How to improve at Go

Almost everybody wants to get stronger at go. It's a lot like the survey about how much money people would need to feel comfortable -- it turns out that universally people say they need about twice what they have, whether that means $200 in the bank or $2 billion.

Likewise in go, it always seems that if you could just get that stone or two stronger, you'd be satisfied. But why? People often think that "true appreciation" of the game is just outside their reach -- they get glimpses of beauty just at the limits of their ability to see, they appreciate at a higher level than they can actually play, and think if they were just that little bit stronger, they'd really know what go is all about.

Putting aside the whys and turning to the hows, here is some advice on how to improve. To my mind, there are 5 basic components:

Below I talk about each one, and provide a summary of how a student should study each area with 3 "tracks" based on commitment to improving; casual, sincere, and serious.

Playing

Playing is the most important element of an improvement regimen. Unless you're a genius on the order of Go Seigen, you just can't improve without playing. If you want to improve a lot, you're going to have to play a lot. No way around it.

However, just playing isn't enough. Everyone has seen those club players who seem to spend every night in the club year after year playing fast game upon fast game and never improving. As you play, it's important to be exposed to new concepts and to work at applying those concepts in your games.

The easiest way of exposing yourself to new concepts is to read go books. A better but sometimes less practical way is to get lessons from professional go players, because they can tailor the concepts they expose you to to your deficits. My real advice is, if you want to improve, read everything, repeatedly.

Applying the concepts you read about to your games is the hard part. This is where attitude is crucial. You have to constantly be striving to do what you think is right rather than what you feel comfortable doing. Complacency, fear, and greed will try to get in the way.

To improve, it's crucial that you analyze your games afterward. Have a critical attitude; try to figure out what your mistakes were, even when you won. Try to figure out how your opponent could have played better to beat you, and how you could have avoided giving them the opportunity. At least, play over as far as you remember with your opponent. Much better, record as many games as you can (using the go server is great for this!) and go over them with a stronger player, ideally a professional. If you have limited access to stronger players for this purpose, check out another great internet resource, the Go Teaching Ladder. But if you're going to record your games and go over them, make sure you play seriously!

CasualSincereSerious
Play as much as you can, trying to apply your knowledge. Play as much as you can, play seriously, and analyze your game afterward. Record at least two serious games per week, and go over them with a strong player.

Life & Death

Reading ability is the single most important element of go strength. I once wrote an article for The American Go Journal saying that studying life and death was like exercising - if you don't work up a sweat, it doesn't do you any good. I'm no longer sure that's true. Though visualization skills and mental discipline are crucial for reading ability, there are other elements too, mainly intuition for the vital point and knowledge of common shapes. The first two you can only get from hard practice, but the second two I think you can get from sort of flipping thought problems - giving each one just a minute of thought, then looking at the answer. It's easy to get into bad habits doing this though. It may be that both are useful, but for a serious student I think it's important to practice doing problems "perfectly" - read it out until you're certain that you have the answer. Since if you try this with a problem above your level it can be very frustrating, it's best to use problems that are challenging for you, but not impossible. There are many excellent books with tesuji problems and life and death problems in them:
CasualSincereSerious
Just "flip through" problems. "Flip through" problems, but try to solve at least 7 problems "perfectly" every week. Solve 5 problems a day perfectly. Flip though books of problems that you've already done to review.

Joseki

When I was studying go in Japan, whenever I was sitting at the goban studying Joseki, Ryu would walk by and tell me not to; that he didn't know any joseki. I'm a little skeptical of that, and anyway, even if he doesn't, he's strong enough to make them up as he goes, and I'm not.

For mortals like me, I'm more inclined to like Janice Kim's advice: "Knowledge is Power". In other words, if you know the right move in a position, not only does it mean that you have no chance of making a mistake and your opponent does, it means you can spend your time thinking about which variation is best in the situation, rather than how to avoid screwing up and totally collapsing.

BUT.

Just memorizing joseki makes it easy to get into trouble by getting into complicated positions without understanding the meaning of the moves that got you there.

If you don't understand why the joseki move is the best move, then if the opponent diverges, you don't know how to punish him, or how much you should be able to punish him. What often happens is that the the non-joseki move is only a few points worse than the joseki move, but the flustered joseki-memorizer panics and tries to kill the opponent, leading to his own collapse. Also it sometimes happens that the opponent makes a bad overplay, but since the memorizer only knows the proper sequence, he fails to find the refutation, and ends up with a bad result.

As for books, I would strongly recommend skipping 38 basic joseki. Reading "in the beginning" (Ishigure), and "opening theory made easy" (Otake) will do a lot more for your opening and strength in general. If you're ready for the headache of serious joseki study, Ishida's dictionary is great.

CasualSincereSerious
Don't bother studying joseki. After each game you play, to look up the joseki that occurred. The "proper" way to study joseki is to try to convince yourself of why each move in the sequence is the best move. Unfortunately, this is really hard, even for strong amateurs, but the exercise is very instructive. Since all joseki are even results, it gives you a lot of positions to calibrate your judgment against.

Masters' Games

Traditionally, a staple in the aspiring professional go player's course of study is to study the games of the old masters, and to follow current top tournaments for advances in opening theory. I've met a lot of amateurs that figure if it's good enough for the pros, it's good enough for them. But in my opinion, at least until the upper amateur dan levels, this is probably one of the least efficient ways to spend your study time.

The level of play in professional games is high, and many of the moves can be difficult to understand for any but the strongest amateurs. Detailed commentaries can help, but weaker players are still unlikely to gain much more than a feeling for the shape and pace of pro games. Don't get me wrong, this is still valuable, but in my opinion the time is better spent reading go books. The positions in regular "instructional" books, which are hand-pick for their pedagogical value in the context of the principle the author is illustrating, will typically be of more benefit than a random pro game.

CasualSincereSerious
Play over pro games as recreation. Play over pro games that have detailed analyses, and try to follow the commentary and the logic of the game. If you're playing over a game that doesn't have a commentary, try to guess what each move will be before looking for it in the record. In addition to trying to guess what each move will be the first time you play over a game, repeatedly play over each game until you memorize it. The best way to memorize a game is to understand the meaning of each move -- try to figure out why each move was played.

Attitude

I put this section last not because it's least important but because it applies to everything that precedes. Perhaps the most important determinant of how fast you improve is your attitude. This isn't some kind of "power of positive thinking" crap. In a nutshell, it's critical to actively try to play better, to apply the things that you're learning in your games. This may seem like a truism, but it's really not. Some people seem to think that if they just keep doing what they're doing, they'll miraculously get better. Unfortunately, to a small extent, that's true - but only to a small extent.

You Must Must Must, as you play, struggle to review the concepts, the injunctions and prohibitions, the lessons that you've been learning from books and stronger players, and play as if you believe and understand them. There is a natural progression in learning a concept or technique:

  1. You learn about a new concept (in a book or from a stronger player)
  2. You awkwardly and self-consciously apply the concept to your game
  3. You internalize the concept, and develop an intuition that allows you to apply it naturally.
Inevitably, you won't feel comfortable with a concept when it's first explained to you. The point is, if you don't go through step 2, you'll never get to step 3. The whole point here is that you have to do what you think is right intellectually before it feels right, and just by going through the motions, it will come to feel right and you'll improve. Some people find this hard to do because playing something you don't really understand feels dangerous, and danger in go means you might lose. But if your goal is to improve, don't worry about winning or losing. Really. Look; now I'm a 6-dan. Who cares how many games I lost when I was 5-kyu?

There are some tricks for doing this. Set yourself exercises. That doesn't mean don't play seriously; within the constraints of the exercise you should play as well as you can. The great thing about go is you can get better just by thinking. Here are some exercises you can try in your games.

Please send me your comments and questions.