Chess vs. Go

Compiling some posts I made on Mastodon about Chess vs. Go. These are broken apart based on Mastodon's default formatting of around 500 characters so the formatting might look a bit weird. At the end are some replies that I felt were interesting enough to share. The full thread is where we can pick up the conversation if you would like.

JoDee and I are learning the game of Go.

Many folks compare chess and Go as though they are in the same category of games.

As someone who understands chess and is learning Go I can say they're nothing alike, outside of being long running board games that have white and black pieces.

Chess is limited in its moves. Your opening moves are limited to a time-tested number of "good" openers.

Go allows any piece anywhere on a 19x19 board. True, some moves are better, but it's open.

Chess is about humiliating the other player with clever moves. You can play it for speedy checkmate or remove all of your opponent's pieces. Both strategies are about knocking your opponent down.

Go has so many different skirmishes going on that you can lose a section of the board and still win the game. Nothing is final. You're both creating the landscape in which one player can claim more territory. It also doesn't reward humiliation: play a capture game and lose the overall war.

Chess is a puzzle at this point. Your moves are limited on the board. When people talk about all of the various combinations of moves they're overstating their case. You have a handful of good moves, a few great moves, and a lot of terrible moves.

People talk about the middle game and end-game of chess as though they are something grand and mysterious, but really you're looking to keep enough pieces on the board to keep applying pressure to your opponent.

The endgame in chess is about removing moves from your opponent. Can't go there because check. Can't move there because it's a trap. Better move there to fork two pieces.

Big deal.

In Go the moves you still can force moves but it's up to the other player to accept that. They have more options to sacrifice or direct attention elsewhere.

After every Go game I feel like I've learned something. In every chess game I don't feel I've learned anything. It's just limited.

And that's before you get to handicapping games, or playing on smaller boards, or the myriad of ways that Go can adapt to the players. Chess doesn't afford the same handicapping without strange rules or piece removal:

It's not elegant, and worse, you have to think about what might be the right level of handicapping. With Go it's not nearly as fraught.

There's a reason that there are hundreds of thousands of pages written about chess: it's an easy game to write about. There's boarloads of books on correct openings, correct middle-game pay, and correct endgame play. They're annotated, deconstructed, and elaborated. Breathless prose about the brilliance of moves highlight the pages.

And eventually those moves stop being brilliant because other players learn how to route around them. They learn how to defeat those moves.

Chess is an arms race, much like the books on poker. They're folks trying to be on the cutting edge of move technology.

In short they're not about understanding the game but about being more clever than their opponents. It's why the metagame of slapping pieces and trash-talking is so prevalent in speed chess. It's making chess in to a confidence game. The game becomes secondary to the primary game of pushing your opponent off-balance to gain an advantage.

Go has that component as well, but it's not as direct. There's still a level of respect. That's why computer chess isn't as popular with more experienced chess players: there's none of that metagame happening with a computer that doesn't care about how cleverly or how loudly you smash those pieces against the board.

If anyone tells you they're a very smart person because they play chess well please decouple the chess ability from whatever other abilities they have. Chess is not a smart game. Being good at chess is like being good at memorizing trivia: it's a skill that can be impressive but is not a measure of intellect. It's about recognizing a handful of patterns and executing them effectively to unbalance your opponent. And it's no wonder that computers have excelled at chess.

(On a reply talking about how Go does in fact have aggressive players and players that slam their stones down to intimidate the other player, and also has Joseki, which are best practices for corner combat that tend to be memorized): Right, you'll find those in any head-to-head game. But the Joseki is like sparring to me where you're practicing small moves to get muscle memory to think about larger moves. Chess doesn't feel like sparring, or at least I haven't ever felt like that while reading about chess openings. It feels like "This is a list of of good ways to start the game" followed by "and here's the clever ways that unbalanced those good ways played by people who really studied openings".

(On a reply asking for beginner tips and resources): One thing I'd also recommend is playing the game as best you can but being gracious and kind to yourself in defeat. You will try things that won't work. You'll play against the computer and they'll seem relentless in their attack and clever in their ways to thwart you. You'll want to take it personally. You're not broken, it's part of the learning process. Go teaches you humility and grace in failure if you're willing to accept the lesson. Chess does not give gracious failure. When you've received your checkmate your only recourse is to replay that game over in your mind to realize where you have failed. Go lets you know pretty quickly where you are falling short and reinforces those lessons throughout the game. You'll make mistakes, but it's through those mistakes that the "a-ha!" moments emerge, in real-time.