5 tips for dealing with unexpected moves in Go

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?

Problem position from nannyogg's game

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.

'a' or 'b' are natural continuations for black

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?…

Trading favors white on a large scale

…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.

The best continuation for both players

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.

Don't create one-eyed pirate groups!

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!

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About David Ormerod

David is a Go enthusiast who’s played the game for more than a decade. He likes learning, teaching, playing and writing about the game Go. He's taught thousands of people to play Go, both online and in person at schools, public Go demonstrations and Go clubs. David is a 5 dan amateur Go player who competed in the World Amateur Go Championships prior to starting Go Game Guru. He's also the editor of Go Game Guru.

You can follow Go Game Guru on Facebook, Twitter, Google+ and Youtube.


  1. Thanks, excellent post!

    • David Ormerod says:

      Chris, glad you liked it :).

      • thanks for all you guys do! the comments are very helpful. being only 4kyu, I find this helpful and wise

        • David Ormerod says:

          Thanks Austin, I’m glad you found this advice helpful. Try to apply it in your games – it will help you to consolidate what you’ve learned.

  2. 6. Escape!

  3. I Twittered about this (@mohsart), what do I have to do to get the tweet listed on trackback?

    • David Ormerod says:

      @mohsart, I had a look at your site, nice Go sets! 🙂

      Your tweet came up as a trackback grouped with all the other ones below, under ‘Tweets that mention…’

      Retweets aren’t listed as individual trackbacks to avoid flooding the comments. They are listed if you follow the link to topsy.com. I’ll think about whether I should change that.

      You’re always welcome to comment here.

  4. I see, thanks for the explanation

  5. Very nice article!

    I’m going to recommend it to some people 🙂

    Something I’d like to add that affected my game a lot is the option of tenuki.
    Many times you think your opponent made a bad move (unexpected) and you can spend a lot of time trying to find a way to punish, while the best thing to do is just to play somewhere else – of course this should be backed-up by reading that nothing terrible will result, but it’s important not to forget this option.

    • David Ormerod says:

      Good to see you here Ofer and thanks for your comment.

      The option of tenuki (playing elsewhere) is a great addition to the list. Thanks for your insight.

  6. Thank you for this post.
    I feel stronger just by reading it 🙂

    • David Ormerod says:

      Evren, thanks. I hope you find that you are stronger in your games as well! Good luck ;).

  7. I have just stumbled upon your website and want to thank you for the wonderful content and insightful commentary. Thanks for this article and the website. Keep it coming!

    • David Ormerod says:

      Thanks Nate, welcome to Go Game Guru. Hopefully we’ll see you around here in the future then :).

  8. Hi, may I use this article for German Go Journal?
    Of course I would mention your website as the source.

    Kind regards,
    Tobias Berben

  9. Very interesting and humbling experience. “Of course” I would have played the atari at “b” in the diagram, thinking “a” would be too submissive, giving white his way, where in fact white 10 was not such a good move. Thank you very much!

    • David Ormerod says:

      Thanks Paul, it’s not at all obvious that atari at ‘b’ isn’t the best move. That’s why I made a point of mentioning it. I’m glad you liked the article.

  10. LucNoSensei says:

    Really nice article David, as always. Reading through the tips, in particular respecting the opponent, seeing their point of view, planning ahead and keeping a simple, focused reasoning instead of “tilting” (omg this guy is such an idiot to play there, I will crush him with my amazingly strong response”). Very useful advice in many games and life situations. In particular, I was thinking of what excellent advice that is in poker (as you know I’m now a fairly avid player of that game). Anyway, didn’t mean to derail this article into another game but that’s some of the best advice anyone can give for so many things. When someone does something that clashes with your view of what is right, don’t get on your high horse, don’t think they’re stupid, try to see why they do it and just think things through…

    • David Ormerod says:

      Thanks Luc, I think these principles apply to most things too. Of course, the real challenge is putting them into practice :).

  11. Hi

    I need help to create a game of GO that runs on a PC ueing java and VB.

    Any one can help me?

  12. Nice article David.

    Agree with all your points; my favourite – the best one for decision making I feel – is having that first good (simple) plan as a measuring rod. Works very well in the endgame too (find a big gote move and then look for a bigger move, and then look for kikashi etc).

    The option of tenuki is also one that occurred to me immediately. Sometimes you have options you want to keep, and sometimes your opponent’s move can just look a little bit silly if you ignore it. Not that I am disrespecting him/her of course… 🙂

    • David Ormerod says:

      Thanks Edmund. I guess I didn’t seriously consider tenuki when I wrote this article, because I was basing the suggestions on the example position, where tenuki isn’t a good option.

      In general though tenuki should definitely be on the list and should be one of the things you consider first. Sometimes adding a move doesn’t achieve that much :). I’m glad you liked the article.

    • I agree, being new your problems and the atricle on how to respond to an unexpected move really helped david

  13. Steven Mays says:

    I hesitated to send you this message, thinking that it was too petty an issue to bring up. But I found it distracting and even irritating.

    (1) In your second tip (Respect Your Opponent, you wrote: “Secondly, if you respect your opponent you won’t underestimate them or dismiss their move offhand”. Pronouns must agree with their antecedents in gender and number. Here you used “them” and “their” in reference to “opponenet”. I understand you want to avoid using “he” or “his” because in might sound sexist to some, but using poor grammar is not the solution. Either try to avoid the situation, or put “opponent” in the plural, or use “he or she” instead of “them” and “their”. (Personally, I don’t find using “he” or “his” offensive, but some are offended).

    (2). When referring to the color of the stones, then “black” (small “b”) and “white” (small “w”) is normal, but when referring to the players by color, (e.g., “Black wants to capitalize on White’s mistake in the corner”), then uppercase letters should be used.

    When I read the passages with these grammatical errors, I became distracted, and even irritated as I read more of them. Otherwise, I found the rest of your text very well written.

    If you feel offended by my comments, then I apologize, and I regret having raised the issue.

    Steven Mays

    • If when you read the passages with grammatical errors you became distracted, that is an issue for you. I occasionally suffer from this but recognise it rather as a failure of mine not to be able to pass over relative trivialities.

      2) Using “him or her” is clumsy. There was an attempt to invent a new word “em” as an asexual alternative, but essentially there is no good (accepted) solution, and using “them” is as good as any other in my opinion; though I personally would use just “him” – be honest, most go players are male. If it was a horse rider I would generally use “her”.

      3) I like the rule about “black” and “Black”.

    • David Ormerod says:

      Thanks for your suggestions Steven,

      I know you’re technically correct here and I take your point. Since ‘their’ seems to be well accepted in modern speech, I decided to use it here, because I wanted a more conversational tone.

      I’m sorry if that distracted you from the article.

      The alternative is to use ‘his’ for black and ‘her’ for white, which follows an Asian tradition for Go. I’ll think about doing that in the future.

    • Steven Mays, Linguist is correct. From the dawn of modern English (Shakespeare, Johnson) up to modern times ‘them’ and ‘their’ have regularly been used by our best writers. Your pedantic attitude ignores the fact that that rule was a 19th century invention of academics who wanted to Latinize a Germanic language.

      I say this as one who always says ‘whom’ when appropriate and noticed “opponenet” in your note. If I paused for every misuse of the language on the Web by native speakers, I would never get to see some of the marvelous inventions of foreigners.

  14. Steven Mays says:

    Hello David

    Thanks for replying.

    Tell me, how would you feel about using the masculine form of pronouns only (e.g., “he”, “his”, and “him”), do you think would get feedback from some readers who would claim to be offended by your use of the masculine when referring to players which might include members of the female sex.

    Personally, I have no problems with using the masculine only. It is so much more practical, especially when writing articles on go (or other games, like chess).

    You may be interested in knowing that I edited a go book (“Strategic Fundamentals in Go”, by Yutopian Enterprises). In this book, I used the masculine form of pronouns exclusively.

    Besides, there is a good reason for following the rules of grammar and of usage. Consider the rules of spelling. If we started to spell in any old way (“fotographi”, “kurtosi”) wouldn’t this have the effect of slowing readers down and of making them more conscious of “how” something is being said than rather “what” is being said. The reasons we follow certain rules regarding spelling are the same as those that compel us to follow the rules of grammar and usage: when readers see in print what they expect to see, they read more quickly and assimilate more easily the content of your ideas as they are expressed in the text of your article, and the reason for all this is because they are not distracted.

    Well, I don’t want to belabor the point I want to make. Thanks for reading my comments with so much patience.

    Steven Mays

    • Steve, as a linguist, I can say you are being a cry baby. It is your fault that old, unused grammar rules bother you. and it is rude of you to try to force your beliefs on others. Go elsewhere! If someone else has a problem with this, I would also tell them to shove it.

  15. Jonathan says:

    I think one tip might be to take as you said ‘time to analyze’ but not only the local position.
    Take the time to step back and see the board from a global perspective. And to always ask yourself “Do my stones here, help me here?”
    Or in contrast. “Should I play this way because I’m lacking in this region and I need to be more safe?”
    Should treat the move as any other move. One that requires attention and calculation.

    I think it’s important to look at moves not only from their local perspective, but global as well. Because we will often miss things we’d see if we took the time to step back. 🙂

    Good article, loved reading it.

  16. Jonathan says:

    Also, you said to slow down really, not to analyze.. but hopefully my point got across as well as I had hoped. 🙂

  17. Anonymous says:

    Well said, Linguist.

  18. Thanks for this post ! Hope it could help me for the next tournament ! 🙂

  19. Edmund Shaw says:

    Perhaps this article on how to respond calmly to an unexpected move would apply also to how to respond to an unexpected comment on the grammar. Don’t jump in and try to punish him, respect your, er, opponent! If he is wrong, the simple calm response might be best – or just tenuki…

  20. Jordan Hagen says:

    My personal play-style is very much by the skin of my teeth. This article gives me a bit of insight on reconsidering going after glamorous dirty games and reinforcing my foundation. Thanks Yarr!

    • David Ormerod says:

      Thanks Jordan, I enjoy playing on the razor’s edge as well, these principles still apply 🙂

      In particular, if you like fighting, it helps to keep things relatively simple and develop solid positions in the opening. They’ll be more helpful when a fight starts later on, because there will be very few weaknesses to exploit in your positions.