Most people in the western world have never heard of go, or if they have, they only found it later in life after first playing chess. I’ve played go steadily for about 5 years and got into it before I ever played chess online even once. Recently though, I have shifted almost exclusively to chess.
The two games are similar in that they are both abstract strategy board games with no hidden information and no random elements. However, the games differ greatly in philosophy and play. In the past I always marveled at how amazing go is, and lamented chess’s dominance in the western world. I thought, if people would just try go, they would immediately see its superiority and leave chess behind.
And there are many ways in which go is better than chess—the rules of go are so beautifully simple they seem almost axiomatic while the rules of chess seem overly complicated and arbitrary, go is about building while chess is about destroying, go’s strategy is so unbelievably deep that it makes chess seem like a barroom brawl—but these reasons, while appealing to me personally, are mostly abstract or aesthetical reasons.
In the areas of practicality and usability, I’ve come to find chess to be a much better game. Especially in our modern, fast paced world where people have little time for focus, and are constantly distracted, it seems that chess’s dominance over go has no end in sight.
Here are some reasons why I personally left go behind and switched to chess.
I don’t live in Asia
Though go has existed basically unchanged for at least two millennia, it is still almost exclusively played in Korea, Japan and China. Finding someone to play in-person is exceedingly difficult for most westerners.
While this reason does not say anything about the games themselves, it means a lot of western people won’t care to learn go. If no one you know plays it, or even knows what it is, why put in the massive amounts of effort required to become good at it? This absence of real-world opponents is one reason I’ve been playing go a lot less, and chess a lot more. Playing against someone over a real board in-person is way more fun that with shadowy characters online. Even playing an online friend who you know and chat with is difficult for me in the go world.
On top of that, most videos about go are in languages I don’t understand, and most teachers of go are in other time zones. News coverage of the major tournaments is slim, or in other languages. It’s very hard to get involved in the community.
There is something a bit isolating about the people around you having no idea what your hobby even is. No one can be impressed with your progress or your wins. People just narrow their eyes quizzically, or shake their head at the board and ask ‘is this Othello?’
While this may seem petty, it is so much more psychologically validating when the people around you actually know what the heck that game is that you’re so interested in.
The learning curve, and the disparity of skill among players
Though the rules of go can be learned in a couple minutes, the strategy and even the objective of the game are very difficult to grasp. Beginners are left with a blank board staring them in the face and no idea where to even start. This makes it difficult to get new people interested in the game.
Chess, by contrast, has somewhat difficult rules to learn. All the pieces move differently, there are odd quirks such as castling and en passant. But despite confusing rules, everyone can instantly understand the goal of the game: kill the king. When learning go, it might be weeks before a new player understands the beginnings of any kind of strategy. But chess puts the objective in your mind instantly, and new players feel eager to try out some plans of attack.
Go’s steep learning curve makes it nearly impossible to find new players. Say I meet someone who wants to learn go. I teach them the rules and the objective, and we spend a couple hours together and they get a handle on the game and are still interested (a miracle!) At this point, any game we play together is hardly going to be a game at all for me, an experienced player. It might take months of play and practice for a new player to reach a level where I could play a fun game with them, even using the maximum handicap. And all this is assuming the new player doesn’t give up on the game after a week or a month or a year.
This is not to say I’m a highly skilled player. I am not even that good at go, relatively. However, the strategy of go is so deep that someone who’s been learning for a couple months will completely dominate someone who’s been learning a couple weeks, and someone else who’s been learning for a year will completely dominate him. With such a wide range of skill just at the beginner level, any player I meet is likely going to be either way better than me, or much less skilled than me, and thus not much fun to play.
With chess, on the other hand, so many people in the west already know the rules that I could play a game with nearly anyone. If I’m way better than them, I can take away my rook or queen, or put severely less time on my clock and at least have a laugh or two at my horrible blunders under time pressure.
You may wonder, as you read the previous section, why I couldn’t put less time on my clock in a go game, too. I could do this, but go games take so many moves to complete that giving myself less time per move will hardly affect anything. Even if I played every move instantly (and I would, when playing with a beginner) my opponent, being a new player, is going to take their own time to consider each move. Even if they spend only 30 seconds on each move, this can make a game last for over an hour.
This is the major reason I don’t play much go. Even against someone of my own rank, games take forever. Consider: the average amateur chess game takes somewhere around 25 moves (in chess terms, a ‘move’ is when each player has moved, so this is 50 total moves) the average go game takes over 250. This means that even if both players took only ten seconds to play each move, the game would last for 40 minutes. That’s 40 minutes of intense focus with no interruptions.
By contrast, one can easily complete a game of chess in under ten minutes. I can play a blitz game on my phone during a 15-minute break at work, easy—sometimes two games. If I’m playing in-person with a beginner and using longer time settings, the game will still probably take less than half an hour, and that’s with plenty of time to think about moves when needed (and time to get up and chat with other friends, get a snack, etc.)
For those of us who like to play correspondence games, chess is also much faster in this area. Correspondence games have a very long time-limit to play a move, usually at least one day. With 24 hours to make your move, you can just check in throughout the day (or wait for notifications on your phone) and not worry about a timer counting down. If you’re like me and don’t have an easy way to carve out an hour or more of guaranteed uninterrupted time, correspondence is the only way to play go online.
However, with so many moves a single game of correspondence go can easily take over a month to complete. Some games can last several months, or even a year depending on the time controls. Playing 20 correspondence go games at once (which I did regularly for years) gives you only 20 games or less per month. By contrast, correspondence chess games usually take under a week to complete. I’ve finished many games in one or two days when my opponent happens to be around at the same times as me.
All this adds up to the fact that after over five years of playing go I’ve only played around 1000 games total. This is counting in-person games, and games across all servers to my best estimation.
By contrast, when I started playing correspondence chess it took less than two months to earn my 100 games achievement. I could easily play 1000 blitz games in one year by spending only 30 minutes a day on it.
The importance of being able to complete more games may not stand out at first, but the satisfaction of the win is a big part of playing any game. And being able to complete so few games makes each loss more devastating. When I lose a chess game, I can just shrug it off and look for my mistake and learn from it, knowing that I can play another game instantly and do better. Losing a go game after you spent over a month (or 40 minutes of intense focus) planning each move and strategy, only to throw it all away with one stupid blunder, is a horrible feeling. It can lead to people getting very upset over losses, and even cause new players to hesitate to play at all.
Trolls and poor losers
Due to the way a go game is scored, it is quite easy for someone with bad intentions to ruin the game for their opponent. This generally only happens online (as with most assholery) but as I mentioned above, online games are pretty much the only way to play go for westerners. While more experienced players rarely resort to this kind of behavior, it takes a long time to become an experienced go player, and that’s a lot of time putting up with trolls.
In chess, if I make ridiculous moves or take forever to make a move, you’re going to checkmate me or I’ll run out of time and lose. In go, the winner is decided not by a concrete action, like killing one specific piece as in chess, but by who has the highest score. The end of a go game is not reached at any set point on the board, but is agreed upon by both players together, when both have decided they don’t want to play any more moves. This may seem counter intuitive, but in go, each game eventually reaches a point where any move I play will lower my score. Part of the skill of go is recognizing this time, and then passing your turn. When both players have passed, the game is over, and the score is counted.
However, there is no rule preventing someone from continuing to play pointless moves. Someone who knows they are way behind and is bitter about it can continue playing and thus force the winning player to stick around to avoid losing by default. There are so many available moves on the go board that any jerk can drag out a game for a surprisingly long time. This is exacerbated by the way time settings work in a go game.
In chess, most games are played with a fixed amount of time on the clock, meaning that eventually time will run out. Most go games have a fixed main time also, but when this time runs out the game does not end. Instead it switches to a flat 30 seconds per move. This means that as long as you make sure to always move within 30 seconds, you will never run out of time. A diligent troll can drag on a game almost indefinitely by continuing to play pointless moves, waiting nearly to the end of the 30 seconds for each move. The only way to get out of such a scenario is to just leave the game and let the troll get away with an undeserved win by default, or call a moderator to adjourn the game, which also takes time in most cases.
While trolls like this are relatively rare, it illustrates a fundamental problem with the game of go: a game cannot be ended without both players’ cooperation. This issue also crops up when playing with newer players. A new player is not always able to tell when a game is hopelessly lost, and will continue playing on and on, which is terribly boring for the stronger player who is just waiting for the game to be over so they can start a new one. By contrast, in chess the worse you’re losing the quicker the game is over.
In the end, games are about the people you play them with. Go presents very little opportunity to play other people and demands a lot of work to convince anyone to try it. I love so many things about go, but trying to explain those things to someone who’s never played it is nearly impossible.
It’s still hard to get anyone to play me at chess, but at least I don’t have the insurmountable task of explaining the rules and objective and then slogging through an hour-long game for their first experience. Culture has already fought half the battle for me by introducing most people to the game in childhood.
So, all that to say… I play chess now. If you are interested in playing, I recommend signing up on Chess.com!