What is Go About
Who can really know for sure? However, we all have our theories, or, more precisely, our working hypotheses--whether explicit or implicit. Below is a list I've started to kick things off. The items attempt to answer the question "What is Go about, fundamentally?" I doubt the answer is unique or even knowable. Maybe the question has no meaning. Can the game really be about something in and of itself? Or, as a human construct, does it just take on the meaning of the player(s), perhaps changing over the course of a single game?
Even though the winner of the game is decided on points entirely, when I'm playing a game I'm not always just thinking in terms of points. That is, most of the time I cannot calculate my way to victory. I have to rely on other concepts. I look at the board and think about the game more abstractly. In doing so, I'm thinking about something other than points. Some of the items in the list below enter into my thinking if I consider them explicitly, or enter into my play because they are embeded in my style implicitly. That is, I chose to fight or build power or achieve balance or something. Why? Because I believe that viewing the game this way will translate into increased probability of victory. In some sense, I have replaced the idea of the game being about points with it being about one or more of these other ideas.
Let the debates begin.
- Order of play: There is a Japanese Go proverb, Go wa tejun nari 碁は手順なり (Go is about order of play).
- Emergence of Complexity from Simple Rules
- Interplay of qualitative and quantitative
- Making decisions under uncertainty
- Letting go
- tactics and strategy
- healthy stones
- All of the above
- Cabbage... Go is about eating Cabbage. (And sitting upwind from your opponent)
Rich: Ultimately, one is judged on territory/area of the board claimed (depending on rulesets). All of the other things in the list are purely means to that end; I've never played in a competition that recognises a moral victory for patient play or good shape. Unlike many games, one never gets 'fair play'/sportsmanship awards either.
Not that there's no beauty in the game, or that aspects can't be extracted and pinned onto one's favourite philosophy if one is feeling in the mood for intellectual self-indulgence. I would say that I don't feel luck really belongs in the list, though.
Andrew Grant: On the contrary, luck does play a part, unless you're of professional strength and can read right to the end of every sequence. Amateurs can't read that far ahead or that accurately, and can sometimes find, to their surprise, that a stone played at an earlier point in the game turns out to be in just the right place to help the opponent 50 moves later. If the opponent did not see this coming either, and is as surprised as you by this result, it's hard to put it down to anything but his good luck and your bad luck.
SnotNose: I more or less agree with Andrew except for his exclusion of professionals. They're human too and suffer the same limitations as the rest of us, just to a different degree. Pros do admit that they become confused, don't know where to play, are uncertain of their move(s), or become lucky. I've seen this type of talk in game records written by pros or with quotes from pros. (As an aside, learning that pros have similar difficulties with the game as the rest of us was one of my big steps toward accepting my own limitations and losses. Obviously pros lose and sometimes catastrophically. Pros make errors, sometimes very bad ones that can be recognized by weaker players. If they can make such mistakes and lose and still go on (even the great ones!) so can I. It is okay to recognize one's limitations. One need not invent excuses for them all, or any. Accepting this was a big step forward for me in relaxing and enjoying the game.)
Vincent: I'm going to have to side with Rich on this one. I will often play moves that take fewer points but create better shape or preserve aji. Why? Because I know from experience that good shape and aji often come in handy later in the game. So if 50 moves down the road that shape or aji is useful in a way that neither I nor my opponent predicted is it really luck or just my reward for proper play?
Andrew Grant: I didn't really mean to exclude pros so much as to emphasise amateurs. Of course I know pros make errors, even gross blunders occasionally. Recently (on 2nd Oct. 2003) Cho Hunhyeon played an illegal move in a major tournament game and had to forfeit the game. You can't get worse than that. But usually it's amateur games that are decided by luck, and the weaker the players the more important luck becomes. Pro games are more likely to approach the ideal of a game of pure skill.
Rich: By luck, I was referring to the fact that there is no random element inherent as there is in most card and all dice games. There is the (anti-) serendipity of finding that a move you played for the best reasons earlier happens to be on the vital point for one or other player, true. However, this veers dangerously close to the 'aji as luck' argument; perhaps I see it as more good karma than good fortune.
Naustin- I agree that there is luck because sometimes there are plays that I know my opponent is advanced or skillfull enough to see but he doesn't or is worried about something that doesn't actually amount to as much. I have a friend who is enthralled with the element of deception in go. Making a move that looks very much like it's one thing but actually has a another agenda behind it. If I pay very carefull attention I can spot these decietfull moves but I often play sloppy and find myself in big trouble. I think the larger point is not that you would win because you made the best shape in one spot though you have a lot less territory overall but that these concepts help sort the incredibly large number of variations go presents us with at any move. That's why computers which aren't as good as humans at (if they can at all) thinking conceptually or metaphorically really pretty much suck at go. In computer science it's called the mongolian hordes technique. Just throwing resources at a problem and overwhelm it with sheer force. Go isn't susceptible to this at the computing power and speed we have now. These concepts help us make choices about which is the best variation though we can't read out all the variations. These concepts are not meant to replace reading or counting or calculating but to provide shortcuts or guides.
Rich: So the luck comes in playing opponents who make poor choices? If you see big moves that your opponent doesn't, that's skill, not luck. Similarly, moves that seem deceitful are really only so because one doesn't have the skill/experience to read the real meaning/s behind them.
anon (mar 2009): I like this page, but unfortunately most of the discussion has been about the one item on the list that perhaps shouldn't be there in the first place. But the others are interesting to discuss too. Especially in terms of trying to describe this game to newcomers or passers-by. I wonder if there's anyway to better order the list. For example, I think Efficiency should be at or near the top of the list (even though I merely added it to the end of an old list)
Archaic: Hi folks, i'm a 2 dan from Kgs, the ultimate league server. Imo, it's about a positional game all the way into the endgame even. Fighting is just a means to this end. It's just about whatever works and how many points you get in the end, and if you get a lot of points from a kill, then that's the result of a positional game as well? Gu Li plays a great positional game imo, and that's why i think a lot of people like his style.