Encountering My First Chess Advocate


Today at work I was talking to my co-worker and was scoffed at when he found out I played go.
“Who plays go?!” he exclaimed.
I tried to then jump into a mini-speech on its complexity; but he shut me down pretty quickly by dismissing me and saying that chess was much more complex and the only reason why go is as “mysterious” as it seems to be is because it essentially hasn’t had the same exposure here in the Western world. And given enough time, it would be clear that chess was clearly the harder game.
To be honest, I was rather baffled and shocked. I had encountered my fair share of chess vs go arguments, but this was the first time I’d encountered it in person (and with such vigor as well). Sadly I was too shaken by the encounter to really try and convince him otherwise. (To give some context, he is very intelligent and is extremely knowledgeable about a lot of things. So in other words, I wasn’t going to win him over with any sort of uplifting speech about go.)
As I sit here thinking about it, I do want to write about my personal take on the chess vs go debate and why I chose go; but that is for another time. For now, what I will say is that I think that trying to argue that one is superior over another is like saying one is better off learning one instrument over another. You can spend all day arguing over minutiae of how one instrument might give better coordination than another; but what really matters at the end of the day is as simple as which one gives you real joy. And if you have that, that is enough to make one thing better for you than another.
Just my two cents.

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<span class="dsq-postid" data-dsqidentifier="5984 http://bengozen.com//?p=5984">38 comments</span>

  • Yeah, arguing which one is “better” seems dumb (since that is subjective), but it’s a mathematical fact that go is more complex. I’m guessing you already know this, but chess has a state-space complexity of 47 while go is 171 (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Game_complexity). That’s a humongous difference, and if your friend is indeed reasonable, that should be enough to convince him.

    • So the counter-argument to the number of variations is that it doesn’t necessarily equate to greater complexity. Instead, the argument focuses on the varying weight of the pieces along with the dynamic interaction between each move.
      Now granted, I think I could probably rant about the various differences; but for me it’s more of a philosophical venture at the end of the day regardless. Go has a more spiritual component to it that I connect with more.
      It’s just sad that people are always trying to establish some sort of superiority between the two. Sigh.

      • Yeah, that’s a valid counter-argument. However, the difference in complexity is so vast that it simply can’t be ignored. Furthermore, there’s no reason to think that chess is in fact more complex. Also, in practice programming AI for go has been more difficult than chess. And that’s not merely because people have been working on chess for longer. By now, AI has progressed so much since DeepBlue was developed that you could easily program very strong go AI simply by applying the same algorithms, *if in fact go is less complex than chess.* The fact that go has proved to be a much more difficult problem for programmers is, for me, the main reason why go is more complex not just mathematically but practically as well.
        I think I understand the “spiritual component” you speak of, though. Chess seems to be based on an outdated, medieval way of thinking, while go is based on Taoism, which is not as “outdated.”

        • Agreed. Ah well, perhaps one day he will become a convert like many other great chess players out there. After all, this type of vigor can lead to a big switch in perspective if enough factors tip him over the edge. Haha. Only time will tell!

        • One thing I hope for is that Go loses the ‘Eastern mysticism’ and ‘traditionalist’ ,angle. It can well stand on its own, post-feudal era.

      • For humans, I can see people arguing that the different pieces and their interactions make chess more complex. Go’s rules and basic intuition can be simpler.
        From a computational standpoint, there’s no contest of course. The number of possible moves doesn’t guarantee complexity if most of the variations are obviously bad (then the number of moves to consider would go down a lot). However, the reverse is the case with go, especially compared to chess. The problem with go for computers is that the computer has a lot of possibly good moves (many more than chess) and no good way to evaluate the position after playing one (chess has some pretty easy heuristics). So there are more branches, and it’s even harder to evaluate each branch. So it’s not like there’s a tradeoff that would make it a hard call which is more complex. For example, if chess had fewer variations but branches were harder to evaluate, then it would be more difficult to call one game more complex, but go is more complex in both criteria.
        Moving away from math and to my opinions, I would suggest that complicated rules are a count against a game (it wasn’t interesting enough before artificial complexity was added), while having only basic rules is more elegant game design. I like go because it achieves greater computational complexity while starting from simpler rules. In comparison, chess achieves less complexity despite having more convoluted rules.

        • I completely agree with your sentiments. There is something intricately beautiful and elegant about how complex that game of go is when you consider how simple the rules are.

        • The key is indeed in that the rules themselves are essentially drop-dead simple: but also that the emergent tactical and strategic considerations move FAR beyond that underlying rule-based simplicity.
          Chess simply cannot compare. It was _made_ more complex long ago, simply to ‘jazz it up’, AFAIC.

    • There’s no way chess is more complex. But that’s overall — not in the particulars of tactical play: with 6 very different pieces, of different (fixed) number, to consider.

      • I think at the time my co-worker was speaking more in terms of the complexities of individual pieces. After thinking about it for some time, I realized that people who haven’t played go don’t realize that the complexity with go does not lie in single pieces; but the overarching connections and dynamic value that changes as the game progresses.

  • Go gives us the responsibility of generals. Go has more battleground to decide on broader strategies. Go has less imposed structure for more creativity. Go shows a person’s personality more fully. Go has tradition around it, not in it or of itself. Go has whole board concepts and also small plane tactics. Go has history, long history. Go brings us back in time to the thoughts of old. Go in itself is discipline. Go is growth. Go leads us towards a finer living. Go is a friend. Go teaches us how to think, how to behave, how to respond. Go teaches us there is perfection which we cannot reach, but can try. Go teaches us to imitate, to befriend, to love. Go shows a different side of The story. But Go is only a beginning. Just like all beginnings there is an end. An end we must strive for.

  • Chess is a very interesting game of tactics.
    Go is a very interesting game of strategy, that includes several very interesting, inter-related and ever-varying, sub-games of tactics…
    Another way to look at it is, on the scale of a human mind a game of chess can be reduced to a somewhat-complex, but linear set of possibilities.
    Go, on the other hand is so vast in its inherent complexity that, again on the human-mind scale, it is effectively truly complex.
    One can approach go like a fractal, and understand its general properties and tendencies, but it defies any attempt at exhaustive analysis.
    Unlike chess, which lends itself to shear analytical genius, it is those who learn best to use loose pattern recognition, which is so key to real intelligence, to limit the incredible depth of possible inquiry that excel in go.

    • Bravo gekkoe. That is brilliantly written. It’ll definitely serve as the basis for a post I’ll be writing in response to some criticisms from a Twitter user. Thank you for sharing your valuable insight!

  • I’m reminded of Star Trek v Star Wars debates. I have a favorite but I enjoy both and harbor no ill will against the other side.
    Honestly, I will say that while Go is more complex, I think we want to avoid overreactions to the point where some go advocates say that go is a test of “true” intelligence. Intelligence is a strange thing that doesn’t play out in solely one arena, and Go is primarily a game of skill (although more intelligent people are probably likely to do better at go, holding constant for skill).
    I take mental breaks to play chess from time to time – and a lot of chess players have said that go benefits them as well.
    Having said that, your coworker sounds like the kind of person who’s proud of the shirts he buys.

    • You make an excellent point. It’s certainly not a matter of which game is more representative of “intelligence.” After all, if that were truly the case, all the human race would need to do is solve that one game and boom technological revolution.
      He certainly is one who does not easily back down from his opinions, but he actually did come back the next day to put the discussion more on a balanced level as opposed to the initial dismissal of go he initially had. So that’s a good thing!

  • Hi, Master – An interesting topic! Having experienced both games and considered this question many time through the years I have some thoughts but will need to gather them, first. Obviously it is quite a subjective – but fun – discussion.
    I suppose the most reliable answers would come from someone who has achieved at least some basic expertise at both games – perhaps chess = 2000+ Elo, Go = Shodan. Alas, I qualify only on the former. A chess player who does so qualify is Tiger Persson who is 2500 Elo and just hit Dan level in Go – Here is his Blog – http://tiger.bagofcats.net/go/

    • Fascinating! I had no idea there was a blog that existed out there like this. That is really awesome to see a chess player make it to 1 dan and have good things to say about go. I can only imagine that a go player would benefit from studying tactics from chess as well (similar to how he recommended chess players study go).
      I’m hoping to come out with a series of posts on this discussion in a manner that allows for an objective comparison between the two games; and to honestly put to rest this whole notion of “X game is better.”

  • I wonder if he was having the same thoughts wrt. “Encountering the first Go advocate.”
    I think that in general, the argument that chess or Go is “more complex” is really meaningless. Its like arguing which ocean is deeper – Atlantic or Pacific. You can drown in both, so what does it matter for your surfing trip?
    Same in Go vs. chess – both games are too complex for human mind to fully comprehand, and both can stretch any player to the limits. Arguing that one is more complex than the other, other than in purely academic sense, is basically an attack on one of the games, and its players. At least – it is often perceived as such, even when it is not intended. It is certainly implied, its like saying: see, Go/chess is more complex, therefore it is better and you should play Go/chess instead.
    What’s the point?
    If the guy is happy with chess, and you are happy with Go, why try so hard to convince him?

    • Hahaha. I like that analogy of the surfing trip!
      To clarify, I wasn’t trying to convince him that go was better. We happened to be talking about strategy games and I mentioned I played go. So then he went, “Who the heck plays go?” Hence the conversation that inspired this post. Haha.

  • I am writing a Go playing engine (Iomrascalai). The difference from a computational standpoint is this: Go doesn’t have as many tactical traps (moves that look good at search depth x, but are actually horrible at x+1), so good “shape” moves are usually good ideas 90% of the time. Humans are actually able to comprehend Go more easily than Chess, because of its additive nature (with the exception of ishi no shita patterns). Furthermore, 9×9 Go already has engines that are same strength as professionals.
    But of course, Go is played on a 19×19 board, which makes it much more difficult for both humans and computers alike. I haven’t even tested my engine on a 19×19 because it wouldn’t even beat GnuGo even once out of 100 games.
    But the most convincing is I think the difference between club players and professionals. Go has a lot more ELO rating difference between average players and professionals because there is more to learn in Go than in Chess.

    • The difference between regular players and professionals is certainly a large gap. And I think another point worth considering is that even professionals are constantly coming up with new moves and invalidating what was once thought to be good. So that makes it even harder to “master” the game.

  • Well, some people aren’t exactly trying to have a discussion so I doubt this guy was interested in being convinced… however the onus of proof would be on him to ‘disprove’ Go. Also, in Japan of course Go and Chess (Shogi – an arguably more complex version of Chess than western Chess you’re probably already aware of) have co-existed for a long time, neither one showing itself to be clearly superior. That fact alone is in my opinion a better proof of their equality than any simplistic combinatorics arguments.

    • That’s true. I myself have not studied deeply into shogi yet, but do understand the basic rules of the game and certainly see its additional complexity in comparison to Western Chess.
      And to your point, I think you’re right in that he wasn’t necessarily asking to be convinced of go; but just to be clear, I wasn’t necessarily trying to convince him of it either. If anything, I think my intention was just to not have Go looked down upon (if that makes any sense).

      • Nothing wrong with sticking up for Go! Also, what I was mainly wanting to say was Go and Shogi being around in Japan sort of disproves that guy’s argument about levels of exposure. btw Chess or Go? – I prefer Go because I like it more. In a way it would be nice to prefer Chess since more people I know would be impressed but I just can’t get obsessed with Chess in the same way (though I like doing chess tactics problems).

        • I prefer go over chess. For me it’s about the spiritual pursuit and how it’s far more strategic than chess. I also enjoy doing the chess tactics problems as well. I am hoping to do more in the future to also improve my go abilities in conjunction.
          Do you play online?

          • Hi, I play on DGS mainly at the moment- I’m 6k on there (I really need to get round to playing on a real time server again – kgs). My username is hughjfan in case you’re interested in a game.

          • I’ve added you on DGS. Let me know if you’re ever up for a game and you can choose whatever settings you’d like!

  • Are you still with us, Master? Studying hard and coming back as 7d? 🙂 I recall Bobby Fischer’s ‘suddenly I got good’ comment when he went from ELO 2103 in July 1957 to 2722 in December 1957. I think that would be equivalent to going from 1d-2d to 7p-8p (chess ratings have inflated apx 200 points in the past 40 years according to some studies).
    I have a Go question for you also, please: Has any study been done of something like this: Given a fully enclosed area of ‘x’ empty points – in which areas can the opposing player build a live group? It would seem a computer could do this up to perhaps 20-25 points in any regular or irregular shape fairly easily?

    • Still here Molokai! Just busy off in code world and training myself in other disciplines. It certainly would be fantastic if my training pays off in go as well; but I won’t hold my breath! Haha.
      Interesting question! I believe the basic answer to your question is best represented by trying to live in the corner of the board. Generally speaking, the 3-3 is the guaranteed invasion that will allow life. Beyond that, there are probably some extraneous scenarios where life by ko is possible; but otherwise I imagine it’s not possible. Just my small two cents though.

  • It seems the chinese go proverb, “two siblings shouldn’t fight for the same road”, and, “winning all the battles can lose the war” are constantly violated in this debate!
    Two can either beg for the crumbs and put the other down in order to be given more (“Who the heck plays X!”, “A is OBVIOUSLY superior to B”) or work together (World mind Games).

By BenGoZen