Fuseki On Your Side

Charles Matthews 3-dan takes a sideways look at the Go openings

Adding Asymmetry

If you're interested in historic Go, you'll notice that the early Japanese games from the classic period initiated by Honinbo Sansa (strong also at shogi) bear no resemblance to anything discussed so far.

Diagram 1

For example, in this game from 1669 the first two corners are occupied at 3-4/4-3 points. This style continued in use for three centuries.

Diagram 2

This game from China, played in the same decade, starts with 4-4 points in place. That was the custom in China until around the beginning of the 20th century. The game started with diagonally-opposite corners occupied by a pair of Black resp. White stones, so that every side had the initial formation considered in part 1 of this series. The opening plays (yes, White started) seen here aren't something we've considered, but the basic narrative, White lays out a framework, Black limits it, should sound familiar.

There is no right or wrong to be discussed here, but issues of taste certainly enter. Japanese Go cut the umbilical cord from the Chinese tradition around the period (early 17th century) when the country was closed to the outside world by the Tokugawa shoguns. The Japanese masters, organised into four major "houses" or competing academies with state support, played superbly controlled Go starting with an empty board; while the Chinese players saw no reason to vary their initial set-up that led invariably to sharp games.

One can speculate endlessly on national characteristics, but perhaps poetry can make the point. The well-known haiku form has irregular lines of length 5/7/5 counted by syllable; Chinese classical poetic forms show up as rectangles on the page, with lines of equal length and one character per syllable. Japanese taste is said to run to the asymmetric. What is perhaps less well known is the origin of the haiku form as the opening three lines of the renga or team poem, with further blocks 7/7 and 5/7/5 contributed by a group of poets sitting in a circle. Each successive five-line block was to make up a poem complete in its own terms, until a fixed number, say 100, had been completed. The initial haiku sets the scene, though the whole renga doesn't make narrative sense if you read it though. (A bit like TV soap operas that add up only when taken a small portion at a time.)

Can one equate Go openings with poetic seedings? Isn't Go a competitive activity? The answer to that is surely: and you think poetry isn't? You can't have been reading your Harold Bloom. The other answer is that Go masters are taken to be artists as well as sportsmen. Your plays can "cap" the opponent's in Go, without the need to sweep them aside.

Be all that as it may, the Japanese are fiercely appreciative of their innovation of 3-4 point opening plays, adding asymmetry and freedom to the game. (Old Chinese Go curiously had empty corners in three-stone handicap games, with the handicap stones set up at two diagonally-opposite 4-4 points plus the 10-10 point.) From our point of view the addition of the asymmetric 3-4 points makes for a four-fold increase in the number of basic side patterns, to a realistic repertoire.

Diagram 3

Let's get immediately to discussion of how the 3-4 point differs from the 4-4, in relation to extensions along the side. The extension Black 1of five lines, from the 4-4 point to the middle of the side, is a routine play, just as likely to be used as plays closer to the corner. On the other hand the extension White 1, of the same length, was traditionally considered inferior to the corner enclosure at A. The basic teaching is "corner before side".

If you had to choose one of the dogmatic principles of Go that has been undermined by developments in the modern game, this would be it. If White doesn't play A Black may. Black, however, is then playing into a ready-made pincer set up by White 1. White may be able to take advantage - this is not so different from the situation in which White decides to approach Black's 4-4 point in the left-hand diagram "from the inside". The working assumption is that these frameworks cannot simply be negated.

Diagram 4

By way of concrete example we can give this, the so-called mini-Chinese formation. White 1 and 3 treat the side as a whole, making a large if loose framework. White 3 makes nice balance on the side.
The mini-Chinese has been high fashion in top level Go for a couple of years now. It may seem perverse to introduce it before the Chinese style, of which it is a cut-down version, and which figured so prominently in Go in the 1970s. However there will be time enough to get onto that, and anyway the historical warrant for the mini-Chinese is impeccable, played as it was by Dosaku. It has been around for a long time as a strategy for White in a two-stone handicap game.

Diagram 5

To deal with the basics of the mini-Chinese, Black's approach at 1 here isn't so good. White will make territory on the left while attacking, after 4.

Diagram 6

It is better for Black to come in one line higher. In the next article in this series we'll look more closely at the choice of approach move in comparable situations. White 2, 3 and 4 are appropriate shapes in this formation. Black retains some options at the 3-3 point in the left-hand corner.

Diagram 7

If Black invades like this in the "outer" sector of White's framework, White has an easy way to cope by invading the corner with 2. In current practice, assuming White occupies the top left corner, Black's common idea is first of all to wedge on the side with A.

Diagram 8

Naturally enough the success of the mini-Chinese conception has led to counter-strategies. This pincer Black 2 is one idea, after which Black takes over the side as a framework. While White 3 is the first thought, White may also look at a double approach (White 3 at 11).

Diagram 9

To avoid that development, White can play 1 this way. The trouble is that then Black 2 becomes good. White 3 can be seen as necessary to prevent the isolation of White 1. However Black is then left with the initiative. White has a good formation, but no grand strategy.

Diagram 10

To close with, a slice of typical contemporary Go. Suppose Black 2 is played immediately as an approach in the left-hand corner (this is most likely to happen with colours reversed, as a combative plan for White). That point was a key position in the mini-Chinese, so, applying reasoning introduced in an earlier article, Black may play there before tackling the right-hand corner. Now White gets a chance to play a double approach at A. Despite a very long history, the jury is still out on double approach variations to the 4-4 point. In amateur Go White might expect to gain advantage that way, considering the right-hand corner alone.

Diagram 11

White 3 as shown, on the other hand, looks at the side as whole. It is a close pincer, favoured by the great Otake Hideo 9 dan. This isn't chaotic fighting at all (yet): White is leaving the right-hand corner unsettled for the moment, but you can read that as flexibility.
The pincer in question isn't well covered in joseki books, but professional practice makes 4 to 7 the most likely continuation. White now has territory on the left. To compensate Black will think of attacking on the side at a point such as one of those marked 'x'. White has plenty of resources in such a fight. White B is a big play aiming at expanding the corner, using the erstwhile pincer stone as a sacrifice. Black often puts in the play at C first to forestall it. White can respond to a pincer counter-attack by playing at A for good overall position, as well as by dodging into the corner at the 3-3 point to take further territory. Black's problem will be to consolidate a framework on the side with much remaining potential (aji, to use the term introduced last time) in White's stones.

[01] [02] [03] [04] [05] [06] [07] [08] [09] [10] [11] [12] [13]
[14] [15] [16] [17] [18] [19] [20] [21] [22] [23] [24] [25] [26]

First published 2 November 2000 as On Your Side on MindZine, Go Learning
© Charles Matthews 2000.