Tsumego Hero
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  • Guide To Become Strong

     by Benjamin Teuber 6 Dan

    Many times I hear questions and requests like "How can I become strong?" or "My Go lacks this or that. Please teach me how to be better at it!". In general, I think many people overestimate the role of a Go-Teacher. Of course, it's very important to play and analyze with stronger players too, but still the teacher is not everything. Most of the learning consists of exploring Go for yourself, and not by having every single move explained. Actually, most part of my study in Japan did not consist of being taught by pros, but of studying by myself. One big point of being next to professionals was that they explained how to do this.

    For you, these lines mean that you don't have to go to Japan or find a 6-Dan teacher to become incredibly strong!!! Instead, if you are ambitious, you just have to know what to do by yourself. This is why I decided to write this small tutorial.
    Benjamin Teuber

    How to become strong (in order of importance)

    1.Play, play, play - the stronger your opponent the better for you
    2. Do Tsumego in the right way continuously. Maybe this seems to be boring for you at first, but you'll see how much fun it is once you start. It's very important how to do so!
    3.Analyze your games with other players (as above, the stronger the better) - best would be to found a private study group (ten eyes will find more than two or four...)
    4.Do Tsumego
    5.If you like, repeat and learn some pro games
    6.More Tsumego
    7.If you have some interesting book about fuseki, joseki, shape, endgame or whatever, read it if you enjoy - but don't spend too much time with it
    8.If you still have time left, how about a few tsumego-problems?

    Why Tsumego is so important

    Many people keep saying that Go is mainly about territory, and that Life and Death is just important for stubborn killers, who use Go to escape their own aggressions but never understood the real game. I believe this is rubbish!

    At first, let me talk about Go-history and philosophy: In ancient China, people were not scoring territory at all, but instead just the stones on the board. So originally, Go was about "gaining life for as many stones as possible" instead of territory. Building a territory - i.e. an area where no opponent's stones are able to live - was just one strategy to secure life for many stones later. In other words, Go was just about life & death! When the Japanese changed the rules to territory scoring as they found this more elegant than scoring stones, the rules of Go were cut apart from the original idea, which lead to the widespread misbelief among amateurs that Go would basically be about just fencing in points. All professionals know better. Just recently Saijo Masataka 8p visited Hamburg, and while commenting on a game, he said: "In Fuseki and Middle Game, territory is not important, but strength and weakness of groups".

    Now the five-hundred-million-dollar question: How to improve your judgement of weak and strong groups? Hint: Look at the Headline. I think you are beginning to get the point. Be honest: How many of your last ten games were decided by just building territory, and how many of them by either killing stones or, if you are already a dan-player, by the implications of misjudging the strength of a group, for example being heavily attacked and therefore losing too many points by its implication? Voilà.

    There's maybe one more point to say: By doing much tsumego, your reading ability will increase in general, not just about life and death and tesuji. So you will have an easy time calculating endgame sequences and other stuff, so this will also be affected greatly by doing tsumego.

    The nasty side effect of trying to kill everything

    Right, this really happens sometimes with players who do tsumego the first time in life, as it is the first time they start to focus on strengths or weaknesses. But this is just an in-between stage and still an improvement compared to before, when weak groups were ignored by both players half of the game. It's ok for a while as you can try out and find the limits of your new knowledge. After losing enough games because of trying too hard, your way of dealing with weaknesses will become more subtle: You will create double threats of killing and making points, and you learn how to fight in a safe way that pays attention to both attack and defence. After really mastering life and death, many players suddenly change to a very calm, peaceful style, as they know when to avoid having a weak group and when to refrain from hard fighting since they can read out when it doesn't work.

    How to do tsumego

    For asian people, tsumego doesn't mean go problems in general, but especially life and death, and also problems about escape and capture rather than just building eyes. From my point of view, a mix of about 60% "real" life and death plus 40% escape and capture sounds nice. There are three levels of difficulty that may appeal to you:

    • • Problems where you find the right move almost instantly.
    • • Problems where you have to think for a while, but you can solve most of them.
    • • Problems you cannot solve completely - of course, you sometimes find the right move by intuition, but you can't calculate completely.

    Lee Ki-Bong, Korean Go professor and 8 dan, recommends to do 1/3 of each type, but I believe that you should concentrate on the problems you enjoy most: If you like the feeling of having solved a problem, you can do problems that are not too hard for you, if you're looking for a challenge, try out harder ones (but don't spend more than 10 minutes at one time for one problem).

    Now the most important thing: Don't look at the solutions!!!

    Let me explain why: The right way of learning Go is to find new ideas yourself, instead of copying those of others. It won't help you improve, if you know one solution by copying. As you weren't able to find out alone, your reading ability is not yet good enough to understand the problem completely. Even if you know the solution, you don't know why it is right and why the other moves don't work, because you couldn't read out all variations. So even if you feel wiser, your reading didn't improve and the problem was useless.

    If you are frustrated with not solving a problem, just continue with the next one without looking at the solution!

    This is the right approach, used by all ambitious eastern students. Your reading already improved while trying to find out yourself, even if wasn't successful yet. Just do other problems to divert your mind from the unsolvable one. After a few more problems or after being through with the whole book (just as you like), you can have a second try with the problem, and maybe you can solve it this time. If not, continue in the same way until one day you made it! I can tell you, the satisfaction from finally having solved such a hard problem will be much bigger than your initial frustration, so you will be very motivated to do more.

    After repeating a book two to three times, almost all of the problems will be very easy for you, and you can continue with a harder book. After you did the Chinese classical books, your reading ability is exactly like a pro's, and you should be able to rise to 7-8 dan. That's it!

    Nowadays there's much tsumego available on the net, but I personally prefer printed media most of the time. Try both yourself and decide.




    How to analyze with a stronger player

    I believe that it's important not to submit to your teacher completely. Instead of just accepting everything he or she says, you should explain what you thought when you played, so both of you can compare his ideas with yours, and you can try to judge together whose were better. Of course, most of the time, the stronger player will be right, but sometimes he will not!

    My teachers in Japan insisted that during analysis, there's no teacher and no student, but instead two equal partners who explain and compare their ideas, maybe even in a sort of fight/discussion if they disagree. In this way, all participants can learn from the game, though usually the weaker player of course gets more from it. But in this way there's a chance that he really understands instead of just copying blindly.

    Found a Study Group

    If you know a few more ambitious players in your town, maybe you should ask them to found a study group to meet like once a week to show and analyze each others games. This way all of you learn to get new ways of thinking and estimating, and as you are together you can try to decide which one fits best into a situation. It is said that the Korean and Chinese top-professionals are recently so much more successful than the Japanese because they are studying together, not alone.

    About pro games

    Japanese pros recommend repeating and learning professional games (I had to do 100 when I was in Japan). By this you can get a nice feeling for flow and shape, and you find a lot of new ideas how to use your stones. On the other hand, most Koreans believe that before being around 7 dan, pro games are almost useless as you don't really understand most of it before you can read like a pro.

    So you should find out yourself how many pro games you want to look at. It might also depend on your goal: If you want to win as much as possible, pro games don't help too much IMO. But if you see Go as an art, you will love the beauty of their play and it might help you finding elegance in your own games.

    It's up to you, whether or not you want to do this. Just do what you enjoy!

    But which games to look at?

    Maybe you should concentrate on games of real top-players, as their Go is even more complete than other pros - and there are enough games, so why not choose the best of the best? There's much choice, from Shusaku to Lee Chang-Ho, Japanese, Chinese and Korean. All of them are very good, so you can decide what you like. If you like straightforward, understandable moves, you might prefer older Japanese games, i.e. Shusaku. If instead you love violent, chaotic fighting, you could chose some modern Korean stuff, i.e. Cho Hun-Hyun. Maybe you should try out very different games to find out what you like. Then you can start learning games of one or a few special player(s).

    How to learn games?

    Like with everything else in life, you must find your own way to do so. I can just give some proposals, but please feel free to adapt:

    • • First, replay the game until where you want to learn - usually something between move 100 and 250, as I don't recommend the endgame. A good stopping point might be after the last big fight concludes. But just 50 moves or even the complete game can be useful too, so - as always - decide for yourself!
    • • Then try to put the first 50 moves on the board on your own. Sometimes you have to look at the game sheet if you forgot - that's normal.
    • • Clean up and start over from the beginning, until you're quite sure about these 50 moves.
    • • Then switch to 100 moves in the same way, and so on.

    All of the time, focus your mind on these topics:

    • • What was the strategic aim of this move? Thinking of strengths or weaknesses of groups often helps.
    • • Why does he play on this spot? Why is this the right shape, and not e.g. the point next to it?
    • • (more advanced) Why do the moves occur in this order - what happens if he plays the other one first?

    Also, always try to imagine where you would play in this situation and why. Then compare to what you believe the pro's aim was. Most of the time his idea is superior to yours, but not always. Don't think too hard to decide this, it's already great if you can get his idea.

    One game alone probably won't affect your style too much, so if you are serious, give yourself a challenge like 50 or even 100 games - yes, it's possible if you're not too old.

    At last, I give you one warning:

    After you looked at some games, you will be tempted to copy pro moves blindly. That's a very bad idea, as it will lead you to play moves whose meaning you don't understand at all - this is not Go! Although it's useful to develop a good intuition for shapes, you should never forget the objective behind a move. I know what I'm talking about, and because I never heard a warning like this, I'm still fighting against this bad attitude. With this, learning pro games can even affect your Go negatively! So just make the same move the pro did after assuring that the idea behind it fits to the position on the board and thinking about alternatives.

    The other stuff (joseki, fuseki, endgame etc.)

    In general, every minute you spend with Go will help you improve, so feel free to do everything you enjoy. But you should always be aware that successful home study consists of maybe 80% life and death, and you will realize that joseki and endgame also have a lot to do with it.

    To talk about joseki, you know this proverb: "He who starts learning joseki will become three stones weaker". The meaning behind it is exactly like mentioned at the warning above: It tempts you to copy moves you don't really understand, which is a very bad habit. If instead, you replay joseki while always trying to find out why the moves are better than others, it can help you improve indeed, but before you can do so, you must be able to read very well.

    -Benjamin Teuber

    Guide at Sensei's Library