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Teaching and learning

I've been playing Go for a couple of years now and thought it would be fun to write a blog about my experiences playing, studying and teaching. I normally blog over at Keith Lard's Diary, but Go writing would not be of interest to most of my readers, and conversely Go fans would probably not want to read about all the other stuff in my life which has nothing to do with the game.

One of the nice things about Go is that even players of a fairly low level (I'm currently 16k on KGS, 17k on DGS) can teach beginners and weaker players - it's one of the best ways to really reinforce your own knowledge and fill in any gaps. On the other hand, being a good player doesn't automatically make you a good teacher - it's a skill in itself.

I have been teaching my mother, who is a remarkably apt student, and is already quite strong enough to beat beginners. But my actual teaching activities have been confined to playing a few small-board games with her on DGS, and occasionally sitting down with her over the board to look at things like ladders and basic fuseki ideas. It can be a frustrating experience teaching, as it is fun seeing people catch on to new ideas, and I always want to go far too fast and jump on to the next thing before the first is fully absorbed.

Dieter Verhofstadt has written a good essay on Sensei's Library: Teaching Experiences. Dieter says:

From an interview with Sting: "Yes I've been a teacher for a while, but I've realized that there is no such thing as teaching. There is only learning. The only job a teacher must do is radiate his love for the subject."

I found this a very inspiring quotation and it made me resolve not to push my student further or faster than she wants to go, but instead just to let her enjoy herself and to radiate my own love for the game.

A study plan

I used to think that if I just played enough Go, I'd be bound to get better. The problem is that you can keep on making the same mistakes, and losing for the same reasons. I decided to set myself a definite goal: to improve by 5 stones in 5 months (from ~20k to 15k) and to make a definite plan of what, when and how to study.

Solving tsumego has to be a key part of any serious effort to improve your game. However, I think it makes a lot of difference what level of problems you work on. Some advice I've seen says it's best to solve easy problems fast - this fixes the relevant patterns in your brain and makes it easier to recognise them over the board. On the other hand, more difficult problems have new concepts to impart, and force you to develop better reading skills.

I know that my reading is poor, partly due to indisciplined tsumego work. Because I mostly do the problems on the computer (either at or using GoGrinder or SmartGo Pro on the iPhone), I've a tendency to click first and think about it later. This doesn't exercise my reading skills, just my ability to keep clicking 'Back' and trying a different point until I get to the answer by brute-force search.

So part 1 of my study plan is to solve six problems, every day, from the Graded Go Problems books, in my head if I can, or setting up the problems on the board and trying to read them out thoroughly before playing any trial moves. Once I'm pretty sure I know the solution, I can play it out and double-check I have found the best responses to each move.

This is working out pretty well, except that I think volume 3 of GGP is too hard for me at the moment, so I'm frequently getting problems wrong even after 10-15 minutes of thinking and playing it out on the board. This is frustrating and demotivating so I think I'll switch to volume 2 for the time being.

The second part of the study plan is to play a game every day on KGS. Because I don't play over the board much, and usually play slow games at DGS, my clock discipline is poor and I tend to waste time at the beginning, or alternatively play too quickly and get into a losing position early in the game. So I'm playing a medium time control game (20-30 minutes each with byo-yomi); if I lose the game, I analyse it the next day and look for places where I went wrong. If I win, I play another game the next day, and so on.

I'm definitely improving - in one sense it doesn't really matter if I achieve the goal by my arbitrary deadline, because just having the goal is enough to motivate me to study and play every day, and that makes a big difference.

A close game

I won yesterday's daily KGS game by 3.5 points. Today's was even closer: I squeaked a victory by 2.5 points!

I went through the game today and made a few annotations - both Black and White made several mistakes worth more than 2.5 points, so this was probably a classic case of "the winner is the one who makes the next to last blunder".

Mission accomplished

I mentioned in a previous post that I'd set myself (last October) the goal of reaching 15k on KGS by 1st April. I wanted to make sure it was a stable 15k so I added the secret proviso that I had to keep the rank for 3 successive games. Today was the third game, which I lost, but I didn't drop below 15k - so mission accomplished!

An interesting corollary of this was that, having won two very close games, I was sure I was due for a close loss (and indeed so it proved). But I felt a strong reluctance to play, for fear of losing the game and missing my goal. I think this is natural, but something we should try to get over.

Takemiya puts this very well:

“When you sit down to play a game is your aim to win the game or to become stronger? You probably think you can do both, but these are quite different projects.

The problem with trying to win – besides the fact that it makes it hard to enjoy the game – is that you don’t trust your feelings about where to play. When you look over the board there’ll be a place find you want to play, but if you’re concerned about winning, you’re not going to trust your feeling. You’ll think and analyze and nervously play somewhere else. This is a terrible way to play go. You should look at the board and play wherever you want to. This is the way to get stronger. I say this everywhere I go, around the world, but no one believes me. Nevertheless it’s true."

-- Quoted in American Go Journal, 2008

Equally, I think we ought to play without fear of losing, as far as possible. When you win, you win. When you lose, you can learn something and get stronger.

Getting too concerned about rank and rating is a sure way to become over-focused on winning games at the expense of developing as a Go player. After all, what's more important: your rating, or your true strength? If you become stronger, your rating will eventually catch up.

Having said that, ratings are a helpful indicator that you're making progress. I want to set a new goal now, to achieve KGS 12k by 1st July (3 stones in 3 months). I think that's ambitious, but achievable with some serious study and play, and I shan't worry too much if I don't achieve it. At any rate I will be a better player for trying, and that's what it's all about.

Appreciating pro games

I've been down with the flu for the last week or so and unable to play much, but I have managed to watch and enjoy a few games online at KGS, including a couple relayed by EuroGoTV from the Go To Innovation tournament in Berlin. It is quite fun to watch the game on KGS while having the live video stream on screen as well to see the players' body language, and what soft drinks they have.

But while looking around for videos on YouTube from BadukTV and things like that, I discovered a wonderful set of videos from These are teaching videos and analysis of famous games, produced by a strong Chinese amateur player (CountSheep on GoDiscussions). I really enjoyed watching the videos below, about a game played in China in 1680 between Huang Longshi and Jiang Tianyuan (videos and SGF).