A Brief History of Go

The origins of go are shrouded in the mists of ancient Chinese history, but the game is thought to have originated at least 2500 - 4000 years ago. It is the oldest game still played in its original form.

Some say that the board, with ten points out from the center in all directions, may have originally served as a forerunner to the abacus. Others think it may have been a fortune-telling device, with black and white stones representing yin and yang. A prominent legend holds that the sage-king Yao created the game to teach his rebellious son discipline.

By 400-300 B.C., Chinese scholars such as Confucius were writing about wei-chi (a Chinese name for the game) to illustrate correct thinking about filial piety and human nature. By the 1600's it had become one of the "Four Accomplishments" (along with calligraphy, painting, and playing the lute) that must be mastered by the Chinese gentleman. This kind of sanctified thinking about the game has inspired people to play for millennia.

Wei-chi, also written as wei-ch'i or weiqi, entered Korean and Japanese culture through trade and other contact between countries in the first millennium A.D. In ancient Chinese art, noblemen (and noblewomen!) can occasionally be found playing go.

Japan's Four Go Schools

We know that go was present in Japan at least since 1000 A.D., since it figures peripherally in Murasaki's The Tale of Genji, but it took a giant leap forward there in the 1600s. When the warlord Tokugawa unified Japan in 1602, he decreed that four schools of go would be established.

Each year representatives of the schools would play in a "Castle Game" series, and the winner would hold the Cabinet-level position of go-doroko (Minister of Go) for the following year. This system raised go to a new level of skill and popularity.

With the Meiji restoration in the late 1800s, go fell into a period of relative decline in Japan, but it was brought back to life in the 1920s with the formation of the Japan Go Association. Newspapers began to sponsor tournaments, a professional system was established, and today there are more than a dozen major titles, with columns and game analysis every day in the major newspapers. Top Japanese go players are major celebrities.

Chinese Revival

The long, rich story of Chinese go is well covered in John Fairbairn's web page on Go in Ancient China. During the Cultural Revolution, go was discouraged as a "bourgeois pastime," and players had to meet in secret.

In 1978 a modern professional system was established, and a few years later began the Japan-China Super Go Series, an annual event where each country's top players faced off in a knockout format. Japan dominated this competition, but in more recent international tournaments Chinese players have shown themselves to be among the best in the world.

Korean Pro System

The Korean professional system was established in the 1950s, when Cho Nam-chul returned from professional training in Japan. Today go (baduk in Korean) is more popular in Korea than anywhere else in the world. It is estimated that from five to ten percent of the population plays regularly.

As in Japan, there are many newspaper-sponsored tournaments with a large, devoted following. In recent years, some of the top Korean players have scored impressive victories in international competition. Today there is little doubt that some of the world's strongest players live and play in Korea.

The Modern Era of International Go

As recently as the 1970s, formal games between go masters from different countries were practically unheard of. The years since then have seen a historic proliferation of international championships, where the great players from Japan, China, Korea and elsewhere compete to be seen as the world's best player. The World Ing Cup, a quadrennial event with $1 million in prizes, tops the list. Annual events include the Fujitsu Cup and the Samsung Cup.

Other world championships on the amateur level include the World Amateur Go Championship, sponsored by the International Go Federation; the World Youth Goe Championship, sponsored by the Taipei-based Ing Goe Educational Foundation; the IGF-sponsored World Women's Championship; and the World Pairs Go Championship for male-female teams, sponsored by the La-La-La Go Club in Japan. The American Go Association selects U.S. representatives for these events.

Go in America

The earliest go players in North America were probably Chinese workers toiling on the transcontinental railroad in the mid-1800s, but if so the game did not attract notice outside the Chinese-American community.

Go first came to the attention of Westerners in the early 1900s when a group of German mathematicians and game players stumbled upon it, including Otto Korschelt and Edward Lasker, a cousin of the legendary chess legend Emanuel Lasker and himself a well-known top player. With Lee Hartmann (editor of Harper's magazine) and a few others, Lasker formed the American Go Association in New York in 1937.

Today, with over 2000 members, the American Go Association remains a small, tight-knit national community that generally greets a new player as a long-lost member of the family. With over 100 chapters, we may have one near you. If not, learn how to start your own club. There are many benefits of AGA membership, so join today!

To learn more about the fascinating cultural and historical aspects of go, visit The Bob High Memorial Library.

Many thanks to Peter Shotwell for his assistance in preparing this page.