If one of the players is stronger than the other, a handicap can be given. The weaker player takes the black stones, and is allowed to make between 2 and 9 moves before the first white stone is played. (Black always plays 1 stone before the first white one anyway, and so the smallest handicap is a 2 stone handicap.) In China, Black may play these moves anywhere on the board, but in Japan they must be played on the handicap points or star points which are the nine points on the board marked with small black dots. In most other countries, the Japanese system is most often used. The places where the handicap stones must be played in this system are shown below.
Handicaps give Black a bigger advantage on small boards than they do
on large ones. Every stone on a 13x13 board has about the same effect as
two stones on a 19x19 board, and every stone on a 9x9 board has about the
same effect as two stones on a 13x13 board. So if two players are evenly
matched on a 13x13 board with a 4 stone handicap, then they should use an
8 stone handicap on a 19x19 board, and only a 2 stone handicap on a 9x9
board. On a 9x9 board, even a 4 stone handicap gives Black a huge advantage,
and usually no more than 4 stones are given.
When no handicap is used, making the first move still gives Black an advantage of about 5 points. To make the game exactly even, White can be given a bonus or komi (ko-mee) of 5 points. White may be given 5 black captives before the game begins, or the 5 points can simply be added to White's score at the end of the game. In tournaments, the komi is often 5 1/2 points so that there is never a tie. When one player is just a little bit better, but not enough for a 2 stone handicap, then the stronger player will take the white stones but without any komi. This is like giving a "1 stone handicap".
If two players play several games with each other, there is a simple way to find a good handicap. Begin playing with no handicap at all, or just guess what the handicap should be. After that, if the same player has won the last two games, change the handicap by one stone. If enough games are played, each player should win about half of them. If there is a larger group of players, however, then any two of them will probably not play each other often enough, and a better way is needed.
There is a system for ranking go players which originated in Japan and is now used in most countries of the world. A beginner who has learned the rules in the last section, but has not played any games yet, would have a rank of 30-kyu (pronounced "cue") which is the lowest rank. As you improve, your rank rises to 29-kyu, 28-kyu, and so on. If you read the rest of this Introduction to Go, and play a dozen games or so, then you will likely be about 20-kyu. It is a little harder to reach 10-kyu: you will have to play a lot of games, and perhaps read a book or two about basic Go strategy. When you reach 5-kyu, you are getting quite good at the game, and when you reach 1-kyu, you are almost a master go player. The next rank after 1-kyu is 1-dan (or shodan in Japanese) which is a first-degree master player. (In sports like karate, a shodan wears a black belt.) Above 1-dan, there are 2-dan, 3-dan, and so on. The highest rank for an amateur is 6-dan (or, at times, 7-dan). The number of ranks between two players gives the number of handicap stones to use on a full-size 19x19 board. So if a 5-kyu player plays a 9-kyu player, they should use a handicap of 4 stones. A 2-dan player would give a 4-kyu player 5 stones. A 3-kyu player would use the white stones with no komi against a 4-kyu player, and two players with the same rank would play with a 5 point komi.
Players obtain dan rankings by playing in official tournaments run by Go Associations in countries all over the world. Players may obtain kyu rankings from such tournaments, too, but more often they will just guess their rank by playing better players and seeing how many handicap stones are needed to give an even game. If you need a 7-stone handicap before you can beat a 1-dan player about half the time, then you are probably a 7-kyu. If you are able to give a 5-stone handicap to a weaker player, then that player is probably about a 12-kyu, and so on. Some people take ranks very seriously, but their main purpose is to give a fair handicap so that the game will be interesting and enjoyable for both players.
There are also professional go players. They have ranks from 1-dan to 9-dan, but a 1-dan professional player is about 1 rank higher than an amateur 6-dan (in other words, about the same as an amateur 7-dan would be). The professional ranks are also closer together than the amateur ones. A difference of 4 professional ranks is about the same as a difference of 1 amateur rank. Below is a scale showing all of the ranks in Go. As you rise up the scale, it gets more and more difficult to reach the next rank. It is very easy to improve from 30-kyu to 29-kyu but much harder to improve from 1-dan to 2-dan. It usually takes many years of playing full-time for a professional player to reach pro 9-dan.
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