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Twitter: shimarigo / DGS: keithlard / KGS: keithlard / Usually found in the KGS Twitter room

The curious incident of the seki in the daytime

Humorist Will Rogers said, "Everybody is ignorant, only on different subjects." As Go players we all have our individual blind spots - mine seems to be seki. In the game above, I managed to miss both putting myself into seki, and then getting myself out of it. I am Black.

I enjoy playing my friend pablopicollo, because he's stronger enough than me to make me really raise my game, but not so strong that I can't see how he's beaten me. After some experimenting, I find that the fastest way for me to improve is to play people 1-2 stones stronger. I note with pleasure that since we played about a year ago, I have caught up to him by 3 stones!

Coping with loss

I'm sure it's happened to all of us: you're well ahead, confident of victory, and dividing the remaining few points in yose. Suddenly your opponent makes a move that targets a hitherto-unseen weakness and you realise one of your big groups must die, and your chances with it.

This happened to me today, and to make it even worse I made the wrong reply. If I played correctly, my opponent would have captured eight stones, but the remainder of the group would have lived, and I would still have won comfortably. In trying to save the eight stones, I lost the whole 25-stone group and with it the game.

It's hard to convey the sick feeling of disappointment and self-criticism you feel in this situation. Being beaten when you played well is manageable, but giving away a won game with a single silly mistake is crushing. It's at these moments that we feel we never want to play again.

They say 'Experience is what you get when you don't get what you want'. In other words, winning a game teaches you nothing. If you lose and you can work out why you lost (in my case, it's embarrassingly easy) then you have just become a stronger player.

So why do I feel so bad? My opinion of my own strength has collided abruptly with reality and I'm forced to recognise that I'm not so good as I thought. This, too, is helpful. I like that Go teaches you humility — if you weren't humble to start with, Go will show you the folly of your own pretensions. If you were fairly humble already, Go will keep you that way.

It's tempting to just curse yourself over and over for such a gross mistake. But that achieves nothing. In a way, you're trying to shift the blame to some other part of yourself, so that it doesn't reflect on the 'real' you. "That stupid Go-playing part of my brain. The rest of my brain would never make a mistake like that! We want a divorce!"

Life is full of mistakes and disappointments — not quite full, of course, as there is still plenty of room for love, joy, and success — and how someone reacts to them is an excellent guide to their character. The Japanese say "Fall down seven times, get up eight". Someone who can learn to do this will, in the long run, be a winner — and not just at Go.

"He who gains a victory over other men is strong, but he who gains a victory over himself is all-powerful."

— Lao Tzu

How to play Go

An unintentionally amusing rules booklet that came with a Go set I bought from Hamleys. Here's the full booklet. I would be amazed if anyone actually managed to learn Go from these instructions!

How to play Go

Disaster!

keithlard-saeclum.sgf

I felt just sick about this game. I don't think I really made any major blunders, but almost every move was bad from beginning to end, and the result was complete demolition. I post it here to prevent myself getting too cocky in the future.

The worst Go player

I live with a guy who is just the worst Go player. He's terrible! As much as I try and teach him, he seems to keep making the same dumb mistakes. I got so annoyed that I made a list of his faults:

  • He misses obvious ataris and gets his groups killed
  • He misses obvious threats such as double ataris and snapbacks
  • He continually misreads simple life and death situations
  • His groups get killed when they should live because he missed a vital point
  • He fails to kill his opponents' groups because he lets them get a vital point
  • He cannot judge territory and frequently lets his opponent get more territory
  • He has no knowledge of basic joseki and usually ends up at a disadvantage
  • He plays gote moves and lets his opponent take sente
  • He fails to block monkey jumps, or fails to play them when available
  • He doesn't see the significance of ladder breakers
  • He doesn't count and cannot judge the relative size of territories
  • When he does count, he miscounts by several points
  • He makes small moves in yose and gives away sente
  • He has no understanding of 9x9 games and often gets beaten by beginners
  • He cannot manage his time and is always behind on the clock
  • His reading is poor and gets worse under time pressure, leading to stupid mistakes
  • He never thinks beyond the first move that comes to mind
  • He plays reactively, letting his opponent dictate the tempo
  • He is too impatient to study tsumego properly and just makes wild guesses
  • He does not review his own lost games properly, preferring to forget them
  • He loses heart when behind and fails to take risks or show fight
  • He becomes complacent when ahead and stops trying
  • He is over-concerned with rank and plays safe instead of experimenting
  • When his rank goes up, he credits it to pure skill and strength
  • When his rank goes down, he says he was "having an off day" and berates the flawed ranking system
  • He is contemptuous of anyone weaker than himself and jealous of anyone stronger
  • He continually believes himself to be stronger than he actually is

I gave my friend this list and told him he will never be a good Go player unless he fixes all of these problems. He read it carefully, looking a little downcast. Then he went away.

After a while he came back with a book - The Wisdom of No Escape by Pema Chödrön - and read me this passage:

In one of the Buddha's discourses, he talks about the four kinds of horses: the excellent horse, the good horse, the poor horse, and the really bad horse. The excellent horse, according to the sutra, moves before the whip even touches its back; just the shadow of the whip or the slightest sound from the driver is enough to make the horse move. The good horse runs at the lightest touch of the whip on its back. The poor horse doesn't go until it feels pain, and the very bad horse doesn't budge until the pain penetrates to the marrow of its bones.

When Shunryu Suzuki tells the story in his book Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind, he says that when people hear this sutra, they always want to be the best horse, but actually, when we sit, it doesn't matter whether we're the best horse or the worst horse. He goes on to say that in fact, the really terrible horse is the best practitioner. […]

Once I had an opportunity to talk with Chögyam Trungpa, Rinpoche, about the fact that I was not able to do my practice properly. I had just started the vajrayana practices and I was supposed to be visualizing. I couldn't visualize anything. I tried and tried but there was just nothing at all; I felt like a fraud doing the practice because it didn't feel natural to me. I was quite miserable because everybody else seems to be having all kinds of visualizations and doing very well. he said, "I'm always suspicious of the ones who say everything's going well. If you think that things are going well, then it's usually some kind of arrogance. If it's too easy for you, you just relax. You don't make a real effort, and therefore you never find out what it is to be fully human." So he encouraged me saying that as long as you have these kinds of doubts, your practice will be good. When you begin to think that everything is just perfect and feel complacent and superior to the others, watch out!

These words made a big impression on me, and after that I stopped being quite so hard on my friend (who is, of course, myself).

Won by a seki

I was convinced I'd lost this until I remembered to count the point A1. I really can't count!

Games from the ancient era

When I first learned how to play Go I used to play with my deskmate at work. We had the board set up between us and would make a move or two a day, depending how busy we were and how tricky the position was. Very often the night cleaner would dust around and disturb the board, sometimes even taking all the stones off and giving them a polish, and replacing them in random arrangements.

After this happened once or twice, I started 'saving' the game with my mobile phone camera. This had the double benefit of protecting against over-zealous cleaners, and preserving at least a snapshot of the game for future interest. The matches themselves were not particularly historic, of course, as neither of us was stronger than 25 kyu. But it is at least amusing for me to look at.

Go teaches many things, including subtlety, balance, cunning, and humility. Looking at old games of mine also reminds me that I have made some progress, but I'm still a beginner. I've learned a lot, but mysteriously, I am still as terrible a Go player as I ever was. I'm still confused, to coin an phrase, but now I'm confused on a higher level, about more important things.

A close game against Frank Janssen 6d

Frank Janssen is a well-known strong amateur and Go educator, 4 times Dutch national champion, and he plays many 9x9 teaching games on DGS with players of all strengths. I was pleased with this 3-handicap game in which I thought I didn't entirely disgrace myself. I lost by 1.5 points.

I think I lost it quite early on, allowing cuts at C5 and F5 - but I feel like I showed good fighting spirit in working for every point.

Fighting spirit

Go is a subtle game, but it is also a fighting game. "Fighting spirit" (kiai in Japanese) is key. This doesn't simply mean naked aggression, which usually leads to downfall. It is about mental toughness, the will to win, and refusing to play passively or to capitulate to a stronger player.

I was thinking about fighting spirit during a game the other day. I was 20-30 points ahead and there was no realistic way for my opponent to close the gap. I expected him to resign, but instead he continued to play: invading, threatening, forcing everywhere he could.

Even though none of the invasions really worked with best play, I was forced to read very carefully. The smallest mistake could have cost me many points, or even the game. He was playing fast, with no need to think too much or read deeply - he had nothing to lose. I had everything to lose and at each move had to take my time and make sure that I was making the correct reply to his threats.

Thankfully, I made no serious mistakes, and he ended up losing the game by almost a hundred points instead of 10 or 20. But what a fighter! If I was distracted or in time trouble, his tactics could definitely have paid off. There is a saying in chess that the hardest game to win is a won game. Once you feel well ahead, there is a strong tendency to relax and stop trying so hard. This can be fatal in Go as well as chess. A position that seems very solid can have small but important flaws, and pressure on these flaws combined with mistakes in reading can swing the game.

It made me realise that my own fighting spirit could be a lot better. Usually, if I'm behind in a game with little chance of catching up, I either play straightforward moves until the game is over, or resign out of politeness. This is not good fighting spirit. It does not matter how many points you lose by. A close loss is just as much of a loss as a deficit of 100 points.

I wouldn't quite say "never resign" - it is irritating to a much stronger opponent if they have to play out an obviously won game - but anyone who enjoys Go enjoys fighting, and if you play hard and aggressively, searching out the smallest weaknesses in the position and exploiting them, using the clock to your advantage, you may still lose, but you should impress your opponent with your fighting spirit!

"Fall down seven times, get up eight."

-- Japanese proverb

The day I discovered Go

I think it was in the autumn of 2008, though it might have been earlier. I was working in a web company which had a very nice office with a coffee table area and some sofas. One day when I was looking through some cupboards and found a chess set. I thought it might be fun to have some games of chess in the office and put the set out.

We did play a few games of chess, but it wasn't long before someone suggested bringing in a Go set. I had heard of the game but had no idea how to play, so I asked him to show me the basics. I thought it was very interesting: different to chess, but deep and fascinating. I stared at the little plastic stones so much they would float before my eyes as I was going to sleep.

I downloaded GnuGO to get a bit of practice, and was soon looking for online opponents. Dragon Go Server was great for this as I didn't need hours of uninterrupted time to play; I could just make as many moves in a day as I had time for. Also, I had a long-running over-the-board game going with my desk mate in the office. Each of us would probably make two or three moves a day, and I would copy the moves into an SGF file so that we could reconstruct the board if necessary if it was upset by the cleaner (which happened a couple of times). Sometimes there were long lulls where neither of us would play for a while. Over two years we probably only played 6 or 7 games!

I did not improve very fast at first. Playing only correspondence-style games is not a great way to get stronger as it is often difficult to remember what happened in the earlier stages of the game, and what was going through your mind when you made certain moves. However, it is very useful for keeping the Go muscles exercised daily, as I mentioned in the post on motivation.

I think my first real attempt to improve and do some serious study came about a year after I first started playing. I got the SmartGo Pro app for the iPhone and used it to do lots of tsumego problems, and also the Tetsuki app to watch live games online.

The books I found most helpful were Charles Matthews' invaluable Teach Yourself Go and Life and Death by James Davies.

Probably the biggest asset to me as a beginner was Sensei's Library, an amazing Wikipedia of Go which explains all sorts of technical terms and allowed me to look up certain openings or corner patterns in my games and understand why some moves are better in certain situations.

I also watched all of the excellent 123Go videos on YouTube by Catalin Taranu, which while many of them were (and still are) over my head in terms of the level of play, they were nonetheless really helpful for understanding how strong players think - and what they think about.

So how did you discover Go, and what got you interested in the game? Let me know in the comments.

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