Thursday, May 03, 2007

The Four Corners of Go

I've been a beginner at Go for decades, but here's some advice I've gotten from good players along the way.

1. BE AN HONEST BEGINNER. I.e., learn to recognize the 10,000 blunders every beginner makes, and don't do those anymore. My biggest blunder was showing off Japanese Go vocabulary to a Japanese exchange student: He took me seriously, so the game lasted three minutes (I perished in a ladder I was too stupid to abandon). He was too polite to laugh, but the contrast between his initial fear, dawning disblief and utter contempt for my game and me personally has proven memorable.

2. LAY OUT ALL THE STONES ON THE GO BOARD. All 180 white stones fill in the 13 x 13 inner table marked by the nine star points, but leave the K10 point open, and distribute the extra white stones evenly on the edges of your white phalanx in the middle. Fill in the outside points with 180 black stones, and put the 1 remaining black stone in the K10 center point. Guess the reason for this exercise.

3. GO GOT RHYTHM. Without exception, every nasty trap and surprise that awaits you on the Go board is sprung by one simple trigger: You were outnumbered two to one, by something that's not even there! Rule number one: Count the liberties surrounding a group of stones, not the stones themselves. This is a trick of perception that only comes with practice. Like a chess player sees zones and alleys, not pieces, a Go player sees a four-dimensional web of influence everywhere stones are NOT.

4. MAKE MOVES THAT ATTACK AND DEFEND SIMULTANEOUSLY. Good luck finding these. The only way to learn is to keep playing. Eventually, the fogs begin to lift, but for a long time you'll wonder, "What does attack mean?" and "What does defend mean?" Wrong questions! Sliding a stone next to your opponent's stone is not necessarily an attack, depending on circumstances. Building solid walls that surround "your" corner, is free time your opponent can use to grab the entire rest of the board.

The "attack and defend" rule is interpreted differently by different players, by the way. The 9 dans play strange incomprehensible games where lanes of contested empty space snake between furtive lines of black and white. The 9 kyus play fun, wide open, free-spirited games that seem to dance on the board. And then there's the ball of snakes, katamari damacy style, where two evenly matched players play thick, ugly games and try to smother each other off the board, like sumo wrestlers.

That seems like the essentials to me.

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