March 26, 2007 Volume 8, #26 - Getting Started

This is the start of a series presenting my road map from absolute beginner to 15 kyu. This road covers a fair distance, and I know you are already at various stages along the way. I'm starting at the very beginning, but I encourage you all to start reading now, wherever you are on the road. In addition to the value of looking backward, a clearer picture of the distance you've covered can help you understand the road ahead.

Those of you just starting out, let me welcome you to the community of go players. You've begun a wonderful journey exploring the most fascinating, challenging, and, sometimes, maddening game. One of the names for go in Asia is 'rotted axe', from the old tale in which a woodsman encountered two sages playing go in the forest. When he stopped watching them play and turned to pick up his axe he found the handle had rotted. You may not have seen this fascination for yourself yet, but you will.

You may have already found that the go community does not seem to give you as much help as you would like to travel this road. But it is easier now than it was when I learned the game, and I'll help you with my road map. You won't get stronger from reading the column, but you will learn what to do to become stronger.

If you're finding go difficult, don't worry. It's not you, it's the game: go is simply difficult. Ask any strong player. Even if you're good at other games, you will find go difficult at first Other games progress by moving pieces from one place to another. In go the pieces do not move, and the game progresses by growth, not displacement. As a complete beginner you can't see the fundamental patterns the stones make, seeing each stone as an individual object, instead of groups (connected stones) and positions (mutually supporting stones). Your first step is to learn to see in this way.

The good news is that you don't have to do anything special. Your brain learns this automatically. The bad news is that you can't do anything to speed it up. It takes as long as it takes. The only thing you can do is play. The more you play the less time it takes.

Use your playing time to play more fast games. In fact, it isn't even necessary to play go; you can play a subgame of go called the capture game. The rules of play are identical except that the winner is the first player to capture a stone. You can also play on a small board, 9x9 or 13x13. Small board games or the capture game are fun and they're not as frustrating because you're not as handicapped by lack of understanding as you are on the full board. Just play.

When you play, spend your time making sure you know which stones are connected and form a group and which are not. On top of that use any rules of thumb you may have been taught. But don't worry too much about strategy or even tactics. It's too early for that.

Although you're just starting out, don't be shy about asking others to play. Other new players are anxious to play too, and more experienced players were newbies once, just like you. When you ask, ask for a short game; it's reasonable to ask for 10 minutes of their time to play a 9x9, but it's not reasonable to ask them to spend an hour playing. If you play an experienced player, expect to lose and don't worry about it. Don't ask for any advice or comments on the game at this point, just say, "Thank you, I appreciate your playing me" and then ask someone else and lose again. For the experienced players out there, remember your obligation to repay your debt to those who helped you get where you are and invest 10 minutes of your time in a new go player.

Follow this program for the next 30 days. Next month I'll map out the next stretch of the road. Kerwin, a longtime go teacher, is a regular contributor to the E-Journal and American Go Yearbook. If you have questions on the material in this column, or on how to get stronger, email him at