22 November 2005

Even when I win, I lose

So I'm trying to deal with anxiety over my rank. I opened a second account, an anonymous one, and I've been thinking about putting the woodard account as no rank and using the second account to determine my rank. After all, I'm not attached to it, so I shouldn't choke under pressure, right?

It seems like a good plan, until the new account goes undefeated for two days straight. Now I'm anxious because I don't want to blow my winning streak.

I'm a mess...

The following board position happened in a game tonight against a Gnugo3(16k)(bot)on KGS. I tried to end the game and the progam went nuts, repeatedly marking its stones dead, alive, dead, alive. After ten minutes of beating my head against the keyboard in frustration, an observer pointed out the problem and I was finally able to end the game. Black to move.

16 November 2005

Progress, and a Plan

You’d never guess it from my KGS rank, but I do seem to be making progress.

Typically, on club night, I play two or three games. I play a game at the “kid’s table” with fellow beginners, another game with 9 stones against a double-digit kyu that I’m trying to win, and another game against a single-digit kyu with 9 stones that is a teaching game.

Last night, I finally pulled out a win against the double-digit kyu player, by 20 points! What a great feeling. Two more in a row and I might get to drop a handicap stone for the first time.

My games with other beginners seem to be petering out, though, as I continue to improve. A couple of the players have been in the club longer than I have and now need to take a stone or two from me, which is uncomfortable. Another player I had to give five stones to a month ago is now almost even with me, which I actually feel great about. I’d like to think I helped him get there in some way.

I’ve noticed that 20+ kyu games tend to be fairly consistent in nature. Few players at this level play well in the opening, middle game and endgame. Most are good at one; the better ones, two. Tesuji rarely show up, and they tend to avoid fighting as much as possible. They also tend to play unreasonable moves and sometimes play inefficient moves out of fear. (Note that these are all habits learned from playing handicap games). Most tend to develop from a distance and then maneuver to gain a few extra points where black and white borders clash. Reductions and invasions tend to happen only when one side or the other has a clear advantage.

So, how can I use this information to improve?

First of all, use my strengths against their weaknesses. Everyone who’s played against me knows my opening is my strong point; I don’t believe I’ve ever lost a game against a player who was weak in the opening. I get killed in the middle game, so games where I lead for the first 50 moves then lose should be looked at very carefully.

Also, great strategy at this level is probably not terribly important. Both players, by and large, are ignoring important moves no single-digit kyu would miss.

I’m guessing that ignoring the fancy stuff and instead focusing on strong fundamentals would be the way to go. At this level, the game probably belongs to the player that makes the least newbie errors rather than the player with a better understanding of joseki.

I’m thinking about creating a set of “cue cards” for myself, laying out the steps of proper thinking for each stage of the game. When I play online, before I get all cute and try something new, I can then check to see if I’ve obeyed the fundamentals first. Then, once they’ve become habit, I can build on them by adding tesuji and other techniques.

I think this approach will bring me more success than, for example, studying joseki at this point, since most joseki moves should come naturally once you know the fundamentals.

Here’s the first one, for life and death situations:



Remember, a potentially live group has 6+ open spaces. More than 8 means almost impossible to kill.

2.Attacking or Defending?

i.Can you kill outright?
ii. If not, can you destroy eye space?
iii. If not, can you reduce the opponent’s area, starting with the most open side?

b. Defending:
i. Can you make 2 eyes?
ii. If not, can you separate your area into two potential eye areas?
iii. If not, can you expand your area?


15 November 2005

Choosing Go Equipment

I have seen a lot of information over the years on the topic of Go equipment. Having bought five boards and four sets of stones, I thought I should "weigh in" on the subject myself.

You read a lot of information on websites that leads you to think that any dan-level player should have a Kaya board and 10mm Snow Grade Stones. But is that really the case?

First of all, we should mention the Japanese concept of "Shibumi." My limited understanding of shibumi is finding beauty in the simple, the understated, the unexpressed. This standard of beauty seems to dictate a lot of decisions in the buying process. But as a westerner, my grasp of this ideal is going to be limited. Is buying a Kaya board with shibumi really worth the $850 over the cost of a shin-kaya board?

I was recently at a Go event, and guess what? My $50 Hiba board got more compliments than another guy's Kaya board.

Remember, you're paying for the rarity of the wood, its color and its tonal qualities, not its value as an heirloom piece. Kaya is a soft pine wood, after all.

Americans can appreciate the tonal qualities of the right piece of wood. We're baseball fans, after all. But slamming $400 clamshell stones down on a $750 board to intentionally dent it just seems to go against the grain, so to speak. Most Americans I know hardly make a sound when they place their stones.

In buying a board, in my opinion, the most important criteria should be the color of the board, its thickness, and what you intend to use it for. If you play online all the time and don't know any players in the real world, a magnetic set would probably be fine. Better still would be the magnetic set with a 9x9/13x13 board for doing life or death problems. Slotted or folding boards can be considered if you actually plan on playing on a board in a cafe or on vacation with a real person; if it's just you practicing, your laptop works just fine.

In choosing a color, don't just think in terms of interior design. One of the reasons pros like Kaya is that they spend eight hours a day or more staring at the board. Trust me, after two hours of staring at an Ing "Optic Yellow" board, you can see the stones in reverse color on the inside of your eyelids. Choose a color or wood tone that is easy on your eyes.

Furthermore, unless you have a large house with oriental decor or eat in a hibachi restaurant at least once a week, I would stay away from floor boards. They're difficult to find a place for in the house, and non-players rarely appreciate them as art objects. One guy I know has two floor boards in storage and plays on a table board all the time.

The thicker the board, the more impressive it is and the less likely it is to warp. Thick boards make stones hard to see on tall tables, though.

Now, after spending all this time speaking out against expensive boards, I'm going to do an about face and tell you to buy nice stones. Having played with glass stones, Plastic Ing Stones and slate and shell, there is a lot to be said for slate and shell stones. They feel great in the hand and look great on the table. Jitsuyo stones are fine, though-- very reasonable shibumi. Just choose them wisely. I have seen Jitsuyo stones that were barely distinguishable from glass stones. My 9.2mm Samarkand Jitsuyo stones have a distinctive, visible irregular grain that gives each stone unique character.

Again, with bowls, I would match cheap with cheap, moderate to moderate, expensive to expensive. I may not know shibumi, but I know that leather seats in a Hyundai is just plain silly. If you have nicer glass stones or slate and shell, go with wood bowls.

A lot of Japanese mystique exists in Go. It's what brought a lot of people to the game, including myself. But Go is becoming an international game. The Chinese and Koreans have their own traditions on equipment etiquette. There's no reason why the rest of us can't as well.

Buy what makes you happy.    

Back on KGS

Well, I played a few more games on KGS last night, with mixed results. I'm playing four stones stronger against robots but barely holding my own against humans. I am still falling into the trap of playing way too fast.

I'm still not entirely sure why this happens. I play at a nice, even pace in person, but against a person on the Internet I get caught up and start making instinctive moves instead of reading. This would not be a problem if my instincts were good...

I intend to keep playing games and hope that with time, I will normalize out. I have also been thinking about opening a second, anonymous account on KGS to see if that makes a difference.

11 November 2005

Club Night, and Progress

Well, I have made definite progress since the workshop.   I played two games at club, both losses, but good losses.   The first game was against  someone I have regular matches with (Flameblade on KGS) and I’ve gone from losing by 25 points in a nine-stone handicap to only three.   I lost my second game  by komi (1/2 point!!!) after making one of those idiotic, bonehead moves you only make once and never make again, so that’s a good loss, I guess.   I certainly learned a lesson.

On the home front, I’ve gone from taking six stones against Many Faces of Go  to actually beating it on the hardest setting in an even game, by three points.   And I’ve gone from the 45-50 level to the 65-75 level on the Go problems feature of the program.

The biggest jump has been finally getting some sense of the middle game.   As a 24-kyu, you often start the game in possession of a lot of potential territory.   I had a nasty habit of thinking of this as my territory, and defending it at all costs.   My strategy was based on getting at least 75% of the inside territory, which was killing me.    The Maginot line didn’t work for the French, and it didn’t work for me.

Instead I am learning to see the board as a conflict between several groups.   I am now looking to constantly keep my opponent’s groups separated and weak, while strengthening and expanding my own.    Instead of simply staking out an outlandish claim to territory and defending it, I look for how to develop within the center in a more efficient way than my opponent.   And I (try to remember to ) always ask three important questions before choosing a move:

Do I have a liberty problem?
Do I have a connection problem?
Do I have an eye space problem?

If I answer these questions before deciding where to move, it makes all the difference in the world.

Unfortunately, I can already feel some of the mojo fading.   I no longer hear Mr. Yang’s voice in my head, and I feel some of my old bad habits returning.   But at least there’s forward progress, and I’m happy about that.

I asked a couple of the Dan players what book I should read next, and they said I’m not allowed to read anything else until I’ve played at least 50 games.   I know I can get confused by reading too much, so I think I’ll take their advice.   Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be a lot open games on KGS at the times I log in, so we’ll see what I can do.   In the meantime, I’m at least reviewing one professional game and doing 50 tsume-go problems a day.

09 November 2005

Missing Post

My first post coming back from the workshop was on the site, and now it's gone? I even edited it after posting to fix two spelling errors...

Sorry about that, let me recreate it as best as I can...

Home Again

Sorry about the delay in getting this up, but work and life hit me head on as soon as I got back to New York.

Wow, now I think I know what it feels like to be an Insei. Ten hours a day of playing and instruction, then going home to stay up until 2 am replaying the day's games and playing new ones. Some of the college-level participants stayed up until 4:30, then fell asleep in class the next day.

The other participants were quite a group. Anders Kierulf, who invented the .sgf file format, spent about 20 minutes giving me a demonstration of the beta of SmartGo version 2, which should make playing on IGS quite interesting. Phil Straus is a former AGA President and co-author of Whole Board Thinking in Joseki, among other things. Chuck Robbins, who was our host, is one of the founders of Slate and Shell and holds the AGA record for lifetime tournament games. Sam Zimmerman co-wrote the AGA software for tournament pairing. Oh, and I started playing last month.

The great thing is that all of these people were completely supportive of me. I could very easily have been marginalized by this group but I was supported and encouraged the entire weekend. Mr. Yang put just as much time and effort into reviewing my nine-stone 21 kyu handicap game as he did the games between the 5-dans.

I want to extend a special thanks to Bill Hewitt. He allowed me to play our simultaneous game against Yilun Yang, letting me choose the moves and then coaching me on whole board thinking, strategy and tactics. Now I know how Hikaru felt with Sai over his shoulder!

Mr. Yang split us up into ten pairs, then played simultaneous games against all of us. We did pretty well for the first hundred moves or so, the Bill had me choose a move on my own as a test. It was pretty much downhill from there.

After the boards were cleared, he replayed and reviewed all ten games from memory. Amazing.

Game memorization was a recurring theme over the weekend. The guys from my Go club (Empty Sky) have a rep for not recording games and then playing them back accurately later. Two of them actually adjouned a game in class and picked it back up where they left off later at the house.

Man, I've got a long way to go.

Home Again, Pt. 2

Mr. Yang’s teaching style was excellent.   His structured, methodical approach to the board, while often above my head, allowed me to have a much better grasp of the game after the weekend.   In fact, three days later, I can still hear his voice in my head walking through the reasoning of the moves.

The games I have played since coming back have been about five stones stronger than I played before I left, although I doubt I will keep that up now that I’m not studying twelve hours a day.   But I know I look at the board in an entirely different way now, and I am more enthusiastic than ever.

In retrospect, I was probably too much of a beginner to get everything I could out of this workshop, but I put everything I had into it and it was definitely a worthwhile effort.   I look forward to next going next year as a single-digit kyu…

Another item of interest is that nearly all of the participants were real-life players first, online players second.   Most of the games played would have been difficult within KGS time limits.   But the reading skills of some of these players were astonishing.   One of the Dan players showed how he made a winning move after reading out the possible combinations eight moves ahead.   There were a lot of skills shown that would be difficult to develop by playing only online.

Tonight is Go club, I look forward to seeing what happens…

05 November 2005

The Workshop: Still Going Strong

Well, I'm two days into the workshop now, writing from the hotel. It's been two days of Go from 9 am to 9 pm every day. And it's been great.

Unfortunately, as a 21 kyu, a lot of material is going over my head. Out of 20 participants, I'm the lowest ranked with the next lowest 9 ranks above me. I would say 75% of the material is over my head, but what I do get is great stuff. And I'm playing 2-3 games a day against players ranking from 12 kyu to 5 dan, which is always nice.

Each day, we start with a morning lecture. After the lecture, we split into two groups, with the higher level players reviewing their games from the day before and the lower players playing a recorded game. After lunch, there is a second lecture. After the lecture, the lower ranked players review their games with Mr. Yang. Dinner is folled by another lecture until 9 pm.

The most interesting things that I have learned have not been about tesuji or joseki, but rather a professional's opinion of how I play the game. I walked into the workshop thinking I had poor tactical skills and sound strategy. It turns out to be the opposite.

I will follow up on my report on Monday, including a narrative on the game I played with Mr. Yang. (Hint: result: W+Fatality.)

03 November 2005

Yilun Yang Workshop

Sorry,  I don’t have time for a long post today. A last-minute opportunity to go to the Yilun Yang Workshop in Lancaster, PA came along and I’m off!

3 days of nothing but learning go, playing Go, thinking about Go… I guess it’s not too different from everyday life…

Full report when I return!

02 November 2005

Shodan Means Teacher

I’ve said before, my goal is to reach shodan.       In some martial arts, shodan means “Black belt.”       It also is considered a license to teach.

At Open House last month, my daughter’s teacher asked if any parents would be able to come in on Fridays and play games with the kids during the winter.        We have started to talk about putting a Go program together.        I don’t know yet if it will happen, but I will update this site on any developments.

In thinking about a program, I went back to the kyu and dan system, which is the same system used in Jujitsu and Aikido in my youth.        The difference was that in those martial arts, there are different skill sets associated and taught in each level.        You learn basic stances and a Kata, which is like an alphabet of movements that make up the elements of more sophisticated techniques as you progressed.

So now I’m thinking about a martial arts-like approach to teaching Go to children.        By breaking up the skills by level and setting up a curriculum, a logical system for teaching could be put into place.        We could even award the children “belts”, a colored satin ribbon to symbolize their accomplishment.

Of course this is in the future, since I’m barely a “Yellow belt” at this point.        But it’s something to think about.    

01 November 2005

Character Development

There’s a guy I play Go with maybe once a month.   Since I started getting serious about the game, I’ve gained about two stones in strength against him.   However, when we play, he refuses to take a handicap against me.   I then beat him by a wide margin and we move on in our day.   The one time I tried to do an after-game review, he made it clear he already knew the mistakes he had made.

I’m not bothered by this; he’s a good guy, and I get an opportunity to experiment in these games and try out new strategies.   But I can’t help but feel that his attitude is holding him back.

I began to realize that perhaps the biggest obstacles I face in my development as a player are not problem sets, tesuji or joseki but my own character flaws.   The Go board could, in a way, be a mirror for my personality.

Those who have played for a while know that wrong behavior on the board is often punished severely on the board.   Greed, envy, gluttony, and sloth lose games. Good players, in the after game review, see that and learn.

A character flaw is something we rarely see in ourselves but is apparent to everyone around us.    Getting past those flaws requires honesty to yourself, a willingness to accept criticism and responsibility, and good friends (and opponents) who aren’t afraid to tell the truth.

I have written about my recent slump, my misadventures on NNGS and about how long it took me to get where I am now.   Perhaps I need to admit to myself that what has held me back has been pride.   All of us who want to reach Shodan dream of walking into a Go club or tournament and being afforded the respect a black belt gets in a Karate dojo.   But if you’re me, you’re sitting at the “kid’s table” at the Club with the other 20-plus kyus. That’s a lot of pressure to improve quickly, especially with your rank out there for all the world to see.

As players, we want respect on the field of battle. That only comes after a lot of mistakes and losses. If you don’t believe me, use the KGS win/loss ratio link on this page and plug in the nicks of the top 100 players on KGS.

So hey, if you play me on KGS, feel free to tell me what I’m doing wrong, okay?