L'AQJG tient à remercier...

Canada’s First Published Book on Go
Book Review by Steven J.C. Mays

Page couverture du livre Le GO, le grand jeu de l'orient.

Entitled Le go, le grand jeu de l'Orient, Canada's first book on go appeared in Montreal, in November, 1998. Written by François Lorrain, 1-dan, this book is the fruit of several years of study and thought by a player who has played the game on and off for the past three decades.

Le go is not a book on strategy or tactics; the reader will not find anything in it that will help him improve his game. Instead, what he will find is a beautifully illustrated book covering a wide range of topics on the game we all love. In fact, the illustrations are so appealing that this work could easily have qualified as a coffee-table book if its physical dimensions had been made a little larger and if its illustrations had been rendered in color. But even in black and white, the author easily betrays the conviction that aesthetic appeal is as important a consideration when printing a book as content. The success of this visual display is due to the skill of François Girard, a friend of the author, who was responsible for both the graphics and the layout.

As stated in the preface, the aim of the book is twofold: to initiate the beginner in how to play go and to interest him in the non-playing aspects of the game. To these ends, François fills his book with a variety of go-related information, all of which can be roughly divided into three areas of interest: the rules, odds and ends, and the different methods of counting. But the reader should take care not to think that this is just another book for beginners. Even the well-seasoned player will find this book of interest, especially those sections of it that deal with the rules and the counting methods.

In the first section, on the rules, the author provides the necessary explanations on how to play the game, and he does this with an abundant use of diagrams to illustrate each point under discussion. After dealing with the essential rules of the game, including capturing and the life and death of groups, the author adopts an interesting and novel way of dealing with those questions that beginners ask unfailingly: Is the game over? Is this group dead? Who has won? His approach is first to present "theoretical rules" on how to count points at the end of the game. By "theoretical," the author is referring to the actual capture of dead stones and their removal from the board before proceeding to the counting phase. Only later in the book does the author qualify these theoretical rules by providing "practical principles," which, in essence, means that experienced players dispense with the requirement of actually capturing and removing dead stones.

One weakness in this section, and this is a minor point, is that the author doesn't declare which set of existing rules he intends to follow in explaining how to play go. His only statement on this point is in the preface, where he says that he intends to follow les règles de type chinois ("Chinese-type rules"). At first, the uninformed beginner (or the inattentive but experienced player) might think that the author is referring to the rules that are used in mainland China, but this is not the case. The principle reason is that the rules used in mainland China do not allow for suicide, which the author allows in his book and which is allowed in the rules of the New Zealand Go Society and in those that are commonly called the Ing rules. But since the rules used in mainland China, Taiwan, and New Zealand are remarkably similar in other respects, it becomes obvious that what the author means by les règles de type chinois is the non-Japanese rules. As for the counting method used in this book, François states early on, when the issue of counting points in go is addressed for the first time, that the Chinese method of counting (that is, the one used in mainland China) is the one he intends to use.

For experienced players, this issue of the rules can be a source of confusion: Is the author elaborating a new set of rules or is he merely attempting to reformulate the wording of existing rules in a clearer way? This lack of precision may leave readers wondering on which points do the rules used in his book coincide with those of an existing set of rules and on which points do they differ.

Another weakness in this section on the rules, one that is perhaps more serious but which is certainly more subjective on my part, is the non-use of the Japanese rules and counting method in the book.

Although knowledgeable go players, I among them, would certainly agree with François on the merits of the Chinese-type rules and the Chinese method of counting as the ones to rely on as the ultimate test when controversy surrounds any particular situation in a game, some readers may wonder if the author is performing a disservice to beginners by not using the Japanese rules and counting method in the book. Given the widespread use of the Japanese rules and counting method in the West, beginners who learn how to play go with this book will necessarily have to unlearn parts of it once they start playing in a club setting.

On the other hand, François, perhaps because of his background in mathematics, is aiming his sights at a higher goal. The underlying theme of his book, which perhaps is not explicitly stated, is the belief that go ought to be played according to a set of rules and a counting method that together will form a fountainhead of simplicity, rationality, and coherence. In this regard, this book is the author's contribution to this movement, which he sees as gaining ground in the West. He sites the New Zealand Go Society, the American Go Association, and the French Go Federation as examples of national associations that have adopted official rules that, although they may not be identical in wording, tend towards the spirit of the Chinese-type rules and the Chinese method of counting.

In the second section of the book, the one I call "odds and ends," François exposes the reader to such diverse topics as the ranking of players, handicap go, komi, go etiquette, the comparison between go and chess, go and military and political strategy in China, and the material aspects of the game. Although each one of these topics is treated in an abbreviated manner, enough is given to arouse in the reader a sense of the richness of the game. However, apart from saying that go is several thousand years old, the only major topic that the author does not address is the history of the game; but this lacuna can easily be excused given the length that such a topic would require, even in an abbreviated manner.

Finally, in the third section, which takes up about a quarter of the book, François concentrates his attention on describing and comparing the different counting methods used in go. The book identifies five methods, which I have loosely translated as follows:

For me, this section on the different counting methods is certainly that part of the book that shines the most brightly. The reason is simple: to my knowledge, and apart from what might already exist in an oriental language, no other book or article treats this topic in such a clear and detailed manner as it is done here. Although there are some interesting Web sites that explain the various rules in detail, I haven't seen anything anywhere that describes the different counting methods, one after the other, using the same base diagram.

As a final treat for the reader, François provides a short history on the evolution of the counting methods. Although short, it is illuminating. Even I, who would describe myself as fairly well read, learned something new.

This book review would be incomplete if I didn't mention the book's dust jacket. Although dust jackets are unusual for paperbacks, the one for this book serves a useful purpose. While the outside cover is identical to the cover of the book, the inside cover contains two diagrams of go boards (one is 6 by 6, and the other one is 9 by 9) along with the necessary quantity of printed stones that the reader can cut out. This is just one more illustration of the care and attention that went into the design of this book.

The author provides a short bibliography, and a short listing of computer go programs and interesting Web sites. There are four summary pages on the author's theoretical rules and practical principles of go, and an index.

Conversation With the Author

(Biographical Note: François Lorrain learned to play go in the late 60s while studying sociology and mathematics in the United States. He now teaches mathematics in Montreal at the Collège Jean-de-Brébeuf where he also teaches go to students. He has devoted much time to the study of the different rules of go and to the counting methods attached to them. In connection with his interest in these topics, he has produced an article entitled "Dead Groups That Are Alive and Live Groups That Are Dead" (11 pages, May, 1997), a discussion on the definition of life and death of groups. This article may be viewed and downloaded.)

Below are eight questions I presented to the author and to which he replied in writing.

  1. Q. What were the reasons that prompted you to write this book?

    A. Obviously, I love the Chinese rules. To a beginner, I always teach the Chinese rules. Except for a small booklet by James Davies (Ishi Press, 1977), which is now out of print, my book is, as far as I know, the only introductory book in French or English that uses the Chinese rules. At the same time, I thought experienced players might be interested in an absolutely rigorous exposition of the Chinese rules (the wording of which, sadly, is often lacking in rigorous logic), together with a thorough comparison and discussion of the various known counting procedures. In addition, I wanted to talk briefly about a few odds and ends (etiquette, comparison with chess, etc.) that are often neglected in introductory books.

  2. Q. Can you tell us a bit about the origins of this book and how it evolved?

    A. I completed a manuscript version of this book in 1989! Since then, I worked on it on and off (more off than on) during the last ten years. The really big job was doing the drawings; my friend François Girard took reproductions of old Oriental prints as models and redrew them completely in Illustrator. The quality of his work is outstanding.

  3. Q. From the content of the book, it's clear that the rules of go and their precise wording is an issue of deep interest to you, it's also clear that you have a deep interest in the different counting methods, can you explain why this is so and how this interest originated?

    A. I am a mathematician and I like elegance and simplicity. I was delighted when I learned that the apparently arbitrary Japanese custom of placing dead stones and prisoners in the territories of their own color before counting had a rational explanation: the Chinese concept of territory! Later, my delight was compounded when I learned that the many problems associated with the Japanese rules (it's a big effort just to read them!) magically disappear when one uses the Chinese concept of territory: not a single special situation need then be mentioned in the rules (if the status of any group is unclear, the players just continue playing until its status becomes clear). So the Chinese rules are short and sweet, while the Japanese rules are long and complex. There is a catch, however: paradoxically, whichever set of rules one adopts, it hardly affects the actual playing of the game! So, unfortunately, there is no strong and immediate incentive to adopt Chinese-type rules except for purists. However, I think that, with time, and the increasing internationalization of go, things will slowly change.

  4. Q. In your book, you take the pedagogical approach of explaining the notions of territory and counting using theoretical rules which are then followed later in the book by your description of practical principles, have you been able to determine first hand whether this approach is more successful in teaching go?

    A. No, I don't think it is necessarily more successful. The real reason for my theoretical rules (in which only areas surrounded by stones of the same color and containing no enemy stones count as territory) is not pedagogical. These rules are just a simple and direct way to avoid the words dead and alive, which in my opinion are impossible to define rigorously (this is one of the points I raise in my article "Dead Groups That Are Alive and Live Groups That Are Dead" that you mentioned [see the Biographical Note above]). In practice, of course, experienced players stop playing as soon as the boundaries of the final territories are completed, which usually happens long before the strict "theoretical" end of the game; but with the Chinese-type rules, the only definitive criterion of death is actual capture, and, similarly, the only definitive criterion of life is actual non-capture. The words actual non-capture may seem puzzling, but they describe a legitimate situation. They refer to the surprising and generally unknown fact that, in certain rare circumstances, there are, say, black groups, that White could but will not capture, because doing so would cost White more than he would gain! Such black groups are alive, and the empty points they surround are part of Black's territory. I give several examples of these unusual situations in my article.
    In my book, the theoretical rules constitute the minimal required set of rules to play the game. The practical principles, which I give after my theoretical rules, are not part of the rules per se; they are just guiding ideas and principles that are useful when playing (for example, allowing the game to end, by mutual consent, before the strict "theoretical" end of the game). These practical principles are really just comments on the theoretical rules, explaining how the latter may be applied in practice, always by mutual consent. The situation is similar to the legal system where, on the one hand, you have the actual wording of laws, and, on the other hand, you have the interpretation of these laws.
    Bill Taylor and John Tromp use a similar approach, that is, of making a distinction between the theoretical and the practical, in their version of the rules of go. So does Toshio Ikeda, a well-know Japanese scientist (cited in my article).

  5. Q. You seem to admire greatly the rules of the New Zealand Go Society. How do they deal with the issues you raise regarding the distinction between the theoretical and the practical?

    A. The New Zealand rules are a masterpiece: they do not define life and death (because, as I said, these cannot be defined in a simple fashion), but, at the same time, because of their compactness, they avoid the theoretical/practical distinction that I make in my book.

  6. Q. Given your admiration for the New Zealand rules, why didn't you use them in your book?

    A. First of all, I would like to say that these rules are very elegant and compact. However, because of these very qualities, beginners might find some of them hard to understand. In theory, the New Zealand rules are sufficient for actual play, but in practice, for the benefit of beginners, they must be accompanied by many explanations and examples. So, in the end, the theoretical/practical distinction can't be avoided. The rules presented in my book are not as compact as those of the New Zealand Go Society, but they are certainly more explicit, even though they, too, require explanations and examples, especially for beginners.

  7. Q. Given the remarks made in this book review on the issue of the rules used in your book, would you like to make any comments?

    A. Yes, I would like to make four comments.

    1. You are right in saying that by the term Chinese-type rules I mean a wide range of rules: the rules used in China, the official Taiwanese rules, and those of New Zealand Go Society, the American Go Association, and the Fédération française de go. Generally, all these rules agree on basic principles and differ only on points of detail, points that make very little difference in practice. The formulation of the rules in my book is, in essence, equivalent to the New Zealand variant of the rules. I agree that I should have said this explicitly at the beginning of my book, for the benefit of experienced players.

    2. My version of the rules allows suicide, but at the same time it says that suicide is forbidden everywhere, except in Taiwan and New Zealand. Implicitly, players using the rules in my book are free to allow or disallow suicide. I will revise the text to make this clearer.

    3. It is certainly confusing for beginners to learn first the Chinese way of counting, and then the Japanese way, because superficially they seem so different. However, I find the Chinese concept of territory so fundamental and illuminating that I cannot bring myself not to teach it first to beginners! But, in my experience, they readily adopt the Japanese way when necessary and easily understand the quasi-equivalence of the two counting methods when it is explained, which can be done in simple terms. If somebody can play go, understand false and true eyes, ko fights, and so on, he or she can certainly understand the simple (when seen in the right way) relationship between the two different counting methods. Also, teaching the Chinese rules to beginners paves the way to a wider recognition of these rules.

    4. The lack of a chapter on the history of the game is indeed surprising in a book of this kind. I wonder myself why I didn't write one! It will be a natural thing to add in a second edition.

  8. Q. Do you intend to provide an English translation of your book?

    A. Yes. An English-speaking friend of mine has started translating it. It will hopefully be printed this summer (1999), and I'll try to have it distributed through such outlets as Ishi Press, amazon.com, and so on.