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Go and mathematics

The game of Go is one of the most popular games in the world. As a result of its elegant and simple rules, the game has long been an inspiration for mathematical research. Chinese scholars of the 11th century already published work on permutations based on the go board.[citation needed] In more recent years, research of the game by John H. Conway led to the invention of the surreal numbers and contributed to development of combinatorial game theory (with Go Infinitesimals[1] being a specific example of its use in Go).


Computational complexityEdit

Generalized Go is played on n x n boards, and the computational complexity of determining the winner in a given position of generalized Go depends crucially on the ko rules.

Go is “almost” in PSPACE, since in normal play, moves are not reversible, and it is only through capture that there is the possibility of the repeating patterns necessary for a harder complexity.

Without KoEdit

Without ko, Go is PSPACE-hard.[2] This is proved by reducing True Quantified Boolean Formula, which is known to be PSPACE-complete, to generalized geography, to planar generalized geography, to planar generalized geography with maximum degree 3, finally to Go positions.

Go with ko is not known to be in PSPACE. Though actual games seem never to last longer than   moves, in general it's not known if there were a polynomial bound on the length of Go games. If there were, Go would be PSPACE-complete. As it currently stands, it might be PSPACE-complete, EXPTIME-complete, or even EXPSPACE-complete.

Japanese Ko RuleEdit

Japanese ko rules state that only the basic ko, that is, a move that reverts the board to the situation one move previously, is forbidden. Longer repetitive situations are allowed (thus potentially allowing a game to loop forever). For example, the triple ko, where there are three kos at the same time, allowing a cycle of 12 moves.

With Japanese ko rules, Go is EXPTIME-complete.[3]

Superko ruleEdit

The superko rule (also called positional superko rule) states that a repetition of any board position that has previously occurred is forbidden. It's the ko rule used in most Chinese and US rulesets.

It is an open problem what the complexity class of Go is under superko rule. Though Go with Japanese ko rule is EXPTIME-complete, both the lower and the upper bounds of Robson’s EXPTIME-completeness proof[3] break when the superko rule is added.

It is known that it is at least PSPACE-hard, since the proof in [2] of the PSPACE-hardness of Go does not rely on the ko rule, or lack of the ko rule. It is also known that Go is in EXPSPACE.[4]

Robson [4] showed that if the superko rule, that is, “no previous position may ever be recreated”, is added to certain two-player games that are EXPTIME-complete, then the new games would be EXPSPACE-complete. Intuitively, it's because it requires an exponential amount of space even to determine the legal moves from a position, because the game history leading up to a position could be exponentially long.

As a result, superko variants (moves that repeat a previous board position are not allowed) of generalized chess and checkers are EXPSPACE-complete, since generalized chess[5] and checkers[6] are EXPTIME-complete. However, this result does not apply to Go.[4]

Complexity of certain Go configurationsEdit

A Go endgame begins when the board is divided into areas that are isolated from all other local areas by living stones, such that each local area has a polynomial size canonical game tree. In the language of combinatorial game theory, it happens when a Go game decomposes into a sum of subgames with polynomial size canonical game trees.

With that definition, Go endgames are PSPACE-hard.[7]

This is proven by converting the Quantified Boolean Formula problem, which is PSPACE-complete, into a sum of small (with polynomial size canonical game trees) Go subgames. Note that the paper does not prove that Go endgames are in PSPACE, so they might not be PSPACE-complete.

Determining which side wins a ladder capturing race is PSPACE-complete, whether Japanese ko rule or superko rule is in place.[8] This is proven by simulating QBF, known to be PSPACE-complete, with ladders that bounce around the board like light beams.

Legal positionsEdit

Since each location on the board can be either empty, black, or white, there are a total of 3N possible board positions on a board with N intersections. Tromp and Farnebäck showed that on a 19×19 board, about 1.2% of board positions are legal (no stones without liberties exist on the board), which makes for 3361×0.01196... = 2.08168199382... ×10170 legal positions "of which we can expect all digits to be correct" (i.e. because the convergence is so fast).[9] It has been estimated that the observable universe contains around 1080 atoms, far fewer than the number of possible legal positions. As the board gets larger, the percentage of the positions that are legal decreases.

Game size Board size N 3N Percent legal Maximum legal game positions (A094777)[10]
1×1 1 3 33% 1
2×2 4 81 70% 57
3×3 9 19,683 64% 12,675
4×4 16 43,046,721 56% 24,318,165
5×5 25 8.47×1011 49% 4.1×1011
9×9 81 4.4×1038 23.4% 1.039×1038
13×13 169 4.3×1080 8.66% 3.72497923×1079
19×19 361 1.74×10172 1.196% 2.08168199382×10170
21×21 441 2.57×10210

The exact number of legal 19x19 positions was computed by Tromp and others in early 2016 as 208 168 199 381 979 984 699 478 633 344 862 770 286 522 453 884 530 548 425 639 456 820 927 419 612 738 015 378 525 648 451 698 519 643 907 259 916 015 628 128 546 089 888 314 427 129 715 319 317 557 736 620 397 247 064 840 935.[11]

Game tree complexityEdit

The computer scientist Victor Allis notes that typical games between experts last about 150 moves, with an average of about 250 choices per move, suggesting a game-tree complexity of 10360.[12] For the number of theoretically possible games, including games impossible to play in practice, Tromp and Farnebäck give lower and upper bounds of 101048 and 1010171 respectively.[9] The most commonly quoted number for the number of possible games, 10700[13] is derived from a simple permutation of 361 moves or 361! = 10768. Another common derivation is to assume N intersections and L longest game for N^L total games. For example, 400 moves, as seen in some professional games, would be one out of 361400 or 1 × 101023 possible games.

The total number of possible games is a function both of the size of the board and the number of moves played. While most games last less than 400 or even 200 moves, many more are possible.

Game size Board size N (intersections) N! Average game length L NL Maximum game length (# of moves) Lower Limit of games Upper Limit of games
2×2 4 24 3 64 386,356,909,593[14]
3×3 9 3.6×105 5 5.9×104
4×4 16 2.1×1013 9 6.9×1010
5×5 25 1.6×1025 15 9.3×1020
9×9 81 5.8×10120 45 7.6×1085
13×13 169 4.3×10304 90 3.2×10200
19×19 361 1.0×10768 200 3×10511 1048 101048 1010171
21×21 441 2.5×10976 250 1.3×10661

The total number of possible games can be estimated from the board size in a number of ways, some more rigorous than others. The simplest, a permutation of the board size, (N)L, fails to include illegal captures and positions. Taking N as the board size (19×19=361) and L as the longest game, NL forms an upper limit. A more accurate limit is presented in the Tromp/Farnebäck paper.

Longest game L (19×19) (N)L Lower Limit of games Upper Limit of games Notes
1 361 361 361 White resigns after first move, 361 ignoring all symmetry including y=x else (Distances from corner)10x10-10=90 90/2=45 +10 (adding back x=y points of symmetry) = 55.
2 722 721 Black resigns after white's first move, 721 ignoring all symmetry including y=x else 19x19-19=342 342/2=171 +19 = 190 - 1= 189.
50 2.1×10126 7.5×10127
100 1.4×10249 5.6×10255
150 6.4×10367 4.2×10383
200 1.9×10481 3.2×10511
250 8.2×10587 2.4×10639
300 2.8×10684 7.8×10766
350 3.6×10760 1.3×10895
361 1.4×10768 1.8×10923 Longest game using 181 black and 180 white stones
400 n/a 1.0×101023 Longest professional games
500 n/a 5.7×101278
1000 n/a 3.2×102557
47 million n/a 10108 361^3 moves
1048 n/a 101048 1010171 Longest game

From this table, we can see that 10700 is an overestimate of the number of possible games that can be played in 200 moves and an underestimate of the number of games that can be played in 361 moves. It can also be noted that since there are about 31 million seconds in a year, it would take about 2¼ years, playing 16 hours a day at one move per second, to play 47 million moves.

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ Go Infinitesimals
  2. ^ a b Lichtenstein, David; Sipser, Michael (April 1980). "Go Is Polynomial-Space Hard" (PDF). Journal of the ACM. 27 (2): 393–401. doi:10.1145/322186.322201. 
  3. ^ a b Robson, John (1983). "The complexity of Go". Proceedings of the IFIP 9th World Computer Congress on Information Processing: 413–417. 
  4. ^ a b c Robson, J (1984). "Combinatorial games with exponential space complete decision problems". Proceedings of the Mathematical Foundations of Computer Science: 498–506. doi:10.1007/BFb0030333. 
  5. ^ Aviezri Fraenkel and D. Lichtenstein (1981). "Computing a perfect strategy for n×n chess requires time exponential in n". J. Comb. Th. A (31): 199–214. doi:10.1016/0097-3165(81)90016-9. 
  6. ^ J. M. Robson (1984). "N by N checkers is Exptime complete". SIAM Journal on Computing. 13 (2): 252–267. doi:10.1137/0213018. 
  7. ^ Wolfe, David (2002). Nowakowski, Richard J., ed. "Go endgames are PSPACE-hard" (PDF). More Games of No Chance, Mathematical Sciences Research Institute Publications 42. Cambridge University Press: 125–136. 
  8. ^ Crâşmaru, Marcel; Tromp, John (2000). "Ladders are PSPACE-Complete". Computers and Games, volume 2063 of Lecture Notes in Computer Science. Springer. doi:10.1007/3-540-45579-5_16. 
  9. ^ a b "Combinatorics of Go", J Tromp, G Farnebäck - Computers and Games, 2007
  10. ^ Tromp 2005
  11. ^
  12. ^ Allis 1994
  13. ^ AGA – top ten reason to play Go
  14. ^ Tromp 1999


External linksEdit