A goban is a board for playing Go (Wei Qi/Badouk). They come in many shapes and sizes, but what they all have in common is that they are divided into a square grid, with 19 lines in each direction. The 4-4 points, 10-4 points, and 10-10 point are marked with black dots for reference purposes. They are known as hoshi in Japanese or star points in English

Unlike in chess, stones are played on the intersections of the lines, rather than inside the squares. When describing moves, or keeping a record of a game, the points are usually labelled with numbers 1-19 in one direction, and letters A-T (skipping I, because a capital I is too easy to confuse with a lower-case L, or the number 1) in the other. Thus, a move on the hoshi (star point) in the bottom left would be called D4.

A traditional goban is like a small table. Made of an exceptionally thick and heavy (the one I picked up felt like about 20 kg) piece of wood standing on short stubby legs, they are usually about 50 cm x 50 cm and maybe 30 cm high (these are just my estimates... if there is an "official" size, let me know). The lines are carved into the top and painted (or scorched) black. Nowadays, most boards are much thinner and more portable, although they are still made of wood and bulkier than a standard chessboard.

Games other than Go can be played on a goban. Here in South Korea (where we call a goban a "badouk p'an"), popular games include a simple 5-in-a-line Tic-Tac-Toe-type game and a sillier game that involves putting five stones on the board and flicking them to try to knock the opponent's stones off the goban.

The goban has evolved somewhat over the years. As far as historians and archaeologists can tell, the original board size was 17x17 instead of 19x19. Smaller boards have also been discovered, but 17x17 seems to be the oldest. The size was presumably increased to 19x19 in order to increase the challenge, but no one is exactly sure when the change happened. It must have been a gradual change, because the oldest known goban is a 17x17 stone board found in Wangdu County in 1954, and dated as at least 1800 years old, but the oldest surviving game record, which is dated about the same as the stone board, is played on a 19x19 board (between prince Sun Ce and his general Lue Fan). Note that the Chinese claim that Go is much older than 1800 years (4000 years is a commonly quoted figure), so a different size of goban may predate the 17x17 ones, but this is the oldest evidence found to date.

This historical info was learned from http://gobase.org/history/

Many people have tried various sorts of alternative gobans. Playing on smaller (9x9, 13x13) boards is a popular way to teach Go to newbies. In Tibet, people still play on the older 17x17 format. 21x21 has been tried, but professional Go players say that gobans larger than 19x19 are too hard even for them. People have made gobans with the number of lines at each intersection greater or less than 4, gobans based on maps of cities or countries, and computers allow things like 3-D gobans, cylindrical (wrap-around) gobans, Moebius strip gobans, etc.

Expanding on the above writeup, which is excellent, I would like to talk about high quality goban, or to put it differently:

This board is how much???

The woods:

In Japan, goban are traditionally wooden blocks with stubby legs attached. These blocks are usually cut from the wood of about 700 year old kaya (torreya nucifera) or katsura (Japanese Judas tree). Other woods are also used, but the quality is lower, and they don't look as beautiful. Of these two, kaya-ban are considered superior in color, brightness, and hardness, and usually used with shell or slate stones, the top-of-the-line in go stones. Kaya boards also age better and produce a superior click when struck with a stone. So it follows that katsura boards are the most common boards, as the tree is plentiful, and the wood is, while not as refined, hard and durable, as well as cheaper. But generally, a board can be made of most other woods as well, such as Agathis, Ash Alder, Basswood, Beech, Birch, Cedar, Cypress, Elm, Hiba, Oak, Redwood, Soft maple, White walnut and Yellow Pine. But no Go professional would be seen dead playing anything other than kaya.

After cutting, there are two general types of boards: itame (bent or irregular grain) and masame (grain running straight across the top of the board), with masame boards fetching more than double of the price of itame boards. Besides these basic characteristics, the wood's natural grain, defects, seasoning, and length of time elasped since it's cutting, play an important role in the pricing of a particular board. Even the origin of a particular board is important: The most prized kaya boards are cut from trees in the Miyazaki prefecture, as boards Miyazaki kaya have a closer grain and an even more pleasing color.

The Dimensions:

Not even the Nihon Kiin specifies the exact size of a standard goban. Instead, every measure is given as 'is usually ...'. So the actual sizes are not of that importance. A 19x19 goban usually measures around 45 by 42 cm and is about 15 cm thick (floor goban) or 2-5 cm thick (table goban). The lines should be 2,2 cm (width) and 2,3 cm (lenght) apart, leaving a free space of about 1,4 cm on all four edges. Lines are typically 1 mm thick, while Hoshi markers are 4 mm in diameter.

So the board is rectangular instead of being square? Yup, since when seated in front of a square goban, it would look wider than tall. Perspective should about make them look square, even though they are not...

To make the lines in the traditional way, a Katana is dipped in ink and gently rocked back and forth to deposit a straight, thin line. The goban is then left to dry and the process is repeated several times until the desired richness of colour has been achieved. That done, a thin layer of oil is added, as finish.

The prices:

So, what do these babies cost? It's just a piece of wood, so how expensive could they be? Folding agathis goban start around $ 40. A katsura goban with legs will set you back $ 1.000-2.500, depending on thickness and graining. And finally, a kaya matsume board comes to around $ 19.000 (itame being around $ 8.000). But prices do not end there. The most expensive goban I ever saw was a gold plated kaya board, formerly in the possession of some daimyou, which cost a whopping $ 100.000. Kaching!

My pride:

Three months ago, I finally threw all precautions (always thinking about having to send the thing home somehow) to the wind and purchased a goban for myself. It is an old, 15cm board with legs, in need of a good cleaning, so much so that I've not figured out what wood it is made of. I got it for 3000 Yen (no stones) from a recycle shop (shops that trade in used furniture and other used stuff), had to transport it home on my bike (about 30 km straight through Tokyo), and still have no idea how to send it home. But it's mine...

Actually, getting it home wasn`t a problem after all: I just took off the legs and gave it to my brother to carry home as on-board luggage.

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