that I actually consider to be worth using!

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