Describe Go to Non-Players

  Difficulty: Beginner  

In 15 seconds

Or, before you lose their attention.

Jared: I'm sure someone has already done this better than I am about to:

It's called Go. It's the oldest game in the world. You take turns playing black and white pieces, trying to surround your opponent's stones, or surround territory.

aokun: Here's what I usually say:

It's a very ancient Asian game. You might have seen it. It's played with black and white stones on a wooden board. Did you ever see the film "A Beautiful Mind"?

At this point the conversation divides...

(if the answer is "yes") It's the game they play in the quad when Russell Crowe goes nuts at losing and messes up the board.

(if the answer is "no") It's a really good film. You should see it if you get the chance.

Typically, the person who has seen the movie remembers that scene and has a visual image of the game. More than half of people I mention it to have seen it and remember the scene. Having something already in mind makes it much easier to talk further about it. It is the quickest way I know of of getting into the topic.

Scott Jankowski: Hi, I run the Wandering Go Club in Westlake, Ohio and I usually have to introduce Go to a few dozen people each week, even if it's only them wanting to know what the game is called. As a club leader, my obligation is not just to promote Go awareness, but to also try to increase attendance at the club. I try to introduce the game in a way that does NOT satisfy their curiosity at all. I want them to come and join us to really get to know Go, or to at least walk away with a strong feeling of 'I still want to know more'. A random encounter with a curious onlooker might go something like this:

Onlooker: "Excuse me, but what is this game you guys are playing?"

Me: "Well ma'am/ sir, this is called Go. It's the oldest strategic board game still played in its original form."

Onlooker: "Oh, is that right?"

Me: "Yep! It's over 3,000 years old and hardly changed at all. Do you have some time? Would you like to learn the rules? They are very simple, and I could show them to you in ten minutes."

Then they will usually sit down and listen to a brief introduction to the rules while I feed them interesting facts. While I do this, I try to keep them asking questions, and I find that people want to get their hands on the stones right away. As soon as possible, I have them solving basic 'extend from atari' type problems and such. Really anything to keep them working with the stones. As a side note, I find that people generally grasp Go easier if you explain territory before capture, and when you do go into capture, still stress on the importance of territory.

If they don't have the time to sit down and learn the rules, I give them the information they need to research Go for themselves online, and of course the club's meeting schedule.

  • Someone: "What is this?" tapir: "Chinese board game with two letters. Go. Heard of it?"

In further detail

Dieter's entry on CompareGoToChess triggered this one off. See also the general description of Go.

I often meet people who, once they find out that I play (in the largest possible sense :-) Go, want to know what Go is, and I never know what to say.

I try to avoid to CompareGoToChess, and often end up to explain Go by similarity/dissimilarity to Chess.

Something along the lines of:

  • Just like chess, Go is played by two players across a board
  • Just like chess, it is a 'complete knowledge' game, i.e. no randomness
  • Unlike chess, the board is bigger and starts out empty - the placement rules are simpler
  • Simplicity, Beauty, Complexity, how computers cannot do it etc. etc.

Traditionally, this has not managed to create many new Go-players.

How do other people explain Go? I don't mean how you teach Go to a beginner, but how do you try to create the initial interest to begin with?

-- MortenPahle

I tend to say it's the oldest game in the world and that it is easy to learn, fun to play and as complex or simple as you want to make it.

-- OneEye

Tell us the reasons why you started to play at WhyDidYouStartGo and maybe we can think of how to get more people to try Go.

-- PekkaKarjalainen

I think the best way to get new people to play go is first to get the rules laid out. Next, find a player around their skill level (you may want to teach two people at once and have them play each other) and get them to play a game to get the hang of it. I've always thought go was the most fun in even games; if you play someone much better than you, it's sometimes overwhelming.


--Saesneg (kgs): I have recently started work in a new part of the country (new to me, not recently-put-on-the-map). There is no Go club here so I have been touting Go around the office since week one. It has been an interesting and so far fairly successful operation, to my great surprise.

First off, I guess I bided my time as I didn't know anybody. As I met or observed people I made a mental note of who would be likely to be interested. Strange to say, my guesses were almost entirely wrong. Nevertheless, I then raised the subject with one likely looking person. He had never heard of the game but was vaguely interested. My key-phrases tend to be "oldest game in the world", "better than chess", "deeper", "more subtle", "very simple rules", "easy to learn", "50 million players in the world, but not very well known in this country". Anyway this one guy said he was currently too busy after work, but he suggested someone else who might be interested.

So I mentioned Go to this other guy. Again, never heard of it but interested. At this stage I didn't push it. Then one evening as we were about to leave I suggested "Do you fancy a pint and a game of Go this evening". My earnest recommendation is that these are the MAGIC WORDS! (Cultural note: by 'pint' I mean a pint of beer in a public drinking house). As it happened he was busy, but we arranged to do so the following week.

The pub turned out quite busy, and we had to share a table, but that was no problem. I ended up explaining the game to them too. My approach to teaching Go is:

1. Quick chat about history (3000-4000 years), popularity (50 million players in far east), professionalism (500 pros in Japan alone. Similar status to Golf in the West), programming difficulty compared to chess.

2. There are only three rules. And you don't need to know the third (ko) for a while.

3. Rule 1. When you are surrounded you are off. Demonstrate this with one stone capture, then capturing two or more connected stones. Show how suicide is 'obviously' illegal, unless you can capture stones in the same move (but make sure this demonstration isn't a ko as they may start asking questions)

Now it is sometimes recommended that beginners should play the 'capturing game' first. I.e. first capture wins the game. I suspect this a very good idea, especially when beginners are playing each other. But when I am playing a beginner I prefer to skip this step. I explain that with the one rule explained so far we could play the 'capture game' but that you soon learn it usually ends in a draw. Hence rule 2:

4. Rule 2. Captures count one point, but territory also counts one point. I set up a wall in a corner/side, and show how the territory is captured. If I am asked "what if black plays inside the territory?" I say that his stone can easily be captured, giving white extra points. If they persist, I show how this can be done. I don't explain eyes or dead stones.

5. At this point I set up six stones on a 9x9 board and we play a game. I play to the best of my abilities, and invariably win. It is important not to criticise any moves they make. If they play into atari I just take the piece/ group. This is better than pointing out their mistake and letting them take back (their alternate move would probably be just as bad anyway). But if they make a good move I praise them and tell them why. I also encourage them by saying non-specific things like "you are actually still winning".

Bill Spight
Let me second the idea of not criticizing their plays. That turned me off at first.[1]
Six stones on 9x9 is too much in my opinion, I don't know how to put down more than 5 actually. I start with 5 and most learners beat me at 5 stones, quite a lot with 4 stones and the best even with 3 stones during the first lesson. Though I may comment on a too unreasonable move by myself, indicating that there is a solution for Black to answer. (Adults or adolescent pupils only so far.)

The more games you can play the better, while you have their time. The first few games are totally bewildering and it takes a while before patterns start appearing. Keep explanations to a minimum, it only confuses further. Four or five games is probably enough for any beginner in one session. They will still be losing, but they will have connected groups of living stones on the board, and an idea about borders, and how the game comes to an end and is scored. This all takes us about two pints! After the first game let them place their six handicap stones wherever they like. I wonder if I should actually give seven or eight stones even.

A common feature is that the beginner will play inside my secure territory. I just say pass. Five minutes thought later they play another stone next to it. I pass again quickly. This can continue and cause some amusement, but they eventually learn how pointless that approach is, and at the same time what territory actually means.

If they play inside their own territory I point out their error and give them the move again.

6. At some point a ko will appear, and that is when I tell them the third and 'last' rule. Don't overstress ko-fights. Beginners almost never fight them out anyway.

Of course this approach can be used to teach more than one beginner at the same time. You can easily play three games concurrently against beginners, as they are doing all the thinking.

Every now and then I like to give little five-minute lessons. Two-eyes is an obvious one, but leave it till they have played a few games. A good time to explain it is after a game where you played a nakade. Stress that two-eyes is not a legal requirement for life, as long as you COULD make two eyes if you wanted. Another lesson is 'ways to capture' including shicho and 1 and 2 stone geta. Another lesson is 'connections'. E.g. it is not obvious to beginners that two diagonal stones are connected. Some of these lessons are not very important (i.e. they probably won't use what you tell them), but they add interest and variety to the occasion.

So six weeks down the line we don't yet have a Go 'club'. Each week I arrange the meeting anew. I don't get disappointed if people appear to lose interest, I just keep asking around. I have found that interest is often revived when they hear other people talking about the game. There are usually four or five people who come out for a 'pint and a game' every week, although it can be a different crowd each time. I was pleased to discover that one beginner had taught someone else in the office.

One other point: I did install [ext] TurboGo the Go screensaver by Arnoud van der Loeff when I first arrived at the company. Nobody has specifically commented on it, but I am sure it has a subliminal effect in keeping people interested.

Many of these ideas are not my own. I will try to add references some time.

[1] One Sunday afternoon when I was a college sophomore I saw a guy with a go board out on the lawn. I asked him about it. He explained the game quickly and asked if I wanted to play. I took Black. After a few moves he began to criticize my play. Well, that was no fun. I excused myself. I didn't take up the game until I was living in Japan three years later.
I was building a wall on the fourth line, stone by stone. That was not a good strategy, of course, but one I understood. I probably would have made at least 20 points. If I had played a better opening, I might not have made a living group. ;-) --Bill

C.S. Graves: When I first played with a stronger player, I didn't really mind his critiques, as they were quite constructive. He might point out that a move was unnecesary, and explain why.

Phelan: Constructive criticism is good, as you are explaining how the game works, but don't forget to also comment on their good moves, and why those are good moves. They pay more attention that way, and don't get scared of making a move.

--Ellegon: When I started playing, I played for about two months then I lost interest for about 6-8 months afterwards. The mental effort to start a game seemed too great (the empty goban seemed to give me a kind of writer's block). After a while, the game kept creeping into my thoughts so I started playing again. I lost interest again about two months afterwards. Again it kept running around in my head. When I started again that time I never looked back:) Any similar stories ?

jesusin: I will tell you my story: I was given a plastic go set and a sheet with the rules when I was 10 years old. It was the kind of game I could fall in love with. Having nobody to play with, I tried to play against myself. It was boring and I did not know where to start, so at the beginning of each game I threw a bunch of stones over the board and put them on the nearest spots (by now you must be thinking I am insane). This way I discovered ladders and thought it was not fair that the stones should die just because the ladder reached the border of the board, so I invented a rule forbidding ladders to work. Soon after I got bored and I forgot the game.

At University I went once to a go club, but they wanted me to pay the exorbitant sum of half an Euro each day I went there. Too much for my student allowance...

At 28 I gave go another opportunity. I read a book on my summertime vacations, it was "The Chinese Opening" by Kato Masao (I do not recommend it as your first go book ;-)). It gave me a glimpse on the deepness of the game, so I went back to the go club and I got caught there. By now I am an addict and I do not regret it (by the way, I am still studying on my deteriorated plastic set).


When I introduce someone to Go, I refer to it as "the Asian strategy game." I usually mention that "it's thousands of years old" and if they seem totally lost, I might say "it's kind of like chess."

I usually don't get too specific on the rules, until they have some idea of how the game feels. I try to get across two main ideas before we start playing:

  1. Territory is the point of the game
  2. Capturing is the mechanism of the game

I hint that a lot of complexity emerges from these two simple ideas, but the best way to understand that is to play.

(I might whip out my PalmPilot and play a quick 9x9 against AIGO to show them what a game looks like from beginning to end.)

I deal with things like ko and seki as they arise.

I try to adjust my approach based on who the person is and how they are responding to everything.

I try to explain just how deep the game of Go is and how easy it is for players with a wide range in skill level to enjoy a challenging game with the handicap system.

starline: Initially I tell the 'victim' that it is an ancient game of skill - like chess. The following is what I tell someone who seems to be interested (although this has happened to me only very rarely) -- I tell them that each player has lots of black or white stones (I may describe what a stone looks like at some point) - which are really 'markers', and that there is a large grid of 19x19 intersections, which represents an area of land. I explain that each player takes it in turns to place a marker onto an intersection of the grid -- the idea being to try to 'fence off' empty areas of the grid, so that these surrounded areas become that player's territory. I tell them that each player is trying to have more territory fenced off than the opponent by the end of the game. I also mention that once a player has placed a marker on the grid, that it cannot be moved, unless it is captured. I will explain that markers can be captured individually, or as groups if they have been linked together, and that it is possible to form groups of one's own stones that are safe from capture. I may go into more detail explaining the method of capturing and forming chains.

Dieter: I would like to assemble a page like TeachingGoToNewcomers. Many discussions about the subject have been held at This page here also contains some material. We can probably copy and paste a lot. I'll fire off at Teaching go to newcomers / Discussion.

ilan: In terms of actual play, the most similar well known game is not Chess but Dots and Boxes. I'm not sure whether people would be motivated by this comparison, since almost no casual Dots players understand anything about that game. However, Chess is the most similar game, from the sociological standpoint: tournaments, professionals, books, obsessive nerds.

Alex: I'm surprised no one's mentioned this, but my number one problem when trying to explain Go to people who've never encountered it (or have seen it played, but not played it themselves) is that they hear "black and white" and that surrounding the opponent's pieces captures them, and the immediate reaction is "Oh, so it's like Othello (aka Reversi)."

In fact, Go has only a very superficial resemblance to Othello and the strategies are very different, but even when I try to explain how they're different, some people can be very stubborn in their refusal to accept that Go is not "a slightly more complicated version of Othello."

ThorAvaTahr: Alex, please agree with these people and use this remark as an excuse to explain the differences better. Confirming their remark obligates them to listen to you for a while longer, while these people themselves will probably never play the game, their company or some other bystanders may become more interested. Anyway, going in against them and trying for a discussion will serve no purpose and only frustrate you.

Anonymous: Do these people also think that Bridge is a "slightly more complicated version of [ext] War?

George Caplan If someone expresses interest I use many of the approaches listed above - if it is a kid - I tend to just get them to play, with adults, more culture. My own invention, and I think this works rather well, is to respond to a vague object/strategy question with comparing the game to the Oklahoma Land rush. Your object is to get as much "land" as possible - if you put your "stakes" too close together, you will get some land, but it won't be enough - if you put them too far apart, there will be "disputes" or fighting. So the game is a balance between those two goals - efficiently getting as much as you can while making sure you get something.

Fwiffo: Something I've found really sparks interest is to make an extravagant claim when introducing the game. Specifically, "Go is sorta like chess, except way better, obviously." That breaks the rules comparing go and chess, especially since it disparages chess, but it's tongue in cheek, and it's just meant to grab attention.

If they just sorta respond "Ohhh", then they're not interested in learning a game like chess or go. If they respond "Oh really? How's that?" You can explain some of Go's unique features, e.g. the rules are very simple, even simpler than chess, but the game has greater depth than even chess, computers suck at it, the rules haven't significantly changed in 3000 years, etc.

Now, if you try this with somebody who really likes chess, it'll work really well. They'll demand to learn the game so they can prove you wrong. Now you've got a highly motivated student, and chess players can pick up the game quickly. You may have to eventually admit that "way better" is a subjective judgment, but by then, they may well have the bug.

Djaian: I will not admit that "way better" is a subjective judgment, since it is a fact. (ok, not the page to talk about this, let's say I am just kidding).

I have a semi-serious question: When do you tell them how to hold the stones and put them on the board (the position the stone should have in their fingers)? Do you think this is an important matter? Personaly I never tell them how to hold stones, I just wait till they ask me (if they see me holding the stone). I just hate when another player comes and say: "What? you didn't tell him/her/them how to hold stones???"

However, I tell beginners very soon that on a 19x19, black should play his first move in the upper right part, and that it may be considered unpolite not to do so. Once, a friend of mine critized me on this, saying that holding the stones correctly is more important than playing the first move in a polite manner. I disagree, but I would like to have your opinion on this.

Phelan: I consider holding the stones a efficiency/practical matter, and playing in the upper right corner a etiquette matter. I don't think it's that important to tell people how to hold the stones. They'll eventually be curious enough to ask or try it themselves. I find that once you try it, it feels much better, and easier to place than with another hold. As for the playing in the upper right first, I'd mention it, but not make a big deal of it. This is something you usually don't notice until you've watched a lot of matches, and might not notice even if you're told.

JoelR: Speaking of etiquette, I was told, as I was being introduced to the game, that the fact that the game ends by agreement and the observation that you don't need to take off obviously dead stones were cultural/etiquette things. These bits of elegance helped hook me on the game.

tapir: Beginners usually do not play the first move anyway, as they are taking handicap and have stones in at least all corners.

Asd?: I find the traditional chinese scoring method (stone counting) to be very good for describing the game to beginners. "The goal of the game is to put the most stones on the board. Stones can also be captured if they're surrounded." Then I go on to describe how it's not actually necessary to fill the whole board with stones, because at some point there will be no doubt about which player could put a stone on any given point on the board, so rather than counting all the stones on the board you could just count every point where you *could* put a stone. This way I don't have to immediately introduce to concept of territory and eyes - especially eyes, which seems to be a very difficult thing to grasp. When they've fully understood this and played a few games (preferrably 9x9 in the beginning where you can fill the whole board without too much trouble), the transition to modern chinese rules is very easy.

Describe Go to Non-Players last edited by tapir on November 16, 2010 - 01:08
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