The game of Go is probably the oldest of all known games. It was played by the Chinese from earliest antiquity, and has been played in its present form by the Japanese for over eleven centuries, but while the game originated in China, the Japanese have far surpassed the Chinese in skill at the game, and it has come to be regarded in Japan as their national game.
In the old Chinese works three persons are named as the originators of the game, but in Japan its invention is commonly attributed to only one of these. This man is the Chinese emperor Shun?, who reigned from 2255 to 2206 B.C. It is said that this emperor invented the game in order to strengthen the weak mind of his son Shang Kiun. By others the invention of the game is attributed to the predecessor of Shun, the emperor Yao, who reigned from 2357 to 2256 B.C. If this theory is correct it would make the game about forty-two hundred years old. The third theory is that Wu, a vassal of the Chinese emperor Kieh Kwei (1818-1767 B.C.) invented the game of Go. To the same man is often attributed the invention of games of cards. It would seem that this last theory is the most credible, because it would make the invention more recent, and because the inventor is said to have been a vassal and not an emperor.
Whatever may be the truth in regard to the origin of the game, it is perfectly certain that Go was already known in China in early antiquity. In old Chinese works, of which the oldest is dated about a thousand years before Christ, a game which can be easily recognized as Go is mentioned casually, so that at the time it must have been well known.
We are told also that in China somewhere about 200 B.C., poetry and Go went hand in hand, and were in high favor, and a poet, Bayu, who lived about the year 240 A.D., made himself famous through poems in which he sang the praises of the game.
It is remarkable that in the old books it is stated that in the year 300 A.D. a man by the name of Osan was so skilled in Go that he could take all the stones from the board after the game had been finished and then play it over from memory. This is of interest also as showing that in the course of time playing the game has had the effect of strengthening the memory of Go players, because there are now hundreds of players in Japan who can replace a game move for move after it has been disarranged. It is in fact the customary thing for a teacher of the game to play the game over in that way in order to criticize the moves made by the student.
Anecdotes have come down to us from the old Chinese times in regard to the game, of which we will mention only one, which shows how highly it was esteemed.
Sha An, a man who lived in the time of the Tsin Dynasty (265-419 A.D.), carried on a war with his nephew Sha Gen. Growing tired of taking life, they left the victory to be decided by a game of Go, which they played against each other.
The esteem in which players were held in the old Chinese times is also shown by the titles with which they were honored; to wit, “Kisei” or “Ki Shing,” from “Ki,” meaning Go, and “Sei,” a holy man, and “Shing,” magician or sage.
In the time of the Tang Dynasty (618-906 A.D.), and again during the Sung Dynasty (960-1126 A.D.), the first books about Go were written. The game then flourished in China, and there were then many distinguished players in that country.
According to the Japanese reckoning of time, Go was introduced into Japan in the period of Tem pyo, during the reign of the emperor Shomu, which according to the Chinese records was the thirteenth year of the period Tien Tao, and during the reign of the emperor Huan Tsung. According to our calendar this would be about the year 735 A.D.
A man otherwise well known in the history of Japan, Kibi Daijin, was sent as an envoy to China in that year, and it is said that he brought the game back with him to Japan.
Go may have been known in Japan before that date, but at any rate it must have been known about this time, for in the seventh month of the tenth year of the period Tem pyo (A.D. 738), we are told that a Japanese nobleman named Kumoshi was playing Go with another nobleman named Adzumabito, and that in a quarrel resulting from the game Kumoshi killed Adzumabito with his sword.
On its introduction into Japan a new era opened in the development of the game, but at first it spread very slowly, and it is mentioned a hundred years later that the number of Go players among the nobility (and to them the knowledge of the game was entirely confined) was very small indeed.
In the period called Kasho (848-851 A.D.), and in Nin Ju (851-854 A.D.), a Japanese prince dwelt in China, and was there taught the game by the best player in China. The following anecdote is told in regard to this prince: that in order to do him honor the Chinese allowed him to meet the best players, and in order to cope with them he hit upon the idea of placing his stones exactly in the same way as those of his opponent; that is to say, when his opponent placed a stone at any point, he would place his stone on a point symmetrically opposite, and in that way he is said to have won. In regard to this anecdote it may be said that the Chinese must have been very weak players, or they would speedily have found means of overcoming this method of defense.
We next hear that in the year 850 a Japanese named Wakino became famous as a great devotee of the game. He played continuously day and night, and became so engrossed in the game that he forgot everything else absolutely.
In the next two centuries the knowledge of the game did not extend beyond the court at Kioto. Indeed, it appears that it was forbidden to play Go anywhere else than at court. At all events we are told that in the period called Otoku (1084-1087 A.D.) the Prince of Dewa, whose name was Kiowara no Mahira, secretly introduced the game into the province of Oshu, and played there with his vassals. From that time not only the number of the nobility who played the game increased rapidly, but the common people as well began to take it up.
There is also a story which comes down from the Kamakura period in regard to Hojo Yoshitoki. He is said to have been playing Go with a guest at the moment that news arrived of the uprising of Wada Yoshimori. Yoshitoki is said to have first finished the game in perfect calmness before he thought of his measures for subduing the revolution. This was in the first year of Kempo, or 1213 A.D.
In the beginning of the thirteenth century we find that Go was widely known in the samurai class, and was played with zeal. At that time everybody who went to war, from the most famous general down to the meanest soldier, played the game. The board and stones were carried with them to the field of battle, and as soon as the battle was over, they were brought out, and the friendly strife began. Many of the monks and poets of that period also had a taste for Go, and several of them are mentioned as celebrated Go players.
All three of the great Japanese generals, Nobunaga, Hideyoshi, and Iyeyasu, were devotees of the game. It is related that Nobunaga came to Kioto in the tenth year of Ten Sho, 1582 A.D., and lived in the Honnoji Temple. One night the celebrated Go player, Sansha, of whom more hereafter, came and played with him until midnight. Sansha had scarcely taken his departure when the uprising of Akechi Mitsuhide broke out.
In the periods Genki (1570-1572), Ten Sho (1573-1591) until Keicho (1596-1614), and Gen Wa (1615-1623), there were many celebrated players among the monks, poets, farmers and tradespeople. They were called to the courts of the daimios and to the halls of the nobles, either in order that the nobility might play with them, or more frequently merely to exhibit their skill at the game. This custom existed up to the time of the fall of the Shogunate.
That the Japanese could find pleasure in merely watching a game that is so abstract in its nature and so difficult to understand is evidence of the fact that they were then a highly cultivated people intellectually. We find nothing like it in this country except in the narrowest Chess circles.
In the beginning of the seventeenth century Go attained such a high development that there appeared a series of expert players who far surpassed anything known before. Of these the most famous were Honinbo Sansa Hoin, Nakamura Doseki, Hayashi Rigen?, Inouye Inseki, and Yasui Santetsu.
Sansha was the son of a merchant of Kioto. When he was nine years old he shaved his head, named himself Nikkai, and became a Buddhist monk in the Temple of Shokokuji, which was one of the principal temples of the Nichi Ren sect in Kioto. From his early life Sansha was very skilful at the game, and upon giving up his profession as a monk, he obtained permission to institute a school of Go players, and he then took the name of Honinbo Sansha. He was on terms of familiar intercourse with Nobunga, Hideyoshi and Iyeyasu, often accompanied them on their travels and campaigns, and was present at many of the battles of that troublesome epoch.
The school of Go which Honinbo opened, however, was merely a private undertaking. The first State institution in which Go was taught was founded by Hideyoshi in the period of Ten Sho (1573-1591), but it seems to have had a short existence, and the permanent institution which lasted until the fall of the Shogunate was founded by the successor of Hideyoshi, Iyeyasu. Iyeyasu became Shogun in the year 1603, and the foundation of the Go Academy or “Go In,” as the Japanese call it, must have occurred soon after he ascended the throne. Honinbo Sansha, who was still the best Go player in Japan, was named as the head of the institution. The other most skilful masters were installed as professors with good salaries. To Honinbo Sansha, the director, was given 350 tsubo of land (a tsubo is as big as two Japanese mats or tatami, and is therefore six feet square), and an annual revenue of 200 koku of rice (a koku is a little more than five bushels). Men of the best intelligence could now dedicate themselves to the education of students and the further development of the game, freed from the cares of earning a livelihood. In both respects the institute was eminently successful. Its graduates were much more skilful than the previous generation of Go players living in the land. They devoted themselves entirely to the game, and either found positions as players at the court of a daimio, or traveled through the country (like the poets and swordsmen of that period), playing the game and giving instruction in its mysteries as they found opportunity. If they came to a place which pleased them, they often let their years of wandering come to an end and remained there, making their living as teachers of the game.
At the time of the founding of the Academy, besides Honinbo, the previously mentioned masters, Hayashi, Inouye, and Yasui, were installed as professors. For some reason, Nakamura, who is mentioned above as one of the contemporaries of Honinbo, did not appear at the Academy. Each of the four masters above named founded his school or method of play independently of the others, and the custom existed that each teacher adopted his best pupil as a son, and thus had a successor at his death; so the teachers in the Academy were always named Honinbo, Inouye, Hayashi, and Yasui. (Lovers of Japanese prints are already familiar with this continued similarity of names.)
The best players of the Academy had to appear every year before the Shogun and play for his amusement. This ceremony was called “Go zen Go,” which means “playing the game in the august presence,” or “O shiro Go,” “Shiro” meaning “the honorable palace,” and the masters of the game entered these contests with the same determination that was displayed by the samurai on the field of battle.
An anecdote has come down to us from the reign of the third Shogun, Tokugawa Iyemitsu, showing how highly the Go masters regarded their art. At that time Yasui Sanchi was “Meijin,” which, as we shall see in a moment, meant the highest rank in the Go world, while Honinbo Sanyetsu held the rank of “Jo zu,” which was almost as high, but which, according to the rules, would entitle him to a handicap of one stone from his expert adversary; and these two men, being the best players, were selected to play in the Shogun’s presence. Honinbo, feeling conscious of his skill, disdained to accept the handicap, and met his adversary on even terms. The game was proceeding in the presence of the court nobles before the Shogun had appeared, and among the spectators was Matsudaira Higo no Kami, one of the most powerful noblemen of that epoch. Yasui Sanchi was a favorite of Matsudaira and as he watched the play he remarked audibly that Honinbo would surely be defeated. Honinbo Sanyetsu heard the remark, and pausing in his play, he allowed the stone which he was about to place on the board to fall back into the “Go tsubo” or wooden jar that holds the Go stones, gently covered the “Go tsubo,” and drawing himself up with great dignity, said: “I am serving the Shogun with the art of Go, and when we Go masters enter a contest, it is in the same spirit as warriors go upon the field of battle, staking our life, if necessary, to decide the contest. While we are doing this we do not allow interference or comments from any one, no matter how high may be his rank. Although I am not the greatest master of the game, I hold the degree of ‘Jo zu,’ and, therefore, there are few players in Japan who are able to appreciate my plans, tactics, or strategy. Nevertheless, the Prince of Higo has unwarrantedly prophesied my defeat. I do not understand why he has done this, but if such a comment were allowed to become a precedent, and onlookers were permitted to make whatever comments on the game they saw fit, it would be better that the custom of the ‘O shiro Go’ should cease.” Having said this, he raised himself from his seat. At this moment the court officers announced the coming of the Shogun, and the noblemen who had assembled to see the contest, surprised and confused by the turn affairs had taken, earnestly persuaded Honinbo to reseat himself and continue the game. This he obstinately refused to do, and endeavored to leave the imperial chamber. Prince Matsudaira, taken aback, scarcely knew what to do. However, he kowtowed to Honinbo and, profusely apologizing, besought the offended master to finish the contest. Honinbo Sanyetsu was appeased, and resumed his seat at the board, and both players, aroused by the incident, exerted every effort to achieve victory. Honinbo Sanyetsu won, whereupon the Prince of Higo was greatly humiliated. Since then the name of Sanyetsu has always been revered as one of the greatest of the Honinbo family.
In the degenerate days toward the end of the Tokugawa Dynasty the “Go zen Go” became a mere farce, and the games were all played through and studied out beforehand, in order that the ceremony in court might not last too long. The custom was, however, maintained until the fall of the Shogunate in 1868.
Honinbo Sansha established at the time of the foundation of the Academy a method of classifying the players by giving them degrees, which still exists, although no longer under the authority of the State. When a man attained to a certain measure of skill in the game he received the title “Shodan,” or, of the first degree. The still stronger players were arranged as “Nidan,” “Sandan,” “Yodan,” etc., or of the second, third, and fourth degrees. The highest degree in the series was “Kudan,” or the ninth degree. In order to attain the first degree, or “Shodan,” the candidate must be an excellent player, so good in fact that he could follow the game as a profession. In other games such a graduated system of classifying players would be scarcely possible, but among good Go players it is feasible, because the better player almost invariably wins, even if he be but slightly superior. If the difference in skill could not be equalized in some way the game would become tiresome, as the weaker player would almost always be able to foresee his defeat. The stronger player, therefore, allows his adversary to place enough stones on the board as a handicap to make the adversaries approximately equal.
According to the rules of the Academy, if the difference between the skill of the players was only one degree, the weaker player would be allowed the first move. If the difference was two degrees, the weaker player would be allowed to place a stone on the board, and the stronger player would have the first move, and so on; in other words, the difference between each degree might be called half a stone. Thus, a player of the fourth degree would allow a player of the first degree to place two stones on the board as a handicap, but would have the first move. A player of the seventh degree would allow a player of the first degree three stones, and a player of the ninth degree would allow a player of the first degree four stones. Four was the highest handicap allowed among the players holding degrees, but, as we shall see later, among players of less skill greater handicaps are frequently given.
A player of the seventh degree also received the honorary title “Jo zu,” or the higher hand. Those of the eighth rank were called “Kan shu,” or the half-way step, and those of the ninth degree were called “Mei shu,” the clear, bright hand, or “Meijin,” literally “celebrated man.” It is related that this last appellation arose in the time of Nobunaga, who was a spectator of a game played by Honinbo Sansha with some contemporary, and who expressed his admiration of the skill of Honinbo by exclaiming “Mei jin!” which thus became the title applied to players of the highest skill.
Since the institution of this method of classifying Go players of three hundred years ago, there have been only nine players who have attained the ninth degree, and only fourteen players who have attained the eighth degree. On the other hand, there have been many more of the seventh, and many more still of each of the lower degrees. In 1880, at the time Korschelt wrote the article previously referred to, there was only one player in Japan holding the seventh degree, and that was the celebrated Murase Shuho. At present there is one player who holds the ninth degree. His name is Honinbo Shuei, and he is the only player who has attained the ninth degree during the period called the “Meiji,” or since the fall of the Shogunate forty years ago.
This arrangement of the players in degrees is unknown in China and Korea. On the other hand, it is in use in the Ryukyu or Loochoo Islands.
The Japanese seem to have regarded the classification in degrees as an absolute standard of measurement. Nevertheless, it must necessarily have varied from time to time, and in the course of centuries the standard must gradually have risen.
Players of high rank who are challenged by the improving players of the lower grades will instinctively desire to make it more difficult for the new players to attain the higher degree, because their own fame, which is their highest possession, depends upon the result of the game; and assuming that all trial games could be conducted in an impartial and judicial spirit, nevertheless, all the players would become more expert from the hard practice, even if their skill in relation to each other remained the same.
Thus a seventh degree player of to-day would be better in a year although he still remained in the seventh degree, and this constant raising of the standard must lead us to suppose that a player of the seventh degree now is quite equal or perhaps superior to an eighth or ninth degree player of a hundred or two hundred years ago. As an illustration of this increase in skill, we only have to compare the standard set in the Ryukyu Islands. They also established the classification in degrees soon after the foundation of the Academy in Japan, and then the two institutions seem to have lost touch. Korschelt relates that for the first time about the year 1880 a Go player of the second degree from the Satsuma province visited those Islands and tried his skill with their best players, and found that he could easily defeat the players there classified as of the fifth degree.
The position as head of the Academy was much coveted by Go players, but it was generally held by the Honinbo family. One of the last incidents in relation to the Academy tells of an attempt on the part of Inouye Inseki, the eleventh of that line, to obtain the headship of the Academy when Honinbo Jowa, who was the twelfth Honinbo, retired. Inseki was afraid he could not obtain the coveted position by a contest, and therefore strove to obtain it by intrigue from the Shogun’s officer intrusted with the business of the Academy. When Jowa retired he was not unaware of the desires of Inseki, but it did not trouble him much, as he felt confident that the fourteenth Honinbo, whose name was Shuwa, could successfully defend his title. However, at last matters came to such a point that Jowa ordered Shuwa to present a petition to the Shogun requesting that the title be settled by contest, but the Shogun’s officer, who was in league with Inseki, returned the petition, whereupon all of the Honinbo house rose and insisted on their rights in accordance with custom and precedent, and at last their petition was granted. It was fixed that the title was to be decided by ten games, and the first game began at the residence of the Shogun’s officer, Inaba Tango no Kami, on the 29th of November, in the eleventh year of Tempo (about sixty-six years ago), and it ended the same year on the 13th of December. There was an adjournment of four days, and on one occasion the contest lasted all night. Therefore in all it took nine days and one night to finish the game.
It is unnecessary to say that both players put forth all their efforts in this life and death struggle, and it is said that Inseki’s excitement was so intense as to cause blood to gush from his mouth, but he finally lost by four stones, and the other nine games were not played. Inseki, however, mortified by his defeat, again challenged Shuwa. This game began on the 16th of May in the thirteenth year of Tempo, and lasted two days. Inseki again lost by six stones. On November 17th of the same year, a third contest took place between Shuwa and Inseki in the presence of the Shogun in his palace at Tokio. Inseki again lost by four stones. In all these contests Inseki as the challenger had the first move, and he finally became convinced of his inability to win from the scion of the Honinbo family, and abandoned his life-long desire, and it is related that thereupon the houses of Honinbo and Inouye became more friendly than ever.
In the first half of the nineteenth century Go had a period of great development. This occurred according to the Japanese Calendar in the periods called Bun Kwa (1804-1818), Bun Sei (1818-1829), and Tempo (1830-1844). The collection of specimen games of that time are to-day regarded as models, and the methods of play and of opening the game then in use are still studied, although they have been somewhat superseded. The best games were played by the Honinbo Dosaku and Jowa and Yasui Sanchi.
On the fall of the Shogunate in the year 1868 the Go Academy came to an end, and with it the regulation of the game by the State. A few years later the daimios were dispossessed, and they did not feel an obligation as private individuals to retain the services of the Go players who had been in attendance at their courts. Thereupon ensued a sad time for the masters of the game, who had theretofore for the most part lived by the practice of their art, and to make things still worse, the Japanese people lost their interest in Go. Upon the opening of the country the people turned with enthusiasm to the foreigners. Foreign things were more prized than native things, and among the things of native origin the game of Go was neglected.
About the year 1880, however, a reaction set in; interest in the old national game was revived, and at the present day it is fostered with as much zeal as in the olden times.
Most of the higher officials of the government, and also the officers in the army and navy, are skilled players. The great daily newspapers of the capitals have a Go department, just as some of our periodicals have a department devoted to Chess, and the game is very much played at the hot springs and health resorts, and clubs, and teachers of the art are found in all of the larger cities. Go has always retained something of its early aristocratic character, and in fact, it is still regarded as necessary for a man of refinement to possess a certain skill at the game.
During the recent Russo-Japanese War the strategy employed by the Japanese commanders certainly suggested the methods of play used in the game of Go. Whether this was an accidental resemblance or not I cannot say. At Liao Yang it seemed as if Marshal Oyama had got three of the necessary stones advantageously placed, but the Russians escaped before the fourth could be moved into position. At the final battle of the Mukden the enveloping strategy characteristic of the game was carried out with still greater success.
At the present time the division into the four schools of Honinbo, Inouye, Hayashi, and Yasui, no longer exists, and Go players are divided into the schools of Honinbo and Hoyensha. This latter school was established about the year 1880 by Murase Shuho, to whom reference has already been made.
The Honinbo school is the successor of the old Academy, while the new school has made one or two innovations, one of the most fortunate being a rule that no game shall last longer than twenty-four hours without interruption. The Hoyensha school also recognized the degree “Inaka Shodan,” which means the “first degree in the country,” and is allowed to a class of players who are regarded as entitled to the first degree in their native town, but who are generally undeceived when they meet the recognized “Shodan” players of the metropolis.
Japan was the center of Go for hundreds of years, but in the late 20th century, a new wave of players from China and Korea began to surface. Cho Hunhyun, nicknamed "the emperor of korean Go", and later his pupil Lee Changho took to the world's stage in the 1990's. Populrity rose dramatically in China and Korea, and the 21st century has been dominated by players from these two countries. Gu Li, Lee Sedol, Kong Jie, and many others are currently the world's elite, while Japanese Go has struggled to keep up. In international competition, Japan seldom scores a victory nowadays, as new generations of young pros from Korea and China continue to push to competition higher.
Having now given an idea of the importance of the game in the eyes of the Japanese, and the length of time it has been played, we will proceed to a description of the board and stones, and then take up the details of the play.
 Bob Myers: Really? I've heard sumo referred to as the national game, but never go. And few if any Japanese would claim any special status vis-a-vis Korean or China as regards go, much less that they "far surpass the Chinese" in skill.
::John F. Go has certainly been called the national game (kokugi). Jowa's famous book Kokugi Kankou is an obvious example. But there is so much else that is wrong or out-of-date in this text that it should come with a health warning.
xela: It's important to remember that these words are from a book written more than 100 years ago.