Chess and Go

A chapter in Muriel Barbery’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog ponders the games Chess and Go. Both are arguably the best strategic board games in human history. Both are believed to have evolved in ancient China. And both involve two players in a perfect world: one that can be controlled entirely through strategy, leaving nothing to luck.

Despite these similarities, the games are fundamentally dissimilar. There are a handful of minor differences: such as color leading, board size, and complexity of moves. White leads in Chess while black leads in Go. Go has a large board of 361 intersections while Chess has a restricted board of 64 squares. Chess has a collection of complex move types while Go has an elegant two rules. And so on. But the fundamental difference between Chess and Go is the subject-matter of Barbery’s chapter: Profound Thought No. 7.

In chess, you have to kill to win. In go, you have to build to live.

In Chess, you are seeking total victory by checkmating (killing) the opponent’s king. Total win or loss lies in the fall of a single piece with limited movement. All other pieces, unique in their movement and capturing ability, serve to protect their king and slay the opponent’s king. It involves pure logic and left-brained, analytical thinking. Go, on the other hand, seeks to obtain larger territory. You win not by killing your opponent, but by letting them grow less than you. Both players build toward a goal, and one achieves greater market share. Pieces coexist with one another and recognize that balance. Go involves both left- and right-brained thinking–a balance of the analytical and artistic.



Although these two games were conceived in the East, their ideals have been adopted by different cultures. At large in politics and business, Western culture adopts a Chess-way of thinking. Eastern culture adopts a Go-way of thinking. While Go offers a more balanced view of the world, neither strategy is superior to the other. This has yet to be proven. But the games can tell us something. Do we adopt a Chess-view of the world? Do we rely on superior tactics and individuals to achieve what we want? Or do we look at the big picture and slowly grow into what we desire?

For the readers of this blog, the demographics are largely Western, so most of you will be more familiar with Chess. Your default settings, from being raised in this culture, may favor a strategy of tactical domination. It may not be realized, but it may underly your life decisions. To achieve a broader perspective, consider playing Go. Learn how the game works so that you may make a choice about how you view your world. I believe that board games are a manifestation of culture, and culture a manifestation of our perspective. By learning different ways of thinking through board games, we can broaden our thinking. It can change how we approach life.

So will you kill to win or build to live?