On the surface, Chess and Go have little in common. Chess is a simulation of medieval warfare with pieces moving from square to square, each with its own movement rules from the lowly Pawn to the powerful Queen. But you can sacrifice practically your entire army as long as you take down the opposing King.
Go, on the other hand, is played using undifferentiated black and white stones that do not move once placed on their intersections. Although capturing opposing pieces earns points, the primary aim of Go is the fencing-in of territory. Individual stones are ineffectual and vulnerable; joined together, they become sturdy walls and unconquerable fortresses.
However different their gameplay, the games have much in common in overall strategy. Each has distinct early-, mid-, and late-game phases each with its own pace, strategy, and tactics. Both are highly positional; the strength of individual pieces is highly dependent on what is going on around them. Although turn order strictly alternates, taking and holding the initiative is crucial–you want to be acting, not reacting. And since there are no random or hidden elements, top players in both games spend huge amounts of time studying and memorizing classic games in case they see an opportunity to reuse some revered ancestor’s coup de grace against a less-prepared opponent.
Yet Chess and Go share something more fundamental. In their abstraction, they are timeless embodiments of the cultures from which they emerged. Chess pieces represent feudal society’s three Estates; Go’s austere simplicity evokes both the yin and yang of Taoism and the empty spaces of Zen brush painting. Both continue to be considered the apex of intellectual, analytic power. And for centuries both have been portrayed innumerable times in their respective home cultures’ literature, art, and media. (See here and here to start exploring this.)
Partially as a result of this, both Chess and Go were two of only a few non-athletic pastimes (pre e-sports) which attracted enough of a fanbase, money, and attention to run professional leagues. Both were once considered impossible for computers to master, both have now fallen to digital masters; Deep Blue beat World Champion Gary Kasparov in 1996, but it took another twenty years for AlphaGo to beat 9-dan player Lee Sedol. AlphaGo’s “move 37” in Game Two of the match instantly became, literally, a game-changer.
I don’t remember being taught to play chess. Supposedly my dad taught me when I was about five. My childhood corresponded with the ascent of Bobby Fischer to fame and notoriety; I read and re-read his book, Bobby Fischer Teaches Chess (still in print and #8 on Amazon’s Chess booklist) compulsively. I literally read every chess book in my local public library. When I exhausted that section I branched out into books on Chinese Chess (Xianqi) and Japanese Chess (Shogi), construction my own sets out of paper because in those days they just weren’t available (at least according to my parents). Of course, I had no one to play them with because it was nerdy enough being a chess addict, let alone that other stuff, and those were pre-computer days, so all my games were solo affairs. But I had a happy childhood, I tells ya!
It was because I knew that section of shelves so well that one day when I was about eleven I decided to finally take down and look at a book I skipped over every time because it was not about Chess and I was bored of re-reading the same books. I can’t remember the exact title or author, but I can visualize its spine–black letters on 70s orange–so clearly. And it was about this game called Go. I was instantly fascinated, and this time my parents managed to track down a cheap set (mounted paper board and plastic disc pieces) which only recently fell apart. Of course, I played this solitaire as well.
In fact, the first time I played Go for real against a hew-man I was a university student interning at the Ontario Ministry of Treasury and Economics, and there was a guy there by the name of Ken who played and when he found out I played he invited me to a game over lunch. Well, he slaughtered me–to the point where he would stop me after a move and explain why that play was so bad and what I should really be thinking about. It was highly instructive–but after a couple of lunchtime plays, I got discouraged and stopped playing with him. Looking back, I wish I’d had more resilience. #lifelesson
Today of course there are plenty of apps and online portals for both Chess and Go. Magnus Carlsen, the current World Chess Champion, has played against all comers on Chess.com, and now, like Fischer before him, offers to improve your play (though via an app rather than a book). Pandanet hosts international Go tournaments and links to Sensei’s Game Library which, despite looking like a Netscape page from 2004, is a comprehensive database of Go resources.
Chess currently sits at #398 on BGG’s overall list; it’s #41 when it comes to Abstracts. Interestingly, Shogi and Xianqi are more popular at #28 and #31 respectively. Go, on the other hand, is way up there: #105 overall, and #6 for Abstracts. Of course, at this point you’ll want to know what five abstracts are more highly rated than Go. They are:
#2, 4, and 5 were all designed by Kris Burm as part of his GIPF series, and I must say it’s quite an achievement to have three games in the Top Five.
Still, Go’s position at #6 is pretty darned impressive for a game that was released thousands of years ago by an unknown designer (or designers). I believe that if Go were released today it would still hold up pretty well against current designs. Its simple rules mask incredibly deep gameplay.
Chess, on the other hand…well, listen. Chess will always hold a dear place in my heart, I think you can tell by now. But I think its rating on BGG viz a viz Go and other abstracts is deserved. If it were released today I think it would do about as well, if not worse.
I mean really, I can see the comments. “Theme is pasted on…weird castling and en passant rules make no sense…opening play is too predictable…games last way too long…prone to analysis paralysis…” And then there’s the whole thing about the most crucial piece being the King…I mean, so what if the most powerful piece is technically the Queen, she’s expendable as long as you keep your King safe. Let alone the whole binary gendered thing. Am I right?