Hanging Out at Dan's

Charles Matthews 3-dan introduces the game of Go


You have just suffered a painful defeat, at the hands of a stronger player. But not that much stronger, and your normal resilience seems to be failing you. "Cat litter" you mutter, apparently referring to the state of your groups at the end of the game.

Time to take stock. Could it be that the game of Go itself has turned out to be a disappointment? People do give it a big build-up; and then actual contact with its very specific character may seem to cast doubt about inflated claims on some of the selling points. A reaction of disappointment would be natural, as in taking a proffered drink to be a weak Campari, when it is really old-fashioned pink dental mouthwash.

To speak from my own experience: my first encounter with Go dates from the same period of my life as my first reading about the Hindu epic, the Mahabharata, described as seven times the combined length of the Iliad and Odyssey. An intellectual space onto which to project all sorts of baggy longings; while the work itself turns out (as I discovered many years later) to be other than one might imagine, with a structure spiralling in and then out that enfolds many other stories. Some common ground with Go here: age 2.5 Kyr, culturally embedded, hard to translate in all senses because of sheer scale. There's an immobility or inertia one may feel is a kind of withholding.

Quite wrong, of course. There is something serendipitous in the way the simple rule-concept of Go produces such balance in the way of an objective and the trouble you have to take to attain it. Nobody can actually see how the fact that territory is quite hard to make, but by no means impossible, is designed into the game. Most well-played games have scores of about 70 points for each side, obtained at an average rate of a bit over one point every two plays. If either side makes a serious attempt to displace that underlying rhythm, something will happen, and the nature of the game is that we'll see either an identifiable failure of relative skill, or a return to near-equilibrium. That is, it's all very equitable, and quite the opposite of unrewarding or tricky-trappy. The cosmic imbalance gets righted by simpler means than Arjuna and his brothers needed.

There is a real collaborative or playful or sparring quality available in Go, though it does sometimes seem that a player conscious of superior skill will try to suppress this element. "Not allowing the opponent to play" - there is a nightmare quality about being on the receiving end of this strategy. Hence the Japanese emphasis on grade-hierarchy and handicaps and upward-flowing respect: a game on equal terms with an apparent superior is an earned privilege, a teaching game from a pro is paid for, and the investment in simply being there has an anaesthetic quality if there is a painful demolition.

To get back to your problem, it sounds like trouble with connecting. If your groups are being serially converted into Shredded Wheat, there's a planning stage problem with them. The apparently harsh verdict of strong players is that there's never time to correct faults introduced initially. And quite right too: being held responsible for early decisions makes for interest in a board game - late comebacks are best left to football. My advice would be to concentrate on tactics of connection and cutting in the centre of the board for a bit, aiming for some insight in place of semi-educated guesswork when you jump out and about. And watch those cutting points!

There is however an underlying issue: you are supposed to mind being "weak", but not to take this as a comment on your mental processing power, rather as to do with your grasp of "fundamentals". There are distinct problems with the concept, but Go tradition (read: Japanese tradition) makes enormous play of it. Progress isn't from the basics to the more advanced, but a centripetal movement towards the fundamental ideas. Strong players never even consider most of the plays weaker ones come up. On the face of it, that suggests that there are two kinds of basics: deeply internalised ideas about the game, and things that only after long struggle one is able to articulate on the board and verbally. A professional player probably jumps out to the centre with a group without hesitating about whether the obvious cutting attempts work; but the planning stage at which the formation of a weak group in this part of the board was internally mooted can only be couched in a deep intuitive language.

The interesting point about this line of country is the useful denial that there is any such distinction. To visualise a weak group in some area of the board is to play a mental video of it running out, or finding eye space on the edge, or using some forcing moves as steppingstones to viability. You can indeed impose a segregation between the problem-solving stage of reducing a question to problems you already know how to solve, and then performing that solution. This is just a structuring device: the point about being strong is that if you are, the transition should be seamless, and signposting it just a way of giving reporters something to write about.

In fact, from a European perspective, 999 out of every 1000 players are weak by professional standards (which is no disgrace); but for the few of them who are really bothered by the gap, there still seems to be a struggle to make that connection. The tenor of top pros commenting on top European amateurs has become less patronising, more severe (in line with traditional educational theory). There is now a recurrent accusation of behaving like the man in the joke looking for the lost key under the lamp post, because the light was better there. Being strong isn't really about always fighting on your home ground, guiding the game into the sort of position with which you are comfortable, and taking it from there. That is (very often what one is told is) to be seen in top matches, but being strong is not having to do it that or any other template-limited way.

We seem to have wandered well off the topic of your private griefs. In common with a high proportion of the players I've ever talked to, you claim that you have a decent intuition about what is going on, but are constantly let down by your reading. Well, perhaps. Playing by eye requires a particular kind of sight, and it won't do claiming your moves aren't to be looked at too closely. Games which are a dividing up of the board into "mine", "yours" and "no man's land", without any cut-and-thrust, are fairly unmemorable.

Against the background of the Eastern tradition of Go, which in my view is something very worthwhile rather than just cumbersome, it's perhaps time to dismantle your status as protege. (Or is that protegee? Our little secret.) The teacher-pupil relationship can get a little heavy if it is interpreted in Confucian terms - now that really is a fundamental to grasp. No technical talk today. You are now around 15 kyu, and whatever you may have to grumble about this evening, I think you have learned enough about the basics of Go to find your way about the board on your own.

First published 14 October 2000 as On Your Side on MindZine, Go Learning
© Charles Matthews 2000.