The Magic of Go

Kitani and his disciples

Minoru Kitani, along with Go Seigen, was one of the giants of the go world from the 1930s to the 1950s. From the outset of his career, he showed unusual promise and soon acquired the nickname «Kaidomaru’» (the prodigy). He became a 1-dan in 1924 and, by 1935, had achieved the rank of 7-dan, a rate of promotion unprecedented at the time. In 1938, he won the tournament to select Honinbo Shusai’s opponent for his last game. Kitani won by five points, and the game was dramatized by the Nobel Prize-winning novelist Yasunari Kawabata in his novel «Meijin» (The Master of Go).

Besides his success as a tournament player, Kitani made major advances in go theory through his «New Opening Strategy» (in collaboration with Go Seigen). He also invented a large proportion of what have become standard corner-opening patterns.

Kitani’s greatest legacy, however, is the large number of disciples he trained. After World W II, he established a school that was to become known as the «Kitani dojo.» He scoured the country for talented young players and took them in as live-in disciples. Everyday, these youngsters would play go and analyze their games under the watchful eye of Kitani and his senior disciples.

His efforts began to bear fruit beginning in 1971, when one of his disciples, Yoshio Ishida, at the age of 21 captured the Honinbo title from the reigning champion Rin Kaiho. (Rin was a Chinese prodigy discovered by Go Seigen.) The next five years were the age of Ishida. He won the Honinbo title four more times and finally took the Meijin title from Rin to become the third Meijin-Honinbo of the modern era.

Ishida heralded a new kind of player that was being produced in the Kitani school. He was almost invincible, winning an incredible 30 games in a row in the ranking tournament; he was calm under pressure; he possessed superb positional judgment; his endgame calculation was so accurate he was called «the computer.» Rin had these same abilities, but Ishida was a level higher.

Then, as suddenly as he appeared, Ishida’s star faded. After reaching the top at such a young age, he seemed to lose his drive. But there were many other geniuses from the Kitani school ready to replace him.

Hideo Otake, Masao Kato and Masaki Takemiya. I have devoted a column to Takemiya and his cosmic-go style, so I will introduce the other two players.

Otake (born 1942) is known as «the artist» because of his penchant for always trying to make aesthetically pleasing shapes. He likes to play for central influence by building thick positions, letting his opponent overtake him initially in the quest for territory. His intuition into go is much respected by fellow professionals. His Achilles’ heel, however, is that his game lacks tenacity and he tends to fall apart when his play fails to meet his own high standards. Otake has won more than 40 titles, but he seems to have staked out the Meijin as his own special domain. Between 1975 and 1984, he appeared as the challenger or title-holder in nine out of 10 Meijin title matches-he held the title for four of those years.

Kato (born 1947) is known as «the killer.» His ability to kill his opponents’ groups is legendary. He will go after groups that seem quite safe, and, to everyone’s surprise, he often ends up killing them. Kato was the first Kitani disciple to make headlines when in 1969, as a lowly 5-dan, he challenged Rin for the Honinbo title. He failed in his bid and, during the next seven years, failed in eight other challenges. Then, in 1976, he won the Gosei title and started to capture almost every title in sight.

In 1980, Cho Chikun, the youngest of Kitani’s disciples, came into his own and started monopolizing the big titles. By 1985, he had won every major open newspaper title. Then he went into a temporary decline because of injuries because of a traffic accident.

Koichi Kobayashi was the player who wrested the Meijin and Kisei titles from Cho in 1985—86 and held them both for nearly a decade. For this, Kobayashi will certainly go down in history as one of the great players of the 20th century. But he also holds a special position in the Kitani school because he seems to be the one destined to carry on Kitani’s legacy. He married Kitani’s daughter, Reiko, who was also a professional player (6-dan). Their daughter, Izumi, is a 3-dan and currently holds the Women’s Kisei title. Moreover, Kobayashi has a number of talented disciples, the most prominent of whom is Maki Sakai (6-dan). Sakai is now playing in the prestigious Meijin league along with Kobayashi. On Dec. 24, in the first round of that league, Sakai defeated his teacher. There is a saying in the go world, «The best way to repay the debt you owe your teacher is to defeat him.»

The rule of capture

Rule 4. A stone or a solidly connected group of stones of one color is captured and removed from the board when all the intersections directly adjacent to it are occupied by the enemy.

Go Rules

Diagram 1. White stones occupy three of the four points directly adjacent to the black stone, i.e. three of its four «liberties.» The black stone is said to be in «atari.»

Diagram 2. White captures the black stone by occupying its last liberty and removes it from the board.

Diagram 3. This is the result. Captured stones are kept separately and saved for counting at the end of the game.

Go Rules

Stones can also be captured at the edge of the board and in the corner. The following three diagrams illustrate this.

Go Rules

The two black stones in the next diagram are connected. They are also in atari. White can capture them by playing 1.

Go Rules

The following three diagrams show a solidly connected group of five stones being captured.

Go Rules It is illegal to kill your own stones. That is, you are not allowed to play so as to take the last liberty of your stones. In the diagram on the right, the two white stones have a liberty on the 1—1 point. Playing at 1 is illegal because the white stones will no longer have any liberties.

Go Rules

Capturing of the enemy takes precedence over self-capture. When White plays 1 in the center diagram below, neither it nor the two black stones to its right have any liberties, but it is the black stones, rather than White 1 that are captured.

Go problems