TheGameOfGoTheNationalGameOfJapan/Description of the Board and Stones



The board, or “Go Ban” as it is called in Japanese, is a solid block of wood, about seventeen and a half inches long, sixteen inches broad, and generally about four or five inches thick. It has four detachable feet or legs so that as it stands on the floor it is about eight inches high. The board and feet are always stained yellow.

The best boards in Japan are made from a wood called “Kaya” (Torreya Nucifera) a species of yew. They are also made of a wood called “Icho” or Gingko (Salisburia adiantifolia) and of “Hinoki” (Thuya Obtusa) a kind of cedar. At all events they must be of hard wood, and yet not so hard as to be unpleasant to the touch when the stone is placed on the board, and the wood must further have the quality of resonance, because the Japanese enjoy hearing the sound made by the stone as it is played, and they always place it on the board with considerable force when space will permit. The Japanese expression for playing Go, to wit, “Go wo utsu,” literally means to “strike” Go, referring to the impact of the stone. In Korea this feature is carried to such an extreme that wires are stretched beneath the board, so that as a stone is played a distinct musical sound is produced. The best boards should, of course, be free from knots, and the grain should run diagonally across them.

In the back of the board there is cut a square depression. The purpose of this is probably to make the block more resonant, although the old Japanese stories say that this depression was put there originally to receive the blood of the vanquished in case the excitement of the game led to a sanguinary conflict.

The legs of the board are said to be shaped to resemble the fruit of the plant called “Kuchinashi” or Cape Jessamine (Gardenia floribunda), the name of which plant by accident also means “without a mouth,” and this is supposed to suggest to onlookers that they refrain from making comments on the game (a suggestion which all Chess players will appreciate).

On the board, parallel with each edge, are nineteen thin, lacquered black lines. These lines are about four one-hundredths of an inch wide. It has been seen from the dimensions given that the board is not exactly square, and the field therefore is a parallelogram, the sides of which are sixteen and a half and fifteen inches long respectively, and the lines in one direction are a little bit farther apart than in the other. These lines, by their crossing, produce three hundred and sixty-one points of intersection, including the corners and the points along the edge of the field.

The stones are placed on these points of intersection, and not in the spaces as the pieces are in Chess or Checkers. These intersections are called “Me” or “Moku” in Japanese, which really means “an eye.” Inasmuch as the word as used in this connection is untranslatable, I shall hereafter refer to these points of intersection by their Japanese name.

On the board, as shown in the diagram (Plate I), are nine little circles. It is on these circles that the handicap stones when given are placed. They have no other function in the game, but they are supposed also to have some sort of symbolical meaning. Chamberlain states that these spots or “Seimoku” are supposed to represent the chief celestial bodies, and that the central one is called “Taikyoku”; that is, the primordial principle of the universe. In the work of Stewart Culin referred to in the preface it is stated that they correspond to the nine lights of heaven – the sun, moon, and the seven stars of the constellation “Tau” (Ursa Major). Indeed the whole arrangement of the board is said to have some symbolical significance, the number of crosses (exclusive of the central one) representing the three hundred and sixty degrees of latitude, and the number of white and black stones corresponding to the number of days of the year; but nowadays the Japanese do not make much of a point of the astronomical significance of the board or of the “Seimoku.”

The stones or “Ishi” with which the game is played are three hundred and sixty-one in number, corresponding to the number of “Me” or points of intersection on the board. One hundred and eighty of these stones are white and the remaining one hundred and eighty-one are black. As the weaker player has the black stones and the first move, obviously the extra stone must be black. In practice the entire number of stones is never used, as at the end of the game there are always vacant spaces on the board. The Japanese generally keep these stones in gracefully shaped, laquered boxes or “Go tsubo.”

Plate I: The Board Showing the “Seimoku.”  

The white stones are made of a kind of white shell; they are highly polished, and are exceedingly pleasant to the touch. The best come from the provinces of Hitachi and Mikawa. The black are made of stone, generally a kind of slate that comes from the Nachi cataract in Kishiu. As they are used they become almost jet-black, and they are also pleasant to the touch, but not so much so as the white. A good set is quite dear, and cannot be purchased under several yen. The ideograph formerly used for “Go ishi” indicates that originally they were made of wood, and not of stone, and the old Chinese ideograph shows that in that country they were wooden pieces painted black and white. The use of polished shell for the white stones was first introduced in the Ashikaga period.

In form the stones are disk-shaped, but not always exactly round, and are convex on both surfaces, so that they tremble slightly when placed on the board. They are about three-quarters of an inch in diameter, and about one-eighth of an inch in thickness. The white stones are generally a trifle larger than the black ones; for some strange reason those of both colors are a little bit wider than they should be in order to fit the board. Korschelt carefully measured the stones which he used, and found that the black were seventeen-sixteenths of the distance between the vertical lines on his board, and about eighteen-nineteenths of the distance between the horizontal lines, while the white stones were thirteen-twelfths of the distance between the vertical lines and thirty-six thirty-sevenths of the distance between the horizontal lines. I found about the same relation of size in the board and stones which I use.

The result of this is that the stones do not have quite room enough and lap over each other, and when the board is very full, they push each other out of place. To make matters still worse the Japanese are not very careful to put the stones exactly on the points of intersection, but place them carelessly, so that the board has an irregular appearance. It is probable that the unsymmetrical shape of the board and the irregularity of the size of the stones arise from the antipathy that the Japanese have to exact symmetry. At any rate, it is all calculated to break up the monotonous appearance which the board would have if the spaces were exactly square, and the stones were exactly round and fitted properly in their places.

In Japan the board is placed on the floor, and the players sit on the floor also, facing each other, as shown in the illustration, and generally the narrower side of the board is placed so as to face the players. Since the introduction of tables in Japan Go boards are also made thinner and without feet, but the game seems to lose some of its charm when the customs of the old Japan are departed from.

The Japanese always take the stone between the middle and index fingers, and not between the thumb and index finger as we are likely to do, and they place it on the board smartly and with great skill, so that it gives a cheerful sound, as before stated.

For use in this country the board need not be so thick, and need not, of course, have feet, but if it is attempted to play the game on cardboard, which has a dead sound as the stones are played, it is surprising how much the pleasure of the game is diminished. The author has found that Casino chips are the best substitute for the Japanese stones.

Originally the board used for the game of Go was not so large, and the intersecting lines in each direction were only seventeen in number. At the time of the foundation of the Go Academy this was the size of board in use. As the game developed the present number of lines became fixed after trial and comparison with other possible sizes. Korschelt made certain experiments with the next possible larger size in which the number of lines in each direction was twenty-one, and it seemed that the game could still be played, although it made necessary the intellect of a past master to grasp the resulting combinations. If more than twenty-one lines are used Korschelt states that the combinations are beyond the reach of the human mind.

In closing the description of the board it may be interesting to point out that the game which we call “Go Bang” or “Five in a Row,” is played on what is really a Japanese Go board, and the word “Go Bang” is merely another phonetic imitation of the words by which the Japanese designate their board. I have found, however, that the “Go Bang” boards sold in the stores in this country are an imitation of the original Japanese “Go ban,” and have only seventeen lines, and are therefore a little too small for the game as now played. The game which we call “Go Bang” also originated in Japan, and is well known and still played there. They call it “Go Moku Narabe,” which means to arrange five “Me,” the word “Go” in this case meaning “five,” and “Moku” being the alternative way of pronouncing the ideograph for eye. “Go Moku Narabe” is often played by good Go players, generally for relaxation, as it is a vastly simpler game than Go, and can be finished much more rapidly. It is not, however, to be despised, as when played by good players there is considerable chance for analysis, and the play often covers the entire board.

TheGameOfGoTheNationalGameOfJapan/Description of the Board and Stones last edited by TheBigH on July 26, 2012 - 05:13
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