Born in Berthelsdorf (Saxony, before German unification) in the mid-19th century, Oskar Korschelt had barely reached adulthood when he accepted a position as a chemistry professor at the Tokyo Medical College, later working for the Japanese government and industry.

He spent almost a decade in the land of the rising sun, enough time to develop an interest in a Chinese-origin board game in which he became quite skilled, even writing a treatise on it, and thus introducing it to the Western world. It was Go, the Japanese name for what was known in ancient China as , believed to be the oldest continuously played board game to this day.

Korschelt became so fond of that he joined the most prestigious school of the game in Japan, the Hon’inbō, founded in 1612, where the three greatest players in its history learned: Dōsaku, Shūsaku, and Jōwa, nicknamed the three kisei (sages of Go).

A game of go in 16th-century Japan, a work attributed to Kaihō Yūshō
A game of go in 16th-century Japan, a work attributed to Kaihō Yūshō. Credit: Public domain / Wikimedia Commons

The German player even played against Murase Shuho, the reigning champion, with a handicap of six stones, indicating he had become quite good for an amateur. Shuho later helped Korschelt write a series of articles on , which, when compiled, became a book.

That work was published in 1880, titled Das japanisch-chinesische Spiel Go. Ein Konkurrent des Schach (“The Japanese-Chinese Game Go. A Competitor to Chess”), in the journal Mitteilungen der Deutschen Gesellschaft für Natur und Völkerkunde Ostasiens (“Notes of the German Society for East Asian Natural and Ethnological Studies”). The book commented on a dozen master games, proposed a hundred and fifty problems, and explained various fuseki (opening patterns) and endgame strategies, similar to chess treatises, as indicated by the title; it wasn’t entirely new to Korschelt, who also collected chess problems.

In fact, over his life, he amassed tens of thousands of chess problems, and in 1928 donated this collection to the German Chess Federation, which later published it under the title 80.888 handschriftlich auf Zettel verzeichnete Schachprobleme aus der Zeit bis 1912 (“80,888 handwritten chess problems on paper slips from before 1912”). Korschelt died in 1940 without returning to Japan, but it is known that in 1924, he played a game of Go with another German enthusiast, Bruno Rüger, who became the top expert and promoter (manufacturing and selling boards, writing treatises, founding the first association and tournaments, and even teaching classes).

Portrait by the artist Tenko Ema of Kuwabara Torajirō, known as Honinbo Shusaku, alias
Portrait by the artist Tenko Ema of Kuwabara Torajirō, known as Honinbo Shusaku, alias “The Invincible,” considered the best Go player of the 19th century and one of the three historical kisei (sages of Go). Credit: Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

By then, Go had gained more interest in the Western world, where, by the way, there have been literary mentions of the game since the 16th century, perhaps brought over by the Japanese embassies Tenshō and Keichō to Spain (the first to seek Pope Gregory XIII’s aid against the religious persecution of Christians in their land, the second to establish trade relations with Philip III). In any case, by the 20th century, there were amateur players, especially in the Austro-Hungarian and German Empires due to Korschelt’s influence.

From there, the game spread to other places. German chess masters Edward Lasker and Emanuel Lasker (not known to be related), along with champion Max Lange, were so fascinated by Go that they even planned a trip to Tokyo to learn it firsthand. The outbreak of World War I prevented this, but Edward later visited the U.S., introducing the game there and founding the New York Go Club in 1935 and the American Go Association (two years later, he founded the German association).

Now, as we mentioned, Go (or igo) is what the Japanese called it, coming to Japan around the 6th century (and also to Korea, where it evolved into a variant known as sunjang baduk, which became the most common form from the 16th century). It became one of their favorite board games, alongside backgammon and gambling. Although it was played in monasteries earlier, its popularization seems to have occurred when Kibi no Makibi, an aristocrat sent by the emperor’s daughter to bring back the best elements of Tang culture, brought qí from China.

Painting from the Astana tombs showing a Chinese woman from the Tang Dynasty playing go
Painting from the Astana tombs showing a Chinese woman from the Tang Dynasty playing go. Credit: Public domain / Wikimedia Commons

The court grew fond of it from the 8th century, but it took until the 13th for it to gain popularity among the common people. However, by 1603, it had garnered enough interest that Japan’s unifier, Tokugawa Ieyasu, appointed a godokoro or Go minister: the Buddhist monk Nikkai, who was the most skilled and founded the Hon’inbō school mentioned earlier. Other schools—Yasui, Inoue, and Hayashi—were also established, elevating the players’ skill level and creating ranking systems (kyu and dan), similar to colored belts in martial arts. Students faced off in an annual tournament at the imperial palace, overseen by the shogun.

For the Chinese, was much more than a game, as it was part of the Four Traditional Arts children had to learn from the Han dynasty onward, as recorded by historian and artist Zhang Yanyuan in his work Fashu Yaolu (“Compendium of Calligraphy”) in the 9th century during the Tang dynasty. The other three arts were qín (music played with a guqin, a type of zither), huà (drawing in a single ink on silk or rice paper demonstrating artistic skill), and shū (calligraphy, but not the standard kind; it was a more personalized style considered a sign of individual thought).

The art that concerns us here is , now called weiqí (meaning something like “encircling game”), conceived as a method to learn discipline and balance. This was because, according to tradition, Emperor Yao tasked his advisor Shun with reeducating his son and heir, Prince Danzhu, who, like his brothers, was irresponsible. Shun’s solution was to invent qí, although it didn’t seem to work well; it didn’t matter much to Shun because he eventually became the successor. This allegedly happened during the third millennium B.C., in the Period of the Three August Ones and Three Emperors, where history blurs with legend.

A modern game of Go
A modern game of Go. Credit: Loïc Lefebvre / Wikimedia Commons

This isn’t the only hypothesis regarding qí’s origin. Another ties it to the military realm, based on the idea that, during pre-battle meetings, Chinese military leaders and warlords used stones of different colors to represent their positions and explain tactics by moving them on a map. A third, harder to prove, suggests that before becoming a game, it was used as a system of divination for predicting future fortunes.

Whatever the case, it’s an ancient game. The earliest written references to it date back to the 6th century B.C., indicating over two and a half millennia: the Zuo Zhan or “Zuo’s Commentary”, a historical chronicle attributed to Zuo Qiuming, a writer from the State of Lu (Spring and Autumn Period); the Analects (a collection of Confucius’ teachings compiled by his disciples); and a couple of books by Mencius (or Mengzi, a Confucian philosopher from the Warring States Period).

All refer to a game called yi, which in its early form wasn’t exactly the same because it was played on a smaller grid, 17 by 17 squares instead of today’s 19 by 19 adopted during the Tang dynasty (7th to 10th centuries A.D.). Qí evolved from its uncertain beginnings into the favorite game of the nobility, while the common folk preferred xiangqi, likely a version of the Indian chaturanga (from which chess also descended). The earliest mention of xiangqi—in the Shuo Yan, 1st century B.C.—says it was the favorite game of Lord Mengchang of Qi.

Position A shows the four freedoms of a black checker. In B, C and D we see how the white checkers surround it to eliminate it if they manage to occupy the last remaining liberty (1). The same could happen if instead of a black checker there were two together
Position A shows the four freedoms of a black checker. In B, C and D we see how the white checkers surround it to eliminate it if they manage to occupy the last remaining liberty (1). The same could happen if instead of a black checker there were two together. Credit: Scsc / Wikimedia Commons

At this point, many might be wondering how to play (or Go, the more common name in the West). Well, on a board with a grid as described earlier, two players take turns placing pieces, 180 white stones for one and 181 black stones for the other, on the intersections (there are 361). Once placed, the pieces cannot be moved, but a player can capture an opponent’s piece by completely surrounding it with their own stones in all adjacent orthogonal points (known as “liberties”). The player who occupies more than half the board wins.

The duration of a game is relative because, in the past, a game could last several days, as each player carefully contemplated their moves, much like in chess. Furthermore, the Go board is larger, making it considerably more complex, with a greater number of possible combinations: mathematically, it’s estimated at 2.1 ×10170, more than the estimated number of atoms in the observable universe (which stands at about 1080).

For this reason, a time limit is usually set, and today, professional games typically have 16 hours spread over two days. A game can also end if a player resigns or if both players decide to stop placing pieces because further moves offer no advantage. When the time is up, the board is counted, and points are tallied by totaling the unoccupied squares surrounded by each player and subtracting captured stones; the komi (additional points for the player with the white stones due to their opening disadvantage) is then added to the score.

A game of Go in Kampala
A game of Go in Kampala. Credit: Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Of course, what’s been described so far is a brief summary; in practice, there are other rules, written and unwritten. For example, the ko rule, which prevents repeating moves by occupying the position of a captured stone to avoid creating a loop. Although players aim to form structures with their stones to enhance defense, entire formations can be captured if they are surrounded—unless they have at least a couple of open points, which can then combine. Players often start forming in the corners because it’s harder to be surrounded there.

As in chess, there are basic moves and strategies, especially openings. However, because there are so many possible combinations, advanced players design their own, resulting in complex patterns that an amateur may need hundreds of games to grasp. Typically, games are balanced, thanks to the ranking system; it’s similar to judo or karate, where a white belt doesn’t typically face a black belt. If there’s a smaller skill gap, a handicap may be given, like the weaker player being allowed to place two stones per turn instead of one.

It’s said that backgammon represents a struggle between humans and fate (because of the significant role of chance), while chess represents a struggle between humans (a battle of armies); in that vein, represents a struggle between humans and themselves (self-improvement). A fascinating example is the game played by two astronauts in space in 1996. This is just one of the many interesting aspects of Go, some as intriguing as a study showing its usefulness—even more than chess—in reducing the incidence of Alzheimer’s and senile dementia among elderly practitioners.


This article was first published on our Spanish Edition on May 3, 2024. Puedes leer la versión en español en Go, el juego de mesa más antiguo jugado ininterrumpidamente hasta nuestros días

Sources

Oscar Korschelt, The theory and practice of Go | John Fairbairn, Go in Ancient China | William S. Cobb, The book of Go | Shigemi Kishikawa, Go. Fundamentals | William Pinckard, Go and the ‘Three Games’ | Mateus Surzma, Formas de la mente. Go para principiantes | Go. The board game | Wikipedia


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