How To Get Better At Go

How To Get Better At Go

One of the most common questions people ask us is something along the lines of “how do I get better at Go?”. It seems that nearly all Go players want to improve their Go game, regardless of what level they’re currently at. And that’s not surprising. After all, it’s human nature to want to get better at the things we enjoy doing. Isn’t it? And that feeling of getting better at something is incredibly satisfying. Right?...

Do you want to get better at Go? One of the most common questions people ask us is something along the lines of “how do I get better at Go?”.

It seems that nearly all Go players want to improve their Go game, regardless of what level they’re currently at. And that’s not surprising. After all, it’s human nature to want to get better at the things we enjoy doing. Isn’t it? And that feeling of getting better at something is incredibly satisfying. Right?

But how do you do it?

Different things will work for different people, of course, but Younggil and I have discussed this at length and come up with four key ingredients that should help nearly everyone.

Play Go

This is almost too obvious to say right? And yet, it’s often overlooked. If you’re anything like me, you really like Go. You like it so much that you enjoy studying it. That’s crazy, isn’t it?

There are people who just play Go for fun and never study it, which is fine. Those people don’t need this advice. I imagine that many of the people reading this article don’t fall into that camp though. Those people are off playing Go right now, not reading Go Game Guru.

In contrast, there are also people who enjoy learning everything they can about Go and don’t consider it study. I remember once reading a funny quote from a professional Go player who said, “I’ve never studied a day in my life”. It’s a joke, of course, but the sentiment is worth remembering.

If you’re one of the people who enjoys studying Go, you just need to remember to play games too. This is very simple but important, because it helps you practice and consolidate the things you’re learning.

The fact that you enjoy studying Go is great. It will give you a huge advantage in the long run. Just don’t forget to play games, and don’t be afraid of losing.

How often should I play Go?

Ideally you’d play several games per week. However, if you don’t have much time, just try your best to play at least once each week. Set aside some time in your calendar if you have to, but do it now.

Ironically, it’s easy to carry a Go book or a phone with Go software around with you. This means you can easily study Go on the train, at the bus stop, while waiting to meet someone and so on. If you’re serious about improving, you should take advantage of these little windows of time.

On the other hand, opportunities to play a serious game are limited. They require a reasonable amount of uninterrupted time and preferably a quiet location. Most people won’t have a lot of opportunities to play in a week, which is why you need to be organized.

If you do have plenty of time to play Go, then you’re in the lucky minority. You should take full advantage of that time while you have it!

A few more points to remember while playing are:

Have fun

Go is supposed to be fun, remember? Enjoying your games will also help you learn better because it will put you into the right frame of mind. It’s easy to learn things that are fun, isn’t it? Don’t turn Go into hard work, then it won’t be.

Be creative and experiment

There are almost no set rules in Go and no fixed patterns. Yes, there are tactical situations and shapes where there is sometimes one best move, but I’m talking about general play.

Come up with your own ideas and strategies and let them loose. Try new ideas that you’ve learned from Go books.

The Go board is your testing ground. Turn your opponent into your partner in crime. Just remember to review why your moves did or didn’t work after the game.

Don’t put yourself in a mental straight-jacket. It doesn’t matter what other people say or think. I’m giving you permission to play however you want right now! OK?

Walk the tightrope and do your best

There’s a very fine line between a good move and an overplay. That move is the strongest move and you should strive balance your game on that tightrope. You don’t need to go all out all the time (that’s overplay), but you need to get a feeling for where that line is.

But won’t I lose games if I do that?

Yes. You will. Sometimes you’ll lose control of the game and your opponent will win. But if you’re paying attention and have the right attitude, you’ll learn a great deal from it. Are you playing to win or are you playing to learn?

Other times you will win. You’ll find you’re better able to walk that tightrope than your opponent. That’s a sign that you’re becoming stronger at Go.

Does that mean I should be really aggressive?

No, it doesn’t. Sometimes when I tell people this, they think it means they should try to attack all the time. Let me be clear, this is not about attacking or defending, this is about playing the best move you can find.

There will be times when the best move will be a quiet and solid defensive move, which gives the initiative to your opponent. Are you brave enough to play that move?

If you’re playing to improve, you should always try to play the best move. Avoid the temptation to play the easy move. Don’t sleepwalk through your games because every move is a new whole board Go problem. If you want to view the game this way, it becomes quite a challenge.

Putting effort into searching for the best move will help you learn faster. It will also give you great games to review.

And reviewing your games is the secret ingredient that will make all of this work.

Review games

Just playing games will help you get better at Go. But playing and reviewing games will help you get better much more quickly.

The most important games to review are your own. This is because they clearly show you your own strengths and weaknesses. They teach you exactly what you need to know right now at a level that’s not too hard nor too easy for you. It’s like having a lesson tailored to your own needs.

Even though many amateur players don’t like to review their games, professionals really like reviewing games. This is one reason why they become so good at Go.

Learn from every game you play

Make it your goal to learn at least one thing from every game you play. Focus on finding those things.

Look at each chapter that makes up the story of your game. The opening, the first negotiation in the corner, the inappropriate solicitation, the scuffle which broke out at the back of the room and the cow that jumped over the moon.

Each game is made up of a series of smaller crossroads and decisions made by both players. Review the decisions made at each one and the techniques used by both players.

What were the important factors to consider in this position? What was my plan? What was my opponent’s plan? Was it a good plan? Did my/their move work? Was there a better way to achieve the same thing? Were there other moves/areas that were more important? In retrospect, were any moves wasted? How could that have been avoided?

If you have the right attitude, you should be able to see things during the review that you couldn’t during play. There’s a saying that people are two stones stronger (some say four) during the review. Take advantage of this.

Review the game with your opponent

If the other player wants to review the game with you, be grateful. Most people don’t like to review. Listen to their ideas about the game and see how they differ from yours. Work together to see how both sides could’ve done better. If they just want to leave or start another game, review the game by yourself.

Don’t try to win the review

Whatever you do, don’t try to ‘win’ the review. The game is over, you can’t change the result by showing that you could’ve, should’ve or would’ve done something else… Focus on learning from your mistakes instead.

If your opponent starts trying to win the review – especially if they’re the type of person who shows how they could’ve won by giving themselves three moves in a row – look for an exit as soon as possible. Review the game by yourself instead, because this person is going to waste your time. Yes, I know that is a harsh sentiment, but your time is valuable too.

Review your games with others

If you have friends who play Go or you have a teacher or study group, review your game with them. If you have time, it can still be worthwhile to review the game by yourself first. This will help you find out what questions you want to ask and which parts of the game you want to focus on.

If you have friends who are strong at Go and are willing to help you, you should definitely take them up on that offer.

Review professional games

If you have the time and interest, reviewing professional games is a good way to learn. You can learn a lot from professional games, including strategy, good technique, shape and how the stones should flow.

However, depending on your level, it may or may not be a good use of your time. You need to be able to understand what’s going on to some extent, even if you’re only studying shape.

In short, if you enjoy playing through professional games, it will certainly help you improve and will also add to your enjoyment of the game. On the other hand, if you feel confused and frustrated, don’t worry too much.

Reviewing pro games isn’t that important until you’re already quite a strong player. You’ll start to enjoy reviewing pro games more as you becomes stronger and understand them better.

If you haven’t already, try reviewing some commented pro games first. If you don’t enjoy that, try something else. Sometimes watching the games of a player who’s only about five stones stronger than you can be more understandable and educational.

Don’t let reviewing pro games take too much time away from playing and reviewing your own games, solving Go problems or reading Go books.

Review commented Go games

For nearly all readers, the best way to study professional games will be to review commented games. These are games that a strong player has already reviewed, adding comments and sequences to highlight important tactical and strategic ideas.  This will help you understand what’s really going on better, enjoy the game and learn more.

If the reviewer is also a good teacher, they will understand where students often get confused and preempt some of your questions. If you’re looking for good quality commented games, have a look at the professional games that Younggil has commented at Go Game Guru.

But I was told not to look at commentary?

Yes, if you’re already a strong amateur player and can read nearly as deeply as a pro, then studying games without commentary could be better for you. This is because you want to learn to think for yourself.

However, I see a lot of people repeating this advice without really understanding the context of it, and I find that disappointing. A lot of Go players, who genuinely want to improve, follow this advice. In doing so, they waste a lot of time studying games that are just too difficult for them at their current level.

Most of these people would improve much more quickly by reading Go books, solving Go problems or reviewing commented games. Take your pick.

I’m not interested in dogma or idealistic theories, and that’s not the kind of advice Younggil and I started this site to give. We’re interested in what works and has been shown to work. We’re interested in things that actually help people.

If you want to be able to understand pro games by yourself, that’s a great ambition to have. First, however, you need to get very good at tactics and reading. So how do you do that?

Solve Go problems

Some of you already knew that this was going to come up, right?

And yet, I can already imagine the groan that this has elicited from readers around the world…

It’s been demonstrated time and time again that solving Go problems regularly helps players get better at Go.

Yet for some reason many people who really like Go have decided that they don’t like solving Go problems.

I think this is because people decide that it sounds like too much work, but actually it can be quite fun if you approach it in the right way.

Since this seems to be a sticking point for a lot of people, let’s spend a little time talking about it. OK?

Problems as a separate, fun activity

I know Go players who really enjoy the game and also like doing crossword puzzles, Sudoku or similar puzzles. Yet for some reason they screw up their face at the idea of solving ‘Go problems’. Why?

There’s no logical reason for it. It’s a simple matter of emotion and perspective. People see Sudoku as a fun diversion. An activity in itself. On the other hand, Go problems are seen as the poor cousin of playing Go (which is also a great deal more fun than Sudoku, by the way).

So why not treat Go problems as an activity in themselves, separate from the rest of the time you spend playing or studying Go? Shift your perspective for a moment. You like Go and you like challenges, don’t you?

‘Go problems’ are actually just little bite-sized puzzles that use the same rules as Go. You can solve them for fun when you’re not able to play Go. For example, on the train or bus, or before you go to sleep at night.

Try it yourself

The best way to find out whether what I’m saying is true or not is to try it for yourself. Solve a few problems every day, even if it’s only for 10-15 minutes. They don’t need to be too hard either.

You’ll need to try it for at least one month, preferably two, to find out if this works for you. At the end of this time I’ll be very surprised if you’re not only winning more games, but also enjoying solving ‘Go puzzles’ regularly.

What type of problems should I solve?

Good question! I think a lot of people go wrong here. You need to challenge yourself, but you also need to give yourself a game you can win. If you make it too hard, then of course it won’t be fun!

The ideal problems are ones you can solve after a little thought. Most of the problems you solve should be in this category. If it’s taking more than a couple of minutes to solve a problem, it’s definitely a bit hard for you right now.

That doesn’t mean you can’t or shouldn’t try harder and easier problems now and then. There are no Go police, so do what you want. Sometimes you’ll be tired after a long day and might want to flick through some easier problems. Likewise, sometimes you’ll want to push yourself a bit and that’s good too.

I’ll write more about this in another article, but as a rough guide, if you’re not yet 15 kyu, you’ll probably gain the most from just playing games. Don’t worry too much about problems for now, just do what you enjoy.

If you’re not yet 5 kyu, spend most of your Go problem time solving tesuji problems. After you reach that level, start to divide your time more equally between tesuji and life and death problems.

As you become stronger, and you gradually develop a solid understanding of tesuji, you’ll want to focus more on life and death problems than before. You’ll probably be able to feel when this happens because you’ll be able to solve most tesuji problems quite quickly. You should still look at tesuji problems from time to time though, just to maintain a sharp edge to your play.

Life and death problems

Life and death problems are puzzles that require you to make a group alive (with two eyes) or dead, depending on the perspective of the problem. They often involve threats to escape or capture and kos.

Over time, solving these problems will help you read further ahead (imagine more moves in advance) and see moves that make or destroy two eyes more easily. Sometimes people compare this to building up your ‘Go muscles’, which is a good analogy. Just getting better at reading will make you a better Go player, but that’s not all they’ll help you with.

Perceiving strengths and weaknesses

While you’re consciously solving problems, you’re also unconsciously learning patterns and strengthening your intuition. After solving problems consistently for awhile, you’ll start noticing things that you didn’t notice before, like groups that are still vulnerable to attack. Eventually you’ll also start to see the different ways of threatening a group indirectly.

Once you can perceive this information, you can use it to help you plan your whole board strategy. This is when Go starts to become even more fun and that’s why getting good at life and death, and tesuji is the backbone to real middle game strength in Go.

Tesuji problems

Tesuji are essentially the tactics of Go. If you think of Go as a mental martial art, tesuji are the most powerful moves in hand-to-hand combat.

Tesuji problems usually require you to achieve a particular strategic aim. For example, capture or rescue a group of stones, cut or connect some stones, attack or defend a group effectively, or win a capturing race.

In fact, the distinction between tesuji and life and death is fairly arbitrary, because life and death problems are often solved using tesuji. Let’s not worry too much about that though…

The main purpose of solving tesuji problems is increase the power and efficiency of your moves. Solving the problems regularly trains you to see strong moves at a glance. Practicing tesuji that you can solve in a few seconds (or less) can help improve your intuition. You also want to keep finding harder tesuji problems so that you can keep learning new, stronger techniques.

Should I look at the solutions?

Yes, of course. As Younggil said, “otherwise how will you know if you’ve solved the problem?”

Do your best to solve the problem. Read out different possible moves and their refutations. When you’re confident that you’ve solved the problem, then look at the answer. There are a three reasons for doing so:

  1. You know when you’ve solved the problem correctly, which turns solving problems into a game which is enjoyable in itself.
  2. If you make a mistake or oversight, you’ll find out about it and learn from it. Often you’ll learn stronger moves in the process and this is also satisfying.
  3. The solutions are often provided by a very strong Go player. Even if you solved the problem, you may not have done it in the most efficient or stylish manner. The solutions to Go problems are a gold mine for learning good technique and strong moves.

We know that there’s another school of thought that insists that you shouldn’t look at the answers, or that you should even solve problems with no solutions provided. That advice may work for some players, if they’re already very strong and have mastered most of the known techniques of Go.

However, both Younggil and I recommend that you look at the solutions to problems and allow yourself to learn from them. Learning from the solutions will just be a much more efficient use of your time.

For those who are new to our site, Younggil is another author here and he is an 8 dan professional Go player. If looking at the solutions is good enough for him, it should be good enough for us too, right?

After all, we’re interested in doing what works, remember?

Where to get good quality Go problems

In my opinion the best way to solve Go problems is from books. This is because:

  • Go problems in books usually come with good quality solutions
  • I find I learn better from books, because I can stay focused more easily
  • I like to give my eyes a break from the screen
  • Books remove the urge to ‘click-and-see-what-happens’, which ruins the problem.

This is no doubt a matter of personal taste though, so I encourage you to try both Go books and digital problem collections. Digital Go problems, especially on smartphones, have the advantage of being very portable. They’re also cheaper, if you discount the initial cost of the phone.

We provide a fairly large collection of Go problems at Go Game Guru too. Because we believe strongly in the value of learning from problems with high quality solutions, we’ve put a great deal of time and effort into providing you with the best solutions we can for all of the problems on our website. This will help you to learn things properly the first time and improve more quickly.

Anyway, you can find Go problems online and in books. But there’s much more to Go books than just problems…

Read Go books

One of the most important reasons to read Go books is that they introduce you to lots of new ideas. You don’t have to agree with all of them, but you should think about them and try them out in games. Exploring new ideas really helps you learn and discovering new ideas is also one of the things that makes Go fun, isn’t it?

In English, there are now books covering most major aspects of the game. That means that no matter what you want to work on, there’s probably a book that can help you.

For most players, reading Go books will be a better use of time than replaying pro games. This is because books often contain a number model positions or examples from pro games, which emphasize a particular concept or technique. Good books help you to learn and see connections more easily, by focusing on one thing at a time in detail.

If you do want to replay pro games though, there are also plenty of excellent books of commented professional games. John Power’s Invincible – The Games of Shusaku is one of the best.

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