I’ve recently had a number of conversations with my students about the different types of moves in Go and why sente is seen as so valuable. As a result, I have put together this short and simple guide.
There are basically four categories of move: sente, gote, reverse sente and double sente
1. Sente : These moves threaten your opponent with a direct loss of points if they do not immediately answer your play. Notice that your opponent can always choose to accept the loss, and ignore your sente, depending on the size of the loss and what else is happening on the board.
If your opponent does answer, then their move is called gote, and you get to retain sente for another turn. If you look at Diagrams 1 and 2 you can see how T15 (1) is a strong sente move for Black. If White does not answer, then Black will play at T17 (2) and kill the White corner.
2. Gote: As we can see from the above, gote moves are the direct opposite of sente. They can occur in two situations.
a ) When we play a move in direct response to our opponent’s sente move and so they retain the initiative. White’s move in Diagram 2 (above) is a good example of this.
We also have to be careful, because what sometimes appears to be a sente move, actually ends in gote for us. You can see this in the three endgame diagrams below.
b) We also call it gote, when we have sente, but choose to play a purely defensive move. In doing so, we hand our precious sente over to our opponent. (Although these gote plays can sometimes be described as reverse or preventative sente.)
3. Reverse Sente: This is the one that often confuses people. We can see from b) above, that a reverse sente move is actually a gote move; but is one that actually prevents our opponent from playing a powerful sente move against us. (A pure gote move does not contain this additional bonus)
4. Double Sente: is a move that is sente for both players. These are the moves that we need to hunt down and play first in the endgame. They not only allow us to play first and retain sente, but they eliminate the possibility of opponent doing the same to us.
And that’s it in a nutshell. I hope that these brief explanations were helpful. When you have sente in a game, try to anticipate how a move or sequence of moves will end, in either sente or gote for you. If the answer is gote, then look for another sequence that enables you to retain that precious initiative and the choice as to where the game goes next.
I have recently been talking to my students about where the points are on a Go board. At first, this might appear as either blindingly obvious, or possibly even nonsensical. But, if you have not considered this question before, please stick with me, as the answers might surprise you.
Figure 1.First of all, let’s consider a 9×9 board. The one we all most likely started with as beginners. This board contains 81 intersections, or points that are available to the players. In a typical 9×9 game we would expect each player to place somewhere between 25-30 stones. Ignoring captures for the moment, that leaves something in the region of 20-25 points of territory to be shared between the contestants. We call this the rough rule of thirds.
But where are those points?
Figure 2. If we add some green and yellow dots, we can easily see that 56 of the 81 points sit within the first two lines, at the edges and corners of the board. In percentage terms, this means that 69% of the available territory is also there.
On a 9×9 board, 69% of the territory sits on the first two lines.
Figure 3. And we can see how those numbers play out in a simple 9×9 game. In this match, the total number of moves was sixty-two. Each player captured eight of the enemy’s stones. Black ended up with 19 points of territory, and white with 18 points. So, with a Komi of 5.5, white won by 4.5 points. Notice how all the territory is at the sides or in the corners, and the whole of the centre is largely filled with stones. Black has a few points around E3/G4 and G3, as that is where a white group died.
Let’s now continue our analysis and move onto the 13×13 board. As I am sure we are all aware, as we move onto the larger grid, some of the deeper dynamics of the game start to come into play – corner enclosures, joseki moves, side extensions and so on.
Figure 4. Here we have our 13×13 board, and this time, we have 169 points available to our players.
Figure 5. Again, by adding coloured dots to our board, we can again see that 88 of these points or 52% sit on the first two lines. In addition, 120 points, or fully 71% of the board is positioned in the corners or on the first three lines.
So, on a 13×13 board, 52% of the territory sits on the first two lines. Or 71% on the first three lines.
Again, our rough rule of thirds applies. With 169 points available, I would expect each contestant to play somewhere in the region of 55-60 stones. That leaves around 60 points of territory to be divided and shared between the players.
And that indeed is what we see in most 13×13 games.
Figure 6. Finally, let’s take a look at a full-sized 19×19 Goban.
Here we have 361 points available to the players, and the full mind-blowing brilliance of the game comes into play. This board is characterised by its interconnected battles, bloody sieges, encirclements and escapes, and of course, sudden deaths and bitter defeats.
But once again, we have to ask ourselves, where are the points?
Figure 7. This time, we are going to take into account the first three lines and not just the first two. This is because centuries of historical Go theory – joseki and fuseki – has developed around the principles of building corner enclosures, and then extending out along the sides. Even more recent AI Go theory, despite some of its surprises and innovations, has not fundamentally challenged this bedrock strategic principle of Go. And the reason is quite clear. A full 192 of the 361 available points on a 19×19 board, reside again in the corners and along the sides. That translates to 53% of the board.
On a 19×19 board, 53% of the territory sits in the corners or on the first three lines.
And still our rule of thirds holds roughly true. I recently played the game in Figure 8. There were two hundred and seventy-six moves. Black captured five white stones, and white captured six of blacks. The Komi was 6.5 points and the total territory at the end of the game was 94 points. Black won by 2.5.
Again, please note that of those 94 points of territory, 24 of them were in the centre, the rest were held in the corners and along the sides.
So, there we have it. Next time you are in the fuseki, playing your opening moves and unsure as to where to play your next stone. Just remember where the points are; and bring to mind the old Go proverb:
“The corners are golden, the sides are silver, but the belly is straw!”
I hope you have enjoyed the ideas in this article. Have fun and see you across a Goban soon
In this piece, I want to talk about two important principles in Go. The first is more abstract, and comes in the form of a question. The second principle then emerges as part of the answer, and so, being a solution, is of practical use in our games.
So, let us go ahead and ask ourselves the first question? What is Go all about?
I am sure that there will be as many answers to this question as there are Go players, but I am looking for practical and not philosophical answers here. Most Go players, and certainly all Double-Digit Kyu (DDK) players will say something in accord with Wikipedia’s definition of the objective of Go, i.e.: “Go is an adversarial game with the objective of surrounding a larger total area of the board with one’s stones than the opponent.”
From the outset of our Go careers most of us are told that the game is all about surrounding and securing territory. As a result of this understanding, we tend to focus most of our efforts on encircling, closing off or otherwise defending ‘our’ territory. This is OK as far as it goes, and it will indeed get you quite a long way. All the way from a 30 Kyu beginner to single-digit Kyu (SDK) player in fact. However, I believe that this self-same understanding, then begins to block our further progress. Consider the statement in bold below:
What territory represents in Go, is a way of keeping score, no more and no less, but it is not actually what the game is about.
It’s a bit like me asking what Soccer, Rugby or American Football are all about, and you answering that they are about the number of goals or points scored. Although clearly, the number of points or goals scored, is how we decide which team has won or lost, that is not actually a description of what takes place on the field. All of these games are about balancing team skills, with individual talent. They are about taking and maintaining possession of the ball, whilst outwitting and outplaying the defence. They are about creating and seizing opportunities, or exploiting errors made by the other team. And of course, ultimately, we rate our competence and ability in all the above, by the number of goals or touchdowns achieved, and so we decide a winner. I believe the same is true of Go.
I therefore want to give you a different explanation or definition of what Go is all about, and that is:
The game of Go, is all about attacking and defending weak groups.
This statement is something we call a framing device, and so it doesn’t matter if it is literally always true. In a game as subtle and intricate as Go, there can never be any one single truth. However, for the rest of this conversation, I am going to ask you to believe that the statement is true, and adjust your thinking and practice of the game accordingly. My aim is for you to grasp that territory in Go, comes to us as the outcome or consequence of a successful attack, and is not something that we have to hoard or protect at any cost. This gives us a new description of the game:
We acquire territory in Go, by successfully identifying and attacking our opponents’ weak stones.
And if we accept this statement, then we grasp that at the heart of Go, especially in the middle game when the fighting is fiercest, lie the twin concepts of Attack and Defence. Dozens of books have been written on these topics, but for my students, I am just going to recommend one of them: Attack and Defence by Akira Ishida and James Davies. This is a book that everyone who wishes to improve their Go, should read and study. Here I am just going to present some broad-brush Attack and Defence principles and then support these with a couple of teaching videos.
How to attack:
Identify your target.
Be like the lioness and select the wildebeest that is separated from the herd. Search the board for stones or groups that are isolated, weak and on their own.
Decide where the profit will come from. Don’t be a bully and attack for the sake of it. Know at the outset, how this attack will gain you points, or otherwise deliver you an advantage, such as connecting two of your own weak groups, or further weakening an enemy position.
Use stealth and strength.
Attack from strength. Remember that every time you attach to an enemy stone, you make it stronger. Be sure that your own stones are strong (and have the ability to connect or make eyes) before you start your attack.
Restrict your opponent’s base, and so limit the available space in which they can wriggle and make two eyes.
Take the Anaconda approach and stealthily encircle your opponent before you start to squeeze.
Strike at the eyes.
Develop your ability to identify the vital point in the enemy’s shape and when you are ready strike at the eyes. A group with only one eye, has no choice but to run or die. The best way to do this is by practicing daily Tsumego on a site like Black to Play: (https://blacktoplay.com) or Go Problems: (https://goproblems.com)
Harass and pursue for profit.
As soon as they run, resist the urge of going full-on for the kill, unless you can see a clear way to do so. Normally a group of enemy stones with only one eye, will run from the edge to the centre. If you try to kill them, then you will need to play two stones for each one of theirs (to contain them on both sides). This is clearly not possible, and so you will inevitably over-extend, and create weaknesses or cutting points. Then at some point, your quarry will turn back and bite you! Far better to poke, harass and pursue them, and then at the right moment, permit them to escape, and play the gote moves that secure your own stones, and put territory points in the bank. That is the real reward for your attack!
How to defend:
Don’t create weak groups.
Don’t leave weak stones lying carelessly around the board, just waiting to be attacked. If you place a stone into an enemy area, make sure that you can give it a buddy, and that the pair of them have space to build two eyes. Try to anticipate your opponent’s moves and have a plan to either live locally or run for the centre.
If you are attacked, then make a base.
Move as fast as you can, to widen your base and stabilise your stones. I like to think about this as making a horse stance in Kung Fu. Extend along the edge of the board to give your stones some shape, stability, and eye-space.
Beware of the Anaconda. If your base is not wide enough to make two-eyes, then you will need an escape route to the centre. Take note of any moves that might obstruct your escape and counter them early.
Know where your vital point is.
If there is a vital point in your shape that will enable you to make two eyes, then play it! Do not wait for your opponent to play there first. Once you have two eyes, your stones are invulnerable and strong. You can then turn and go back on the offensive. Practice Tsumego as above.
Learn to sacrifice early.
If you can neither make a base nor run, then don’t make a heavy group (one that is too big to give up), as it will simply become a burden to you. Learn to walk away, leaving the Aji on the board and take sente elsewhere. Not every stone is equal. Don’t be afraid to give up worthless stones. It is an essential skill in Go.
Force your opponent to overextend and leave weaknesses.
If you have to run, due to lack of eyes, then keep your stones light and flexible. Normally, your opponent will have to contain you on two sides, and so they will eventually create cutting points and weaknesses in their shape, that you can exploit and use against them.
Understand where the points are.
Beware of the opponent who is making points, while you are simply running. You have fallen into their trap! Either quickly escape, make two eyes, or walk away and take sente elsewhere.
And those are my principles. Put them into practice in your games and I know that you will both deepen both your understanding and enjoyment of Go. You might win a few more games as well!
Alongside this monograph, I have also created a video in which I review a couple of my own games to help illustrate some of the principles in practice. You can see the first of those here:
At first sight, the title of this piece might sound a little audacious but stick with me.
Ever since the arrival of AlphaGo in 2016, the development of strong Go-playing AI has added weight to the view of many players that the game now rightly lives in the realm of computer science, algorithmic logic, and mathematics.
This view is held, even though human proficiency in Go, especially in classical China, was always considered to be one of the four artistic accomplishments of educated people (along with music, painting, and calligraphy).
Despite the current focus on machine learning and AI, it is my contention, that to play Go is indeed to participate in a human activity that is fully artistic at its core.
When we begin to play Go, it can sometimes seem an impossible challenge to make sense of this game that has entranced and entertained human beings for over four thousand years.
The board and its grid are uniform and rigidly symmetrical, with only the faintest hint that something different or unusual might take place in the corners or at the edges of the board. The stones themselves are equally homogenous, lacking either the ranked hierarchy of Chess pieces, or of being used in specific quantities as in games such as Backgammon, Draughts or Mancala.
For those of us that love Go, it is this very ‘nothingness’ that entices us. No game is ever the same and as we start to make progress we begin to see that within this initial field of almost infinite possibility, there are indeed consistent shapes and patterns that arise out of the intentions, placements and interactions of the players.
It is also true, that as we make progress with the game, we start to become more aware of Go’s internal structure, and of how each game proceeds in three distinct, but melded phases.
In the opening stages of the game, known as the fuseki, the players state their initial positions, and we see arrangements and patterns that are not only familiar, but are common from game to game. This phase of the contest can continue until there are anywhere between thirty to sixty or so stones arrayed out on the board. However, this initial placement is far from placid. At any moment, the seemingly calm positioning into the corners, or developments along the sides, can break out into a vicious running fight that can either quickly burn itself out, or grow into a raging conflagration that threatens to engulf the whole board.
If this initial fire does indeed burn out, we may again see the game settle back to its earlier gentle pace, as each player seeks to strengthen their own groups or weaken those of their opponent by the efficient placement of stones. On the other hand, and in many games, this initial outbreak may mark the transition from the fuseki to the sharper more tactical close-quarter fighting that marks the chubansen – the middle-game of Go.
This middle-game is the most intense, confrontational, and often chaotic stage of the battle. In this phase, all Go games generate their own unique patterns and positions and both players are left to their own devices to improvise and work out the best moves. For the most part, they have to do this without reference to well-established and studied ‘opening theories’ that support their play during the fuseki.
To quote Go Author Richard Bozulich: “It is quite common to find a player who is extremely strong in the fuseki but falls apart in the middle game. At the same time, a player who has developed a superior fighting sense can easily make up in the chubansen those losses he suffered in the fuseki.”
From this point onwards, fierce local battles, brutal assaults, deep invasions, and desperate sieges will spill across the board, flowing, merging and breaking groups of stones apart with the relentless power of a tsunami. Then, often with the similar onset of calm that follows a raging storm, the pace slackens and the game moves into its final and closing stages, the yose or endgame.
Here, the players draw breath and renew their scrutiny of the whole board focussed on the goal of closing and sealing off the boundaries of their newly acquired territories. Here again, in common with the fuseki, the aim is not simply to maximise the available points, but to do so in a way that enables each player to retain sente. By taking and retaining the initiative, each player attempts to obtain the vital first move in each contested area of the board in a hierarchy of biggest moves.
Again, as in the fuseki, many of the moves will be familiar to both players. A push here, a block there, a cut that threatens the life of a group offered up in exchange for a local advantage elsewhere. And so, the players work their way across the board, each move becoming smaller in value until, like ripples fading on a pond, the game ends by mutual agreement and a whispered “Pass”.
All possibilities have been exhausted. That once empty board now lies replete with stones, shining and entwining, the tangible manifestation of the invisible struggle that gripped the minds of the players – a unique work of art.
So, what does this description of a Go game have to do with either Jazz or indeed the psychedelic muse of the Grateful Dead?
If you are not familiar with the Grateful Dead, there is more than enough written and musical material out there on the internet to satisfy even hard-core fans. By way of introduction, it is enough to say that they were active, playing and exploring their own hybrid genre of music for more than fifty years from 1965 to 1995 until the death of one of the founder members – guitarist Jerry Garcia. Since then, the rest of the band have remained active and still regularly perform under the name Dead and Company.
At the core of the Grateful Dead’s success and longevity lay their ability to musically improvise. In a similar manner to games of Go, each concert they played was a unique event, in which not only did the number, variety and order of the songs vary, but so did the actual performances of those songs. Although each piece had familiar opening and closing arrangements, often including a traditional verse/chorus structure, each one also had the potential to act as a springboard for a collective group improvisation that never repeated.
To illustrate this idea, we are going to take a look/listen to one of their best-known song/improvisation platforms – ‘Dark Star’, and in particular the live recording from February/March 1969. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-Xic-CHInek)
The performance begins with the musicians feeling for each other, pushing ideas backwards and forwards, before the two drummers pick up a rhythm and the band coalesce around a groove. This is the equivalent of the first dozen or so moves of a Go game, as the players stake out the corners selecting from the 4-4, 3-4 or other corner points that will subtly push the flow and development of the subsequent game.
Then at around two-minutes, a bright, descending guitar arpeggio rings out that signals the first musical theme. Like the first corner approach and the joseki that follows, this figure is familiar to both the musicians and their audience and both signals and confirms their commitment to the song.
After a further five minutes or so of tonal development and improvisation, this opening section closes with a poetic lyric (6:05) that indicates the transition into the mid-section of the song that will be marked by further melodic explorations, periods of almost silence, clashing atonal discord (12:04) all punctuated by rhythmic interjections from the two drummers (17:00). Here in the midst of the ‘Dark Star’, nothing is the same, but everything is familiar. Each musician is alive to the possibilities of playing in this space, whilst at the same time, drawing on their experience of dozens of other ‘Dark Stars’ to navigate a course through this vibrating wall of sound.
Occasionally, a refracted hint of the original melody may break surface for a moment, only to submerge just as quickly into the roiling ocean of sound. Then, as if all further musical possibilities were for this time now exhausted; at (21:30), out of almost silence, the voice refrains the lyric, almost whispered, rather than sung, before the epic ends on a series of once again familiar rising scales and arpeggios amidst the silvering hiss of brushed cymbals.
After twenty-three minutes of sonic exploration the tune ends. But, in the way of the Grateful Dead, this ending is only temporary, a respite before the next song, mounted on its back rides into view.
Structurally we have been on the same journey as in a game of Go. From the familiar opening plays of the Fuseki, on into the wild improvised ride of the mid-game and then, almost at the moment of maximum chaos – the peak of discord, when almost all possibilities of the stones and shapes have been exhausted, we make the breakthrough into the final phase and the once again familiar plays of the yose – before the struggle comes to its gentle, natural and final end.
This particular parallel is only one of many we can draw with music and art. Alongside improvised psychedelic rock music, post-bebop Jazz also shares this commitment to continuous improvisation as a means of exploring the ‘now’. There are way too many examples of this to investigate in detail, but ‘My Favourite Things’ by the John Coltrane Quartet provides a perfect illustration. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UlFNy9iWrpE)
Taking as their starting point the whimsical, almost trivial, children’s nursery song from the ‘Sound of Music’, the music once again develops along a now familiar timeline. The musicians open as an ensemble, playing out the main melody, gauging its rhythm and shape before once again at around the two-minute mark, the explorations and adventures begin. We can hear this particularly in the interplay of the saxophone and piano, but behind them we also detect the drums and bass, listening hard and looking for opportunities to make a move. Once again, if we were experiencing synaesthesia, we would be hearing the visual equivalent of the opening moves of a Go game, as the players state their positions and intentions before the first Joseki blaze erupts.
In this piece, the moment arrives at around (3:45), when McCoy Tyner, the pianist, begins to play a series of staccato variations on one note, with the double bass pulsing gently behind. To me this has the sound and feel of our two Go players, making a series of repeated one-space jumps out of a corner and into the centre of the board, each seeking to get ahead, before one of them takes fright and plays a shape move. At around (7:00) we fully move into the mid-game, as the saxophone re-enters the piece. Once again, the opening melody is repeated before we voyage out into ever more experimental and, at times discordant play. All the players are now committed and are working right in the ‘now’ of the piece.
Then at around (9:42), almost without warning, the opening theme returns. Just like our Go players, hunting across the board, hoping to squeeze a few desperate points or a game-winning advantage out of the end-game, the musicians come to the realisation that, for now, all possibilities have been exhausted. At (12:19) the ensemble reprises the melody for one last time, before bringing the enterprise to a final and tumultuous close.
So, what brings together our three seemingly disparate realms of: Jazz, Go and the Grateful Dead?
In each of them we find a unifying structure of opening, mid-section and close. In all three examples, both the opening and the close have a gentler, almost semi-formal content, whilst the mid-section manifests as something more dramatic, often experimental and at times, downright chaotic. In addition, in each art form, at the peak of the mid-section, when the multiple threads we’ve followed to this place are fully entwined, there emerges a sort of peace amidst the chaos. It is in this stillness that the players and the musicians are able to take stock, draw breath, and move towards a conclusion of the piece… at least for this time.
In addition to this structured opening, experimental mid-section and formal close; Jazz, Go and the Grateful Dead, all share a common commitment to the art of improvisation and being in the ‘now’. Although the concept of ‘mindfulness’ – full focus on the present moment – has recently acquired a slightly ‘woke’ reputation, it is actually a very ancient spiritual practice. It is also the mindset behind all creative art, where even despite often meticulous planning and preparation, as in the case of a theatrical or orchestral performance, the energy and vibrancy of the piece emerges from the absolute commitment of the performers to the ‘now’.
There is also one further dimension of Go as art to consider. It is well known that our brains are structured with two hemispheres that manage or control different mental functions. The left side of the brain is responsible for controlling the right side of the body. It also performs tasks that have to do with logic, such as in science and mathematics. On the other hand, the right hemisphere coordinates the left side of the body and performs tasks that have do with spatial awareness creativity and the arts. One of the reasons that Go is so valued as a pedagogical tool in China, Korea, and Japan, is its ability to ‘work’ both halves of the brain simultaneously. Go requires us to not only think logically and analytically, for example when we are counting liberties in a life and death semeai, but also to view the board spatially. There is not a Go player alive who would not agree that at times, they played a stone, because; “It just looked like the right kind of place.” This was almost exactly the phrase that Lee Sedol used to explain his wedging play, move 78, in his fourth, and only winning game against AlphaGo in 2016.
And this is also true of poets, painters, and musicians. To develop creative skill in any art, you first must study the rules of the form; scales chord structures, harmony, and counterpoint. You then have to put these rules into practice so that they become almost second nature. Then and only then, can great artists break these self-same rules and create something, original, new and inspiring in the way of a Picasso, a James Joyce, a John Coltrane or a Jimi Hendrix.
And once we understand these principles, then many other areas of life and art are brought into focus. Indeed, our own lives, and that of all self-organising systems, share these self-same patterns. They are indeed universal.
For many of us, our childhood feels safe and structured, embedded in the love and support of our families. As we move into adolescence, a world of possibilities opens before us, but we also encounter many of the constraints placed on us by our culture and the structure and norms of society. Our middle-game is hopefully a period of achievement and attainment, but is also marked by great challenges, unrealised opportunities and sometimes sadness and disappointments. But then, often amid these struggles, a new paradigm emerges as we begin to move into the gentler period of relaxation and reflection that characterises retirement from the world of work and the struggles of economic necessity.
Although not all of us can become great artists musicians or performers. We can all become Go players, and in doing so, give ourselves a route to that clear moment of grace, that absolute and timeless experience of ‘now’, and the peace it brings.
And so for me, despite the impressive playing ability of AlphaGo and other AI programs, the practice of Go will always remain an art.
A lot of my beginners, struggle with how to decide what is the best move to play each turn, with the result that they often make ‘slack’ or inefficient moves that they simply don’t need to play. This is not a criticism, as we all do this, whatever our level. To help them establish a sense of order and priority I created this flow chart and ask them to use it as a mental check list.
As a double digit Kyu, you don’t need to go through this before every move (apart from the urgent check, which you should make before every stone is played!) but it is useful to run through it every five to ten moves as it builds the habit of checking and knowing what is the balance of points?
It’s been four months now since I started ten minutes to GO and I thought it might be useful to reflect on what I have learned.
Probably for me, first and foremost, is that fact that I love teaching Go. The game has been a permanent presence in my life for over fifty years now, and an endless source of challenge, excitement, friendship and philosophy. I have come to believe that knowing and playing Go is simply just good for people. It’s a life enhancer, and so in the way of all advocates, I am keen to spread the news.
Following on from the above, I have also come to realise and accept that Go is not for everyone. People are endlessly and fascinatingly different and what floats my boat, may well not float yours. I am more than good with this, but I still believe that everyone should have the opportunity to experience Go at as deep a level as possible. I want my students to really get a feel for the shapes and patterns that appear on the Goban and take a first step towards an understanding of why people have been fascinated and enchanted by this game for over 4000 years.
And then there is the process of playing and learning Go…
I have written elsewhere about how, along with all human endeavours, learning to play and improve at Go involves three elements that we can graphically represent as a simple triangle.
Knowledge refers to the things that we know. Information that we have learned from any source such as reading books, listening to lectures, watching videos and so on. Skills refers to the application of this knowledge, combined with repetition and practice, that lead to an improvement in performance. Personal Qualities refers to YOU and what motivates you, what inspires you, what annoys or irritates you, how you get your energy and how you deal with blocks and obstacles.
We bring these three elements to bear on any new task and Go is no different. Over time, if we maintain our practice and deepen our knowledge, then our skill will improve.
However, as with all learning, the path is rarely linear. We can expect to have periods of time when we feel we are powering ahead and really making progress, only to subsequently find that we seem to have hit a brick wall and can get no further. Psychologists have even constructed a range of models to illustrate this aspect of the learning/study process. The periods of growth are always exciting as we are buoyed along with the feeling that we are finally beginning to get to grips with the game, but all too suddenly we can become frustrated and de-motivated when we feel stuck and unable to progress further. Although these feelings occur when we tackle or try to develop any new skill or activity such as learning a language, practicing a sport, or playing a musical instrument, one of the unique aspects of Go is that each game provides the player with an unambiguous and measurable outcome. Did I win? (Y/N) and by how much?
So, what does all this mean for new players of Go? Firstly, it is important to recognise and acknowledge these two stages and be aware that a stage of rapid growth will inevitably be followed by a slower period of consolidation. We may go quickly from 30 Kyu to 20 Kyu and then find it much more difficult to get past the twenties and into the teens.
The second thing is to realise that these stable or flat periods are an opportunity for the kind of ‘out of the box’ experimentation that will lay the foundations for the next leap. As the maxim states…”do what you’ve always done, and you’ll get what you’ve always got.” When we are on a winning streak, its easy to keep repeating the same formula as it is clearly working for us. Its when we are struggling and have nothing to lose that we have the freedom to explore new ideas. For example: if we routinely play our first two moves on the star points, then move to the 3-4 and see what happens. If we always play the same moves in response to a corner approach, then get a book or look online and try to find some alternate moves or josekis and experiment with these. Pincer with a two-high stone, rather than a low knight move and note how the game develops. The game of Go represents a complex system where a small change in the initial conditions can lead to a hugely different outcome further down the line. You are a butterfly, so flap your wings.
As a Go teacher my responsibility to my students is to help each player identify where they are on their journey into Go and offer them insights, information and ideas that will keep propelling them forward. I also need to recognise when they have ‘hit the wall’ and help them make the most of this opportunity to radically, re-think, restructure and rebuild their approach to the game.
Their journey is my journey and the same path has been walked every player, student, and enthusiast for Go over the past four millennia. Always remember, you walk in exceptionally good company.
People play Chess to show how clever they are. They play Backgammon to show how lucky they are, but they play Go to find out who they are.”
I have been recently thinking again about the suggestion that Go can act in some ways as a mirror to the personality. To many people, even many long-term Go players, this does indeed seem a strange idea. At the end of the day, surely it is just a board game, a subtle, challenging and elegantly complex one, but just a board game after all. And of course, at least in part, this must be true. There are thousands of players around the world, particularly in the West where it exists as a cultural import, who consider Go to be just that – a diverting pastime, but at the end of the day, no more than just an interesting game.
However, I would like to present an alternative perspective on how we might view Go.
When we consider almost every area of human endeavour, be it simply working at our jobs, or doing something creative such as writing and performing music or painting and so on, three elements come into play that can be represented in the following diagram.
Knowledge is simply what it says on the tin. It is all the things we know, ordered and organised (sometimes) within our minds. It is information that we can draw on and put to work on the task at hand. As modern humans, we acquire knowledge in many different ways. We can read books, we can watch films or videos, we can acquire knowledge from a chat with a friend or we can be instructed by a learned teacher of professor. We might randomly pick up bits of information here and there, or we can systematically study in order to pass examinations and be awarded certificates that testify to the depth or degree of our knowledge.
Knowledge refers to the sum total of ‘all the things we know’ about a particular subject, regardless of how it has been obtained.
Skills are those physical and sometimes mental capabilities that we have acquired over time through repeated practice and improvement. Your life is full of these, from riding a bike, to playing a musical instrument, plumbing, engineering, software development and practically any other activity you can think of are all skills. What distinguishes the acquisition of skills from knowledge, is that you can’t perfect an ability by reading about it in books (although learning to study effectively is indeed a skill). You have to practice and this involves a feedback loop, where you, or a teacher, monitors your performance and then provides advice on how to improve that performance. Playing Go is certainly a skill and one that gives immediate and very precise feedback in terms of the score – Did I win? and by how much?
We can neatly represent this skill acquisition process with the following diagram.
We start out our learning process in the lower left box called Unconscious/Incompetence. If we’ve never heard of Go before, or indeed of any other skill-based activity, then we simply can’t know that we don’t know how to do it.
Once we become aware of the activity, we move up to the Conscious/Incompetence box, where we know that we do not possess a particular skill and are keen to learn, but we are not currently very good at it.
As we begin to practice, we move across to the Conscious/Competence box. Here, we can perform at a good level so long as we constantly pay attention to what we are doing. This a what it feels like to be a 7 Kyu Go player, or a new driver who has just passed their driving test.
Finally, we arrive at the Unconscious/Competence box. Here are the star performers, the people who break the rules, like Jimi Hendrix, Picasso or Lee Sedol. You are operating from this box, when you drive home from work, listening to music or chatting to a friend, while navigating multiple traffic lights and junctions and arrive home with no recollection of the journey!
It should be clear from the above that Go indeed involves both Knowledge and Skills, so let’s now take a look at Personal Qualities.
Our personal qualities are a bit more difficult to define than skills and knowledge, but at the same time, as human beings, we are completely familiar with this idea of individual differences and make use of it every day.
Consider for a moment your friends or family members. It should be clear that each one of them has a unique and distinct personality and that this personality or their character is made up of a combination of many more subtle elements.
You might think about a person and consider them to be warm, friendly, caring and patient. On the other hand, you might perceive someone as focussed, determined and passionate. Unfortunately, we also encounter people who are unfriendly, mean-spirited, or aggressive.
These are the personal qualities, sometimes mutable and sometimes fixed, that we bring to bear on any task, along with our knowledge and skills.
The soul of Go
So what happens when we play Go is that we bring together these three elements – our knowledge, skills and personal qualities – and we deploy them in an attempt to defeat an opponent who is equally determined to overcome us. Despite the rise of powerful AI, Go is still essentially a human activity where we still seek to sit down and engage with another player, be it online, or face-to-face, at clubs, tournaments or with friends.
And herein lies its secret…
When we play Go we draw equally on all three faculties. Our knowledge of Joseki or our skill at Tesuji will simply not be enough if our mind is not calm or we are not playing with a spirit of gratitude and respect for our opponent.
As the game progresses, it demands we make use of all our mental capacity, drawing on both the logical/analytical left hemisphere of our brain, as well as the creative, spatial, and relational right side. For many players, the intense focus that a Go game delivers, often results in a distortion of time itself, as the world falls away and the attention of the player is drawn ever deeper into the spiralling dance of the stones across the board.
Despite this intensity of focus, it is not unusual for a game to also deliver moments of levity and bathos as well as stirring excitement, trepidation, and sometimes fear.
It is in this way that Go provides us not only with a powerful and elegant tool that enables us to probe and explore the mind of our opponent, but also a mirror that gives us a glimpse, a brief moment of illumination into not only into how we are, but also who we are.
It is indeed our own face, reflected in the very soul of Go.
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.