stones and space

One of the benefits to me of helping new players take their first steps into the world of Go, is being forced to re-articulate ideas and concepts that you, yourself may have long taken for granted. If you need to explain an aspect of the game to someone else, then you had better be pretty sure that you actually understand it yourself, otherwise you will simply create confusion.

I find that this process of considering and reflecting on the fundamental principles of Go, leads in due course to me gaining new and deeper insights into the game and is one of the reasons I love teaching Go.

I had of these insights recently and thought that it was interesting enough to share.

For almost all of us, from childhood onward, our experience of playing board games generally involves moving and manipulating pieces, whether wooden or plastic tokens or indeed beautifully painted miniatures. This is particularly true of classic games such as Chess and Backgammon.

It should therefore be no surprise that when we first start to play Go, we apply this self-same mindset and our focus is almost entirely on the pieces or the stones. This is not a bad thing, as this focus on the stones puts us into a familiar environment as we begin to get to grips with how the game is played and what we need to do to win.

However, its only as we move past the initial stages of learning and start to grasp some of the deeper complexities of Go, that something else starts to happen and we begin to appreciate that the game is actually not about the stones at all, it’s actually about the space between them. For me, this insight was like the flash we get when we look at some of those well-known figure/ground illustrations.

When we look at an image like the one to the left, our mind will initially select one shape or the other as the best explanation for what it sees. In this familiar drawing, we will either see a white vase against the dark background or the two dark faces against a light background.

Once we have an established view, we then find that we can switch or flip to the alternate view at will, but such is the hard wiring of our visual system that it is almost impossible to see this as anything but one of the two alternative explanations.

I think that something similar happens in Go

When we first start to play the game, our focus is entirely upon the stones. How they are connected to each other, whether a stone is in danger of Atari and so on. This is our familiar place – we ‘play’ Go on a Goban with Go stones…

At this stage, when our teacher says that we have ‘bad shape’, or we are ‘over-concentrated’ its often not easy for us to understand because we are just seeing the stones. They on the other hand, are looking not only at the stones but also the space around them and how to use both elements to control or exploit the position. They are in effect, ‘flipping’ the board image backwards and forwards to see both the stones and the space while we are just looking at the stones.

Over time, we develop our ability to see both stones and space, but like most apects of Go, this puts us on a path that never ends. As a 7Kyu amateur Go player, I can watch 9 Dan Pro games and be amazed and overawed by the ability of the players to read, recognise and manage the space on the board. For players at this level, the stones have almost ceased to exist at all and have become merely tokens that they use to probe each other’s minds.

Although most of us will only very rarely glimpse that profound depth of play on our Go journeys, one of the real delights of the game, is that it unfolds before us with each step we take. As we go deeper, it deepens. As we reach wider, it widens

What I try to teach my students as they begin to move on from their first steps on a 9×9 board, it to try to develop this ability to see not just the stones, but the shapes and spaces between them. I believe that it is in those voids that the real game lies.

RD 01/07/2020

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