Wei Chi1 is an ancient game originating in China around 4000BC, making it older than chess. It was invented by one of the emperors to help his son, who had learning difficulties, with his education. From its origins it spread to other oriental lands such as Japan where it's called Igo, or Go, and Korea where it's called Baduk, and eventually it migrated to Europe and America sometime in the 19th Century. Though seemingly a simple game, it quickly caught on in the various emperors' courts. In Japan this was taken to extremes with schools being set up to teach the game, and power going to those who played well. Even in the modern day Orient it's far more popular than chess is in the West, and it's played by millions of people all over the world.
Comparison to Chess
In the Occident, chess is often seen as the ultimate in human thinking; prominent newspaper headlines when Deep Blue2 beat Chess Champion Garry Kasparov showed us that. However, compared to Wei Chi, chess is not that complex having only 64 squares and a definite starting set up which enables the mighty processing power of today's supercomputers to plan moves so far ahead that they can occasionally beat even a Grandmaster. Wei Chi has an empty board as a starting position and players can place stones anywhere on the board: on a 19 x 19 square board, that gives 361 possible starting positions. And from there the possibilities expand at a mind-boggling rate.
How to Play
The game, though there are variants, is usually played with two players, who play alternately, though either may pass. One plays with black lens-shaped pieces, called stones, and one plays with white. Black plays first by placing one stone on the board, which consists of a grid of 19 x 19 lines. The stones are played on the intersections and once placed stay where they are unless they are captured by the opponent.
A stone is captured when all the liberties3 around it are filled by opposing stones. Stones of the same colour placed next to each other form chains, and to capture a chain all the liberties surrounding all the stones in the chain must be filled. A stone or group of stones with no liberties left is removed from the board by the opposing player.
The object of the game is to surround more territory than your opponent, territory being empty intersections where you consider that any opponents piece will die. Players continue to play alternately until both pass one after the other, or decide there are no further moves to be made. The territory is then counted, the prisoners captured are added and the player with the larger amount wins. Due to the black advantage at going first, white gets an extra five and a half points added to his final territory.
Different nationalities play by slightly different scoring rules. In Japanese rules, captured stones are placed inside the opponents territory. Territory is empty intersections completely surrounded by a single colour stone and possibly the edge of the board. Each empty point of territory counts as one point of score. Therefore, captured stones reduce the score.
There are a few extra rules on top of the above for unusual situations. The first is the Ko rule, which means 'eternity'. Some positions can just be repeated endlessly, each player taking another prisoner over and over again. Now the Ko rule stops this by not allowing a move which will repeat a board position straight away: if a piece has just been captured, but the capturing stone could be captured straight away, leaving the board as it was before the first capture, then the second player must play elsewhere before returning to reap his revenge.
The second rule is to do with handicap. If two players are unevenly matched, such as one being a rank amateur and another a 7th Dan (an expert), then the handicap rule can be put into effect. This gives the weaker player a certain number of 'free' stones to play at the beginning of the game. The rules can either give the positions to place these free stones or the player may place them as he will. This can even up a game between players of wildly differing abilities.
Learning to Play
Most people do not learn on the full-sized board: the 19 x 19 board makes for too long a game when you are just starting out. Most people start on a 9 x 9 board, eventually moving up to a 13 x 13 before hitting the big time. To play you'll need a Go set; either buy one or make a simple one. You used not to be able to get for love nor money, however it seems that there is now a plethora of places where you can acquire them. As most people start on a smaller board, they also start with a simpler game, called Atari Go.
Atari Go is also known as the capturing game. Instead of trying to surround territory, the winner is the first to capture one of his opponents pieces (some people say 'atari' when a stone or chain has only one liberty left). This is a simple game, easily taught to children. It quickly emphasises the importance of building chains and joining stones into an effective force. It also teaches, almost as well as chess, the importance of looking forward several moves, and working out alternative strategies.
After that game has been mastered it is time to introduce the value of territory. This is done by another simple game, the territory game. Here both players are trying to capture the most territory, but are only allowed a single chain of stones. This is a truly simple game, and quickly becomes repetitive. Once the basics are mastered it's time to set out on a full game, though possibly still on the 9 x 9 or 13 x 13 board.
At the start of a Go career it's probably better to play many smaller games, than fewer, longer ones. With the shorter games you get more experience of all areas of the game, especially the end game. The larger board games can take a long time, six hours for a 19 x 19 board is possible. Though the full game does take a long time it is worth it. Wei Chi stirs the blood and emotions, perhaps even more so than chess, even when playing an equal. So go and find a board and some stones and learn to play this most subtle of games.