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It's one thing to desire a higher rank. It's another to be prepared to do what is necessary for that. Some people for example have such a fear of losing that they avoid playing. It's very hard to improve without playing. Other people play a lot, but just for fun. They will improve at first, but they will stall at a certain point. Yet others spend a lot of time writing about improvement, their own or that of others. These people may become good writers but rarely improve at go. And yet others spend their time reading books or studying aspects of the game that bear only minor added value to their current game.
I know this because I've been guilty of all of this.
If you want to improve in the game of Go there are five major things you have to do.
Here's more on each item.
If you look at all the top amateur players of today, they invariably have played a huge amount of games. There's no way around it: in order to improve you have to play a lot. It is generally accepted that relatively slow games are best: they allow for a fair amount of reading sequences and evaluating positions.
In my opinion, this is the activity with the heaviest impact on one's improvement. With your teacher or someone else or alone, review the fast games and try to find which of your intuitively played moves gave a disadvantage. You can do some tactical analysis, even if you didn't in the game, but not too much: the purpose is to find flaws in the intuition.
At the same rate, review your slow games and dive into tactics. Where did you read badly ? Where did you NOT read !? Which principles, ideas or concepts did you apply ? Where did you forget to apply which principle ? Where did you misjudge a position you anticipated in the game ? Identify your mistakes and try to consciously avoid them in your next (slow) game.
Mistakes: Reviews are often carried out randomly, depending on what the reviewer thinks is interesting about it. Instead teacher or self reviewer should focus on the aspects one is practicing at this moment and on basic mistakes that should not occur anymore. In particular I've seen too many reviews that glorify the knowledge of the reviewer or even drift into pointlessly long variations that create another game.
Kindly read my article The philosophy of mistakes
The main instrument for improving reading skill are tsumego. Exercising tsumego will also enhance intuition for vital points of groups, for possible actions against groups, for status of groups. This kind of intuition is developed by doing many easy tsumego.
Tsumego go one step further than ladders. In a ladder you read very deeply but do not branch at all. In tsumego, you read a few moves deep and you branch into a few variations at each move. In whole board fighting, the branching is much broader and there is usually not one single solution.
When tsumego exercises are done, one has to apply the acquired skill to the game. It is a matter of discipline. "I'm going to read this like I would read a tsumego".
Remembering your own games after they've ended, becomes a second nature to every strong player. Professionals can often remember games all their life. Actively trying to remember games, is another instrument to improve Go memory. It also serves as a test for understanding the game, because remembering a game becomes easier as patterns fit predictions.
Positional judgment is an important strategic tool. In the later stages of the game, it boils down to calculating the score. Strong players can score the game very accurately even long before it has ended. Working this aspect of go is yet another instrument to improve the more rote side of Go memory.
The best way to acquire knowledge is a teacher, because they will know best what your game is lacking and how much new stuff you can handle. The teacher should give you a few new ideas and insist that you exercise them in your game. Replaying professional games can also serve as a source of new ideas but should not be exaggerated. Replaying games of a few levels above yours can reveal easier ideas and also mistakes, which can be good for morale. Books or websites like SL can also be useful, but people get easily trapped into reading as a substitute for active learning.
If you work without a teacher, then try to work on a few concepts at a time, possibly even restrict it to 1. Make this your focus in the next couple of games and review them, by yourself, a teacher or a community. Iterate through this improved knowledge and move on to the next subject. This way of improving is not very common in the amateur go world and it's a bit of a mystery to me why that is so. For example, I feel that intensive study of tsumego would best go associated with concentrating on life & death in the next games: surround a group, then look for the kill. Leave your own groups weak, then survive.
Before, I thought that the above 4 aspects were sufficient. While observing the study journals at L19 and analyzing my own attempts at /deliberate practice, I realized there are certain groundworks that need to be covered first or at least in parallel to the cognitive aspects of Go:
I've seen too many players lamenting their lack of progress, while providing excuses for lazy plays or outright blunders in their games. They consider the mental aspect as tangent to their study, while it's a skill that can be trained just as well as the technical, tactical or strategical aspects.
Here's a proposed division of labour:
This gives a total amount of 10 hours. If you have 20 hours to spend, make it double. If you have 5 hours to spend, cut every aspect in half.
The problem with improvement in Go is that in absence of a teacher the only real positive feedback you have is the game result and its accumulated effect on your rank. Obsession with rank is a perversion of a longing for positive feedback. Players who don't get a pat on the back for a good move, will become frustrated if their efforts do not immediately bare fruit in the game result.
I've been looking for alternative ways to get positive feedback. The main reason why the game result is poorly linked to improvement efforts is that efforts in one aspect of the game are cancelled out by many other factors. A first way of dealing with this is to tackle those factors first which have the biggest impact on the game result. I wrote a page about /basic laws of gamesmanship for this.
Once such high impact issues are dealt with, one can concentrate on one to three aspects at a time and make a checklist for those. The idea has been explored at compass. Again, it's important to identify the area with the highest impact on the game result. As an example consider the following strategy:
This strategy focuses on balance and making the difference small. Positive feedback has increased probability because losing small is also good. More importantly, I believe that such a strategy is the one with the highest probability of yielding wins. It also focuses on one source of ideas, the great endgame exercises book by Bozulich, which holds a rare programme for improvement in itself.
Bottom line: without a teacher, you should come up with credible positive feedback for yourself. Focus on improvements that have high probability to produce positive results, as this is the most primitive positive feedback.