Christopher Alexander and Go: The Phenomenon of Life (and Death)

Photograph and caption from Christopher Alexander’s The Phenomenon of Life

Christopher Alexander is an author I’ve seen included several times on lists of interesting thinkers. His The Nature of Order series is made up of “big” books. I don’t mean only that they are oversize (they are). I mean that they are trying to explain nothing smaller than the nature of the universe.

Alexander is an architect; his books are full of pictures and illustrations. Since I couldn’t read them on Kindle, I went down to the public library for the first time in months to borrow a copy of The Phenomenon of Life.

You want some Bukowski with that?

These being the days of COVID-19, a uniformed guard was stationed outside the library taking temperatures and maybe, too, preventing book theft, that ever-present scourge. Once inside the building, one of three masked librarians greeted me flatly. Piles of books lay on folding tables in a spacious, otherwise-empty multipurpose room. Another of the librarians was playing with a yo-yo quite severely.

“A yo-yo!” I said to him with enthusiasm. He didn’t respond.

Standing in the entryway, yet another folding table separated me from them. An impotent plastic divider covered a portion of the barricade, to prevent me from breathing on the librarians and vice-versa. Our germs, I guess, cannot overcome folding tables and plastic dividers. They slid my book underneath the divider, and I was gone.

I digress. This post is actually about the game of Go and Christopher Alexander. But I felt it appropriate to include this rather lifeless vignette before getting to The Phenomenon of Life.

Strong Centers and Good Shape

If I try to summarize Alexander, I will fail. There is a reason his The Nature of Order series contains four books, each several hundred razor-thin pages. (And as of this post I have only read half of the first.)

But one thing Alexander does in The Phenomenon of Life is try to define things that contain life or liveliness. For something to have a lot of life––a building, lets say, or a pastoral scene––it has to demonstrate at least a few of a specific set of properties. Alexander contrasts the doors below to demonstrate one of those properties: Levels of Scale.

Christopher Alexander – Fundamental Property 1: Levels of Scale
You should have no trouble identifying which door is livelier.

To Alexander, there are fifteen of these life-giving properties. The rest of this post is about three of them: Strong Centers, Good Shape, and Deep Interlock and Ambiguity.

In one of my previous posts I wrote about identification of Good Shape as one of the challenges facing beginning Go players. I wrote that the only way to learn to identify and make Good Shape is to play (see: lose) a lot of games with stronger players.

But even as a ~10-kyu player, though I can recognize Good Shape, I might still struggle to describe Good Shape. So I was struck by Alexander’s definition of Good Shape as a life-granting property:

“What is a ‘good shape’? What is it made of? It is easiest to understand good shape as a recursive rule. The recursive rule says that the elements of any good shape are always good shapes themselves. Or, we may say this once again in terms of centers. A good shape is a center which is made up of powerful intense centers, which have good shape themselves.”

Elegant, right? If you’ve done any computer programming, your hair is probably standing on end reading such titillating use of recursion. So the next question is: Does it work for Go?

Let’s take a look at a fuseki example through Alexander’s recursive lens. (I’ve taken this image from an excellent article on Go Wizardry). 10th Annual Kisei Title Match 1986:


Is black’s opening good shape per Alexander’s recursive rule of good centers made up of good centers? I count three centers. The top right, the bottom right, and the bottom middle.

Now, are those centers made up of strong centers? I think so.

The top right corner enclosure is made up of two stones that are well placed as centers: a star point (Black 1) and a low knights move (Black 11) attack White 10’s base.

The bottom right is made up of two strong centers: the 3-4 komoku point is one of the default strong opening moves. (Black 9, to my knowledge, is a smaller-than-desirable corner enclosure by modern standards. But a fine response to White 8 and still good shape!)

And the bottom middle is also made up of three strong centers: The Black 5 low approach of White 2, Black 7 star point, and the Black 3 komoku.

This is just one example, but my hypothesis is that Alexander’s recursive rule of Good Shape can be applied to Go: Good Shape in Go is Strong Centers made up of Strong Centers.

Deep Interlock and Ambiguity

The meat of this post is now swallowed, but I have one more note about Alexander and Go. The picture at the top of this post is taken from The Phenomenon of Life, but it is not used in the discussion of Good Shape. It instead comes from his subchapter on the property of Deep Interlock and Ambiguity. Here is Alexander’s definition of that property:

“Living structures contain some form of interlock: situations where centers are ‘hooked’ into their surroundings. This has the effect of making it difficult to disentangle the center from its surroundings.”

I don’t know if Alexander was a Go player, so I don’t know if he recognized whether the photograph was of a competitive Go game. His point in using the picture was aesthetic: the photographed Go board illustrates Deeply Interlocked white and black stones––which didn’t necessarily require a competitive game. But unlike at least one example of Go in other media, the photograph of a Go game that Alexander selected appears to be played by capable players.

My hypothesis is that better players play games with more Deep Interlock and Ambiguity––more lively games! Below I’ve included two screenshots of finished Go games I’ve played. The first is a 13×13 game I played in my first months of playing. The latter is from last week. Perhaps you will notice the same trend in your own playing.

Relatively lifeless 13×13 Game from months ago.
More complex and lively game between ~10-kyu players.

From Brand New to Single Digit Kyu: Learning to Play Go

The below is for newcomers to Go. It is intended to illuminate some best practices for learning.

Before I get into it, a bit about me: I started to learn Go in May 2020 as an alternative to chess. I was drawn to it for a few reasons:

First, Go is a Chinese game. Since spending my early 20s in China, I have had limited exposure to China and Chinese. Learning Go has been a great way to reconnect with China and exercise my brain in one swoop. Much more on this below.

Second, Go students experience the same satisfying––if arduous––path of continuous challenge and improvement that students experience training a martial art, like Brazilian jiujitsu. I love the Sisyphean journey of learning new techniques, only to be thwarted by new sets of challenges.

Third, learning Go is comparable to learning a foreign language. I’ve enjoyed learning languages in my life: Spanish and Mandarin. Go exercises the same part of the brain.

Learning to Read: Life, Death, and 9×9

Part of the difficulty of writing about learning Go as someone who knows how to play the game is that it is easy to forget how the game looks to a beginner.

An ignorant onlooker can easily reverse engineer the rules of certain games. Take soccer, for example. Besides “offsides,” the rules are fairly transparent.

Other games’ rules are difficult to reverse engineer. My German stepmother sat through countless baseball games, but America’s pastime remains a mystery to her.

Go is baseball. The ignorant onlooker staring at a game of Go is hopeless. Even looking at a nearly completed game of Go, the onlooker won’t be able to tell who is winning (except, perhaps, by looking at the relative strain in the players’ facial expressions).

I remember those first days of playing Go the same way that I remember learning to read Chinese characters. You cannot learn Chinese by staring at the page. You must learn the characters one by one. In Go, a new player slowly learns to recognize patterns of stones. Is it good shape? The new Go player has no idea.

Those first games of Go are painful. In fact, if I had to identify a reason that Go is not a popular game, it is because of the pain of the first few dozen games.

Imagine being put into a game of baseball (in right field, of course, where Little League coaches across America for a hundred years have put the least talented players), except that no one has told you the rules of the game. That is how the first few games of Go feel. And there’s nothing you can do but play through––or give up and play chess.

And so, regrettably, the newcomer must play 9×9 with someone better than himself. Someone who can explain and review games. This means losing––over and over again. And not even necessarily understanding why you’ve lost nor by how much you’ve lost. You must simply learn to recognize shapes. And after a few dozen games, when asked “Is this good shape,” the new player finally comes to an answer.

I remember in those early days of learning Go I would often think of the Subreddit Awful Taste But Great Execution. A sign that you are learning Go is that your “taste” (recognition of good shape) gets better but your execution lags behind. Be diligent and execution will follow!

My Secret Weapon: Hai Li and His Juvenile Fighters

Just weeks after I began to play Go, I decided to find a teacher. I approached the San Diego Go Club to see if they could recommend someone. My unusual request was that I wanted someone who would teach me in Chinese.

Ted Terpstra, President of the San Diego Go Club and admirably dedicated Go educator, referred me to Hai Li. Hai is a former 5-dan professional player. One of his students is a 9-dan professional international champion. Given the level of his mastery of the game and the prestige of his students, it was kind of awkward to ask to learn from him. Nevertheless, I asked.

Hai welcomed me into his beginner-level class. (I’ve since graduated to his mid-level class.)

Class is conducted in a suite of Chinese software known as Xinbo. It’s outstanding, comprehensive instructional software. My favorite part of it is that it is usable on the iPad, which is the best hardware for digital Go. My other favorite part is its mascot, this adorable smiling chipmunk-reindeer hybrid. Don’t ask me how they were bred.

新博围棋教学对弈平台by 上海宏弈源软件科技有限公司

Hai holds class a few times every week. Having a job and commitments, I join once per week.

My classmates in the beginner class were all Chinese Americans between 4 and 10 years old. Some of them, no doubt, are future high-level dan, even professional players.

Each class is broken down into three sections: Killing patterns and joseki, a game, and a review.

Hai’s curated killing patterns are a big reason my rating has risen as fast as it has. By curated killing patterns, I mean that Hai gives his students a set of puzzles to solve. The solution to each puzzle of the set requires the use of the same killing tactic, a “snapback” could be one such example. Solving fifteen puzzles using the “snapback” tactic is a much more effective way to develop tactical skills than solving random tsumego, in my opinion.


I would highly recommend that a new player search for a group of curated killing patterns like those that Hai creates. I’m not sure of a good online resource. Perhaps someday I’ll create one!

Sometimes in lieu of or in addition to a set of curated puzzles, Hai introduces one or two common joseki. (This doesn’t begin until his mid-level class when students are playing on an empty 19×19 board.)

I think the utility of Hai’s approach to joseki is that, as a beginner, there appear to be a daunting number of options for where to play your stones. Learning a handful of the most common joseki reduces the number of options and simplifies the game. This post on Sensei’s Library covers some critical beginner joseki.

After solving a set of puzzles and memorizing joseki, students break into pairs and play a game of Go. Whether students play 13×13 or 19×19 depends on the students’ rating. The ratings I’ve used below demonstrate how my rating on OGS corresponded the board size I played on in Hai’s class.

25-20k students play 13×13 with stones on the board to encourage fighting.

20k-15k students play 13×13.

15k and beyond play 19×19.

By “stones on the board” I mean that students play a regular game of Go, but play begins with the following pattern:

The point of the stones on the board is so that students rapidly learn basic fighting tactics. In my own experience, playing with “stones on the board” quickly becomes uninteresting. I want to choose where all my stones go!

After the students finish playing, Hai reviews the games of each pair of students so that they can see their mistakes.

Before I go on I just want to make a quick note about my classmates: There’s a big difference between how I play and how the kids play. The kids all like to fight fight fight fight fight. Knowing my own fighting skills to be subpar and that I am relatively wise (old) and can capitalize on their youthful mistakes, I have developed a style of play that avoids fighting: “Always be tenuki-ing” like Alec Baldwin. I have become much more focused on developing strong “macro”––playing stones in broad strokes and ducking fights.

In some ways I think this style has helped my rating and also helped me to develop Go fundamentals.

13×13, Joseki, and Corner Fighting

As soon as I understood concept of “making life” I began to play as much as I could on a blank 13×13 board on OGS. I recommend that new Go players do the same. That said, there are both benefits and drawbacks to playing on a 13×13 board, all related to the tautologic fact that it’s a smaller-than-standard board.

The principal drawback to playing on a 13×13 board is that players learn bad habits. Compared with 19×19 games, corner territories in 13×13 are worth more relative to the rest of the board. It incentivizes players to play very low. Looking back at my 13×13 games, I was able to win many games simply by playing at the 3-3 point. On a 19×19 board, a 3-3 point opening is taboo.

I won so many games by playing 3-3 point openings on 13×13 boards that my rating soared to 12kyu way back in August! I must have developed the hubris of a prodigy.

But I was in for a disheartening: When I finally switched to playing 19×19, my rating plummeted to 17kyu. It was a slow clawing back to 12k which I achieved again only in early November.

The other chief drawback to 13×13 is that it is less interesting than 19×19. Part of what makes Go interesting is the astounding number of permutations of the game. A smaller board allows for fewer permutations.

In my opinion, the good of 13×13 outweighs the bad for new players. There is a Go proverb: “Lose your first 50 games as quickly as possible.” And the chief benefit of the 13×13 board is that it makes losing 50 painful games happen fast! On OGS, 19×19 games are timed at 20 minutes for each player, whereas 13×13 games are half that.

Similarly important for beginning players is that more games means more iterations of joseki and more life-making in corners. By the end of fifty 13×13 games, a new player will at the very least know one or two variations of a 3-3 invasion. And that is critical to know once you are playing on a 19×19 board.

Climbing Rating 19×19: Fuseki

I suspect that each player’s road to single-digit kyu is different. Some players, like the Chinese American youths in my class, probably fight their way to SDK. But the idea of fighting like they do makes me queasy.

As I mentioned above, my strategy for dealing with my bloodthirsty juvenile classmates has been to out “macro” them, which starts with joseki and fuseki.

Hai’s class helped me to recognize which joseki were most critical to my development as a player. But learning joseki is just the beginning: In every game, each corner of the board will have its own joseki. And when one joseki interacts with three others, they engender unpredictable interactions.

Viewed together on the entire board, these various joseki combine to form a fuseki––the whole board opening or “macro” picture of the game. I’ve come to think of the fuseki as a kind of “scaffolding.”

The most critical point of a Go game comes immediately after the fuseki. It is then that each player makes his highest-leverage moves, and the permutations and possibilities of the game manifest. At my level, this is where games are often lost after egregeious kyu-level blunders.


To improve in double digit kyu you must learn tactics. Improvement looks like this: Learn a specific tactic (a joseki, an invasion, etc.); attempt to implement it; fail in implementation dozens of times; observe your rating fall as you fail; experience modest success against weak opponents; and finally watch your rating climb back to where it was and beyond. (This, by the way, is precisely the same road to success in Brazilian Jiujitsu.)

One particular invasion tactic propelled me through the final ranks of double-digit kyu: The 2-5 point invasion, illustrated below.


In my in-class reviews with Hai Li, I played several losing games in a row where he gave me the same tip: If I want to invade the 4-4 / 6-3 enclosure, I need to use the 2-5 invasion. Eventually, I actually listened to my 5-dan pro teacher, and began to implement it.

Part of the fun of Go is that players have autonomy to “force” certain situations. That means, if you’re practicing a tactic like the 2-5 point invasion, you can play it whenever you want! I find this contrary to chess, where the opportunity to use a certain tactic won’t come up unless you force it while playing white.

Next Stop: Dan!

Soon I will be entering Hai Li’s advanced class. That means stronger opponents––maybe even teenagers! Here is what I’m thinking about right now in terms of how to improve now that I’m a vaunted SDK player:

1. More advanced, complicated joseki. I don’t think the process of learning joseki will end until A.I. “solves” Go. Until then, I have joseki to learn. Here’s one that has been giving me trouble recently:

2. Reduction. In general reduction of opponents’ territory is befuddling me. When facing an opponent with a strong moyo or “macro structure,” a Go player must choose to invade or reduce the opponent’s territory. To date I basically still just do a gunslinging “YOLO” invasion. That said, I don’t have any rules for reduction just yet. It seems to be a matter of “feeling” where to play.

3. Tsumego. Though I’ve been solving tsumego for half a year, I still don’t think I am very good at solving them. I wonder if Ke Jie feels the same way. It’s like this in BJJ: Here’s a video of Roger Gracie saying that he considers himself to have a “pretty good closed guard.” Roger Gracie has the undisputed best closed guard of all time.

That’s it. See you on OGS!

Growth Office Politics or How Growth Teams Piss Off Everyone in Your Company

This is a part of a series of posts written with my friend Greg Klausner who is currently Head of Growth at Juni Learning. The series is aimed at helping anyone who is considering adding a growth function within their organization.

Turf Battles Between Product and Growth

Because Growth teams sit in the ambiguous center of product and marketing, turf battles abound. As Peter Thiel writes in Zero to One:

Most fights inside a company happen when colleagues compete for the same responsibilities. Startups face an especially high risk of this since job roles are fluid at the early stages.

It is leadership’s challenge to divide responsibilities between Growth product managers and product managers. 

Product manager mandate:

Growth product manager mandate:

Turf Battles Between Marketing and Growth

Conflict between Growth and marketing, tend to be conflict between specific Growth projects and a founder’s vision or brand strategy.

In startup companies, founders often have extreme ideas about what their product should look like. You can probably imagine a founder wanting only two colors on their website: Green and White. If you’ve spent a lot of time in Silicon Valley, you can probably even imagine a founder wanting a website colored only with shades of green!

It’s easy to imagine the issue here: shades of green and white may not do an optimal job of driving attention to a “Buy Now!” button.

Technology companies can avoid conflict between marketing and growth by A) having a flexible brand and vision or B) having a brand or vision that is a wide enough umbrella to encompass a variety of growth projects.  

Technical Debt / Conflict with Engineers

Growth teams are incentivized to do rapid experimentation. This often takes the form of minor tweaks to products and pages: Growth changes a button from red to blue. Then they move a banner from the left to the right. These changes are possible only because of corresponding addition of code to a product’s code base. 

One possible problem is that Growth teams’ additions make a mess of existing code. Imagine Eric the Engineer writes some beautiful code organized like a Victorian landscape painting. Then Growth Greg comes along like Jackson Pollock and adds a splotch of code code here and another splotch there. The end result might be technical debt, illegible code, and a very angry Eric.

Non-Growth engineering teams can even become explicitly hostile toward Growth: “Keep off my lawn!”

Analytics Feasibility / Conflict with Analysts

Imagine that last week your metrics showed you a 15% decrease in revenue. The impulse of leadership will be to have an analytics expert to crunch some user numbers to try to figure out what broke. But what happens a week later if they still haven’t found out what happened? 

Growth Leader: Hi Analyst, Crunch these numbers!

One week later.

Analyst: I crunched them and didn’t find an answer.

Growth Leader: OK, keep crunching.

One month later.

Analyst: I crunched them some more. Still no answer.

Growth Leader: KEEP CRUNCHING!!!!

Meanwhile, the analyst is spending most of his time looking for new jobs on Linkedin. 

The issue here is that metrics “tease.” Because you can see data so clearly, there is often the appearance of a coherent problem. But the reality underneath the data is a complicated bucket of undiscovered problems. The analyst may not be looking in the right place.

This can be avoided by thinking hard about the best use of analysts’ time. If after a week they still haven’t found the answer, disregard the sunk cost and find a new project for them.

Past Returns and Future Projections / Conflict with Leadership

Imagine that you are an executive at Company A and you see the following table:

Fiscal Year201620172018
Sales Team (Budget)1,000,00010,000,000?
Sales Team (Revenue)10,000,000100,000,000
Growth Team (Budget)1,000,00010,000,000?
Growth Team (Revenue)10,000,000500,000,000

It is your job to figure out the budget for Sales and Growth in 2018. A reasonable conclusion from this data is that you should increase the budget for Growth in 2018 to $100,000,000. After all, look at how increasing the Growth budget 10x in 2017 led to a 50x increase in revenue!

The problem with that conclusion is that Growth projects yield asymmetric returns.

Growth teams are more like prospectors mining a finite plot of land for gold. It could be that in FY 2017, the growth team struck the only gold that existed in that plot of land. That means that there is no gold left to be mined in FY 2018. Any investment in growth projects will be for naught.

Increasing the sales team budget means hiring more people to solve the SAME problem over and over in different places. Increasing the growth budget means hiring more people to look for NEW problems to solve. But what if there aren’t any?

How Leaders Define Reality for Organizations

“The role of the leader is to define reality and give hope.”––Napoleon

“The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality.”––Max Depree

I gave a presentation a few days ago to someone who may join our team.

My presentation included organization KPIs, a SWOT analysis, a “map” of industry competitors, an org chart, a description of changes underway, some company values, our company logo and brand, and a few ways that this guy could fit into the organization.

Given the scope of the presentation, choosing a title was tricky. It seemed like I was covering Organizational Everything. So I simply titled it “Organization Name, September 2020.”

Later I realized that the title should have been “Reality for Organization Name, September 2020.” Because the purpose of the presentation was to define reality for its audience.

I had heard the above quote from Max Depree a few months ago. I think I agreed with it because I mapped it to some famous examples of reality-benders:

Readers of Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs remember his “Reality Distortion Field.”

A driving force in American politics is Donald Trump’s “Fake News.” (And what is the opposite of fake?)

But even agreeing with Depree’s quote, I didn’t understand the tools leaders used to define reality. Was it as simple as possessing Jobs-level charisma or repeating “fake news,” over and over again?

Before I list the tools, I want to introduce a 2×2 from Will McWhinney’s Paths of Change. This idea should help to explicate how the outlined tools take effect.

SAGE Books - Creating Paths of Change: Managing Issues and Resolving  Problems in Organizations

The 2×2 describes four archetypal realities. I’m not going to dive deep here. McWhiney offers that readers can locate their “reality” somewhere on this 2×2. Here is an imperfect shorthand for what each quadrant represents:

Unitary: Reality is set by divinity. (Theocrats.)

Sensory: Reality is set by the observed. (Engineers.)

Mythic: Reality is set by the self. (New-ageists.)

Social: Reality is set by us. (Socialist antagonists of Ayn Rand novels.)

If you’re reading this, you may have a sense of where you sit on the 2×2. And that’s part of the point of this segue: Each individual in an audience brings with him a different reality––a different point on the 2×2. The leader must bring each team member’s point together.

Tools for Reality Convergence

Now to circle back to my presentation and map its features onto McWhinney’s 2×2. The mapping is imperfect, but I’ve done my best.

1. Key Performance Indicators “KPIs” [Sensory/Social]

Every organization has a set of numbers that tell an at-a-glance story about how the business is doing relative to the past. This is as sensory as it gets.

That said, picking which numbers to include as organizational KPIs is a critical political metagame and an expression of the organization’s [Social] values.

2. Organizational Values [Social]

The leader says: “These are the things that are important to us.” The audience agrees or is disengaged.

3. Maps [Sensory]

Organizations use various maps to understand where they are in their competitive landscapes.

In the most obvious sense a map may show headquarters and satellite offices. A map could also display organizational capabilities relative to competitors’. A Wardley map could tell an organization “where” its technological development is.

I can also imagine an organization using a [Mythic] map: Imagine leadership describing an organization as a Hobbit that has finally arrived in Mordor.

4. Symbols [Mythic]

One organization I work with uses the Chinese character Wang to define reality. The literal translation of Wang is “king,” but the etymology of the character contains more nuance: In short, an effective Wang unites heaven and earth.

Another example of an effective symbol: A wall was the divisive symbol of the 2016 Trump campaign.

5. Stories and Metaphors [Mythic]

Images of Organization describes how organizations can be described as machines, brains, organisms, and more. Each metaphor carries its own capabilities and limitations. A leader can set reality by picking a beneficial metaphor.

6. Beliefs [Unitary]

One organization I work with has a statement of its beliefs. (Though statement “We believe” might be more [Social] than [Unitary].)

I’ve heard of a faith-based organization whose mission is to spread the love of Jesus. How’s that for a [Unitary] corporate belief?

7. Possibilities [???]

Finally we’ve arrived at Napoleon’s hope. I’m not really sure in which reality “Possibilities” belong. Perhaps in all of them.

The important thing is that if a leader has adequately defined reality, both leader and audience will recognize the same Possibilities.

This is one of the main benefits of defining reality: When team members recognize and value the same possibilities, conflict disappears. When this happens we sometimes say teams are aligned or that they share an organizational culture.

(It strikes me that “alignment” and “culture” are euphemisms. Heads might explode if corporate America began to speak in terms of alternate realities.)


The list above obviously isn’t comprehensive. In fact, you could argue that everything in every presentation ever made is aimed at “defining reality.”

But my hypothesis is that to effectively define reality, a leader should incorporate elements from as many of McWhinney’s realities as possible.

The presentation I gave the other day was really strong. I don’t think I recognized why it was strong. Today I see unifying ideas from the [Sensory], [Social], and [Mythic] realities.

Brazilian Jiujitsu: Human Chess or Human Go?

One Brazilian jiujitsu cliché is that it is “human chess.” This self-indulgent essay argues that Go is better than chess as an analog for BJJ. It is written for BJJ practitioners with some understanding of chess but limited or no exposure to Go. It will be tough to understand for a reader without knowledge of BJJ.

Disclaimer: I am about a ~1400 chess player, a ~13k Go player, and a BJJ blue belt. In other words: My knowledge of chess, go, and BJJ is imperfect.

Simple Rules, Enormous Complexity

The most famous Western quote about Go comes from Emanuel Lasker, an early chess world champion. Lasker said, “If there are sentient beings on other planets, then they play Go.”

Lasker was speaking to the elegant, organic rules of Go.

In chess, each piece has its own special function: The bishop moves in a diagonal, the knight in an L shape, etc. The rules of chess are complex.

Go rules, by contrast, are simple: Each stone is the same. Go forth and establish positional dominance.

BJJ rules are elegant and organic, similar to Go: Your pieces are your body. No striking. Go forth and establish positional dominance.

Part of the beauty of BJJ and Go is that despite their simple rules, competitions of each are spectacularly complex––even to an extent that makes them difficult to watch and impossible to understand for non-players! Simple rules engender enormous complexity; BJJ and Go are each their own Mandlebrot Set.

The Mandelbrot at a glance
Mandlebrot Set
The spectacular permutations of Garry Tonon’s body.

I might offer a corollary to Lasker’s claim: If there are gym rats on other planets, then they train BJJ.

Establish Positional Dominance (Don’t Just Capture the King)

I hinted above that the aim of BJJ and Go competitors are similar: Competitors in each aim to establish positional dominance. This is different from chess.

Consider John Danaher’s infamous four-step description of the traditional BJJ scoring system: Bring the opponent to the ground, pass his dangerous legs, pin your opponent, and finally submit him.

If a BJJ match ends without a submission, the fighter who established more positional dominance wins. Submissions themselves are positions of extreme dominance. Again: The goal of BJJ is to establish positional dominance.

In chess the connection between positional dominance and victory is dicier. To win, a player must capture the king. Consider the below image of a game ending in a stalemate even though one player enjoys an extremely dominant position:

Black to play: Stalemate.

To make BJJ more like chess, the scoring system would have to be made more one-dimensional: To win a match, a player would have to secure a rear-naked choke.

To make chess more like BJJ, on the other hand, points would have to be awarded for positional dominance. In other words: Chess would have to be made more like Go.

Go games are decided by positional dominance. In the below image, white has won the game by acquiring more territory.

White (me) wins in spectacular fashion

During the course of a Go game, one player might recognize that he is in a compromised position and cannot recover. In that case, he will resign (or submit to his opponent’s dominant position).

Black (me) resigns after realizing that all is lost.

Top and Bottom versus Influence and Territory

Absent from chess is the interplay between a “top player” and a “bottom player.” In BJJ top and bottom players have different scoring tactics available (pass guard versus sweep). To my knowledge, chess lacks a conceptual analog. Obviously “attacking and defending” in chess is not the same “top and bottom” in BJJ, which are each attacking positions.

Go, however, has the concepts of Influence and Territory. Consider the Go game below:

The image above is of a typical “corner fight” in Go. The black player is playing Territorial: He is attempting to claim the corner territory as his. Go players would actually describe white as “playing low,” “underneath,” or “below” white. Sound familiar?

For their part, the black stones have more Influence. Again, the white stones sit “above” or “on top of” the black ones. From his influential position, the white player can look to pressure and then capture the corner black stones, or he can seek to claim territory on other parts of the board.

As in BJJ, neither Influence nor Territory is paramount. During Go gameplay, players seek to strengthen the strategic advantages granted by their territorial and influential positions.

At higher levels of play, some players develop an influential style while others develop a territorial style. In these stylistic differences BJJ practitioners would recognize their own concept of “game.”

Making Life and the Guard Recovery

Let’s stay with this corner fight.

We can pretend for a minute that this corner fight is happening in a vacuum, and whoever wins the corner wins the game. White’s goal then, becomes to capture the black stones by surrounding them––without letting black “make life.” Here is how white might succeed:

White moves first: S1, T2, R1

For his part, black’s goal is to make life. If black makes life, his stones can no longer be captured. This is tough to describe without going into the rules of Go, but to make life black must have two spaces, or “eyes,” within his group of stones.

Here is one way that black could “make life” in the corner fight:

Black moves first: S1, T3, T2

Life-making is analogous to the guard recovery. Before making life, black has essentially “turtled” in the corner. White will apply pressure. If black makes life, he will be free to mount an attack on white’s position.

One way to improve your Go skill is to practice “life-making” puzzles called tsumego. BJJ practitioners might do guard passing drills.

Gambits and Leg Locks

In chess, gambits (sacrifices) are most often used in the opening of the game (see the famous Queen’s Gambit opening below) to establish broad positional advantage.

Queens Gambit - The Chess Website
Queen’s gambit opening

In Go, on the other hand, sacrifices are commonplace throughout the game. Sacrifices in Go aim to give up positional advantage in one location on the board in exchange for a broader positional advantage. You might consider sacrifices in Go the equivalent of “Fuck it, try a leg lock” in BJJ.

Check out this sequence in which black sacrifices a stone in exchange for a big gain in influence:

Popular corner sequence in which black has sacrificed his stones at Q3 and R3 in order to gain the outside influence on the bottom left side of the board.

There is a significant difference here: In BJJ, a player often sacrifices a dominant top position to try a leg lock. In Go, a player typically sacrifices a stone for broader positional dominance. The relationship between sacrifice and position appears to be “inverted” in BJJ and Go.

Cutting, Inversion, and Sweeps

Speaking of inversion, it’s time to introduce the concept of cutting in Go. The tactic of cutting is part of what makes Go dynamic. Here is an example of a cut by white, blocking black’s stones and threatening to attack:

By playing P6, black threatens white’s stones

The effective cut above acts like a timely inversion or a sweep. A player who has just had his stones “cut” can quickly find himself in a “bottom” position, desperate to make life. One of his groups is cut off from his other stones and threatened—as though his opponent has just inverted to attack an ankle.

Of course, cuts are not always effective, just as a BJJ competitor who inverts risks being sprawled on and smashed by his heavy opponent.

History, Language, and Proverbs

By now you’ve noticed some of the linguistic similarity of Go and BJJ.

Like jiujitsu, Go came to the West recently. It was introduced in the Americas by the Japanese in the early 20th century. Both Go and BJJ use copious Japanese terminology. High-ranking practitioners of each receive a dan ranking. (The highest ranked professional Go players are 9-dan).

Go is linguistically even more Asian than BJJ. English-speaking players use Japanese terms for positions, tactics, and more.

BJJ: Kimura, Ashi Garami, Kesa Gatame, and a litany of judo terms

Go: Sente, Gote, Aji, Hane, and much more

In some cases, the vocabulary of BJJ might actually be improved by more use of Japanese vocabulary.

One great example is the chess concept of “tempo,” which Keenan Cornelius popularized in BJJ. In Go, a Japanese term sente captures tempo. Go even has a useful bonus term gote, which is the move that responds the sente move: One grappler shoots a takedown [in sente]; his opponent sprawls [in gote].)

It’s also worth noting that many of the tactical and strategic proverbs related to Go can also be applied to BJJ.

“Urgent points before big points.” (See: Position before submission.)

“Use Go to make friends.” (From the Chinese Yi Qi Hui You)

“Give your opponent what he wants.”

A full list of Go proverbs can be found at Sensei’s Library.


This became a lengthy essay! I hope you enjoyed it. Let me just point readers to the great sport of chess boxing. I leave it to my readers to create its Go/BJJ analog!