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 9×9 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 9×9 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 9×9 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 9×9 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 (9×9), 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 19×19 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.

  • MolokaiCowboy

    This is a nice piece, Ben; obviously well thought-out. Of course I can’t comment much on teaching go since I don’t know how to play myself, ha! I think the 9 x 9 board is the equivalent of the way I taught chess – endgames – because they are something of a microcosm of the entire game that’s digestible fro newbies.

    As far as expanding the game’s base, at least in the West: Its a bit of a tough sell since chess is still quite popular and pretty much ingrained in popular culture. With go the ‘movement’ is internal, whereas in chess it is more (but not all) external. The stasis of placing a piece and never moving it is some alien to the Western mind, whereas the ‘violence’ of chess ‘feels’ more natural (think American football!). I’ve also read chess appeals to an artistic mind; go to a mathematical mind. Not too sure although that ‘seems’ to have some truth it, in my experience. The fact that computer go is not ‘yet’ as strong as computer chess would be a plus.

    When I hit the lottery I’ll hold a big go match in the US to promote the game. I think Lee Sedol-Bengozen would draw large crowds. 😉

    • Ben

      Absolutely. “Creating a microcosm of the entire game that’s digestible for newbies” is definitely a great way of phrasing it.

      You bring up excellent points about obstacles to go becoming popular in the West, but they are just obstacles! With the right vision, maybe one day it will become a reality. At the bare minimum, one can always try right? Haha.

      Lee Sedol-Bengozen? Haha. If I ever got a chance to play Lee Sedol, I think that would be a dream come true!

  • Arthur Yeh

    i agree with all of this :) great post man.

    it’s so easy to forget what it’s like to view go as just a “casual game” sometimes when you’ve spent so much time and effort studying it. i also think the piece about not caring at all about winning and letting dead groups still count as “alive” in counting is great advice for a lot of teachers. people often let their pride get in the way and lose sight of what they’re trying to achieve.

    • Ben

      Thanks Arthur! I’m really glad to hear that I’m not completely crazy in my stance on how go should be “taught.” Letting go of our pride as go players is definitely a big piece to properly introducing new people to the game. Here’s to hoping more people can understand this and apply it themselves!

  • weiqiplayer

    Hi Ben,

    that’s a great post and you are absolutely right: to get people to know GO you have to use basic teaching-techniques. From known to unknown, from easy to hard, from simple to complex. The (basic) rules of GO are so simple. It should be easy for people to get hooked to it. BUT it’s a lot easier for us to drive them away by forgetting that they should have FUN (= feeling unbeaten now) in the first place.

    Thank’s for your basic guidelines about how to “fish” for new GO-players. It’s funny how it always comes back to “know your basics” again and again – in GO and in social behaviour.

    I now see my mistakes of the past more clearly. Thanks for that!

    • Ben

      You’re welcome! I know that it’s not always the most intuitive which is why I thought it would be great if I actually wrote something on it to give people some sort of guidelines as to the social and psychological principles that I’ve encountered. Glad that it was helpful!

  • Moboy78

    I’d be happy if someone thought I was playing othello. I just want them to stop trying to eat the go stones because “they look like M&M’s”. =P

    • Ben

      Hahaha. That would be hilarious!

    • asdfhh

      Oh god I hear that M&M’s comment from literally *every* person unfamiliar with go who sees me playing. I think I might go insane.

      • Ben

        Wait you’ve actually encountered this in real life before?

  • Tomer

    Great post! I’ll take your advice to heart.

    One idea I’ve heard of (which I haven’t tried yet) is to introduce the capture rule and then simply say that the person who wins is the one with the most stones on the board + captures when the board is full. This first of all would avoid explaining about area/territory which I’ve found can be quite unintuitive. Secondally it (should) quite naturally introduce the idea of 2 eyes as when a player goes to fill one his remaining eyes he’ll realise that his opponent will be able to capture all his stones by playing in the remaining eye. Thirdly as every dead stone would have to eventually be captured there would be no need to explain dead/living groups.

    I’d love to hear your thoughts since this idea seemed quite good to me, even if it may be a little convoluted.

    • Ben

      That’s another variant that I’ve yet to try out yet, but I do love the idea since it gets people excited with the idea of capturing stones and visibly seeing how they’re doing. It’s something I’ll be sure to add to the list of things to enhance the curriculum. Thanks for the great suggestion!

  • Sphaso

    Hi Ben, another fantastic read, thank you!
    I’ve only taught very few people (3, 4?) and unfortunately no one liked it enough :( Your post gives me food for thought in case I get the chance to teach another one.
    If online, I usually direct them to “The interactive way to Go”, it’s such a great website and so intuitive. It explains absolutely everything regarding the rules. I had only one person who didn’t make it through, I guess she simply didn’t like it. That’s unfortunate but understandable.
    You say you shouldn’t teach all the rules at once. This is interesting. What if in your first game a suicide happens? do you let it go? what about a ko? you tenuki and let him have it?
    I agree on not crushing your opponent. Unfortunately for some people simply losing their first game brings them to tears, they think they can beat someone who practiced for years having just learned the rules. Do you usually lose on purpose on your first games? I think this could backfire once they start learning a thing or two about Go and realize you were just playing dumb. Maybe the exagerated handicap helps.
    What about correcting simple mistakes like not protecting a cut on the second line etc. at what point do you usually start pointing that out?
    As a side note, I remember when I started out in chess (at 8 yo) and Go (as an adult) I lost my first 100 games in each, easily, unless I was playing against another beginner. This might be the key: teach in groups and have them play against each other. What do you think about this?

    • Ben

      Hey Sphaso!

      So to answer your first question, I always teach the rules if it comes up naturally in a game. For example, if they try to commit suicide, then I bring it up. However, I completely avoid ko because even regular players avoid ko situations because of the complexity of it (i.e., imagine trying to explain threats and why your opponent would need to respond to a new player. Oy vey…)

      I need to clarify this in the article in the future, but bottom line is no, you don’t try to lose on purpose. However, you should not try to win. In other words, if you see a group that’s about to die, don’t kill it. Seriously, don’t kill it. And another way to go about this is to make the handicap so ridiculous. Give them 9 stones on a 9×9 board, I assure you it’s very difficult to win. Haha.

      Don’t point out mistakes. That’s only for when they are trying to get better. Your goal is to simply have them play the game. As long as they can play and get through to the end of the game without any problem, you have succeeded. Many players will never care to get a rank or find out how good they are. They are simply happy to know how to play. Until they tell you, “I want to get better. Teach me how to do that.” Avoid pointing out mistakes as a whole.

      Actually, let me clarify something real quick. There is one “mistake” that I do tend to correct during games: which direction to atari. Often the new player will just atari from the first direction that comes to mind, but I often point out that if they atari the other direction, then they can win (this is in regards to first capture).

      If you can get a group of beginners to play against one another, that’s awesome. In fact, that would be my ideal personally. Because in the end, it’s more encouraging and fun to learn a game with someone of similar skill.

      Does that help clear some things up? If not, continue asking away and I’ll do my best to answer your questions!

      • Sphaso

        Hi Ben, you cleared a lot of my doubts! I’ll probably have the chance to teach some people at the end of this month. I’ll certainly use your method :)

        • Ben

          That’s great to hear! And if you ever discover any new tricks or ways to improve on what I outlined above, I would love to hear about it since I know that my method is far from perfect.

  • Guesulator

    As someone who has struggled over the past year explaining not only GO, but bitcoin to people, and “teaching” people all about both. I think another key point is to sort of “play it cool” in a way. Being considered an “enthusiast” makes you already seem like you need to give something a lot of time and attention to become good at it, thus, people are less likely to continue giving it that second shot BECAUSE they think it takes an enthusiast to play it (or to understand it). Even a 20k “enthusiast” knows that this is partially true, but teaching new players about outlining territory, and then “staying solid/strong” and using a lot of metaphors to explain seem to work better.

    I like to get two beginners in a room to play it and once they understand capturing and surrounding territory, the classic “ladder and net” example, and then they are off to the races. Its cool seeing their eyes light up when they solve the ladder problem. But I like to ask questions like “OH You just going to TAKE that? Thems fightin words!” Or something like “She just touched your stones, and not in a good way!”

    One of my favourite things to ask when playing GO is “Well, how does it look? What looks like yours and mine? How would you fight to keep it? What if I wanted more than I deserve? Should I be punished for it? Should you put up a fight on a stone that looks lonely in your territory?

    I will say, I’m not a fan on 9×9 in teaching games, I think 13×13 has a lot more of the “GO spirit” in it, so I like to teach on that, but one thing I try not to do is abuse cutting points TOO severly. I will cut, and tell them why I cut, but there are some BRUTAL cuts I see sometimes that I just shelf. The classic two stone third line cut is a nice way to show newbies how to “stay strong”, but cuts more severe than that I try and avoid.
    Anyway, good read, it has me thinking of ways to retool teaching the newbs! Cheers!

    • Ben

      Great point about keeping our “enthusiasm” in check since it can make the time spent on the game seem rather daunting. For me personally, I’ve used the ranking system as more of a cool trivia aspect of go to show how players of different ranks can even out the game with handicap stones so it can be challenging for both sides.

      Most of my teaching experience is usually in fairs and festivals or sorts, so it’s not as easy to get players to play one another since usually space and equipment is limited. In addition, with the time and flood of people coming in and out, the 9×9 board is really the only option since I usually want to give as many people a chance at learning as possible. But I would definitely love to see what it’s like to get two beginners in a room to test out some of your techniques as well!

      Thanks for the feedback and advice!

  • Tim Cox

    I’ve had many people walk up to me and ask what the game is called. I always wonder to myself “Do they really care?” because they never show up the next week or so forth to show their interest. After getting the answer, I am sure they forget about the game later lol

    • Ben

      Interesting. I do hope to do more random demos of the game around town when I have a chance, but most of my experience comes from volunteering at Japanese or Chinese festivals where people have a genuine interest to learn about the game whenever they stop by. I’ll be sure to update this guide when I have more experience with sitting around in random places!

  • Todd Lee Rainey

    Love the post; this is especially relevant to me, as I pretty much have to teach any people who I want to play in my area.

    I would caution a categorical avoidance of life and death; many of the people I have met and taught Go to are students, who relish the feeling of “high concept” stuff. I generally teach that “the basic point is, surround territory without getting yourself captured. Then the game gets really interesting when you involve life and death.”

    Having said that, you are right that when teaching, we shouldn’t rush to kill groups. But hopefully, they might spot that one of their groups didn’t make a second eye at the end of the game – for them to discover it without it pointed out to them is a pretty big victory, especially if the stakes of the game are very low.

    Otherwise, much of what you said is in line with the best lit we have on education; people are most motivated to learn when they get hooked on a subject, and that usually happens when there is a clear and easy point of entry. Don’t rule out a career in education! 😛

    • Ben

      Thanks Todd! I guess I need to update the guide to clarify, but it’s really meant as a skeleton for someone to follow. I’m a big believer in customizing the teaching experience to every student. However, with so many people messing up when introducing new players to go, I wrote this article to give a blanket rule for a baseline for people to build off of. I figured, if people just followed what I wrote, nothing could go wrong.

      After all, it’s hard to teach people to be able to identify when someone is ready for life and death or needs it. So at the bare minimum, people won’t mess up the majority of people they teach. But once again, I totally agree that the advanced topics should be introduced depending on the level of interest of the new player.

      Education has always been a field that I’ve had great interest in, so it’s really funny that you should bring it up. For now, channelling my passion for teaching through go seems to be the best way to bring all my interests together!

  • Daurak

    Wow, Thanks a bunch. I definitely was “teaching”, and too much information. I now remember when I first started and how it was hard for me to remember to place stones on the points of the grid, how corners and edges were awkward, and how a bunch of the other concepts were learned through practice, and not talk. Thanks so much and I am definitely going to get into “playing” go rather than “teaching”.

    • Ben

      You’re welcome! I’m glad to help clear up some things. Best of luck with everything!