Go for Kids, by Milton N. Bradley. Yutopian Y31; 2001.

This is an introductory go book, targeted for kids. It's divided into two parts; the first part, "Essentials", presents the rules of the game along with the basic facts, while the second part, "Good to Know", goes into some aspects of the game in more detail. There are also appendices on Japanese go terms, ratings and handicaps, computer programs, and internet go.

The most distinctive aspect of the book, however, is the presence of cartoons, which appear throughout the book. At first, I assumed that these were simply window-dressing to appeal to kids (and, I should add, that seems to me like a perfectly reasonable thing to put in a go book targeted at kids). Actually, however, the author's purpose goes beyond that: they give him a place to answer questions that, in the author's experience, come up when teaching children but which wouldn't fit nicely in the body of the text. As the author puts it, they "add the vital missing 'why' to the usual 'how and when' of conventional Go primers."

Unfortunately, this book has some problems. I prefer introductory go books that get players started playing relatively quickly, and that start with only the simple concepts necessary to get playing while deferring more complicated concepts to later in the book. That is not the way the book is written. Consider chapter 1; it's titled "Basic Ideas", and is one of 9 chapters making up the first part of the book. (To give you an idea of the flow of that first part, "Capture" is chapter 3, "Territory" is chapter 7, and "Ending/Scoring" is chapter 9, the last chapter in part 1. So you don't really learn everything necessary to play your first game until you've read 116 pages of the book.)

This first chapter begins with a discussion of the board, intersections, stones, and what a move is. Then, it talks about the division of each game into opening/middle game/end game. This already set off warning bells in my head - surely that topic could be deferred until people have actually played a few games? - but what was even more problematic is that next follows "'Magic Formula' 1", namely that, in the opening, you should play first on the corners, then the sides, then the center. This is illustrated on small boards: 9x9 boards at first, but then moving (without comment) to 11x11 boards for the sides and center examples.

Why on earth is this an appropriate topic? We're on page 7 of the book, and haven't covered many crucial topics necessary to play a game at all: surely we should be more worried about teaching the reader how to play the game, rather than niceties like this? (Recall that capturing won't be introduced for two more chapters.)

The next topic in the first chapter is handicaps, followed by a sample game. Now, I'm a big fan of putting sample games in books before you've covered all of the rules, to give you an idea for what the game is like and what you need to know to get started. Iwamoto's Go for Beginners is a nice example of this; but that example game is careful to only present a few necessary concepts that haven't been covered yet (e.g. atari/capture, territory) and to explain those when they come up. The example game in Go for Kids, however, is completely different. Already at the seventh move we are told that "B7 (the two step Hane) is a very carefully calculated tactical play which presses Black's natural first move advantage to the limit"; this is followed by a mention of subtle threats that would go way over the head of any newcomer that I've ever seen, and comments like "After W22, the Aji (remaining potential) of the clever sacrifice of W8 finally comes into play!" Basically, it reads like it's trying to impress the reader about how much the author understands about that game, rather than trying to present a game that the beginner could take something from. This was apparently a conscious decision: the next cartoon starts with a kid saying "Wow! I played over the game move-by-move as you suggested, but I still didn't understand anything that was happening!" I'm sure that many readers would feel the same way; I doubt that most readers would be as forgiving of the author as the kid in the cartoon.

And it's not just the first chapter that's like this: the whole first part of the book is that way, with simple concepts immediately followed by complicated examples that go far beyond both what has just been presented and what is necessary to get a beginner off and running. (The second part of the book doesn't suffer from this as much.) For example, the chapter on capturing (the third chapter, following a chapter on groups of stones and liberties) says when stones are captured, gives a single example of one stone being captured, and then moves on to suicide. It next returns to a simple example, this time of four stones being captured, but then almost immediately confronts the reader with a complicated example of a corner position where one side can capture four stones and the other side can then cut in such a way that will soon lead to the recapture of two stones. (In case I'm not describing it clearly, this is much more complicated than a standard example where black captures two stones and white immediately recaptures one stone.)

I also ultimately am not convinced that the cartoons in the book work well, though I imagine that other people may disagree with me. Some of the cartoons have kids asking questions that seem like they would naturally occur in real life, like "what happens if you run out of stones when playing?"; I'm not sure that their presence really improves the book, but I don't mind those ones. Others, however, ring less true to me: the kids seem too idealized, either asking just the right questions (and being told by the teacher how smart they are) or being confused but then getting reassured by the teacher in just the right way. Maybe I'm reading too much into this, though; I'm sure that many other readers wouldn't mind the cartoons at all, and I probably wouldn't mind them either if I liked the rest of the book.

Some superficial notes: frankly, the quality of the drawing in the comics isn't very good. (You can judge for yourself at the author's web page for the book; the cartoons in the book are in black-and-white, not in color.) Also, the book is almost entirely in a typewriter-style font, which seems like a strange decision to me.

So I don't recommend this book nearly as much as some other introductory books. You can probably get a good feel for whether or not you'd like the book by reading its first chapter.

The author has posted a response to this review on his web page.

david carlton <carlton@bactrian.org>

Last modified: Sun Aug 10 21:00:15 PDT 2003