Compare Go to Chess/History

Sub-page of CompareGoToChess

I would like to compare the history of chess and go from the standpoint of playing strength and knowledge (comparing the origins of the games is another topic I don't know much about). The greatest difference is the fact that Go has been played seriously by full time players for at least 400 years, whereas top chess players have mostly been intellectual dilettantes until fairly recently, that is, the last 50 years.

Because of this "ancient" Go games, apart from very different openings, are played in roughly the same way as they are today, maybe in the way that Ancient Greek mathematics is essentially the same as modern mathematics. This is in sharp contrast to Chess, where fundamental strategic principles were not understood until the latter half of the 19th century and the efforts of Morphy (open games) and Steinitz (everything else). Indeed, up until the 1860's "positional play" was often equated with cheating, and players were encouraged to adopt a dynamic style in search of tactical pyrotechnics. The irony is that Steinitz correctly realised that tactical brilliance comes about through strategic preparation (so a number of the early 19th century brilliancies, e.g., The Immortal Game and the Evergreen Game, were due to extremely poor play on the part of the opponent, though the actual combinations were sound).

Interestingly, I have not seen the assertion that winning tactics are a natural consequence of correct strategy in any go literature. In fact, my impression so far is that go research is much less "scientific" in the sense that I rarely hear about correctness and rigour, but a lot about professional practice. Once again, this may be due to the long professional tradition in Go, but maybe also that Go is much more daunting and that no one actually knows enough about what is going on to even try to find the best move.

I find the writings of Go professionals similarly less academic, and the metaphors are usually about baseball or movies, and I am sometimes struck by their lack of knowledge about scientific issues which could apply to the point they discuss, e.g., basic cognitive psychology. This reflects the fact that Go has been played as a sport for centuries, whereas this approach to Chess was only taken up with the Soviet School.

I should point out that, despite my criticism, there were definitely "ancient" Chess players who were not weak. In particular, Philidor (1726-1795) who fit the profile perfectly, since he was a composer, was 100 years ahead of his time and made the deepest strategic statement about chess: "Pawns are the soul of Chess." In fact, this is a statement about all games, in the sense that, the slower the pieces move, the more strategic the game, which also goes to explain why Go is more strategic than Chess. Another indication of Philidor's strength is his work on endgames, for example, the Philidor position in Rook and Bishop vs. Rook, which is a fairly subtle 16 move combination (= 31 Go moves) which is quite hard to solve, even at the master level.

A good reference for the development of chess strategy over the years is the book "Modern Ideas in Chess" by Richard Reti.

Finally, I should point out that some of my remarks may be due to the fact that I have been a mathematician for the last 25 years and I learned Chess before and Go after, so my standard of rigour may have changed. I definitely have noted that the mathematicians I know who play go have not transposed any of the principles of rigour of their profession to their approach to the game of Go, and discussions quickly deteriorate into consideration of practical questions necessary for improved play. This probably explains why few of the mathematical aspects of Go have been developed by strong players. There is a similar phenomenon in Chess where most of the advances in computer chess were made by mediocre players.


Compare Go to Chess/History last edited by ilanpi on February 16, 2005 - 18:18
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