A Comparison of Chess and Go

How does Go compare to Chess?

Go is a board game like Chess, but not like Chess. Both Chess and Go are strategy games. Both are worthwhile to learn and play. Go is simpler than Chess and yet more complex. Simpler because all pieces are the same, just black and white, and in Go the pieces do not move around the board.

Chess is a hierarchical game where the object is to catch the king. Go is an imperial game where each player seeks to enclose more territory on the board than their opponent.

Like Chess, Go offers a player rating system. But unlike Chess, Go offers a well balanced handicap system which allows a stronger player to play evenly against a weaker player and be fully challenged. With the proper handicap each player will have an equal prospect of winning.

At the opening move in Chess there are 20 possible moves. In Go the first player has 361 possible moves. This wide latitude of choice continues throughout the game. At each move the opposing player is more likely than not to be surprised at their opponent's move, and hence they must rethink their own plan of attack. Self discipline is a major factor in success at this game.

Natasha Regan, a Woman International Master who has represented the English women's team at both Chess and Go, says: "When I learnt Go I was fascinated. It has a similar mix of strategy and tactics that you find in Chess and, with just a few simple rules, Go uncovers a whole new world of possibilities and creativity. Chess players may also find that they can use their Chess experience to improve in Go very quickly. I highly recommend learning this ancient but ever new game!"

Ideas Chess Players understand that are relevant to Go

  1. Visualisation (reading) - Being able to visualise the position a number of moves ahead is a key factor in strength in both games. Chess is generally reckoned to be primarily a tactical game, whereas Go has more of a balance of strategy and tactics.
  2. Initiative - In both games having the initiative can give one control of the course of the game (for a while, at least). A key difference in Go is often an opportunity to take the initiative in various parts of the board – hence a constant contest over ‘my threat is bigger than your threat’.
  3. Pattern recognition - Strong Chess players are very good at recognising the important features of a position and recalling what candidate moves are good in such positions. In Go this particularly applies to local shapes.
  4. Sacrifices and exchanges - Both games offer the opportunity to apply these tactics creatively.
  5. Immediate profit (materiel) - This is one vital aim in Chess, but so is mobility. Similarly Go values both profit (territory) and positional influence.

Ideas Chess Players understand that are very different in Go

  1. Studying openings - Critical in chess but not nearly so important in Go, where most amateur games are decided in the middle game.
  2. Domination of the centre - A good place to start in Chess, whereas in Go, territory is more easily obtained in the corners and edges, although influence in the centre is often very important later on.
  3. Playing for a draw - With Black or against a stronger opponent, it may make sense in Chess to play for a draw. This option does not exist in Go and draws only occur very rarely; they cannot be agreed.
  4. Balance - In Chess players think about the balance of materiel and of position, but balance is much more important to Go. The opportunities to land a killer blow are very limited in Go; you are always concerned that if you gain something here then you are probably going to lose something elsewhere, so you’re making net balance calculations. In selecting where to play in Go you have to look at the balance between attack and defence, playing close or loose, territory or influence, and so on.
  5. Thinking - Bill Hartston, another British International Master, says that while waiting for the opponent to play I don't think about the game. This is presumably because there’s no point as an individual move normally changes the state of the game so much. Whereas during a Go game a lot of productive work can be done in the opponent’s time - counting, evaluating areas of the board away from the immediate fight, planning what to do when regaining the initiative, etc.
  6. Ending - In Chess, victory is obvious. In Go, the result may not be clear until territories are counted at the end of the game. While players should always strive to judge who is ahead - in order to decide whether to play safe or to take risks - only the very best will be able to do this perfectly.
  7. Handicaps - In Chess these are rarely used, and when used they change the game dramatically. In Go, these are often used, especially between weaker players or friends who are learning at different rates or where one is just better than the other. The use of a handicap doesn't change the strategy or tactics a great deal. In Go the ranks are almost directly correlated with the handicaps, e.g. if the players are four kyu differences apart then the weaker player will play Black and take four stones to start with.

Established Go players may like to examine a more detailed comparison (off-site) by Go author Richard Bozulich.

Last updated Wed Oct 25 2017.
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