why play Go


“While the Baroque rules of Chess could only have been created by humans, the rules of Go are so elegant, organic, and rigorously logical that if intelligent life forms exist elsewhere in the universe, they almost certainly play Go.”

Edward Lasker – International Chess Grandmaster.


Go is the world’s oldest game, still played in its original form. Go is not something that was invented or created. Its not like a modern game, intentionally developed and produced with the aim of making money for a company or the designers.

Go is a social, psychological and cultural artifact that has come down to us, transmitted across millennia in an unchanged form. Indeed, its origins are long gone and now exist shrouded only in myth and conjecture. One such story is that Go was ‘invented’ by a Chinese Emperor who wanted to ensure that his wayward son would develop the capacity to lead the Empire, but like many founding myths, this is a fable, a tale to be told by the fireside.

Some see Go as rooted in the philosophy of Taoism – best known in the West through the figure of the Yin-Yang symbol, that illustrates the shifting flow of the Tao and that fact that at its maximum concentration, each force contains the seed of its opposite.

In this account, the grid of 19 x 19 lines together with the four corners of the board account for the three hundred and sixty-five days of the year. The black and white stones placed in exactly equal numbers represent the flow of the Tao. Thus, it has been argued that Go emerged from a method of divination, casting stones across the grid as a means of foretelling the future, a bit like reading patterns of leaves in a teacup.

Chinese Go Players

However, for me, as a 20th Century Go student, my philosophical understanding rests in quantum field theory and information theory.

It has been said, and repeated many times, that there are more possibilities in a game of Go than there are atoms in the universe. Many people scoff at this and say how can this possibly be? Let’s just take a moment to consider the maths.

There are three hundred and sixty-one points on a Go board and at the start of the game, Black has to select one of them. The odds on any single point being chosen are therefore 1 in 361.

Then it is White’s turn. White, by contrast, only has 360 available points to choose from as Black already occupies one intersection. The odds on any single combination of these two stones appearing is therefore three hundred and sixty-one, multiplied by three hundred and sixty. This is equal to 1 in 129,960.

Its now Black’s turn again and she must choose from one of the 359 available points. The chance of any combination of these three points re-occurring is: 1 in (361 x 360 x 359) 46,655,640 (that’s forty six million, six hundred and fifty five thousand and six hundred and forty!). We now have three stones on the board!

To calculate the total number, we have to raise 361 to the power of 360 as in 361360 (In actual fact, due to board symmetry this number is closer to 10^172) but my calculator simply doesn’t have enough digits. Just trust the fact that there are more possible plays on a Go board than there are atoms in the universe!

Ok I get that the fact that although the maths is true, in reality stones in certain positions are more advantageous than others. As a result, most players past the initial ‘learn the game’ stage, begin to reject large numbers of these options as unattractive, disadvantageous, or simply unplayable.

Despite this caveat, the maths still holds Not only that, but we also start to brush up against a branch of physics and mathematics known as information theory. In a nutshell (a very small simplified one…) Information Theory states that information is created when a system chooses or selects between alternative states. In the simplest example: a coin in your hand represents two alternative stable possibilities – a head or a tail. Only when you toss the coin and examine the outcome of the fall is information generated. This principle is at the heart of all computer science, as the direct electronic analogue of the coin is an electrical circuit that can either be open or closed and so is able to represent a 0 or a 1 in binary code.

Indeed, there are now many theorists who believe that at the very foundation of our physical universe there is nothing more than information. Flowing fields of potential, that in shifting between alternate states, give rise to atoms, molecules, stars, galaxies, planets and us…

So how does all this relate to Go?

At the start of a game, the grid represents this field of infinite possibility (…remember more atoms than the universe). Then the Black player, selects one actuality out of the myriad of alternatives and places a stone to mark the decision. In doing so, the player creates and increases information. The White player then incorporates this new information into their own model of multiple, alternate outcomes and after a period of deliberation, also takes a decision and marks it with a stone.

This rhythm of the players placing stones to record their decisions has two effects: 1) Each stone increases the amount of information available to both players turn-by-turn and 2) this incrementally unfolding information reduces the level of uncertainty (possibility) to the point at which, by the end of the game, there are no other alternative narratives left, all possibilities have been exhausted and the game ends.

Two conscious minds, armed with a simple grid and a few black and white stones, that could easily be gathered from a beach, have built a model of the universe: from void, through singularity to complexity. This is why I believe everyone should play Go – It is indeed like putting you hand on the third rail of the universe!