Go and chess, a comparison

First of all, my intention in this page is not to claim that either game is "better" than the other or anything like that (at least not intentionally), but to simply annotate, a bit like in a blog style, the properties and phenomena I have noticed in go and chess compared to each other. I might update this page from time to time (by adding new things at the end).

A bit of background:

I played chess quite a lot when I was a kid. However, something like 10 years ago I got a bit bored of the game and practically stopped playing it completely. I don't remember what my ELO rating was back then, if I even had one officially, but it was nothing fancy really. If it can give any idea, my current rating at FICS (the free internet chess server, where I started playing some weeks ago) for standard games is about 1700, so I suppose that it would have been something like 1800 or whatever 10 years ago when I was at my best.

As for go, my current EGF ranking is 4 kyu (GoR 1683), although I have hit a bad barrier right now (my strength has not improved in more than a year). Perhaps for this reason I decided to try chess once again, just for a change.


The single most notable thing which struck me almost immediately when I had played some tens of games in the internet and with a computer program, something which I did not remember, is how (relatively) easy it is to force a draw in chess, at least at my level.

Draw games are almost non-existent in go, at least in even games with a fractional komi. Even with a non-fractional komi (which is often the case in handicap games) a draw (ie. both players get the exact same score) is very rare. Such draw is usually a cool experience, especially because of its rareness. It usually gives a true sense of equality (ie. the players feel equally strong, or in handicap games the amount of handicap feels perfect). Consciously forcing a draw is extremely difficult, and basically pointless (if you are so strong as to force a draw, you probably would win the game easily, so forcing a draw would only be a curiousity, a show of strength).

In chess a draw is a rather common occurrence, and seems to lack that enjoyment, or at least that's my feeling. If anything, it feels the opposite, ie. a bit of a disappointment. I feel that the player who is behind can sometimes force a draw if the other player is not careful, so he kind of "steals" a half-win. This is different than in go: If you are behind then you are behind; the only thing you can do is to make a comeback by honestly playing better than your opponent; "forcing a draw" is an unknown concept and wouldn't make any sense.

I have been playing with a chess program called NagaSkaki, which is a rather good chess program. I usually play at the "medium" difficult level, and I find the program almost impossible to win at that level. I usually lose quite badly at that level, but one time I was able to force a draw by repetition when I managed to survive to the endgame and started exchanging pieces like mad. I did not feel like I got the draw because I had equal strength to the program, but just because I was lucky. This is something completely non-existent in go.

Computer chess and chess servers

Speaking of computer chess programs, this is another area where there's a huge difference between chess and go (as most people know): Even the simplest freeware chess program can easily play at ELO 2000 strength, most of them even stronger, especially in faster games (less than 30 minutes per player), but even the strongest go playing programs out there can't beat a human 1 dan (most have difficulties even beating a human 5 kyu).

I think this has a rather sad repercussion with regard to chess servers. It's way too easy for anyone to cheat at a chess server by using a chess program to show him the moves. Even a beginner can easily achieve a rank of over 2200 this way.

I assume that most superstrong chess players out there seldom play at chess servers because many of the other players with the same strength are actually just kids using a chess program to boost their ranking. Why play against a computer in a chess server when they can do it directly with a program? I suppose they only play against people they know.

If in a go server you see a superstrong unbeatable player who crushes everyone, you just know he is a real person and you can be marveled at such a show of playing strength. There are existing examples of this, such as tartrate at KGS and Jimmy Cha at IGS, both of which played as unbeatable mystery players la Sai (of Hikaru no Go). Showing such an incredible strength is a source of awe in go servers. There's simply no way to fake this; it's just impossible. If you show incredible strength, then you are incredibly strong.

Not so in chess servers. If there seems to be an unbeatable superstrong player who nobody knows and who wins everyone, everyone will probably think that it's just some kid using a chess program. And everyone is probably right in most cases. There simply isn't anything marvelous about that. Even if it's a real person playing completely unaided, most people will still just dismiss him as a faker, unless he really can convince them he is a grandmaster (most of which will be well known around the world).

Some people might even use more hideous tactics to conceal their cheating: They might intentionally configure the chess program to play at a weaker level so that it will lose to the strongest players in the chess server, but still beat people who in reality are much stronger than the person doing this. For example a 1300-ranked player could easily and convincingly achieve a rank of 1900 this way, which is not too high, but still on the "elite" side. In go servers it's only possible to achieve a rank of about 8 kyu (which is nothing fancy) by using a program as a cheat.

I believe this lessens the value of public chess servers for very strong players (while go servers are a great resource of international players of all strengths and styles).

In this regard (and a couple of others) I truely hope that go programs will never reach professional strength.


Go is a very flexible game in the sense that players of very different strength can play meaningful and challenging games against each other. This is because it's easy and very rational to give handicap in go. Granted, fuseki (ie. the opening) will not be the same when using handicap (the more handicap stones, the lesser the concept of real fuseki), but on the other hand this usually doesn't matter because the weaker player would not match the stronger player in his fuseki knowledge anyways.

In fact, the kyu/dan ranking system is usually scaled so that the difference in rank directly tells how many handicap stones the weaker player should get for an approximately even game, and in most cases it works pretty well.

Moreover, if the amount of handicap stones would be ridiculously high (more than 9 stones), it's possible to play the game in a smaller practicing board, where less handicap stones are needed. Naturally the more the handicap and the smaller the board, the more the game differs in fuseki and overall strategy from a regular 19x19 even game, but it's still a quite rational and desirable way of playing. For this reason most go servers allow games with handicap to be ranked (at least up to a certain number of handicap stones), and they meaningfully take the amount of handicap into account when calculating rankings.

Chess is quite less flexible in this regard. There's no established handicap system (afaik no chess server support that, and even if some do, they probably do not count handicapped games as ranked). A ELO-2000 player playing a ELO-1200 player has no challenge value at all; it can only have some didactic value for the weaker player (and that's assuming the stronger player is playing a tutoring game, not a crush-the-newbie game).

Yes, chess pieces can be taken off from the stronger player as a handicap. However, I have never heard that this had been formalized in any way (ie. that players with a strength difference x should take pieces y and z off). It also feels that removing pieces like this somewhat cripples the game and doesn't make it as rational. Also, the amount of advantage got by taking pieces off the board probably grows rapidly with more pieces (unlike in go, where adding handicap stones gives a more or less linear advantage) so it's probably difficult to establish a proper "handicap" for all strength differences.

"Null" moves

It is not uncommon in chess games for players to make a kind of "null" moves, that is, moves which do not really do anything, like moving the castled king for no apparent reason or purpose, or sometimes even both players moving some minor pieces back and forward alternatively without achieving anything, just waiting to see what the opponent does. It's a bit like passing.

Computers sometimes do this, which is very understandable because it may be the move which they have calculated which minimizes the loss of score. However, human players, sometimes even grandmasters, do this as well.

This is, I think, a result of the nature of the game. You often try to fortify your positions as well as possible, and if neither player starts an attack soon enough but both just fortify their respective positions, a stage may be reached which is almost like a stalemate, where neither player is willing to start an attack against the opponent. Also other types of positions might lead to this kind of "null" moves. (Fortunately for chess, these kinds of positions seldom last for long because either player will sooner or later start some kind of attack, even if cautiously.)

This is something basically unthinkable in go. Every move must count, must do something useful. Making "null" moves, moves which do not really do anything, or worse just passing, is quite a sure way of getting badly behind. Neither player can afford this (and making such moves is actually a common beginner mistake). In go both players must continuously struggle to keep the balance of territory and/or power without letting their opponent to get a clear lead. Thus "null" moves are more or less a suicide.

Chess and go in movies

This is in no way related to the games with regard to the games themselves but more with regard to their popularity.

Seeing a chess board and even people playing chess is very common in movies and TV series. There are probably tens or even hundreds of thousands of movies where chess boards or even chess-playing people are seen, even if briefly. Thus it's nothing spectacular and seldom worth even mentioning.

Go, however, is a completely different story, at least in western countries. There are only a handful of movies where go can be spotted. Even seeing just a go board, even if nobody is playing, is very rare. Spotting go in movies and tv series is quite a hobby for many go players and it's really something worth mentioning. Some people have even collected lists of sightings.

It would be, especially in western countries, a bit ridiculous if someone said: "Wow! did you see that? A chess board!" when watching a movie. However, if it's a go board instead, it's very common (if go players are watching).

One sad thing is that in many cases when a go game position is shown in a movie, it's ridiculous. It happens with chess as well, of course, but quite rarely. With go it's sadly common. For example in an episode of Enterprise two people are playing go (although they don't mention it by name) and the position is just absolutely ridiculous and doesn't even resemble any rational game (even though the player who is losing claims to be strong). Sometimes the position is rational, but the players make irrational moves (the movie makers probably looked the position from a book but didn't bother telling the actors the subsequent plays).

This happens quite rarely with chess. While there are, of course, examples of movies with completely ridiculous positions/moves, in most movies they are rational.

Impolite draw requests

While playing on FICS I noticed something which I actually had noticed also in real life back when I played chess actively: Sometimes beginners, and even not-so-beginners, will offer a draw when they are clearly losing badly.

I find this quite impolite, a rather annoying opportunistic behaviour. It's dishonest. I clearly see that my opponent is badly behind, he clearly sees it too, yet he has the nerve to try to see if I just might be confused enough to accept his draw request. Like a last-resort "semi-cheat" to see if he could get a half-win. This quite clearly does not show respect to the opponent. Technically speaking, my opponent is lying to me: He is saying "I think this game is so even that it's difficult for either one of us to win" although that's clearly not true. The polite and respectful thing to do is, of course, to resign, not to try opportunistically to see if you could trick your opponent.

In go there is, quite naturally, nothing like this because there exist no draws per se (the only "draw" can happen when both have the exact same score (even after komi), which is a rather rare occurrence).

There are quite rare cases where players have left a game undecided by mutual agreement, when there's such a complex kind-of-repeating situation which doesn't seem to go anywhere. This is extremely rare, but it happens sometimes (in fact, I once witnessed such a thing happen at KGS between two high-dans). However, as it is so rare, it's not a common practice at all (and in fact many players do not even know that it happens in practice) and thus there's nothing comparable to "draw by mutual agreement" as in chess, where it's rather common (and sometimes abused).

Perhaps the only slightly comparable "abuse" in go sometimes made by beginners is that they just keep playing and playing even though they are very clearly behind and have absolutely no way to win any longer (and in some cases they even see this themselves). A game of go is usually rather long (if the "abuser" really wants it, the game could go for over 300 moves, even 400) and it could be rather borhersome, especially if the winning player is much stronger and there's nothing interesting in that game anymore.

Of course in chess you can also keep playing even when badly behind, but usually it's not as bothersome because the stronger player can usually just checkmate him in at most 20-30 moves. In go the abuser could go on for hundreds of moves and there's little the winning player can do to stop him, but just keep playing.

Attitude of players

This is again one thing which isn't really related to the games themselves, but to the players.

I have noticed that some chess players who have never heard of Go (or might only have heard the name without getting to know what kind of game it really is) sometimes have very pronounced prejudices when they actually get to see the game for the first time.

Often the attitude of these people is that chess is the king of all board games, the culmination of logic games and there's basically no other game which comes even close. When they see a game of go with its simple pieces (just black and white pieces, nothing else) and simple rules (not very different from simple games like othello or checkers) their attitude is often very despising. There's no way such a simple game can come even close to the intellectual level of chess. It's just another othello/checkers clone which some people take way too seriously (and they should really just start playing chess if they want a truely intellectually challenging game).

Once some guy came to our go club and his first question was "is this a primitive form of chess?". From his tone of voice it was more or less clear that he didn't think go could be anything as challenging as chess. While he was not directly despising, somehow his tone of voice gave him away. (After he was answered that go had basically nothing to do with chess and after watching for some minutes he just left. I assume he was thinking that this is just some checkers clone or whatever, nothing interesting.)

Some chess players might see some people playing go using a chess clock and have a condescending attitude, thinking something along the lines of "what a pitiful attempt to try making that game look serious by playing with a clock...". I have encountered this type of attitude, and I have actually experienced something similar myself.

Of course also some go players have a negative attitude towards chess, but it's usually different, probably because they already know chess and what kind of game it is. The attitude is more like "chess? boooriiing..."

I assume that some people get tired of chess, especially in western countries. Chess is everywhere, chess this, chess that, and a bit more chess. Then they find this exotic oriental game called Go and get infatuated with it. They find Go to be way more strategic, way deeper than chess, which they feel is just fight fight and more fight. They like the big-scale strategy features of Go, most of which chess lacks. And once they get infatuated with Go, they start despising chess: It's too small, there's no strategy, it's all just fighting and more fighting. They find it boring.

More about the attitude of players

Expanding the previous point, one thing I have also noticed about chess players is that they seem to be eager to defend their game against any claim that they feel belittles it. Granted, most Go players are like that too, but somehow it feels different. It feels more like Go players more often dismiss the belittling as just ignorance and don't pay too much attention to it, while some chess players defend their game even to ridiculous proportions.

I once participated in a discussion about chess and mentioned the point about computer chess being at grandmaster level, and even being stronger than any human in average, while even the strongest computer Go programs have difficulties beating even a mediocre human player, and that one big difference between chess and Go is that the latter has a much deeper whole-board strategy.

I didn't mean to belittle chess, I was just mentioning a well-known fact. I wasn't really expecting the kind of reaction I received. They mentioned that one Kasparov vs. computer game where the computer got totally fooled, as well as that one extremely strong player who is an expert in beating computers (I don't remember his name).

They mentioned those things as if they were proof that humans are still superior to computers and that chess is a very strategic game. Somehow they completely dismissed the fact that while there may be some dozens of extremely strong chess players who can beat the strongest computers, there are literally hundreds of thousands of mediocre Go players who can beat the strongest computer Go playing programs, and thus there's a big difference.