The Rules And History Of Go

What is the origin of one of humanity’s oldest games, how do you play it, and what’s so fascinating about it? Here, I’ll outline some of the game’s rich history, it’s rules, and some of the fascinating implications of those rules.

About this series

Go, also known as Baduk or Weiqi, is an ancient board game developed in China over 4000 years ago, and still played by millions today. But what elevates Go from that of other board games enough to be considered an art, a spiritual practice, even an expression of divine cosmology?

In this series, I’ll offer some of my reflections on what the game has to teach.


While the first ever mention of Go (Weiqi in Chinese, Baduk in Korean, Igo in Japanese) in written record is from 548 B.C., the game is likely way older than that. Depending on your preference, there are some origin stories to choose from.

  1. In ancient China, some 4000 years ago, an emperor named Yao had a dimwitted son who needed to learn discipline, concentration, and balance. The emperor thus had the game of Go invented to serve as a teaching tool for his son.
  2. The ever warring warlords of ancient China used stones on a map to illustrate troop movements and strategy. These illustrations were then formalized into an abstract game so the generals could simulate different scenarios.
  3. A sacred ritual among the ancient shamanistic Shang culture involved divination through the act of throwing ‘chi pieces’ (Go stones) on an empty grid inscribed with astrological and geomantic symbols (Goban). It is rumored that a companion to the ‘Yellow Emperor’ (2700 BC) flew to a holy mountain to perform the sacred divinatory rite of Go. Go arose through a steady evolution of similar games played by the upper and lower classes, such as connect five, tafl games, and shape arranging games.

Regardless of how Go arose, by around 4th century BC, Go as a game was mentioned in historical annals, and later in the Analects of Confucius.

While Go would later be considered as one of the four academic and artistic arts a Chinese scholar/aristocrat should master, it is likely that it was played and studied by higher nobility before that. However, archaeological evidence suggests that the lower classes enjoyed the game too.

Go was brought from China to Japan (600–700 AD) where it became part of Zen culture as ‘Kido’ (The Way of Go), and became entrenched in society as a refined art among the samurai. In the Tokugawa period (1603–1867), Go became an established profession in highly ceremonious competitions between rival noble houses or schools.

Go also spread to Korea (then named Goguryeo) around the same time as it spread to Japan. According to legend, King Jangsu would dispatch a Buddhist monk named Dorim as a spy to rival kings in order to infiltrate their courts using his legendary Go skills. According to another legend, Go even saved an early Tibetan kingdom when a Buddhist monk played a match to determine the country’s fate.

Today, Go has a dominant position in Japan, Korea, China, and Taiwan. However, the numbers of players in Europe, the US, and other countries, is growing.

A lot more can be said about the history of Go, and I’ve only briefly touched upon the game’s rich history here. For the curious, I’ve suggested some links to some sources below (from which I’ve drawn upon here). You will quickly see that many details differ between them, which is to be expected from a game with such a deep history and cultural importance.


The Rules

There are only two rules, the rule of liberty and the rule of Ko. All other ‘rules’ are discovered through play.

0. Get or make yourself a grid on a flat surface. Any grid size and shape will do, but you’ll do yourself a favor with a square grid between 9x9 and 19x19. This is the Goban. Then you’ll need some black and white stones.

1. In sequence, each player places a stone of their color on any empty intersection of the grid.

2. Stones next to other stones of the same color (a line connects them) are considered a group, i.e. they live or die together.

3. The Rule of Liberty All stones and groups of stones on the board must have air to breathe (liberties), meaning each stone or group must have at least one empty spot connected to it by a grid line. If a group has no liberties, it will be taken off the board and captured by the player who just played. You cannot capture your own stones.

4. The Rule of Ko The board state is not allowed to revert to the previous position.

5. In principle, both the end of the game and the result is determined by agreement. However, most tournament rules state that the game ends when both players pass their turns (in effect saying there are no more moves to play), and that the winner is the one who has surrounded most empty space on the board.

While the rules are simple, they can lead to quite complex scenarios. I suggest heading over to Online Go Server for an interactive tutorial. There you can also play against bots and humans, solve puzzles, and much more. For some graphical aid when playing, try also out the Color Go Server. I also recommend the free documentary AlphaGo on Youtube, or the non-free documentary The Surrounding Game (trailer).


It is a difficult task to detail the implications of the simple rules outlined above to someone who has not played at least a few games. However, I will try to give a sense of why it is such a rewarding game to play (for more in-depth exploration, check out the separate stories above).

The game is all about balance. Trying too hard to surround territory (or the opponent’s stones) will leave your stones weakly connected, allowing your opponent to surround you. An overly defensive style (connecting all your stones) will leave you with little control over the play area.

Because of the extremely many variations a game can take, memorization of openings and positions is nowhere as dominant as in chess. However, while intuition and ‘reading’ (playing out variations in your mind) is more prominent, theory is still an important aspect. The larger the Goban (the grid), the less important one particular part of the board is. This allows a player to catch up later by ‘winning’ battles in other areas. One can liken it to playing multiple chess games on a giant board and the result of one game influencing the others.

Since all these battles take place on the same board, what looked like a ‘defeat’ in one corner can turn out to be a ‘victory’ because the battles will spill over from where they are fought and can thus take advantage of the position in other places.

As all stones are equal in value (their value is entirely contextual), ‘losing’ a stone or group to capture is not the end and can even be a strategic sacrifice.

Since the board is big, a game doesn’t swing as wildly as chess can due to mistakes. While there are game losing mistakes to be made, they’re not as dramatic as in chess and often because of being outplayed several moves back.

Since all pieces are created equal, and the grid size and shape do not affect the rules, there are infinite variations of Go that can be played, including fixed opening placements and handicaps (opponent gets X free stones at start) that can shake up the game.

Finally, Go is about ‘trading’. Every move is a tradeoff between multiple objectives. Seldom is there a clear cut way to play as your opponent will always gain something in an exchange, at least on higher levels. The question is, who gains the most?

Some Further Reading Material

Scientist by day, aspiring writer by night. Exploring the human condition 24/7. Futurologist in between. Twitter: @turntwine — Wordpress:

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