19x19 FOR BEGINNERS SERIES: Introduction: Making Sense of Go



Introduction: Making Sense of Go

When I first started learning about go, I did it in the slowest possible way - I was isolated, intimidated, confused, and stubborn. Lacking any local friends to play with, and too embarrassed to play strangers on the internet, I beat my head against the GnuGo AI for a long time - never able to understand why I was consistently losing by 30-50 points. I read books and articles about go - I watched YouTube videos where people demonstrated various techniques - I even did some life-or-death puzzles (tsumego). The problem was, I had no idea how to put all those things together - to play the sort of calm, steady game that GnuGo could play, where a series of conservative moves added up to a big win. No matter what I tried, it was like that Dr. John song - I was in the right place but it must have been the wrong time. It felt like GnuGo was dancing to one tune, and I was dancing to a completely different one.

My first big turning point in understanding Go was watching Michael Redmond’s commentary on the Lee Sedol vs AlphaGo games. At every point, he calmly explained what each move meant, what variations were possible, and why each option was good or bad for each player. I learned more about Go in those 5 days than I had in the previous 2 years. Like many others here on OGS, that experience prompted me to get over my shyness, find other people to play with, and start figuring out new ways to wrap my head around the game.

That was four years ago. I’ve come a long way (I’m somewhere between 13-15 kyu) and it’s daunting to realize how much more learning lies ahead. Still, every time I learn something new, I always think - I wish I could go back in time, and talk to that frustrated, isolated me - like, if I’d only known THIS, it would have saved me so many months of bashing my head against that brick wall. So that’s my goal in this beginners series - to try and break the complexities of the 19x19 game into manageable pieces, and help the 25 kyu player make sense of Go.

This is trickier than it sounds. Go is such a complex, tangled game, that there are very few life experiences a beginner can use to tie it to something familiar. I’m not using hyperbole when I say it is probably unlike any other game you’ve ever played. Once I became a better player, I remember looking over my earlier games, and realizing that - in some sense - I wasn’t playing Go at all. I was trying to use strategies from other games like Othello (“These pretty patterns will save me!”) or Tron light cycles (“If I keep building this wall I’ll fence White in!”). I didn’t know how to speak the language of the game, and was blind to most of the information which told me how much risk I was in, or where I should be playing next. My friend John put it into words really well - he said something like, “My video-game trained brain keeps looking for targets to shoot.” By paying attention to only one aspect of the game, he was blinding himself to all the others.

Go is a game of perfect information - everything you need to know is sitting right there, implicit in the shape of the stones. The problem is - there are so many different layers of analysis - so many priorities vying for your attention - it’s easy to get lost. In order to be able to see and interpret that information, you need to learn a whole new language about how those stones interact in space and time - you need to absorb a body of experience for what things are possible and what things are impossible - and begin to see how the various strategies of Go emerge procedurally from those interactions. As you improve, you will learn that the one who wins the game isn’t the bravest warrior, or the most skilled fighter - it’s the shrewd tactician who is able to evaluate the most layers of information, and correctly pick the most important priority from the bewildering range of strategic options at each moment.

So, let’s get down to it - what are you actually trying to do when playing a game of Go? One useful metaphor is that you are an Emperor of some far-away Empire. You are in competition against a different Empire to see who can claim the most territory on an uninhabited island. The Go board is your map, and each of your stones represents a little fortified garrison town full of soldiers, weapons, food, and equipment. By themselves, each individual town isn’t very powerful - they can get surrounded and captured. Their power lies in networking - their ability to link up together into larger structures. The main job of those structures is to surround empty points of land, because - if we keep extending this metaphor - the invading soldiers need to make sure they can plant crops and eat. Always keep this in mind - your goal isn’t just to build walls - it’s to stake out as much empty land as possible between those walls.


So let’s take a look at an example from an actual game. You see all those black squares in between black’s stones? That’s Black’s territory. All the white squares are White’s territory. All those black and white stones in the middle are just thick walls that are the result of Black and White negotiating to see who is going to get what. Black was able to win this game because it managed to stretch its territories away from the edge of the board and fence White into tight enclosures at the same time. (note: final score was Black won by 56.5 points).

How did Black do that? Well, one useful thing to remember is that this particular game took 256 moves - meaning there were 256 separate little decisions that each side had to make along the way. For most of those moves, Black and White stayed pretty even - meaning that a minor land grab by one was balanced by a minor land grab by the other. However, there were a few turning points in the game where Black noticed White making not-so-efficient decisions and seized that opportunity to grab a big advantage. Let me break it down with some instant replay:


So take a look at the game at Move 47 - Black and White have played a fairly balanced opening - Black might be slightly ahead because it has 2 full corners while the other 2 corners are still in dispute (note: corner real-estate is the most efficient for making points, and therefore the most valuable). Now that’s about to change. Black’s last move was B14 - it’s trying to extend its upper left hand corner territory down the left side, and possibly threaten White’s loose framework in the middle. White could have played somewhere on the left side to block Black in, but look what happened instead:


1: Instead of blocking, White connects its lower right group to its upper right group at Q9 - connecting its two biggest groups together.

2: Black takes advantage of the moment and attacks White’s weakest group at C13 - threatening White’s 2 stones at C14/C15, and also threatening to move away from the edge into the middle.

3: Now, at this point, White could have played all kinds of moves to secure that territory and move out to the middle (D13, D14, and E14 were all good possible moves for White), but White was playing it safe and prioritizing grabbing edge territory rather than paying attention to the urgencies of the moment. White played G17 instead.

4: Black plays on the key point at E14. White still could have played defensive moves at D15 or D14 to secure those stones and stay connected, but it gave up that potentially risky fight to and prioritized grabbing more edge territory with J16 (another seemingly safe/conservative move)

5: Black completes the attack with D15. There’s nothing White can do to save those C14/C15 stones now because whichever way they wiggle, they’ll still get captured. They are effectively living prisoners.

And that’s how things happen in Go - a moment will come where one side has 3 or 4 strategies to choose from and picks a safe / conservative option. The other side will then grab that fleeing opportunity to do something more risky and (if they’re skilled and lucky) be able to profit from it.


Let’s take a look at another turning point in the game - here’s the board at Move 64. All the points marked with O’s are places where Black could have played safe / conservative moves to extend its existing territories. The thing is - in playing those moves, Black would have ignored the implicit warning that White’s J6 move represents: White is threatening to make a big moyo (enclosure) in the middle. If Black doesn’t look into the future and recognize the coming threat, White may be able to pull off something like this:


Instead, Black reads the situation, and plays a risky move to disrupt White’s potential moyo:


K8 is a smart and well-calculated move. It gives White the opportunity to salvage some of its moyo by playing at K7 or L7, and allows Black’s K8 stone to run towards the top and hopefully meet up with its reinforcements. If Black had played any lower (like at L6 or M7) White could would tried to fence it in by playing further in the middle and try to capture it. As it stands now, if White wanted to cut Black off, it would have to play at K10 or J10, which are both risky options - White may get cut off and captured itself. This clever move allowed Black to establish a beach-head in the middle of the board and work backwards from it to create solid walls that eventually gave it a huge lead.

OK, one last bit of analysis, and then I’ll wrap it up. Take a look at the board at Move 103.


By threatening to cut off White’s upper left group from the bottom, Black has managed to keep its invading stones on the 8 line connected to its group at the upper right. Now it wants to extend its upper right territory as far into the middle as it can. But how can it keep White from extending its left side territory into the upper middle?


Black does it by threatening to take away something big from White and getting the wall it wants by letting White keep the territory it wants.

1: By playing at Q12, Black is threatening to drive down on the 12 line and separate White’s upper right side stones from the middle right side stones.
2: White’s stones might get killed so rather than cut Black off with a move like P14, White plays it safe and makes sure it can stay connected at R12
3: Black keeps building its wall
4: White secures the connection, making sure all of its stones on the right can make territory
5: Black takes the trade and builds a nice, solid wall, making sure that it can extend it’s top right territory out into the middle, and grab a big lead.

That’s probably more than enough information and analysis to throw at you for now. I’m sorry if that was dense, or overwhelming - I just wanted to give you some sense of a few of the scenarios and decisions that one might face in the course of a game. I also wanted to give you a sense of the type of narrative you can use to help the game make sense. You know how I kept saying Black wants to do this, or White is afraid of that? The more you can translate the moves into that type of story, the more you will learn the language of the game, and begin improving your own analysis so you can play more effectively.

It’s also good to keep in mind that this example was a fairly simple game - there were no big captures, and both sides managed to keep all their enclosures alive. Games that are played by higher-level opponents would have smaller enclosures, and more areas where stones were captured. The players involved take more risks, and each risk involves more complex calculation. Here’s an example of a game between more advanced opponents:


You see those white stones at the top with black squares in them? Those are all Black’s prisoners because there’s no way they can escape and make life before being captured. Black doesn’t even have to remove them from the board - they can just leave them standing and get double points (one for each captured prisoner and one for the bit of land under them). The same applies to the black stones in the middle with white squares over them - they are White’s prisoners. The more complicated the game, the more twists and turns there will be in the story (Note: in the end, Black won this game by 12.5 points.)

All of this stuff might be fascinating while you’re reading it or watching someone else do it. You may even find yourself feeling more confident because you’re absorbing these new concepts, and you can’t wait to put them into practice. But - for me at least - when I first tried applying those new ideas in- game, things started to unravel in ways I couldn’t predict.

Here’s an example from an early game of mine at Move 48 - I am White:


Just look at that massive middle enclosure! I really thought I had this game in the bag. Of course, what I didn’t know was how to make shape or travel across the board - meaning my pieces were too far apart from each other. Given all those lethal cut-points, it was ridiculously easy for Black to come in, invade, and cut me apart. Here’s how the board looked at the end of the game (Final score: Black wins by 74.5 points)


I was so focussed on making a big enclosure, and the nitty-gritty of penning black in at each spot that I spread myself too thin and forgot that I could wind up getting separated or captured. Worse yet, I completely ignored the rule-of-thumb about grabbing corner and edge territory first. I fooled myself into thinking I was ready for a higher-level strategy like grabbing the middle first.

This is a small point, but it illustrates an important facet of the game - every potentially successful strategy is inextricably coupled with a crippling weakness if taken too far. If you play too cautiously, you grab too little land and leave big opportunities on the board that your opponent can grab. If you try to grab too much land, you spread yourself too thin and leave big gaps where your opponent can invade and make life. If you play too aggressively and only focus on surrounding and capturing your opponent, you miss opportunities to secure territory and (usually) leave lethal cut points that your opponent can use to turn the tables and capture you. If you focus too much on securing territory and aren’t aggressive enough, your opponent will shoulder you out of the way and end up with more territory at the end.

Another fundamental truth about the game is that each side has been given an impossible task. There is just too much to do all at once, and not enough resources to do it all. By the middle of the game, you’ve got a handful of battles in all the different quadrants of the board, and each contains some opportunity that must be grabbed, or some dangerous fire that needs to be put out. And yet, you can only attend to one of those situations at any one time. Do you attack with your strongest group? Do you reinforce your weakest group? Given that everything is unfinished, and you’ve got 5 different actions you can take - how can you know which is the most important action to take at any one moment?

Unfortunately, the only way to get better at answering those questions is through experience. They say “lose your first 100 games quickly” - but that truism applies just as well to your first 1000 games, or your first 10,000. The more you play, the more you’ll start to see how pushing one whack-a-mole down over here will allow another one to rise up over there. Over time, you’ll start to find a balance between all those paired-opposites that works for you, and learn the language of the game in such a way that the stones will tell you when it’s time to defend, and when it’s time to attack.

The most important thing to remember is - both sides have been given an impossible task - and if you’re overwhelmed, chances are your opponent is overwhelmed too. Since there’s too much to do, you never have to worry about doing everything. All you have to do is just be a TINY bit more efficient than your opponent at making those judgments and taking those actions. That way - over the course of 300 moves - if you’re more efficient 60% of the time, and less efficient 40% of the time, you still end up winning. Go is not some all-or-nothing proposition where one side ends up with everything and the other side is wiped off the board. You’re both going to end up with something, and each of you will have minor victories and defeats along the way. So take your time - don’t rush - and focus on those parts of Go that you enjoy, and not those that feel like work.

OK - that was the bare-bones introduction. At some point soon, I will write up other guides for the following topics (this is a tentative list, it will probably expand as I go):

  • Sente and Gote
  • Settling your stones
  • Playing a balanced opening
  • Joseki basics for beginners
  • Stages of the game - managing different priorities
  • Transitioning from Opening to Midgame
  • Making shape - staying connected and creating eye-space
  • Cut-points and forcing moves
  • Using direction of play to your advantage
  • A survey of basic Go strategies
  • Efficiency - doing more than one thing with each move
  • Using Ko effectively
  • Deadly mistakes - false eyes and bad ladders
  • Endgame do’s and don’ts

I’m sure you have a lot of comments and questions at this point, so I will try to anticipate some of those in Q&A format.


A: You are absolutely correct! My attempts here are in no way comprehensive. If you can help me find other ways to describe the complexity of the game to beginners, I would love to hear your suggestions below. I hope you don’t mind if I incorporate them into future articles. As with so many things about go - everything is up for debate, and I welcome your input.


A: Sorry - but no. This series is for those players who have already familiarized themselves with the rules of Go, and have played a few games to get a feel for it. If you’re starting from scratch, I highly recommend that you work through both of these online tutorials:

and then play a few games against human or AI opponents. A lot of what I’m writing about won’t make sense until you’ve at least dipped your toes in the pool and gotten a bit of shared experience we can both refer to.


A: In one sense you’re absolutely right - the instruction you’re going to get from a dan-level player is going to be much more deep, comprehensive, and insightful than mine. However, I do have one advantage as a beginning/intermediate player - I still remember what it was like to know almost nothing about Go! If you’re a 25 kyu player, trying to learn from a dan-level teacher will feel like a 3rd grader getting thrown into a college level calculus class. If we extend this metaphor, I’m like a 6th grader, trying to help some 3rd graders practice multiplication tables and diagram some compound sentences.


A: In one sense, you are correct - 9x9 games have fewer elements and less overall complexity than 19x19 games. My problem with 9x9 games is completely personal. On an aesthetic and intellectual level - they do not provide me with those elements that I find satisfying in a game of Go.

Let me back up and explain the difference between two mental approaches - Convergent and Divergent Problem Solving.

Convergent Problem Solving involves problems where there is only ONE possible solution. An example would be the classic “Train A leaves Chicago for Albany traveling 80 mph. Train B leaves from Albany to Chicago traveling 120 mph. Since Albany and Chicago are 818 miles apart, where will the two trains crash into each other?” No matter how you do the problem, there is only one correct answer you can come up with.

Divergent Problem Solving is more open-ended - it would be something like “What’s the best pork dish that incorporates fruit?” or “Given this specific family of 5 people, with these ages, and these interests, what is the best vacation you can plan with this much budget that will provide the most satisfaction to all of them?” In these types of problems, there are multiple variables to consider, and different possible ways those variable can be prioritized. Likewise, the very criteria for what makes one solution more successful than another may be ambiguous. Still - given a finite panel of judges - one pork dish will win the fictitious cooking contest, and our imaginary family will pick one vacation package over another.

To me playing a 9x9 game has always seemed more difficult because it feels like there’s a lot less room for error. By the time a 9x9 game has gotten to Move 10, each player has procedurally generated multiple life-or-death tsumego problems - often without realizing it. A successful solution to any one particular tsumego may or may not exist, and - if your opponent knows what they’re doing - they’ll make sure to play on your key points to reduce your chances even further. For me - losing a 9x9 game feels like getting the flu - I’m in trouble two weeks before I notice the first symptoms, and by then it’s already too late.

A 19x19 game feels a lot more free-form to me. When I was a beginner, playing against other beginners, I routinely made opening-game blunders where I lost a corner or had a bunch of my pieces captured. But there was still enough time and wiggle-room in that game for me to come back, make my own captures / invasions, and somehow end up winning in the end. One can try a broader variety of different strategies and tactics, and those open-ended possibilities allow me to approach the game with imagination and energy - knowing that there are multiple possible approaches. Playing a 9x9 game always makes me feel like I’m too dense to find that One Right Answer.

So - yes - please take this all with a grain of salt, because it’s just MY opinion on the 9x9. There are many other excellent guides about 9x9 for beginners. I’m specifically focussing on the 19x19 game because beginners are often intimidated by the length and complexity of these games, and I’m trying to give those folks some assistance to make the process more enjoyable.

Good luck and see you next time!

FOOTNOTES (I mentioned a bunch of things throughout this article, and I figured I’d put the links down here rather than clutter up the article itself)

GnuGo AI: https://www.gnu.org/software/gnugo/gnugo.html

GnuGO AI user on OGS: https://online-go.com/player/58441/

Classic book for beginners:

Toshiro Kayegama - Lessons on the Fundamentals of Go

YouTube videos on Go I would recommend for beginners:

Dwyrin - Back to Basics

In Sente - playlist for Double Digit Kyus (DDKs)

Tsumego: https://online-go.com/puzzles

Specifically: Exercises for beginners: https://online-go.com/puzzle/2625

Cho Chikun Encyclopedia of Life and Death: https://online-go.com/puzzle/9362

Lee Sedol vs Alpha Go games with Michael Redmond Commentary:

Game 1: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vFr3K2DORc8&t=2s

Game 2: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l-GsfyVCBu0

Game 3: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qUAmTYHEyM8

Game 4: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yCALyQRN3hw

Game 5: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mzpW10DPHeQ

Games of perfect information: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Perfect_information

Convergent vs Divergent problem solving:


Dear mother of God, Tony! You really did a great article here. I’ll take my time to read it later.