The Principles of Attack and Defence

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: ( or Go Problems: (

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:

The Principles of Attack and Defense

Robin 21/05/21

Personality and GO

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.

RD 08/07/20