One of the main advantages of Go over the other board games is the possibility to play an even game with a handicap.

Handicap Go is the traditional form of teaching and playing for Go players. These type of games are in effect a form of graded tutorials: if you cannot beat your teacher with a nine-stone handicap, some major aspects are still to be learned.

Also, handicap Go is often used in unofficial games where the rank difference between players is more than 2. That’s the main reason why Go players describe rank difference by stones (for example saying “I’m 3 stones stronger” rather than “I’m 3 ranks higher”).

In contrast to an even game, it is White’s turn to play the first “real” stone (after the black handicap stones have been set on the board), except in a one-handicap-stone game where black makes the first move.

Types of handicaps

Traditionally, handicap stones are put on the star points, but one can also play with free placement of the stones.

This usually depends on the ruleset of the game. Here’s the list of which rulesets use free and fixed handicap placements:

Type of handicap placementRulesets
Fixed placementJapanese, Korean, AGA,
Free placementChinese, New Zealand

All handicap games start from the handicap points, and it is common knowledge that the purpose of playing on the handicap points is not to take territory.

Rather, the stress is on building up influence and playing a fast, figtting game. I want you to realize that this is the true meaning of handicap Go, or rather of the handicap stones.

Toshiro Kageyama

In the opening stages of the game, territory and influence are equally valuable. However, if you focus only on building territory and neglect influence, you are likely to be at a disadvantage later in the game.

How to play handicap Go as White

The main objective of White is to counter Black’s influence all over the board.

This is simple when playing a handicap game of 2-3 stones, but at 4 or higher it gets hard. In any case, playing White can do marvels for one’s fighting skills.

Firstly, it is important to keep things fluid. Do not play any forcing sequences that you do not yet have to.

Do not try to force black to protect his territory, because he will. Instead, try to have an alternate plan for your stones, and try to leave all kinds of aji lying around, because correctly utilizing and eliminating aji are very tricky things to do.

Also, keep in mind that Black will seek to make thick large-scale positions and fight for the center, so play lightly and avoid settling positions for as long as attainable, since it is to Black’s advantage to have things settled early.

How to play handicap Go as Black

In games with handicaps, stones are high at the points of the star and are not efficient at securing the territory.

The right strategy for Black in handicap games is to prioritize under the influence of design and use this influence for a relentless attack.

This may not seem like a clever way to play against a strong opponent, it will make your handicap games less complicated and your strategic goals more clear. It also leaves your opponent fewer choices in their responses.

However, Kyu level players don’t have the strength and courage to play a game that’s oriented on influence;

Instead of taking risks in situations where territorial boundaries are not clearly established and often very open, they prefer to build iron-strong territories on corners and sides. This is strategically illogical, so try to avoid that.

Example handicap game

Here’s an example game played by Geoffrey Gray (5 Kyu) vs Nagahara Yoshiaka (3 Dan Pro)

You can see a review of the game in this link.

That’s all folks, I hope you learned how to play handicap Go.

About the author

Irakli Khizanishvili

Hi, I'm Irakli from Georgia.
I've been playing the game of Go for a few years now. During that period I've read lots of books about all aspects of this interesting and beautiful game.
On this website, I'm glad to share my game knowledge and experience with you.
I hope I'll be able to help improve your skills and proficiency in the magnificent game of Go!
Remember, it's never too late to learn new things!

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