Comparison and Contrast: Go versus Chess

A more objective account, or perhaps a Chess apology

Much has been said on the subject of Chess and Go, on their similarities and differences; but unfortunately, much of this has either been in the form of explicit or implicit value judgments rather than objective statements which might in actual fact be useful to the observer. Some of this can be ascribed to the general tendency among a great many (and growing) number of people to assume that East = Good and West = Evil. 1 The fact that Chess is a game of Indian origin and may have passed into the Far East as well is an interesting fact in this regard.

There are many similarities between the two games, as well as many differences. As a student of both2, I hope I have the ability to convey these in a way that does justice to both systems.

Complexity It is true that the game of Chess has fewer total legal positions (in the range of 1050) than Go (in the range of 10200), but this is largely a function of the size of the board. Go is traditionally played on a 19x19 grid, offering the players the chance to contest 361 points of territory—far more than the 64 squares of a chess board. But in the case of a 9x9 Go board (often used by beginners), the total number of legal positions is probably in the range of 1035. Were chess played on a larger board (as it is in some game variants), the number of possible games would rise accordingly. However, 1050 is a very large number, and it is as far out of the ability of a human to fathom as 10200 and should not therefore be taken as evidence that one game is “better” than the other.

Age Go is regularly touted as being 4,000 years old. It is attested in the literature as early as 1000 BC, but there is little evidence of it having existed before that. The traditional story is that it was the product of a potentially mythical ruler called Shun who reigned immediately before the Hsia dynasty (about 2200 BC). Chess is, of course, of much more recent origin. But do these facts imply that one game is “better” than the other? The remarkable thing is that, unlike Chess, Go has undergone very little change in its play; but again, this is the product of the fact that Go has remarkably simple rules. Chess, by contrast, has many rules such as en passant which can be difficult for beginners to understand. Note: despite some beliefs, Go has not remained inviolate: scoring systems have undergone some change, and there is still a fundamental gap (though mostly on a philosophical level) between Chinese and Japanese scoring.

Strategy versus Tactics There is a Go proverb which states “Chess is a battle; Go is a war.” What this means is that, since the size of the Go board (or goban) is so large, it is possible to offset a loss in one area with a gain in another. But there seems to be a general perception that Chess players are primarily concerned with tactics (using a series of “trick plays” and the like to quickly pounce on the enemy king) while Go players are more strategically minded. Go does require a broad strategic outlook, but so does Chess. Chess, to those that play almost anywhere above beginner level, involves many small battles for things that are not always tangible: influence in the center, open or half-open files for the rooks, color freedom for the bishops, etc. These are all elements that a Chess player uses to prosecute a wider war.

Chess is a wargame, Go is about peace and harmony or something. This is a load of hooey. First of all, let me say (though it is not entirely on point) that anyone who thinks the peoples of Asia have always sat around in meditation, searching for the secrets of the universe, has got to sit down and read some history. Hell, until relatively recently the Tibetans were known far more for being brigands than for being spiritually enlightened. But the truth about Go is that it has long been associated with the warrior classes and was employed in their training. The game involves using your nearly inexhaustible supply of men to build walls and seize territory. If one of your men is lost, he becomes a prisoner (just like in Chess), but in Go he is easily replaced—you just pull another stone out of your bowl. Of course, it is not in your best interest to carelessly sacrifice your stones, but there are often times when you must abandon many of them in hostile territory…

Destruction versus Creation Go begins on an empty board, while Chess starts with 32 pieces (which are gradually removed). Fine. But this does not imply that Chess involves destruction. Indeed, any moderate Chess player will tell you that Chess is a supremely creative act, for you have to reorganize the pieces you’re given in such a way as to accomplish your ultimate goal, all the while accounting for the changes in your opponent’s pieces. The manner in which you pursue this depends greatly on your personal inclinations, and much about one’s personality can be inferred from one’s approach to the challenge. A proper appreciation of a great Chess game can reveal much that is beautiful.

Handicapping One great advantage of Go is that there is a well-established, easy-to-use-and-understand handicapping system, whereby one opponent allows the other to play between one and nine stones on preset points before the game begins. This has been shown to level the playing field quite well; and in fact has been known to create situations where low-ranked players have beaten some among the elite. Chess does have its own handicapping system, which is perhaps less known to beginners, of giving “odds” (the stronger player removes a pawn or knight, for example). “Pawn and two” odds, for example, involve black giving up the f7 pawn and letting white move twice before responding.

Maybe the thing that most imbues Go with its philosophical character is the issue of “Life and Death,” where the survival of a group of stones depends largely on its own structure and the opponent’s ability to destroy it. This is quite compelling in its own way, and Chess has no close parallel. Another interesting difference is the Go’s Rule of Ko (I’m sure someone else has noded it), which prevents an endless series of repetitions. Chess’s parallel is the three-move draw rule, but the Rule of Ko can actually give rise to very interesting tactical exchanges. There is no clear parallel in Go to Chess’s stalemate which, though often equated with a draw, generally represents a moral loss for the stronger player (indeed, in some cases a player may seek to be put into stalemate to avoid a loss, and one should watch out for this).

This writeup does not do justice to either game. Both are excellent games, and will enthrall and obsess humanity for many generations to come. So let us not get bogged down in which is better, or older, or more “creative”—in the end, if you are interested, play both games yourself and make your own determination. You may find Go boring and Chess fascinating, or vice versa; you may hate them both and go for Bridge; you might love them both and become a master in each game. Don’t shut one out because it is ascendant in the West, or favor one because it rose in the East.

1The fact that this topic has pulled me out of my E2 retirement should tell you something of my disdain for the previous writeups. I do not believe either author has ever played Chess seriously.
2I have not been rated in quite some time, but I am probably in the 1700-1800 range in Chess, and probably in the range of 14 kyu in Go. The latter is a number I am working hard to improve.