I found a good bit of information on both series online, but I had to do some digging and ended up buying both to compare. So I’ll collect my thoughts and impressions on both series here in one place, since these seem to be the most prominent beginner books for learning Go in English.
Learn to Play Go, by Janice Kim and Jeong Soo-Hyun will be abbreviated to LPG
Level Up! By Lee Jae-Hwan will be abbreviated to LU! For the rest of this review/comparison.
The LPG series will look better on your bookshelf, though neither set of books is particularly classy in outward appearance. The LPG books are printed on substantial paper, and the covers are sturdy enough despite being paperback.
LU! Could be mistaken for a children’s coloring book both in appearance and construction. The covers and pages are somewhat flimsy and it gives me the idea that these workbooks are intended to be semi-disposable.
LPG purports to instruct up to about 10 Kyu by the end of Vol. 5. Each volume has 160-170 pages, except for #5 which has 224.
LU! Instructs up to about 18 Kyu by the end of Vol. 5, and 10 Kyu by the end of Vol. 10. Each volume and review book has 168 pages. No solutions are provided for puzzles in the books, ostensibly to increase the instructive content.
However, all solutions are available online here
Here LPG prepared me to play an actual 19×19 game in very short order. Though, as a consequence the program does not dwell for very long on any particular principle. After completing Vol. 2, I was prepared to play a whole game (albeit poorly) without too much confusion. Further volumes touch on the mindset and habits of successful Go players, provide analysis of 3 complete games, and cover core strategies and tactics for what is probably the Go equivalent of Chess club-level play (1200-1700 elo).
LU! breaks everything down into little bite-sized morsels that are easily and thoroughly digestible. The cartoony aesthetic is appropriate for children as young as 5 or 6, but is not patronizing even for an adult who is new to the game.
None of the chapters and themes feel rushed. Each principle is thoroughly explored with a few dozen problems to build confidence and prepare a novice player to reliably identify similar situations in real games. Each page is packed with diagrams and the books do not waste any space. Even the cartoons have an object lesson.
LPG moves quickly through the curriculum, which is a mixed bag at best. While it does introduce many facets of the game quickly, it does not bother to explore them in depth. Further, the page format is generally inefficient with few diagrams, plus abstract doodles that serve no purpose. Volumes 1-3 could probably have been combined into 1 book for all the information they contain.
LU! Does not seem adequate to prepare the reader for real games by the end of Vol. 5. The focus seems to be more about exercises in microcosm, to perfect and refine thinking processes for later incorporation in real games.
Cost and Value:
LPG brand new costs about $20 per volume. To be completely honest I’d feel cheated by that price for the first 2 books. However, they seem to be plentiful on eBay and available for very reasonable prices in used condition. I ended up paying about $40 for the whole set including shipping, with some volumes individually costing only $4 or $5. In a nutshell, these 5 books are a good deal at $40, a fair price at $50-$60, and a ripoff at $100+.
LU! series has more books, so the total cost will naturally be higher for a complete set. Books 1-5 plus a review book currently cost about $40 including shipping from Yellow Mountain Imports. Books 6-10 and the second review book are only available individually for about $16 each before shipping is calculated. I have not been able to find any used copies of this series on eBay. So to complete the 30kyu-10kyu curriculum it will cost at least $135 for the 10 regular books and 2 review volumes.
For 900 pages of instruction I believe the author(s) of LPG could have done a better job. However, taken as a whole the series is an adequate primer. That is, provided the reader is willing and able to supplement their studies with plenty of teaching games and tactical puzzles. The same could be said of any beginner series, I suppose.
Volumes 4 and 5 seemed like they were really ramping up the intensity of study, and the second revision of Volume 1 teases up to 9 volumes before #5 was completed.
I would love to see the full potential of this series realized in volumes 6-9, but with the latest entry approaching 20 years of age, that just doesn’t seem likely.
Now about LU! - A wise man once said “If I had just 5 minutes to cut down a tree, I’d spend the first 3 minutes sharpening my axe.” If you find yourself agreeing with that sentiment (as I do) then it seems Level Up! would be a good series for you. The focus is not immediately on whole-game application. Rather, it deconstructs each element extensively and individually before moving on to larger themes. There are over 2,000 pages jammed full of instruction by the end of the second review book. There is a second series entitled “Jump Level Up” that targets players from 10kyu to 1kyu, and I have heard talk of yet ANOTHER series called “High Level Up” for even further advancement. This giant collection from a single source should theoretically ensure a cohesive program with plenty of instructional value and little unnecessary overlap between books.
Either book series should serve as an adequate primer to begin playing Go.
Just understand that neither is a complete road map to the game. Be prepared to supplement with real games, self-analysis, annotated master games, and copious amounts of tactical puzzles.