How to Teach Go

Weekly Go Wednesday, Issue #45


Introducing go to new people is a topic that I’m very passionate about and it’s something that I think a lot of people mess up. To be fair, it’s not their fault and they are not intentionally doing so. It’s just that people don’t realize how the lack or presence of certain teaching principles can have profoundly different results.

I come from the belief that one day go will be known by the masses and played by all kinds of people. I don’t believe that it is a game for “smart” people and have no intention of seeing it get shelved as a niche of a game that only “intellectuals” play. Everything you’re about to read comes from personal experience and/or things that I have actually witnessed in real life, so there’s nothing theoretical about it. In addition, I have to emphasize that this “manifesto” focuses on people brand new to go. More established players are not considered below.

With that said, let’s dive right into it shall we?

Principle #1: You are not teaching go.

Wait what? Isn’t this whole article about how to “teach” go? In one sense it is, but you’ll also notice that I put the team “teach” in quotes because I think it puts people in a completely incorrect mindset.

When a person tries to teach something, I have found that they are always very quick to correct a person’s mistake. Once they get it in their heads that they are “teaching,” there is this sense of superiority and a desire to raise the “perfect student.”

What do I mean by “perfect student?” Well what’s the ideal situation for introducing a new person to go? Easy. They become hooked and become obsessed with the game the way many of us are. However, the reality of it is that people of this mentality are far and few between.

What most people often forget is that go is simply a game to most people. Like chess, checkers, or video games, it is just one way to pass the time and enjoy themselves. It is not something that they obsess over and try to improve at the way most of us do. As a result, the mindset needs to be completely different for these people.

Teaching go is reserved for trying to help a player gain another stone in rank. This is not what you are doing. You are simply trying to help someone learn the rules of go and be able to play a game on their own. It doesn’t matter if their moves are great, or whether or not they make mistakes, they simply need to be able to play and you will have accomplished your goal.

To put it another way, imagine that board games are like restaurants in a food court and the prospective customers’ appetites are their free time and energy. When a person comes into the food court looking to figure out where to eat, do you think that they are going to eat a three course meal at all the restaurants to figure out where they want to eat? Absolutely not! They wouldn’t have the stomach for it!

So what’s the solution? The sample of course. You offer samples to all prospective customers because having them simply take the time to actually try your product is what you really need. If they like it, they’ll come in and enjoy all your restaurant has to offer. Or maybe they can’t sit down today, but because the sample you offered was great, they’ll come back another time. And worst case scenario, they don’t care much for it; but even in this scenario, at least they know what your food is and can tell people what it is.

As a result, your goal is not to “teach” go; but to instead market and sell it to anyone willing to give you their time and attention. You are not a teacher. You are a go enthusiast who wants to share with everyone why go is awesome and why they should play it. And the way you are going to do that is not by teaching them the game, but by introducing the rules to them in a fun and easy way.

Principle #2: Keep it simple stupid (K.I.S.S.).

Whenever anyone is learning anything new, the most important thing is that they get to practice, practice, and practice. So what does that mean for us as we show them the ropes of how to play go? Stop trying to introduce new and advanced concepts when they’ve barely grasped how go works.

Case and point. Let’s say you’ve just finished teaching someone how to capture stones. You ask them if they understand and they nod. At this point, you might feel compelled to the launch into this lengthy explanation about life and death or ko works; but don’t do it! That is one of the absolute worst things you could possibly do.

You have to realize that thinking you understand something is WAY different than applying it. I cannot even count the number of times where the player told me that they “understood” what I had just explained but had a difficult time actually applying it in the game. For example, once we start playing first capture, the board will get slightly complicated, and if I ask them to identify which group they are able to capture with one move, they get confused and can’t find the group! This is by no means their fault, but it illustrates the point I’m trying to make in that it’s easy to think they grasped a concept when in fact they really haven’t.

So I have a basic rule to follow, avoid the following topics when explaining the game or playing with a new player:

  1. Suicide
  2. Ko
  3. Life and Death
  4. Tesujis
  5. Komi
  6. Shape Efficiency (like why empty triangles are bad)
    This sounds crazy to full-fledged go players, but I have seen countless beginners who play full games on a 9x9 board without ever questioning those things. They delight and find joy in simply being able to play and apply what they just learned. After all, isn’t it much easier to play a game when there aren’t a bunch of exceptions to remember? Go has one of the simplest rulesets needed to start playing, so why complicate that?

And to top it off, exceptions (like suicide and ko) are much easier to remember when they are discovered by the players themselves. There have been plenty of times when I was playing with a new player when they would stop me and go, “Wait a second. What about this?” In that case, by all means teach it to them! After all, if they are thinking at that level, it means they have grasped the other material which is great! Otherwise, let them practice with the simple ruleset as much as they want. After all, you want them to remember how to play the game the next day right?

Principle #3. Give them as many opportunities for success as possible.

When I had a chance to take a break from teaching last Saturday, I saw a classic scenario occurring on a number of the boards throughout the table: the new player was getting demolished and the person “teaching” had a bunch of stones as prisoners. I could only shake my head as my mind screamed, “Are you trying to discourage him from playing go?!?!”

I understand that there are some players who relish in getting crushed and see it as a challenge, but I guarantee you that most people you will be introducing the game to will not be like this at all. In fact, even something as simple as not grasping the rules is often reason enough for most people to walk away from learning a game. So imagine what it would be like if you are struggling to grasp the rules and getting destroyed at the same time. I don’t know about you, but I probably wouldn’t be playing this game any time soon. And that is precisely what we don’t want.

If you take a moment and think about successful games or apps, they tend to share one common functionality: they have really intuitive tutorials that make it very easy to go through because each level of accomplishment is often as simple as a touch or a swipe on your screen. In other words, they make it fun for someone to pick up the basics so that they can easily transition into the more advanced features later on.

In the same spirit, I strongly believe that go should be taught in the same manner. People respond well when they feel like they are accomplishing something or doing well at something. As a result, it is critical that they are given as many opportunities as possible to feel that way. By doing so, you will improve the chances that they will actually remember how to play the game the next day and maybe even share it with others one day.

My Basic Curriculum for Brand New Players

Of course, some of you are wondering how I introduce new players to the game. While I’m still working out the kinks and plan to eventually release a detailed curriculum, here’s the general outline:

  1. Start with the absolute basics of the game. Use other games that most people are familiar with to start differentiating the most basic rules of go. For example, in chess and checkers, you place pieces in the square. In go, we put the pieces on the intersections.
  2. Explain the concept of liberties and give them plenty of opportunity of practice for counting the liberties of stones. This is a really easy way to give them opportunities for accomplishing things and feeling like they are making progress.
  3. If time permits, I give them practice scenarios for capturing stones to further reinforce the idea of liberties and capturing. So you would make a shape with your stones and surround it except for it’s last liberty, and then have the person play the correct move to capture the group.
  4. We play a couple games of first capture on a 9x9 board. (1) I refrain from using any tesujis and constantly leave weaknesses open for the new player to spot. (2) I constantly let them undo and encourage it in fact. (3) My goal is not to win, but to give them continuous opportunities to practice and reinforce what we just learned.
  5. If they are still interested in taking the next step in learning about go, then that’s when I explain the concept of territory and its importance in determining how one wins or loses in go. People often have trouble understanding this part, but I make the analogy of war and two parties coming to sign a peace treaty and they usually understand.
  6. Finally, I give them either 6–9 stones handicap (on a 9x9 board) depending on how fast they grasped the other concepts and play with them. Yes, the handicap is ridiculous, but it doesn’t matter because I’m not trying to win. I simply want them to play. If they are playing and spending more time on the game, I’m accomplished my goal.
    And just to reiterate from Principle #2, I avoid all the exceptions to the rules (like ko, suicide, etc.) and nuances unless the player asks me about it or it naturally occurs in a game. But for the most part, I avoid letting situations like ko arise for the sheer fact that I want the player spending as much time soaking up and reinforcing the basic rules of go as long as I possibly can.

Other Advice from My Experience

  1. Don’t kill any big groups. If you’re playing a 9x9 board game and you notice that a group only has one eye, don’t try to kill it. In fact, you should actually try to play in a way that makes him live without him realizing it.
  2. If the score is going to end up in the negative points, you better be the one with the negative score. As an experienced go player, you should not take any pleasure in crushing a new player and leaving them with negative points. In fact, you should feel ashamed if you let the game become that way. If anyone should have negative points, let it be you.
  3. Even if a group only has one eye at the end of the game (9x9), I just let it live and count the points. This is probably hard for a lot of players to do, but I honestly see no value in pointing out that their group is dead. New players won’t know that you let it slide and it prevents them from feeling like they suffered a humiliating defeat. And to be honest, once you’re done showing how the game ends and score is counted, you are usually moving on to the next game. So what’s the point?
    So to end this long rant, at the end of the day, you have to remember this key fact: people have no obligation to learn, play, or even remember what the game of go is. It doesn’t matter if they never get ranked or never play on a 19x19 board. If you can get them to remember what the game is and vaguely how to play it, you’ve already done an immense service to the go community. And maybe, just maybe, one day we will live in a world where people will stop coming up to me and ask if I’m playing othello.