Thoughts on the Ages of Go

Sure, I would love to.

As I said, the history of Go in ancient times if very unclear. We have Go boards that are 19x19 but we also have Go boards that are 17x17. Maybe 19x19 replaced 17x17; maybe they were played contemporaneously in different regions or by different social classes. We don’t know.

There are historical references to Go, but they are ambiguous. For instance, there is a famous saying by Confucius that goes something like “Don’t even gamblers and Go players have something to do with their time?” and this used (controversially) to hang in the Nihon Kiin’s headquarters. But we don’t really know when this said, if it was Confucius who said it, or if he was even talking about Go. The term he uses could well have referred to Chinese chess, or perhaps both Chinese chess and Go, or maybe even a game that no longer exists.

For a number of reasons, it seems to me that the claim that Go is 4000 years old is an exaggeration. I think a game of Go that we would recognise as having the same basic principles is probably no older than around 2000 years. But earlier than that, the same equipment may have been used to play different games like gomoku, or it’s been suggested that there was a use in divination.

Books have been written that are said to be from this or that date, but when I looked into it they often turned out to only exist now in copies that are much younger – like is the case with the Vedas. So you can’t really determine their age without having a very good understanding of the linguistic evolution of Chinese languages. At some point, Go spread from China to three other countries: to Tibet, to Korea, and to Japan, probably in that order. I envisage this happening somewhere around 1000CE but I don’t have any proof to hand.

Over the next several centuries isolation in four countries produced four different games. On mainland Asia, games always began with a single mandatory opening. In China, this opening was fairly simple: you had to play diagonally crossed 4-4s. In Tibet’s Tibetan Go and Korea’s sunjang baduk, more elaborate placements were used. The Tibetan set stones were, in fact, much larger than the stones that could be freely placed. In all these three variants, the set stones limited building potential and encouraged fighting. In Japan, however, there was no mandatory opening. However, in both Japan and China there were a common set of required handicap openings which we still use today, which are centred on the 4-4 points. This is especially interesting since, until about 1920, the Japanese largely believed the 4-4 to be inferior to the 3-4.

Another difference was in scoring the game. The Chinese rules are what is called area scoring, which says at the end of the game “What is the maximum amount of stones that you could theoretically fit on the board? That is your score.” It was the same in ancient China, with one difference: in the theoretical stone-placing period, you were not permitted to fill in the eyes of your own groups. Thus, each group on the board actually cost a two-point “eye tax” – this again encouraged fighting, since every time you split your opponent’s stones you automatically took two points away from his score. It’s not clear when the Japanese abandoned area scoring. I think it would be relatively easy for a strong player to tell you whether or not a dame-filling phase had been left off a scored kifu, but I am not a strong player. It’s my impression that the Japanese were using territory scoring (in which only the points “within the walls” are counted) before the first reliable kifu we have from that country.

Go history becomes much richer, abruptly, in the 17th century. In 1612 the young Tokugawa Shogunate, which had been in power for less than a decade, founded the first professional Go system. It was modelled on what was called iemoto, a martial arts tradition in which four houses would compete for victory. The four Go houses were: the Honinbo house, founded by Sansa; the Hayashi house, founded by Monnyusai; the Inoue house, founded by Nakamura Doseki; and finally the Yasui house, founded by Santetsu. The houses operated similarly to sumo stables today: the head of the house, the master of his craft, would educate a large number of boarding pupils in a single residence. This system wasn’t perfect; in fact as a result of this close-proximity living many students died of cholera and tuberculosis.

From the beginning the Honinbo house was dominant and for the next three centuries it largely remained so. There were also three minor houses: Sakaguchi, allied with Yasui; Hattori, with Inoue; and Mizutani, with Honinbo. It’s not clear when they were founded or how they exactly slotted into the system. The players of the houses competed in the Castle Games, which were played (or, perhaps, only re-enacted) in the castle of the local shogun (warlord). These games were untimed and could take several days to complete. My suspicion is that it may have been considered impolite to resign, since sometimes I see games won by over ten points, which is a very large margin for a professional player.

The heads of the houses competed for the title of Meijin, which meant “virtuoso”. The Meijin was in theory the strongest player in Japan, and the only holder of a nine-dan rank (although I have before questioned whether the concept of a ninth dan rank existed.) The Meijin was sometimes, but not always, the Godokoro – this was an official post which bestowed a number of powers. Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries there was generally a Meijin.

The games of early 17th century Japan look quite alien to the modern eye. The placement of the stones tends to be very “calm” or “passive” compared to today. The players are cautious engaging the opponent at close range; they are happy to accept an “even result” and to take gote in order to solidify their groups. Third line moves took up a more greater proportion of the opening and early midgame, with the centre being thought of less favourably. However, every now and again a strikingly “modern” joseki is played, like the taisha.

The exception to this rule is our first giant, Honinbo Dosaku. Dosaku was extremely strong – for centuries he has been considered as the first Kisei, or “Go Saint”. Dosaku was perhaps the first ever player to really master the ideas of light play, efficiency, and the value of influence. He the inventor of the tewari technique, which uses move-switching to test whether the plays in a sequence are working their hardest. Into the mid-20th century, professionals put great value on studying his games.

My knowledge of Chinese games from this time is quite poor, but I’m aware of one Guo Bailing who authored three books on handicap strategy (Guanzi Pu, Sanzi Pu, and Sizi Pu), the latter two of which have been translated into English. The Chinese system at this time was much more amorphous than that of the Japanese. The primary unit was the guosho, who was acknowledged as the best player within their town or region. Exceptional players like Guo Bailing were referred to as daguosho; very strong players would travel around defeating other guosho to improve their reputation. But, as far as I’m aware, they didn’t receive any stipend from the government.

The 18th century was not a very interesting time in Japanese Go. Everyone considered themselves to be weaker than Dosaku. Strategy remained largely the same, focused on third-line moves to secure territory. Attack and defence were not seen as very important. In China, however, the opposite was true. There were two master players at this time: Fan Xiping and Shi Dingan. Fan was a quick-playing, adventurous type; Shi Dingan was more ponderous and calm at the board. All Chinese games still, however, used the ancient cross-hoshi opening and were centred on fighting skill.

In Japan, the first signs of a new era approaching were shown by Yasui Senchi Senkaku, now referred to as the Grandfather of Modern Go. Playing at the turn of the 19th century, he was the first player to display a powerful attacking style. I’ve reviewed a few of his games, one in detail, and the way he went after his opponents’ group using central influence was very impressive. I can’t stress highly enough the difference between Yasui Senchi’s new technique of hard attack and the older, calmer style that it unleashed itself on.

In the early 19th century, our second Kisei takes his place on the stage. His name was Honinbo Jowa. He was an unusual figure: unlike most Go players, he was low-born, perhaps the son of a fish merchant. He was also rather old, becoming a professional at about 30 years old. He was, however, the heir to Senchi’s style: Jowa was a brilliant reader, a master of life and death positions, and committed to attack. He was very comfortable in fighting positions; he found it very easy to settle his groups under pressure; and he always found the time to harass his opponent’s groups. I like to say that Senchi invented the attacking style, but Jowa brought it to its rightful position. In 1827 he became the head of the Honinbo house. Jowa’s games are brilliant; they are full of incredible fights and astonishing struggles for survival. To this day he holds the record for the most dead stones in a professional game, which I believe was around 200.

Here began a convoluted and disreputable tale in which Jowa attempted to manipulate various senior figures of the Go community in order to take the title of Meijin-Godokoro, which (although he was acknowledged as the stronger player of his time) was denied him for political reasons. You can read all about this in Invisible: The Games of Shusaku. Jowa became the Meijin in 1831, but a mere eight years later his engineering came to light and he was forced to retire.

His heir was Josaku (who was unexceptional), but his heir was Shuwa, who was the opposite of Jowa. Shuwa was excellent at calm and quiet territorial play. He was very good at simply taking points beneath strong groups, repeatedly throughout the game, generally avoiding large fights. To say that he is one of Cho Chikun’s favourite players conveys his style well enough. Shuwa was in turn succeeded by Shusaku, the third Kisei. Shusaku is regarded highly for two reasons. Firstly, because of his great respect for “honour” in regard to his parents and employers. Secondly, for his unbeaten streak playing Black in the Castle Games (which were, of course, played without komi.) Personally I can’t really identify a style in Shusaku’s play, and I find his games a little dull. Certainly Shusaku was a strong player, but I’m not convinced that he was stronger than Shuwa: for reasons of etiquette he refused to play against Shuwa with the white stones. Shusaku died very young from cholera or tuberculosis, aggravated by grief-fasting.

Shuwa’s heir was Shuho. Shuho, like Jowa, had an attacking style: however, I get the impression that Shuwa’s technique was more controlled and restrained than Jowa’s. There isn’t the impression that Shuwa himself has risked so much on the fight that he has induced; rather, he seemed to bully the opponent’s groups in a way that minimised damage to himself. Shuho had wanted to participate in the Castle Games, however they were shut down in 1861 as a result of the Meiji Revolution. So, Shuho toured Japan with his half- (or perhaps adoptive) brother Shuei, playing Go. They were probably also giving many teaching games for money. Shuho wrote an opening book called Hoen Shinpo. I’ve been told that this book contained new ideas for an “expansive” fuseki, but I’ve never read it. Shuho also tutored the first ever serious Western player, Oscar Korschelt, after whom our A1 coordinates are still named today.

At this time, the modern structure of professional Go began to show itself. Shuho collaborated with Nakagawa Kamesaburo (one of Jowa’s sons) to create, in 1879, an organisation called the Hoensha, which was the first professional organisation outside of the iemoto system. The Hoensha published Igo Shinpo, the very first Go magazine. This annoyed Shuei, who was a traditionalist; the two fell out and later reconciled. Shuho then died, leaving Shuei as his heir.

Shuei was the last of the great classical players. He was, in my opinion, one of the strongest players in history. Interestingly, in contrast to today’s professionals who peak young and burn out quickly, Shuei has a mediocre player until he was around fifty years old. In the 1890s, though – perhaps as a result of having powerful students – he became incredibly strong. His style was unique. He was neither a hyper-aggressive attacker like Jowa, nor a calm bean-counter like Shuwa.

To quote Takagawa Kaku: “In particular his games as White after he reached 7-dan hide a fathomless strength amidst a serene and well-balanced flow, which we can perhaps describe as flexible on the outside, unbendable on the inside. In brief, the characteristic of Shuei’s skill at go is not just about local things such as his skill at evaluating positions or his skill in seeing moves, but his mastery of go itself.”

I’d really love to go on, but I don’t have the energy ~o~