There have been many great go players throughout history. On this page is information about who were arguably the best.
All the players here are from the 17th century or later. This is because go kifus before this time is sparse, along with the fact that go development had an immense growth in the 17th century.
On this page there are several SGF files of famous baduk games, to view these you'll need an SGF editor.
There are many available, and I've linked to some that are free under Baduk Resources.
Honinbo Dosaku(1645-1702, Japan)
Honinbo Dosaku started to learn go when he was 7 years old, became the 4th head of the Honinbo house in 1677, and appointed to Meijin in 1678. He is regarded by many as the greatest player of all time.
He dominated everyone, and it was believed that he was 2 stones stronger than other top pros. Due to the lack of good competition, it's difficult to measure how strong Dosaku really was.
In fact, he was so strong by the time he was 20 that he almost never lost in an even game, even when he took white(there was no komi at this time, so taking white would be similar to 1 stone handicap today).
Dosaku had great impact on the development of go. One of his strengths was that he was really good at forcing the opponent into overconcentrated shapes.
He also advanced opening theory, in particular by using the 3 space low pincer to the 3-4 low approach, an uncommon move at the time. This is now remembered as a signature move by Dosaku.
Another thing he is famous for is developing tewari analysis, Dosaku was the first to take this into serious use.
Tewari analysis basically means reordering moves to figure out whether a sequence is good or not. In addition to all of this, the concept of amashi is attributed to Dosaku and Huang Longshi.
Amashi is a territory oriented strategy where one emphasizes taking points in exchange for thickness, minimizing the effect of the thickness later, often leaving weak or attackable groups.
Not only was Dosaku super strong, he also introduced the kyu-dan ranking system everyone now has adopted, although amateur dans didn't exist.
Dosaku was also the first player to be awarded the title Go Saint, the other being Honinbo Shusaku.
Dosaku's most famous game is known as "Dosaku's masterpiece". In this game, he gave one of the best go players at the time(Yasui Shunchi) 2 handicap stones, and even though Shunchi played many great moves, Dosaku only lost by 1 point.
You can download the game here: Dosaku's Masterpiece.
Huang Longshi(1651/54 - 1700ish, China)
Huang Longshi was the best Chinese player of his generation, and regarded by many as the best go player ever. Go Seigen has said that if Huang Longshi were alive today he would be of 13 dan strength and Dosakus equal.
He's not as known as the Honinbo legends because the level of Japanese players at this time were arguably generally higher than the Chinese, and go was more popular there.
People at the time therefore believed that the top Chinese players wouldn't stand a chance against the top Japanese players. However, when one looks back at the Chinese go history,
it's clear that China also had some great players, and it's unfortunate that these players never competed with those in Japan. Longshi became a guoshou at 16, which was a title given to the best players in China.
Longshi is famous for contributing to go theory. Similar to Dosaku, he was great at overconcentrating his opponents stones, and was also a great amashi player.
Longshi is also known for being good at attacking with thickness globally, and therefore helped develop this whole idea.
Longshi was excellent at reading and often came up with surprising tesujis.
Huang Longhis perhaps most famous games are the 10 games known as "The games of blood and tears". This was a series of 3 stone handicap games he played against his pupil Xu Xingyou.
Unfortunately I couldn't find any sgf files of their games, but one of their games is commentated here:
Commentated game on go game guru.
Fan Xiping (1709-69, China) & Shi Ding'an (1710-71, China)
Fan Xiping and Shi Ding'an were some of the best players in classic Chinese go.
Fan was perhaps the slightly more successful or known one becoming one of Chinas strongest players at age 12, and a guoshou at 16.
Shi was his rival who grew up in the same town as him, and together they became the 2 strongest players in China. Shi also became a guoshou later.
Fan and Shi played a jubango that ended in a draw(5-5), and several of these games are considered masterpieces.
This is their first game: Fan vs Shi, game 1.
Yasui Senchi(1764-1837, Japan)
Yasui Senchi was the first player to really emphasize the center in his games, long before players such as Honinbo Shuei, Go Seigen or Kitani Minoru. He is therefore known as "The grandfather of modern go".
Senchi often played moves such as the 3-5 and 4-5 in the opening, and would often build moyos in the center, which was unusual at the time.
Sometimes he would revert to the more conventional territorial approach, he switched between both styles to his liking, making him a very flexible player.
Yasui was the strongest player of his generation, having a 13-2 record against the then current Honinbo, Honinbo Retsugen.
Honinbo Jowa(1787-1847, Japan)
Jowa was the 12th Honinbo(1827-1839) and also the Meijin(1831-1839). Jowa had a great rival whose name was Inoue Genan Inseki. Both these players wanted the Meijin title,
but because of Hayashi Gembis contacts within the Government, Jowa became Meijin without proving himself against the other top go players first.
Jowa promised Gembi that he would promote him to 8 dan after becoming Meijin, but this promise was never fulfilled. In 1839 Gembi "spilled the beans" about Jowas promise and so
Jowa was forced into retirement. Rumor has it that Jowa was to be awarded the title of Go Saint, but because of his political maneuvering this did not happen.
Despite the controversy, Jowa is known for having incredible strength, especially when it comes to reading and saving weak groups. He is perhaps most famous for the "blood vomiting game".
After winning a game against Genan Insekis pupil, a 7 dan by the name of Intetsu Akaboshi, Intetsu literally threw up blood on the goban and died 2 weeks later.
Inseki setup this match hoping Jowa would lose, because if he did he would obviously not be deserving of the Meijin title when having lost to a 7 dan.
For this game the Inoue house had prepared a secret taisha variation.
In the game the variation was successful and Jowa fell behind. However later in the game Jowa played 3 fantastic moves known as "the ghost moves",
because for some reason there's a rumor that these moves were brought to him by ghosts.
The game Inseki had planned to discredit Jowa ended up being Jowas masterpiece.
Shuwa was the 14th Honinbo(1847-1873), Shusakus teacher, and the father of Honinbo Shuei.
Shuwa is famous for beating one of the best players at the time, Inoue Genan Inseki 3-0, by 4 points in 1840 and by 6 and 4 points in 1842.
These games are known as "the challenge games", and were played to determine who would be best suited to become Meijin after Honinbo Jowa.
However, because the Edo period was ending which had an affect on go(for instance, funding to the go houses ended), and also because Shuwa had a bad game against a weaker player, Matsumoto Inseki, Shuwa never became Meijin.
Honinbo Shusaku is probably the most famous go player of all time.
There is even an anime called "Hikaru no Go" featuring him, or rather the ghost "Sai" that had possessed him, who then possesses the protagonist of the show.
Shusaku was incredibly strong at an early age, becoming a pro at 11 years old.
He is most famous for his performance in the castle games, which were annual games held at the shoguns castle. Shusaku had a perfect 19-0 record in these games.
He's also famous for making one of the best moves of all time, the "ear reddening move", when he was a 4 dan professional at the age of 17.
After his 8 dan opponent and head of the Inoue house, Inoue Genan Inseki saw this amazing move, his ears turned red, and the 8 dan ended up loosing the game by 2 points.
Shusaku also created or popularized what is known as the "shusaku opening", which was heavily used until the shin fuseki era in the 1930s.
Unfortunately, Shusaku died at the age of 33 falling ill to the cholera epidemic. Shusaku was to be the next head of the Honinbo Go School after Shuwa.
Shusaku, like Dosaku, has also earned the Go Saint title.
There's also a famous book about him called Invincible, The Games of Shusaku.
Honinbo Shuei, one of Honinbo Shuwas sons, was the 13th head of the Hayashi house, and after the Honinbo house and Hayashi house merged in 1885, he became the 17th head(1884-1886), and later the 19th head(1887-1907) of the Honinbo house.
He also earned the Meijin title in 1906. Honinbo Shuei, along with a few others, started playing on the 4-4 points in the beginning of their games, which inspired Go Seigen to make the influence style of play even more popular.
Shuei is nicknamed "the master of miai". He was able to set up miai situations, where he could give the opponent what he wanted and still come out on top.
He avoided fighting, and instead had a more simple and calm style, beating the opponents with his great global judgment.
What's interesting about Shuei is that he wasn't a top player until his 40s, when he surpassed everyone.
At this stage of his life he became truly strong, so much so that other players needed a 2 stone handicap or play with black to beat him.
From 1897 he never played with the black stones(remember that there was no komi at the time). There are many teaching games left where he plays with white and also against 2 stones handicap.
Two of the strongest players in modern go history, Fujisawa Hideyuki and Kobayashi Koichi have said that they would be no match for Shuei.
Go Seigen was born in China, but as one of the strongest players there, he moved to Japan when he was 14 to become a professional player(China didn't have a professional system at the time).
He is considered by many to be the best player of the 20th century. He dominated the go scene from 1930 to 1961, winning almost every jubango he played against other top players.
The only jubango he lost was one against Fujisawa Hosai 4-0-6, but he demolished him in their next jubango 7-2-1 and again 5-0-1.
His style has contributed greatly to advancements in modern go.
He and his biggest rival Kitani Minoru were the "leaders" of the shin fuseki movement, a time where there was a lot of experimentation going on in the opening, often with an emphasis on the center.
Go Seigen had a fast-paced style, often playing tenuki in response to his opponents moves. His games are complicated and there's a lot of reading behind his moves.
Perhaps his most famous game was against the last Honinbo, Honinbo Shusai. The game was played in 1933 as a way of celebrating Shusais 60th birthday(Go Seigen was 18 at the time). The game was very controversial.
Since Shusai played as white, he was allowed to adjourn the game whenever he wanted, and would have several weeks to discuss moves with other members of the Honinbo house. He used this right 13 times and always when it was his turn to move.
In the end, Seigen ended up losing by 2 points because of a brilliant move by Shusai. It is believed that one of Shusais students, Maeda Nobuaki came up with this move.
This game is also known as "the game of the century". Here's an SGF file of their game that you can download: Go Seigen VS Honinbo Shusai.
In 1961 Go seigen was hit by a motorcycle, and was never quite the same after that due to problems concentrating. Go Seigen died of natural causes on 30. November 2014 100 years old.
Sakata Eio(1920-2010, Japan)
Sakata dominated in the 1960s. He was the first to win 1000 professional games and held the prior record of 64 Japanese titles(Cho Chikun has 73).
Sakata has been nicknamed "razor sharp" because of his brilliant reading and ability to discover myoshu. Myoshu are excellent moves(an example would be the ear reddening move by Shusaku or the ghost moves by Jowa).
Sakata played many of these, so much so that he was called the inventor of myoshu by Go Seigen.
He would save groups one thought shouldn't be saved due to his excellent reading and fighting abilities.
Sakata is also an honorary honinbo, which is a status those who have won the honinbo title 5 years in a row is awarded, as a way to continue the honinbo legacy. Sakata won the honinbo title 7 years in a row.
Shukos real name is Hideyuki Fujisawa, but he is often called Shuko Fujisawa. He was one of the best players during the 60s and 70s.
His greatest achievement is winning the Kisei title 6 years in a row(1976-1981), the biggest title in Japan. He is therefore an honorary Kisei.
Shuko was also a heavy drinker, rumor has it that he would drink all year and sober up to defend the Kisei title. He was finally beaten by Cho Chikun in 1982.
Shuko holds the record for being the oldest player to win a title, which was the Oza title in 1993 when he was 67.
Fujisawa Shuko has a big part in the development of go outside of Japan. He thought some of the best players in China, as well as mentoring Cho Hunhyun.
I think it's therefore fair to say that the reason China and Korea are somewhat stronger than Japan today could be partially attributed to Fujisawa Shuko.
Cho Hunhyun(1953-, South Korea)
Cho Hunhyun was one of the best players during the 70s, 80s and 90s, and also the teacher of Lee ChangHo. He has the most combined titles(159) in the world, being ranked third in international titles(11) and first in South Korean titles.
He also has the most career wins out of any professional with almost 2000 victories. He's the first to become a professional in 2 different go associations, at Hankuk Kiwon in Korea and Nihon Ki-in when he studied in Japan.
He also was the worlds youngest pro at 9 years old. In Japan, he became friends with and was mentored by Fujisawa Shuko.
Cho's strength lies in reading quickly and delivering fatal blows. After his student Lee ChangHo surpassed him, he had to change his style.
He became more aggressive, wanting to get into situations where quick reading determined the winner instead of having to face the endgame against Lee ChangHo. This change gave him the nickname "the god of war".
Like Cho Chikun, he tends to mutter to himself while playing, I guess annoying to the opponent but also kind of funny.
Cho Chikun(1956-, South Korea)
Cho Chikun was born in Korea, but moved to Japan at age 6 due to his go talents, where he became a professional at age 11.
Cho Chikun is now an honorary Honinbo, having held the title for 10 years in a row, and an honorary Meijin having held the title for 5 years in row. He is the record holder of most titles won in Japan(73).
Cho is a territory oriented player. He is great at reading and likes to experiment. He is a master of shinogi, which means the ability to deal with his own weak groups.
His biggest rival is Kobayashi Koichi, another great Japanese player. These two often competed against each other in Japanese title tournaments in the 80s and 90s.
Cho Chikun is still an active player in 2015, and his last major title wins was the Judan title in 2005, 2006 and 2007.
Lee ChangHo is a 9 dan pro that dominated from 1995-2005 with an impressive 80% winrate. He was widely recognized as the best player in the world.
Lee is known for being a calm and solid player, he avoids complex fighting so that he can keep the game simple.
Sometimes it may seem like he gives the opponent what he wants, just so he can avoid fighting. Lee is an expert calculator and is perhaps the best endgame player of all time, he aims to beat his opponents by 0.5 points,
which he did time and time again. He is called "the stone buddha" not only for his calm playstyle, but also for his emotionless face while playing.
Today's players are very aggressive, with people like Lee Sedol in the forefront.
One might say that the whole reason behind this change in style was Lee ChangHo. For people to beat him, a more aggressive style was necessary.
Ultra aggressive players were then able force him into fights where they had a chance of winning. This has also caused Lee's style to change. He's still a top player, however he's not in the very elite anymore.
Even so, one has to acknowledge his domination in the 90s and his contribution to advancements in go.
Lee ChangHo is the record holder of most major international titles ever won(23), in addition to having won the 2nd. most national titles in South Korea after his teacher Cho Hunhyun.
His first international title win was in 1992, in the Tong Yang Securities Cup against Rin Kaiho beating him 3-2. This is their final game: Rin Kaiho VS Lee ChangHo.
Lee Sedol(1982-. South Korea)
Lee Sedol is maybe the best player in the last 10 or so years. After beating Lee Changho in the LG cup in 2003, which is a large international tournament, he established himself as being one of the best.
In a way, he was the leader of the aggressive movement that happened in the early 2000s by demonstrating how to beat Lee ChangHo. Lee Sedol is a very popular player to watch, due to his aggressive risk taking style.
Lee Sedol has now the 2nd. most international titles won after Lee Changho, and third most Korean titles after Cho Hunhyun and Lee Changho.
Lee's biggest rival is Gu Li. For a number of years Lee Sedol has been recognized as the best player of Korea, and Gu Li the best player of China.
In 2014, Lee Sedol and Gu Li played a jubango to determine the strongest player(even though a few others were rated above them at the time). Lee Sedol beat Gu li 6-2.
Another famous game is "the ladder game" from 2003, where he played out a broken ladder across the board to capture another group. You can check out the game here: Lee Sedols ladder game.