4. Teaching Beginners
Our thanks to Durham Go Club for some of the ideas outlined here.
How you teach the rules of Go to beginners will depend on
- How many learners there are
- Whether they are children or adults
- What resources you have
Let's start by assuming the easiest case: this is your club's open evening, a good number of beginners have come along, they are intelligent adults, and you are prepared for them. Here is what we recommend:
- One of the club's stronger players gives a short talk introducing the basic rules, and some background to the game. If you have access to a demonstration board, or even a computer and projector, with which to demonstrate the rules, so much the better. However, it is important to keep this short, perhaps no more than 10 minutes. Remember that people have come to play! It is better to leave out such details as ko and life and death, as people will have difficulty taking everything in.
- If there are enough experienced players present, get each one to play a beginner on a 9×9 board. During the first games, you can explain any gaps left by the introductory talk, such as ko. Don't just state the ko rule in the abstract – wait until a ko appears in the game (contrive one, if necessary), and explain the ko rule once the pupil sees the need for it.
- Get the beginners playing each other, again on 9×9 boards. Your goal at this stage is to make people come back to the club: if they know there are others of about the same strength, this is more likely to happen. Be prepared to answer questions; people will ask in particular about the life and death status of groups, and whether the game is over.
- When they can win a game on a 9 × 9 board with a four stone handicap (against an experienced player) then they can be placed on a ranking ladder and move up to a 13 × 13 board. This would not normally be until their second session. The first 13 × 13 game should, ideally, be with someone at least 12kyu and make it clear to them that this is their first time on a bigger board.
- To make the first full sized game a lot less terrifying/demoralising we suggest the first game on a 19 × 19 board is always with someone experienced and always with a full handicap. For example, if I am 8kyu and they are 25kyu this gives a 17 stone handicap rather than 9 stones + komi. All subsequent games on full size board can be played with 9 stone handicap plus komi unless there is some issue which is best addressed with a teaching game on a different board size.
- It is a nice if you can give newcomers a free "starter" set - made up of a paper or cardboard 9 × 9 board with plastic counters and a leaflet outlining the rules.
- Above all, be friendly and welcoming! Particularly if you have a group of adults, it is good to finish with some kind of social event, even if this is just going to the pub, to get to know the newcomers. It is not unusual to find that they want to continue playing Go over a pint!
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.
Begin by explaining the basic rules:
- The game is played between two players, black and white.
- The stones are placed on the intersections. Black plays first.
- The purpose of the game is to surround territory.
- Describe the capture of one stone.
- Explain what a group is: stones are connected along the lines, that is why there are lines drawn on the board.
- Describe capture of a group of stones.
- Describe how the game ends and how to score. (You will almost certainly need to explain this again later).
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 9×9 board). If you intend to let several beginners play amongst themselves, you can skip this detail at first.
4.1.1 First Games
This section assumes that you have arranged first games between pairs of beginners, with someone to oversee each game.
The first games should be played on a 9×9 board: this is less daunting for a beginner, and the game is over sooner so there is more chance that the players will see the consequences of their moves when the score is counted.
It is good to encourage beginners 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.
It is unlikely that either player will know when the game is over, and you should guide them in this. Don't just say "it's over now", say something like "I don't think you have any move that gains anything, if you can't see one either you may as well pass." Once both players have passed, ask them both their opinions of any dead groups, and don't proceed until until they have agreed. It is very off-putting to have a teacher remove your cherished group from the board for no reason.
At some stage, a ko may appear. At this point you should explain the ko rule – resist explaining its implications however! It is also possible 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.
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. Accept this: suggest to them that it won't work, and let them find out why it won't.
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 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.
4.1.2 First Games with Children
There are various things which are best done differently with younger children.
- Require them to use 9×9 boards. Unlike adults, they won't be daunted by larger boards; rather, they will think that a board twice the size must be twice as much fun (and then risk finding it twice as boring). The only practicable way to prevent them from playing on larger boards is to ensure that none are available.
- Start with "capture-Go". This has the advantage of having an objective they can understand and pursue. It also has the effect of training at least some of them to notice when a capture has happened – this has the benefit, for the teacher, that you won't later find them playing a game in which there are multiple adjacent liberty-less groups.
- After you judge that they've played enough capture-Go, if there's plenty of time, consider teaching them the wall game. After half-a-dozen games of this, the brighter ones will have "solved" it, and be keen to move on to real Go.
- In their first "real" game, avoid ko or snapback. What this means is: don't start a ko yourself; if they start a ko, leave them to connect it; don't do a snapback yourself; in the unlikely event that they do a snapback, congratulate them! If you lose as a result, so much the better.
- Let them win about half the time. If they lose all their games, or lose all their stones in one game, they probably won't want to play again.
- After each game, try to give a summary of what happened.
This is also known as "atari-Go". Use a 9×9 board. The rules are as for Go, except that the first player to make a capture wins – after which you stop playing and start another game. It may be necessary to remind them of this last clause, otherwise you will find them playing a game with no objective.
4.1.4 The Wall Game
This is a kind of antidote to Capture-Go, to get beginners used to the idea of territory. The rules are:
- Use a 9×9 board.
- Play alternately, with Black starting, as in Go.
- A player's first move may be on any vacant intersection.
- After that, a player may pass, or play a stone that is adjacent (as defined by the lines on the board) to one of their existing stones.
- Two consecutive passes end the game.
- Count up the territory surrounded by each player: whoever has more is the winner.
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!
4.2.2 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 2 dan, 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 don't gloat when they win and don't moan when they lose, and most important, do not mind if you keep taking moves back. Some possible programs, all free, are:
- Aya. Weak version, Windows.
- Fuego. Strongish, Linux.
- Gnu Go. Windows, Linux, Mac.
- Igowin. Windows, free 9×9 version of Many Faces of Go. Recommended
The BGA publishes various booklets and leaflets that may be useful. In particular, Andreas Fecke's Cartoon rules booklet and the Play Go Booklet are recommended as introductions to the rules of the game.