Chapter 4 Teaching Beginners

Chapter 4
Teaching Beginners

Beginners are the most important people in the club. They are the new blood that will keep the community developing, and if there are no beginners then the community stagnates and the interest dies. When this happens, the club may be very close to folding up. Members of the club should be aware of this danger, so that in addition to teaching any potential new players, they show the appropriate attitude to them. Beginners must not feel that they are outside the existing group of players and have to fight for acceptance; they must be welcomed with open arms and encouraged as much as possible. Above all talk to them, about their life outside go, (possibly over a pint), to get to know them personally.

4.1 Teaching the rules

Some go clubs, particularly at universities, have certain meetings where more than one beginner turns up. Others rarely see more than one new player at a time. In either case, the rules of go need to be explained. Since it is important for this to be done clearly, players at the club who expect to teach beginners should think beforehand about what approach they intend to adopt. The various leaflets available may be useful for this purpose (e.g. the BGA Introductory leaflet, and Andreas Fecke's cartoon introduction).

Teaching with a board, and with the subject able to ask questions is, however, a rather different task from teaching simply through a written text. You will, with some experience, come up with your own methods of teaching beginners; however the following scheme is one starting point. Remember that the important thing is to have some sort of plan before you start - you should nevertheless be flexible, as some people take to the game more quickly than others.

Teach by playing games, not by demonstration

The point of the first few games is to make the beginner comfortable with the rules and to give them a feel for the game. Remember that it is not essential to explain all of the rules straight away; in particular, details like ko and seki are likely to be confusing. Keep in mind at all times that it is hard to take in large amounts of information in one go. Because of this, you are likely to have more success if you describe just enough rules to get playing, then introduce further rules (e.g. ko) as necessary.

Basic Rules

Begin by explaining the basic rules:

  • Say that the game is played between two players, black and white.
  • Explain that the stones are placed on the intersections and that black plays first.
  • Explain that the purpose of the game is to surround territory.
  • Describe capture of one stone, then groups of stones, and explain that suicide is not allowed.
  • Explain how the game ends and how to score (you will almost certainly need to explain this again).

Try to be consistent with your terminology (e.g. always use the words "stone" and "turn" rather than "piece" or "move") and avoid the use of jargon (you may find it useful to explain "liberty" and "atari", but that should be all).

The beginner now knows enough to start playing. You should explain the handicap system and give the beginner an appropriate number of handicap stones (as a rough guide, the beginner is about 30kyu and you should give 1 handicap stone for 5 grades difference on a 9x9 board). If you intend to let several beginners play amongst themselves, you can skip this detail at first.

First Games

The first games should be played on a 9x9 board as this allows the beginner to get a quick introduction to all aspects of the rules - a larger board appears daunting at first.

It is good to encourage the beginner to play their first games quickly; many people in their first games think very carefully before making the wrong move! Some beginners can freeze completely, and need encouraging to make a move. You should aim to win by a small margin; although it may be tempting to capture all of black's stones given an opportunity, this will discourage many. It is important to remember throughout the games that the point is to make it comprehensible, not to win or lose, and the teacher needs to play accordingly. Use phrases like "close game" if the margin is anything less than around ten points, and after each game, try to give a summary of what happened.

At some stage, a ko will arise naturally, at which point you should explain the ko rule - try to resist explaining its implications however! It is also likely that a snapback will arise; this often confuses beginners who often think it is disallowed because it is a ko or suicide, so you should take care to explain why it is legal. Try to avoid ko or snapback in the first game, however!

End Of The Game

Most people have difficulty knowing when to pass in their first few games, and end up examining the board for several minutes not knowing what to do. You should be prepared to comment at this stage, either by asking what they are thinking, or remarking that you think the game is over. Occasionally, new players pass when there are still points left, in which case you may want to comment that the game isn't quite over yet. Whatever happens, don't let the endgame drag on too long, as there are far more interesting and important things to learn.

Many beginners have difficulty understanding which groups are alive or dead at the end of the game. Often, they will try impossible invasions into your territory. Be patient with this; they will learn more by playing out these situations than if you try to explain.


After one or two games, when you have captured several large groups, the beginner will probably be very keen to know how to avoid this! The easiest way to demonstrate eyes is to make a group with a three space big eye in the corner, and show what happens when either player plays on the vital point. You may choose to set up some simple life and death problems for the beginner to try to solve.

4.2 Starting To Play

If you have more than one beginner in the club, it is good for them to play amongst themselves. While the handicap system allows players of greatly differing strength to play, many people do prefer the chance to play against people of roughly equal strength. All club members should still, of course, be prepared to play teaching games against the new players, remembering that the more they do this, the sooner they will have more even game opponents!

4.2.1 Board Size

It is a matter of some debate as to whether beginners should play on a small 9x9 board, or play on a full size board as soon as possible. While the first games should certainly be on a small board, to some extent, it should be up to beginners to decide which is most enjoyable for them - after all, the more they enjoy it, the more likely they are to continue playing. However, you should not expect the stronger players to have to give more than 9 stones handicap on any size of board. The beginner is likely to get more benefit from playing a 10 kyu on a 13x13 board with a 6 stone handicap (or even a 9x9 board with a 4 stone handicap) than on a 19x19 board with a 20 stone handicap. This is also likely to be more beneficial for the 10 kyu.

4.2.2 Teaching Games

Teaching games should be a constant feature of all go clubs; every member should be encouraged to give weaker players teaching games. This is beneficial for everyone; most people find that explaining a concept to someone improves their own understanding of that concept. Some points to bear in mind are:

  • You should play to win, but at the same time remember that the goal is to teach. To this end, you may find it useful to make comments during the game (but be careful to comment on good moves as well as bad).
  • Review the game afterwards. If you can remember the game, so much the better - it is also good to encourage black to try to remember his moves. Many people are surprised and encouraged by how well they can do this.
  • As when teaching the rules, try not to explain too many concepts at once. In your review, it is better to focus on one single thing the student can improve, rather than try to correct everything.

4.2.3 Computer Programs

Although Go programs do not yet challenge players above around 5 kyu, they are very useful for beginners. It is said that beginners should lose their first 50 games as quickly as possible, and many people prefer to do this against a computer rather than against a human opponent! Playing a few games against a computer is a good way for a beginner to learn common shapes and simple tactics. Computer programs also do not get upset if you keep taking moves back. Some possible programs are:

Last updated Mon May 21 2012. If you have any comments, please email the webmaster on web-master AT britgo DOT org.