Shortly before Christmas last year, my friend and fellow Go blogger, Karen, posted a game position on her blog titled ‘now what?’
How do you deal with surprise in Go?
At the time when I read it, family and other Christmassy things were distracting me from Go, but it got me thinking… Is there a simple method for dealing with unexpected moves, departures from joseki or general surprise? Are there some principles that would help Go players deal with the unknown? To what extent can Go be systematized in this way? Here are five ideas that might help you in your next game. I’m sure our readers can come up with many more great tips as well. Imagine your opponent has just played a move that took you completely by surprise, how should you react?
1. Be calm, and take your time
We often make our biggest mistakes when we rush into things. Particularly in internet Go, everyone has a tendency to play quickly at times. Now isn’t a good time to play that way. Taking even a few seconds to refocus and adapt your plans to the new position can make a huge difference. Don’t worry if you’re not sure how to respond. Remember, it’s just a game and this is a great opportunity to learn something new. Be grateful to your opponent for taking you down this new, exciting road and giving you this opportunity to learn. Approaching the game with this attitude will immediately make you play better. If you follow the next four steps, you should find it easy to understand and simplify the position to come up with a great response.
2. Respect your opponent
Respect is very important in playing a good game and it works on at least two levels. Firstly, if you don’t respect the opponent you’re more likely to criticize them. Most Go players have an unhelpful internal kibitzer in some part of their consciousness. The kibitzer is in there waiting for any opportunity to jump out and say something critical and not particularly useful. Indulging this just distracts you from the game and makes you lose focus. Tell this guy to shut up! Secondly, if you respect your opponent you won’t underestimate them or dismiss their move offhand. Many players like to talk about ‘punishing’ mistakes and when they see a move they weren’t expecting – especially in joseki – they immediately set out to ‘punish’ this bad move. I believe this sort of attitude makes people weaker at Go. Is it possible that this is just a variation you haven’t seen before? Many times I have seen players set out to ‘punish’ an overplay only to make an even greater overplay themselves. Of course, I know none of our readers would do such a thing… Be content with reasonable gains and respect your opponent’s skill. Cultivating this sort of attitude naturally encourages you to look deeper and brings us to the next point…
3. Look at the game from your opponent’s perspective
This is a critical skill for anyone who wants to become a strong Go player and applies more broadly than just here. However, it’s especially important to do this when something out of the ordinary happens. Try to understand what your opponent’s intentions are. Why did they play that way? What are they looking to gain here? What move was I expecting and why might they have chosen this move instead? Am I about to walk into a trap? You need to get inside their head and see their plans. The more you do this, the better you’ll get at it. Once you’ve come up with some sort of understanding of what your opponent is planning, you need to decide what you’re going to do about it. A word of warning here, it’s natural to want to oppose your opponent’s plans and many players go through a stage of trying to oppose everything. However, you should think about what the outcome of their plan actually is. Sometimes it might be good for you to just cooperate. We don’t need to oppose everything on principle. Occasionally, calmly going along with things can be a great strategy. It all depends so…
4. Read ahead as best you can
Depending on your skill level and experience, everyone has different capacity for reading out the different possibilities on the Go board. Don’t worry too much about that – if you’re playing opponents around your own level then your reading strength should be roughly equal to your their’s. But you do need to read. Reading is what will help you weigh up the pros and cons of different choices. It gives you the information you need to make decisions. If you want to fast-track your reading ability, Tesuji and Life and Death by James Davies are both classics and are a great place to start.
5. Keep it simple
Nothing makes reading ahead easier and reduces your chance of making blunders more than playing good simple moves. If a straightforward and simple move produces a good result, then be cautious about reaching for too much more. That’s not to say that you shouldn’t have some ambition and push the limits, because this is also important for becoming a stronger Go player. The key is that you have to choose carefully when to push things. In my experience, roughly 80% of the time the simple option will be best. You should keep your eyes open for opportunities to deliver the coup de grâce, but for most moves you should just aim to play solidly and consistently. It’s good practice to look at the simplest move first. When the simplest move produces a good result, it’s really helpful to use that result as a heuristic for measuring the value of other variations. Are they better or worse than the simple option? It also means that you’ve already found a move that works without spending too much time on it. If you start running into to time trouble you can play this move without worrying. Of course, if the simple move produces a bad result, then it’s time to get creative. Many players, including me, love to play spectacular and daring combinations and let the sparks fly. It’s also fun to watch this kind of game. However, even with players who do this especially well, like Lee Sedol, Gu Li or Cho Hunhyun, you will find that the majority of their moves are very straightforward. The foundations of a strong game are built on simplicity and consistency. If you want to build a sturdy house you need simple, firm foundations, not a box of fireworks. Do you have a tip you want to share with other players? Please add your comment at the bottom of the page.
Applying these principles to the example game
I don’t want to go into too much analysis here, because that’s not the main point of this post. But I do want to give you an example of how these principles are applied.
From the problem position, black has two straightforward options (a or b in the diagram). Your first instinct should be to play simply at ‘a’ because this move is completely natural. Black ‘c’ and ‘d’ are also possible moves, but they leave a weakness around ‘a’, which white could exploit immediately or after playing at ‘e’. There’s no obvious or special reason I can see for white 10, but it’s possible that white is hoping for a trade if black plays ‘b’ (see the next diagram). If that was white’s intention, then it looks like white is trying to trick black. Black ‘b’ looks like a good move for giving white bad shape. Black might even feel that this is the ‘strong’ move that interferes with white’s plan. Remember that it’s not good policy to oppose everything on principle. What’s really the truth here?…
…White won’t connect at 3 after black’s atari at 1. Instead, white will play for a trade with 2 and let black capture one stone. Even though black has captured a stone here, you need to consider the whole board position. Look at white’s two star-point stones on the left side of the board. Look at how white has started creating a large scale position that works across the whole lower left half of the board. In contrast, nearly all of black’s stones are flattened against the right side of the board. During the early parts of the game, it’s usually best to avoid this kind of situation.
So this brings us back to the simple move of 1. The moves that follow are probably the best that both players can do now. The outcome doesn’t look particularly good for white, but it’s the best he can manage from this position. We should also take into account that black had a two move advantage in this area to start with, so it’s natural for the result to look better for black. Sharp readers might have noticed that tewari analysis can be applied to this variation to show that black’s offer to trade in the previous diagram is unnecessary. Think about what happens if the moves on the left are played 3, 4, 1, 2, 5, 6. The result is exactly the same, but the road was different. This shows that there’s no point in playing 3 first, because it just gives white the option of trading and improving his position. Always try to limit your opponent’s options where possible.
Some of you might be thinking that white’s play in the previous diagram was too passive and that white should at least play 1 (on the right) instead. I completely understand this feeling, but unfortunately white 1 creates a weak shape. Black can play on the vital point at ‘a’ next and the white group will stagger around the board like an inebriated one-eyed pirate. Even black’s simplest move at ‘b’ will still leave white with problems, so white really shouldn’t play this way.
What are your tips?
We’ve only covered five ideas here. I’m sure that many of you have come up with your own great tips and and gems of wisdom while thinking about this. Let us know what your top tips are by commenting below!