Keywords: Theory

Tamsin: I have rewritten this page because I have expanded the compass idea into a learning system. Older material is now on the discussion page.


A crucial part of learning is to take on new ideas and to try to apply them. This is a two-step process: you do not only have to understand an idea, but you have to get used to applying it in the field.

Simarly, a problem for beginners and players returning after a hiatus (see rust) is a sense of directionlessness, neither knowing what to think about nor what to emphasise.

In contrast, a very common challenge for experienced players is reaching a plateau? beyond which they cannot easily improve. Their problem is not so much not knowing what to think about, but rather being overly focussed on what they have found successful in the past, so that they are stuck in mental habits that hold them at a consistent playing level. To improve, they would have to change those habits: maintaining what works, but changing misunderstandings and filling in gaps of comprehension.

The purpose of the compass technique is to help the player focus on new ideas and their application, and to strive consciously to change their mental habits, by providing a strong visual analogy.


If you are a beginner, make a note of new strategic ideas that give you a strong feeling of insight (the 'aha' moment). If you are an experienced player, then with the help of a teacher, identify the areas of your game that require change. Look at your games, and try to find mistakes that you make consistently.

Having found room for improvement, narrow down the ideas to four principles only. This is because it is difficult to apply consciously any more than a small number of changes at any one time.

Next, prioritise the ideas. Then, state the first three ideas as playing principles in positive language (e.g., rewrite 'avoid small moves' as 'look for moves with big territorial potential'). This is because it is much easier to concentrate on doing what you want to do, rather than on not doing what you don't want to do.

After this, draw a diagram of a compass, with the cardinal points North, East, West and South. This will be your tool for navigating your games.

At the North point, write down the most important goal. Place the next two goals at East and West, so that North gives your intentions 'direction', while the other points guide you to useful 'ports of call' along the way.

Finally, take the fourth point and place it at South. This should be an habit or problem to be avoided, and expressed in negative language. The reason for this is so that you can look at the compass and feel that you are moving away from something, and so that it does not seem as though you were trying to go North and South simultaneously.

The compass can be referred to while playing, to remind you what to do until these desirable changes in thinking become automatic. Obviously, you should only use an imaginary compass when playing serious, tournament games.

Here is an example of the kind of compass that an inexperienced player might use to improve their fuseki:

NORTH Build from corners with extensions

WEST Approach opponent's 3-4 stones EAST Enclose from 3-4 stones

SOUTH Avoid crawling on the second line

When the ideas become an automatic part of your thinking process, you can then find new priorities and point your compass to a new direction.

An additional reason for using a compass is to calm the mind and to train oneself to select moves for logical reasons instead of according to emotions. Focussing on one's goals should remove fear and to rise above feelings of frustration, irritation or confusion caused by your opponent's moves. After all, the best way to get a job done is to work out a plan and to execute it, rather than to dwell on how big or difficult it is.

Flags and Local Compasses

There are times when the opponent may do something unexpected or unreasonable. Very often, though, such situations can be categorised and handled according to heuristics specific to them. For instance, suppose you think the opponent has made an overplay or FailedToCompleteTheJoseki?. To extend my compass technique, I want to call such events 'flags'. Then, when a flag is waved by the opponent, you recall the compass that you have constructed to navigate that situation.

This is a work in progress, but for now, here is my suggestion for the flag 'overplay':

FLAG: Overplay

Secondary Compass

N: Can I cut or take a vital point straight away?

E: Do I have a weakness? (If by making myself strong I force a passive reply, then I have gained a good defensive point in sente; if the opponent neglects to defend, then I can attack their overplay severely.

W: Can I cause the fight to damage the opponent's position elsewhere? (I might not kill an over-deep invasion, but I will make the opponent suffer for it).

S: Avoid taking offence at the opponent's move: if it really is an overplay, then it will probably do you a favour in the long run.

Potential Problems and Solutions

A drawback of using heuristics is that principles can become so strongly embedded in your mind that it is difficult to think flexibly. While the aim of using the Compass technique is to ensure desirable changes in thinking patterns, it is not meant to turn you into the kind of dogmatic player who cannot think 'out of the box' to find inventive solutions to specific challenges.

To prevent principles becoming too strongly anchored, I suggest periodically reviewing your play with a stronger player to find out whether you need to apply further changes. When following one compass direction has served its purpose, it may well be time to identify a new change to make.

Over time, desired ways of thinking should become automatic and natural, and the changes required for improvement should become less radical. In other words, a learner's compass that followed only North and East and West and avoided South in the past may come to show fine distinctions between North North West and South East and so on. To put that into go terms, one may use a simple compass technique to establish the idea that you should, say, Make a Fist Before Striking when fighting; however, by applying modifications to you compass at the right times, you should come not only to Make a Fist Before Striking as a matter of course, but also to recognise exceptions, when perhaps there is not time on the board to do so. To summarise, then, by learning flexibly, you learn to be flexible.

I have put your Compass-theory into practice, and from time to time i change it's content to meet my current needs. I wanted to share the examples which i designed in the last four months.

  N: keep it simple
  W: play urgent before big
  E: make your stones work
  S: do not get hemmed in

after i found keeping it simple in a game which is a real mindpuzzler very, very unrealistic, i came up with:

  N: be independent/keep initiative
  W: play dual-purpose moves
  E: reduce the opponents moyo (invade)
  S: don't create too many weak groups

in my current progress and study techniques, my latest compass is a real help:

  N: within the constraints of the given 'task at hand', play as well as you can.
  W: leave strong stones to look after themselves and break ground in new directions
  E: play, reduce & invade lightly
  S: don't worry about winning or losing

I just wanted to share this; thanx for the tip. museki

Dieter: The compass is a stronger version of advice I often give at people who hamper their progress by fear of losing. Instead of trying to win a game by all (primitive) possible means, set an artificial goal for yourself, like "I must play at least one snap-back in this game" or "I'm going to make a 3-3 invasion, no matter what". Although such hardliner imperatives are normally not good for the flexible attitude with which to tackle the complex game of Go, they can detract from the obsession to win the game.

Tamsin: Perhaps the idea could be improved by simplifying it. Essentially, a Compass is a way of changing or installing good habits. As a game of go makes enough demands on the Working Memory by itself, I suggest ditching the 'flags' elaboration and cutting the compass itself down to just North and South. South would be a positive change you wish to make, and South would be something you would like to do less of. For example, 'NORTH: Have a follow-up SOUTH: Don't just defend passively'.

Applied like this, perhaps the compass could be useful in improving your play, one stage at a time. Also, it might help you to focus on the gameplay, and not on the desire to win, as Dieter said.

compass last edited by on July 9, 2011 - 17:48
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