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My Go board has two playing surfaces, one big and the other small. As a Go beginner, I have been playing on the reduced size board. I assume this is recommended because it makes games shorter, and there is less to keep track of. But as a beginner, I'm having trouble seeing what benefits playing on a larger board might bring.

Why would I want to play on a bigger board? How does the game change? Or another way of putting this - why doesn't everyone play on the smaller board size?

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3 Answers 3

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The small board focuses on close fighting. You're right; it is recommended for beginners for developing fighting skill and tactics, but the strategy component is lacking--at least when compared to a 19x19 board.

The big board is not just like playing 4 small board games next to each other. Through ladders and potential escape routes, the stones on one side of the board interact with the stones on the other side. When you start playing on big boards this is a very hard part of the transition because on a 9x9 or even 13x13 board you don't have to keep thinking about stones that seem to be far away. This is related to the concept of "influence", which is largely absent on smaller boards, but is of great strategic importance on the bigger board.

A Go teacher in my area likes to say that what makes professional Go games really interesting is the trades. You see professionals let massive groups die yet come out ahead, because in so doing they gain forcing moves that make up for it elsewhere. A popular example is the Yi Sedol ladder game. These sorts of trades are nearly impossible on a small board, and the game is much more exciting with them.

Overall, on a big board Go

  • is more complex, which many would argue means more interesting
  • uses both tactics and strategy
  • for an amateur, allows for more mistakes. You can mess up in one area, but still come back, playing better elsewhere and using leftover aji
  • allows for more varied games. There are many different opening styles on a full size board, and they will lead to games that feel very different.
  • is more fun!
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It is also different from "playing 4 small board games next to each other" because there aren't as many places to play where you're close to an edge of the board, which affects strategy (and tactics!) in many ways. I like to refer to those effects collectively as "surface tension". –  Karl Knechtel Jan 26 '12 at 3:34
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Great answer. Also remember that there is relatively more territory in the center than the edges on 19x19 where the cornors and edges matter more on smaller boards. –  TimothyAWiseman Jan 27 '12 at 17:11

Early in my Go education I played black with a 4 stone handicap on a 13x13 board. My opponent invaded the 3,3 point in all four corners, and I played the Joseki perfectly - but lost miserably.

On a 19x19 board I would have been in healthy shape with tremendous influence into the centre, as well as 4 half-sides, instead of owning a tiny area barely half what my opponent had carved out in 4 corners.

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To use a metaphor, what's the difference between a barroom brawl and a full-scale war? The brawl is faster and just as decisive at the end, but if you rush the front lines of an opposing army swinging a barstool, you'll probably not get very far. You need to rely on your commanders and your fellow soldiers to get you close enough that your barstool will actually connect.

In other words, a 9x9 game is tactical whereas a 19x19 game is strategic. Consider the following Go proverb:

The third line is for territory, the fourth line is for influence

This is the fundamental difference between a high move (fourth line or higher) and a low move (third line or lower). Territory is valuable for obvious reasons: that's where you get your score from. Influence is also valuable, but for less obvious reasons: you use influence to fight and either secure more territory, or destroy your opponent's territory.

Now, on a 9x9 board, the ratio between influence and territory is heavily biased towards the territory side; almost the entire board is on the third line or lower, and the only space above the fourth line is the center point. This makes a game on the smaller board faster, but focuses very much on close-range tactics rather than wide-scale strategy. Usually it's one quick but brutal fight which ultimately determines the winner of the game.

On a 19x19 board, however, roughly half the board is "territory" and half the board is "influence". Rather than one short but violent fight, the game focuses just as much on deploying your troops and fortifying your defenses. You'll often end up with a series of skirmishes, none of which necessarily decide the game on their own. You may lose a battle, or even many battles, yet you can still win the war.

On the larger board, playing for influence is can be just as important as playing for territory; very often a move that secures territory for yourself will allow the opponent to gain influence, and vice versa. Whether you decide to play a territory-heavy or an influence-oriented style, understanding this balance becomes essential to victory.

This subtlety is almost entirely missing on a 9x9 board.

Now whether you prefer to while away your idle hours with the occasional drunken fistfight, or you'd rather start up World War III, that's very much up to you. At my local go club, it is not uncommon to see people playing nothing but 9x9 games all day long, and other people breaking out the 19x19 board and nothing else. Often players will switch between the two boards from game to game. Both board sizes allow for enjoyable and viable games, but even with the exact same rules the games will be completely different.

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