Dieter Verhofstadt / Teaching experiences

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Here is a blog of my teaching activities, in pursuit of the "lecture of God". The experience has led me to believe that the stone counting teaching method on very small boards works best as an introduction method, but on the other hand the audience and the conditions can widely vary, so there is much more to teaching well. Beyond introductions, I've learnt that it is more important to inspire than to instruct. Finally, I have to acknowledge that no method for introduction or tutoring will work all the time, for any novice and for any teacher.

Table of contents
Table of diagrams
Territory 2

1. At the service club

The audience was a group of people belonging to a service club. They were not expecting to be able to play after the session. Their expectations were to learn about this oriental game that they knew to involve important strategic principles. The session would take a whole evening after working hours. No second session was planned. We were two lecturers for an audience of about 20 people. Our intention was to spread the word of Go.

We took turns, using the magnetic supersize upright goban, me to talk about the history and culture, my colleague to explain the rules and some strategy. The choice for emphasis on culture and strategy was warranted by their expectations. Obviously their understanding of the strategy was restricted by their lack of playing ability. In the second half of the session we had them play against each other on 9x9 as we would usually do with newbies (see below). We also took a laptop with IgoWin and a few Oriental attributes such as fans, in order to appeal with variety.

2. At the games event

Here, the audience were passers-by at a games event. Some of them will take the whole day to learn just a few games. Some of them want to superficially learn about it. Our intention clearly was to have some people interested enough to stick with the game.

There were the three of us to a varying number of 0 to 10 trainees. We would use the atari-go method for newbies to get them play as quickly as possible. Cultural or strategic information was almost absent. We used small boards only and gave away cardboard gamesets to people who stayed about for a certain amount of time. Ko was introduced to those people who discovered it after a few short games.

3. Newcomers at the club

When newcomers arrive at the club, their interest is usually already raised. They will know something about the rules and probably intend to come back for more. In this one-to-one situation, one can spend more time teaching and rise to the tactical/strategic level somewhat sooner. We would have newcomers be instructed by the strongest player present, or by our "official instructors" who received lessons on teaching Go by our federation.

Ideally there were two of them so that they could play against each other, capture go or real go depending on their knowledge. If there was only one, we would team him/her up against our weaker players so as to keep the gap in strength to a minimum.

In my experience, newcomers come back much much more often if they have peers. This is actually true for many levels.

4. An introduction at work

First session

On 19/11/2004, I had a very satisfactory introduction session with 6 colleagues of mine. Well, I was satisfied, and they were at least very positive about it in speech.

I started with about 5 minutes telling the emperor tale, the spread to the rest of Asia and the popularity there (big) and here (moderate but rising!). Next, I explained the rules, with stone counting.

  • Empty grid of arbitrary size. We'll use 9x9.
  • You take turns and play on the vertices (points).
  • Who places more stones, wins.

Then I said "If this were to be the only rule, then it would be a very dull game and Black would always win, since there are an odd number of points.Then I explained the capture rule in my usual style, asking each particpant in turn for the number of liberties of this or that stone or chain.

One guy who had some notice of the game, asked about suicide. "Yes, I said, it is illegal". Another guy said "So that structure you have there after you captured a stone (he pointed to the ponnuki), none of these stones can be captured ever?" So I explained that capture goes first, then only the legality of a move is decided. They nodded. Another guy, who already played against the computer, said "So if you have two such surrounded spots ..." I cut him short and said "I know what you're about to say, but I deliberately avoided that issue, because it is not a rule, but a concept that follows from the rules. I'd rather have you discover that for yourself.

After which we started to play. It was interesting to see how all kept a balance between putting live stones on the board and trying to remove the opponent's. Halfway the game, they started realizing some stones were lost anyway and not worth saving nor capturing. Soon they understood there were areas controlled by either player, unworthy of investment. Within the course of one game they were developing strategies. One player made many diamond shapes, but he commented himself that he could have done better economically. Another player had a firm grasp on the concept of Take 'n Give and tried to control the larger share of the board, fencing in his opponent towards the side.

Two players resigned their first game ever, because they understood they were never to get more stones on the board than the opponent. All players had understood the concept of territory within one game. All players were enthusiastic and surprised by how much there is to the game of Go. They had an idea of what lied ahead of them.

This introduction session exceeded my wildest expectations, if only for the fact that all participants had discovered territory and two eyes all by themselves. No more atari-go for this guy and no more explanation of territory.

Second session

One other colleague attended the second session (25/2/2005). He had previously been explained the rules but admitted he didn't have any notion of steering the game. I explained the rules again with "more stones on the board" as game objective. As a prolific gamer he understood very fast and I put him up against the best player on the first session. They played a very decent 9x9 but demanded a correct compensation for White. I didn't really know so they decided it should be 3 points. The game ended in a draw.

In the meantime I played two games 4H 9x9 against another guy who had been there at the first meeting. He needed some more time to understand the concepts of territory and life. In the first game I made one big group cutting him into 4. In the second game he connected 3 corner stones but failed to play aggressively. So these were his two lessons: connect yours and attack the other.

The (White) winner of the other game played a 4x4 game against me and I abandoned early. At his third game he beat a 2 dan with 4 stones on 9x9. He admitted he used a lot of his overall gaming experience. Still, I found his style impressive and I can't help but thinking the teaching method contributed to that.

5. Children

Well, my girlfriend's daughters, actually. Encouraged by the succesful sessions at work, I used the same method to teach the girls how to play Go. They are 6 and 8 years old. I had them started on 7x7. On the upside, they did not hesitate to put down stones and they understood really well how to capture. On the downside, they kept playing until they put themselves into atari. I felt I had to explain the idea of two eyes by the third game. Curiously, the elder wanted to play on the larger boards as soon as possible, probably because of aestethic reasons: two newspapers look ugly as delimiters.

6. A very young kid

A friend of mine's kid is 5 years old. I showed him how to play the stones on intersections. I explained capture of one stone. And I said: who gets more stones on the board, wins. As his parents were on a visit, I did not care to explain much more. He played his sister of 2,5 whom I guided by taking her hand at the first few moves. While they played, he struggled to understand the idea of connection (which I didn't explain before) but he grasped it rather instinctively. He focused on capturing, whereas the girl, who didn't know about capturing, focused on building chains, inadvertently making her groups safe, much to the frustration of her brother.

But as the game progressed, the limitations of the "alive stones" approach became apparent. They slowed down, didn't really know where to put them and started filling their own last liberty. So I felt compelled to explain the idea of territory and eyes while that was exactly what I want to avoid with the "alive stones" approach, both to hasten the end of the game and to prevent them from killing their own groups.

7. The Korea Times featuring Nam Chi-Hyung

I was very enthusiastic when I learnt about the Korean Times article series about Baduk. In particular, I was thrilled by the idea of Nam Chi-Hyung, a professor at the Baduk University (yes, they have 20 freshmen at university studying Baduk in case you didn't know) explaining the game of Go. In her first three installments, she outlines the fundamentals of Go, i.e. the rules. To my surprise, the rule of capture has not been explained until the fourth installment, despite the appearance of the concepts life and territory in the first three. So, even in Korea, even at university, they deem not necessary to build up logically from the ground. So maybe it is a Western sort of idea after all, to build concepts from the bare definitions.

Also noteworthy is that large parts are devoted to the cultural references, stories and anecdotes, ... The rules do not take more than half of the allotted space. Perhaps this is due to the media: it is a newspaper. Still, it makes one think that, if you want to explain the game to newbies, or make them interested, you should talk much more about other things than only rules and concepts.

8. Beginners, gaining experience at our local club

In 2005, I have been mentoring about 5 relatively new players. When they started, I used the stone counting principle, to derive all basic concepts. I have been emphasizing to connect and cut (on a large scale), and to avoid being enclosed and enclose the other. It seems that for these players, the disease of defending territory does not cause such devastating damage as to us, who were bred with territory. Until late in the game, they focus on connection and cut, foregoing the enclosure of a few points. When reviewing their games - they have improved to about 9-12 kyu within a year - I must often recall my statements about some move being "small" or "neutral", because it effectively cuts or connects on a large scale and emphasizes longer term thickness. Of course, emphasizing connection has the drawback of playing slow, on neutral points, when large territory can be taken. I think it will be easier to shift from thick to territory, than the other way round.

9. Reviewing games - part 1

Lately (2005), I have changed the way I review games of weaker players. I tend to ask questions, rather than presenting my answers. Of course a review is also a source of new ideas, so I occasionally drop a technical suggestion, or a strategic principle. But the bulk of the review I hammer on strategic principles I have long explained and on known techniques. This way, I try to transmit attitude, rather than knowledge. I offer a few key moments to reflect upon and a few alternatives to calculate. I do not calculate for them, because that is useless. Instead I ask:

  • Who has influence to where? Who has territory? Whose groups are stable? Which groups still have defects? Which dead stones have lingering potential? And last but not least: who has the initiative? Given all these considerations, who has the advantage in the exchange?
  • Calculate possible continuations, starting with a, b or c. If you cannot handle branching, take what looks like the most natural answer each time. Evaluate the result.

Ideally, we go into Q&A mode, but that hasn't been the case very often. I don't know whether this method works out that well. It could be that people are more comfortable with presented answers. Maybe human learning goes more by imitation than reasoning anyway and I will have to get back to the old tutoring approach.

10. The "alive stones" approach combined with small boards

Since the Ghent club has moved to "Jazz-café Opatuur", there has been a striking increase in people interested in playing the game. Much has to do with the owner of the pub, who is very sympathetic to the game. Another factor may be the kind of people that come to a Jazz Cafe. It turns out that many are very curious but are somewhat apprehensive about asking us, who seem so plunged into thoughts that they rather don't disturb. All it takes is a bartender who has no problem disturbing us: he knows we are of the missionary kind.

The "alive stones" approach works perfectly combined with a small board. With 25 spots to share, it's not so bothersome to fill the whole board. Also, the all important liberties (the eyes) are more apparent. The idea of resigning also comes very naturally and early and it takes but a game or two to move on to 9x9. yesterday, the two couples we instructed last week, came back to play Go and Chess in their little corner, disconnected from the club. Five minutes and off they Go.

11. Teaching the elderly

On 16/1/2006 I have given a 2 hour session to a group of 20 retired teachers, who were preparing for a trip to Japan. They had been organizing a few activities related to their journey and an introduction to the game of Go would be the last before taking off. For this audience I decided to schedule as follows:

  • Welcome - 5 min
  • The history of Go (myth, rise and shine, pro scene, spread to the West) - 20 min
  • Teaching the rules, using the stone counting mechanism - 10 min
  • Guided 5x5 games against each other - 45 min
  • Some Go principles and their close relationship with oriental culture - 15 min
  • More play - 20 min
  • Closing word - 5 min

One of my club members took half of the group with him for the explanation part. He couldn't prevent a few of them from playing 9x9 (we needed some time to cover the boards with paper to delimit the 5x5) whereas "my" group obeyed the 5x5 paradigm. Both groups struggled with the "suicide or murder" unclarity, but the 5x5 group arrived at the end of their game way faster and played 3-4 games, changing partners as they went. As I know by now, zooming in on the 2 eyes of a group is much easier on a 5x5, because groups reach the end of their development much sooner.

The culturo-historic lecture went very well, but next time I will learn a few more details by heart - I forgot the name of one of the 4 houses. Teaching the elderly - some of the participants were well over 60, perhaps 70 plus - proved to be tough sometimes. They can have a reduced short term memory and I had to repeat the basic rule many times. In the end the schedule turned out to be just a little too ambitious and the closing word coincided with the "More go principles part". Many people were very enthusiastic. About five couples took a cardboard set with them "to play with their grandchildren". Three of them bought a 10€ introduction book by Frank Janssen. I take two lessons learnt from this lecture:

  1. Reducing the board to 5x5 is mandatory and having 5x5 instruction sets prepared would be very handy.
  2. One of the participants uncanningly suggested a term to solve the suicide/murder dilemma: a move that captures a group is allowed to stay on the board because it creates liberties by capturing. By using the word create, you indicate the order of capture first then only forbid suicide.

12. The endgame game

As I am writing these words (feb 06), the players that joined our club last year in April are improving rapidly. The merit is fully theirs, but I like to think that at least they haven't been too obstructed by bad advice from me. One of the better exercises we had was the endgame game. I took the sample game from Get strong at the endgame, the White pro manages to close an 8 point gap against the 3d amateur given that another White pro loses by that margin against a Black pro.

First, the players are paired and they auction on playing Black. The highest bidder receives the right to play Black and gives his bid as komi. Next they play out the game.

The exercise is interesting for a few reasons:

  1. Realize how early the endgame begins.
  2. Get into the habit of counting the score.
  3. Adapt the endgame strategy to the calculated score.

I'm going to repeat this exercise a few times. Our club members have gotten into the habit of analyzing their games, but somehow people are always very interested in the opening. Me too, I guess, tend to focus on techniques which have their maximum relevance in the opening and middle game. The endgame is still very much ignored, in actual play and in analysis, yet it makes such a big difference.

13. A Chinese professional

March 2006. On behalf of Filip Vanderstappen's Internet Go School, the Ghent Go club receives Miss Du Yufeng, Chinese 5p. She has been visiting Europe to prepare her master degree thesis on "Teaching Go", for the department of baduk at the university of Seoul.

I gave an overview of how we have been explaining the game to beginners, from the classical, territory-based explanation, over Yasuda's atari-go, to the current way of using stone counting on small boards. She thought 5x5 was way too small and didn't see the problem with 19x19 because she learnt it that way as a kid. I argued that adults want to have clear purpose and have a short attention span, so you need to quickly teach the rules, start a game quickly and have it finished quickly. None of our newcomers is a child. Possibly children have less need for clear objectives.

She played some simultaneous games with my fellow club members and one 2 stone game with me. In general she gave very low handicaps: less than what I give my clubmates. One player commented that she played much more honestly than I did. That's true for many reasons. In our game, she commented on her mistakes and how I effectively took advantage of them in one case but failed to do so the second time. I have played a Japanese insei before and have been part of a simultaneous session by Miyazawa Goro. Neither of them had labeled any of their moves as a mistake, so it was new and surprising to see a pro make a mistake, one that would be forced by a move of mine ?! As always, you can only guess how much of that stuff is politeness.

She didn't teach anything thematic, but went on to suggest good moves. She took a long time thinking about the sequences she suggested. Nothing seemed to be trivial to her. The suggestion of insecurity made the gap with pro go suspiciously narrow. The face was very human but I'm still not quite sure what to think of it.

14. Teaching newcomers at our club - different approaches

Some members of our club prefer the Atari Go Teaching Method over the Stone counting teaching method on small boards that I advocate. They argue that they have been very successful with it, and more importantly feel comfortable using it. I think that's a very good point, on teaching Go in particular and in general for any process. Being used to do something in a certain way, however, is certainly not the overruling argument to continue current practice. You must be open to change. That's actually the root of improvement in Go too: being open for new understanding, new ways of moving. But you cannot convince anyone to confidently do something in another way, as long as they haven't built their confidence.

15. A conversation with Du Yufeng

Miss Du Yufeng, Chinese professional player and student at the department of Baduk in the university of Seoul, has asked me to elaborate more on the reasons why I have chosen to teach Go to beginners using the stone counting method, and why I abandoned the practice of capture go. Here is my reply to her:

First of all, I must state that my teaching methods are not based on any statistical evidence of large numbers of students. They are my preferences, based on aesthetics, logic and some experience with teaching Go. Secondly, this experience is mostly with adults in Europe, which is quite a different audience than children in Asia. I believe adults tend to ask for full clarification more than children and I believe (dangerous statement, this one) that "western attitude" relies on critical investigation whereas "eastern attitude" encourages the virtue of acquisition through careful observation (I'm not saying either person is incapable of any skill but I do think there is truth in the cultural cliché). This is why I have chosen for a method that fulfills best the needs of critical adults that want to have the full picture right away, yet cannot cope with long explanations.

I have been an advocate of capture go, because I liked the simplicity of it. You explain capture, lay down a cross-cut, set the objective (capture 1, capture 2, capture 5) and off you go! That was definitely a major improvement over the classical method, where you had to explain territory first and people were lost already before playing their first stone. I also liked very much the idea of territory forming naturally after a while, being "the place where your opponent's stones cannot live".

BUT, there were a few things nagging on my mind.

  • First, few of the students I instructed this way, seemed happy with the fact that they were not learning the real game, but that they started out with an educational device instead. There is some arrogance towards capture go: "we know the real stuff, we'll give it to you when you are ready for it".
  • Worse, it gives the false impression that Go is intrinsically difficult to play. Go is NOT difficult to play, it is however rich and difficult to master.
  • Thirdly, there are holes in the capture game. Let's say the beginners play "First to capture five". Now what if the first one passes? Then the game ends in a draw. You run into smart pupils doing such things.
  • Another small drawback is the initial setup of a crosscut. This is also unlike the real game.
  • Finally, the capture game does put an emphasis on capturing stones. While this has been the major argument of the opponents of capture go, I think it is the least of all, if you compare it at least to the classical method (using territory) because most westerners have a bigger problem than obsession with capture: they are obessed with "making territory" and forget about the strengths and weaknesses of the existing stones.

So, when I found out about the stone counting method, I realized that most of the drawbacks of the capture go method would disappear, while keeping its advantages of simplicity and quick initialization.

  • First, the game is as much "the real thing" as what the experienced players play. The same objective, the same initial position, the same strategy. The only thing that differs is the way we count (and assess) the game.
  • Secondly, the explanation of the game is (in my opinion) closest to the origins of the game. The transition to territory counting is how the game has historically evolved (again, my opinion, this is not proven). Having the beginner experience the same feeling of "beauty of omission" is natural and pleasing.
  • There are no holes in the game, not with passing and not with the many issues the beginners have when they are bred with the classical method. Moves are never "losing points because played in one's own territory". Positions are never to be decided on after the game. Stones either live on the board or they are absent.
  • Finally, the focus of players starting out this way is on "putting as much living stones on the board as possible". This is the correct focus. I cannot prove it, but my impression with the students I have taught this way, is that they play a very natural kind of game, from the beginning.

In addition to stone counting, I let them play on very small boards (even the computer solved 5x5!) This mitigates the fact that the stones are played out until the very last empty points available, as long as the concept of territory hasn't found its way to their minds. Now of course one can argue that small boards are not the real game either. That is true, but I think there is a difference between:

"I let you play on small boards, so that you can play many games and learn from these" and "I let you play capture go now and when you understand capture, we will play the real game"

Despite my strong opinions on stone counting as a teaching method, some other people at the club still prefer capture go. They feel more familiar with it, they know it from Yasuda sensei, who came to demonstrate it in Europe and they feel apprehensive about stone counting in general, because they either are not fully convinced of the equivalence or find it too difficult to explain and demonstrate the equivalence. Also, they argument that it encourages players to play inside their own territory (which I disagree with - often those players themselves omit moves "inside their territory" which actually strengthen their stones).

16. Girl power

15 May 2006 - Three students, two boys and a girl, are playing cards in our club. One of the guys is constantly looking over his shoulder. I hear mutterings "... must be something like checkers ...". When passing by I tell them "I can explain the game in 5 minutes. As soon as you become afraid, we'll release you." They are not afraid. All three attend the usual 5x5 stone counting explanation. Then I put them at another table, while I'm having a pro game discussion with the club members. More than one hour later they will have played 3 5x5, 4 7x7, and 3 9x9. They have acquired the concepts of eyes and territory all by themselves ("you can never capture me there" - "do I really have to fill all these empty points?" - "We're not going to count this, you win." - "Can I abandon?"). They gain notions of influence and overconcentration ("damn, I played too much on that side, even if I took all your stones"), they appreciated strong strategic connections and they acquired a sense of efficiency ("I don't have to take that stone right now, do I?")

I intervened three times: once to confirm that the connection was strategically important indeed, once to explain ko when it arose ("question: when she takes, I can take back, and we would go on and on") and once to show how a stone is held and played (they thought it was funny).

Nice to see that the girl overtook the boys. She played strategically better, more defensively, while they concentrated on capture. It would be a mistake to think they'll become club members. They're regulars in the pub though and know now where the playing material is.

17. Fear

19 December 2006 - Somehow the wave of newcomers in our club has stopped. Interestingly, the overall atmosphere also seems to be in a bit of a slump. The young blood has improved to a level beyond which they cannot seem to reach without a serious increase of effort, but for the proverbial exception. It has been interesting to see the difference in growth of these people who started out almost at the same level.

Yesterday, while the wild bunch was out for interclubs, I played two clubmates simultaneously with 9 stones each. One game ended in resignation, for one group too many had died, the other in a 5 point upset during the late endgame. Although one game was definitely more aggressive than the other, I sensed the same fear for the stronger player in both. Fear is probably the main reason why people do not progress to a fundamental level of understanding. It stands in our way when we have to make judgments, making us flee towards comforting measures instead. It takes confidence to consciously apply fundamental principles in fearsome situations.

The main principle I keep hammering on, be it with myself, a 4 kyu or a 15 kyu, is to connect and cut. I've never told anyone to seek two eyes for their groups when the going gets tough. Only when you are completely surrounded (otherwise escape) and the surrounding positions cannot be cut, then you must seek life, but not after having evaluated if the group's worth saving AND if by seeking life you're not making matters worse (otherwise tenuki). Yet I often see players seek life for their stones, even if the surrounding position is either incomplete or weak, and even if the value of what's under attack is low, or if the position is lost anyhow.

It's been a distinguishing feature of improving players that they do not believe what you say with your handtalk and resist. Some players will never believe you and play outrageous attacking or developing moves. They are the opposite of afraid, they're reckless. Still, recklessness is easier to cure than fear, I think, and it leads more often to success, because it is easier to learn why your attacks fail than why your defense was superfluous or overcautious.

18. Belief

Timing is everything in Go. Not only the timing of your moves in a game, but also the timing of your attitude when learning. In this section I want to talk about the timing of belief.

It has been told by many a sensei that you cannot learn unless you open up your mind for new ideas. Since it is impossible to grasp a new idea at once, for some time you have to put faith in the idea, consciously applying it even if you are not comfortable with the proceedings. On the other hand, you have to distrust your own rusty concepts as well as misconceptions that other players try to inflict on you. This includes your sensei, whose strength is also limited. At some point you'll overtake him or her, and how could you do that unless you start disbelieving him?

Yesterday I had a particularly daunting session with a beginner player. She has apparently chosen not to take anything for granted and challenged nearly every comment I made. Now I wasn't trying to teach her anything, she had just given some criticism to my opponent's choices, which I tried to defend in the analysis stage. The main discussion went along the following lines. She claimed that Black cannot keep himself busy with attacking all white stones. Let White live where he wants to play and just play elsewhere. In the end your initial advantage will remain intact. While I agreed that it is too ambitious to attack all white stones, I disagreed that playing elsewhere is always best, if alone because often a white move weakens a black stone and defending the weakened stone is multi-purpose. Moreover, some of her choices were inefficient because she was investing more stones in an area where she already had the advantage.

Well, she really gave me a hard time making myself clear. The other players thought she was rather loud mouthed against an experienced player, but I thought it was interesting to be challenged to such an extent. You really have to think very hard as a teacher to find the clearest line of thought which uses the least assumptions of common understanding. Anyhow, she wasn't open for any new understanding at all, so there was no point in persevering, but I couldn' help wondering: how do you enable learning in a student who doesn't want to be taught.

Tamsin: Hi Dieter - brilliant, brilliant page! As to your closing question: you cannot teach somebody who does not want to be taught. The more you try to force somebody like that to change their mind, the more fixed they will become in their view. All you can do is be patient, and when they finally begin to perceive their error, encourage them to think that trying something different was their own idea all along.

Dieter: Hi! Obviously you cannot force somebody to change their mind, that was not what I was trying to do. I wondered if there is a way, for you as a teacher, to enable learning in such a person, if they show a desire to learn but not to be taught.

Tamsin: I would suggest acting as a "facilitator" rather than a "pedagogue". Many people, especially in the West I would think, like to learn under their own initiative ("student-centred learning"), so you have to provide them the means to find their own insights. As a practical measure, why not devise problems with an "obvious but wrong" solution attempt, and a true solution that illustrates the principle you wish to get across, e.g., a ladder-breaker or crane's nest.

As a footnote, I noticed from Hikaru no Go that when Hikaru is introduced to the game, the professional at the club catches his stone in a ladder and lets Hikaru play it out completely, without saying anything until the end. Similarly, in one of the Go Go Igo! lessons, Umezawa Sensei watches Yuuki and Mai play out a ladder to the end, allowing them to understand it for themselves.

Minue : Very interesting story. But I have a question. you can find such a beginner player easily (who doubt almost everything said by a stronger player) in western chess society also ? I doubt it.

19. I know, but tsumego is so boring

6 April 2007 - Yesterday a club member may have experienced a breakthrough in his development. It had been some time since we played, since neither of us had come to the club. He had been playing on Go servers in the meantime. He showed a more aggressive attitude, not believing? me all the time. In the end he clinched the 9H game with 5 points.

In the analysis, I pointed out two things:

  • when attacking a group, enclose first, then steal the eyes away; even if I have time to make two eyes, being enclosed is already a defeat
  • the server play may have brutalized your style: beware of the diagonal play

He asked me if I had more advice. Well, ...

"Tsumego?" he sighed. He knew I wanted to say that but I hesitated because I knew he doesn't like it at all. Tsumego is hard work, so much different from the exhilarating theoretical insights.

I showed him an enclosed L+1-group. "Do you realize how comfortable it feels to know the status of this group instantly? That you can break off your analysis right here and not have to go through all the variations, because you simply know." Yes, he could imagine, but it felt so far out of reach. Then I gave him a pretty easy life and death problem. He was rather struggling with it.

Then I showed him the following problem:


He nodded, almost embarrassed I had given him such a simple problem. "Of course, you play in the middle." - "So this is where your comfort level lies. Here you don't have to think at all: you simply know. Now this may be so obvious to you that it doesn't seem worth mentioning. Yet, for an absolute beginner, this problem is way out of reach:"


W5 at W1, B6 at W3, W7 at W1

For a novice the solution variation takes 7 moves to complete, some of which are under the stones. We don't talk about the other variations or the marked stones moving elsewhere.

"Do you realize how much you already know and they have to calculate? This is merely due to your seeing these structures regularly. So try tsumego of this complexity: things you are familiar with and only a little more complicated. Stuff you have to look at for a few seconds and then say: aah, of course, that's the solution!"

He liked the idea of thinking of tsumego as something fun and enjoyable instead of hard labour. You only have to find the right set of problems.

20. The player

I'm on a business trip with one of my colleagues mentioned above as the one who quickly understood the nature of the game from the ancient rules. He's a prolific gamer of Puerto Rico, Cailus and the likes. After about three games he beat me on 9x9 H4, it took him another five to beat me with H3 and now we're at our second game with H2. Not bad at all for a guy who played his first few games much more than a year ago and then didn't have the opportunity until now.

After each game we'd go into the analysis of the crucial part. He overcame H4 by connecting his stones. Then he focused on connection too much and he overcame H3 by playing more efficiently, i.e. away from strong stones. Being an aggressive player he will still lose at H2 by trying too hard to attack my stones hence neglecting his vital stones, but it invariably results in heavy fighting for which I may be better equipped but that doesn't make it easy!

More than ever I'm convinced of the pedagogic strength of the 9x9. Even though it becomes tactically complex, there is something to learn about each stage of the game. The various aspects of the small game can be understood and then transferred to the larger board, where a whole set of broader concepts is revealed. The "losing move" is quite apparent on 9x9 so you can immediately learn or unlearn moves. People who start on 19x19 too soon will have much less of a clue why moves are bad and which one actually led to the end result.

21. Being on the other side

Right, so I'm on the other side now, taking lessons with Minue. I'm transferring a bit of the lessons to here and to my club members, mostly the parts about technique. In my last email to them I said "I hope some people answer, because that will encourage me to believe the effort is worthwhile". What a dirty comment that is! I'm actually telling them to make me happy by studying the material I provide! No teacher should ever force their students to become good students and certainly not for the sake of the teacher. BAH!

On SL, I come across many homepages of people who started just a few years ago and became single digit kyus or even dan players in a year. In Belgium there are a few youngsters who improved very fast. In all cases, online play seems to be a driving factor. People who only play face to face have a much smaller chance to rapidly improve.

22. The territory brain damage

September 2007, teaching a beginner on KGS who asked me for a lesson. He said: "I have trouble understanding when territory belongs to me and when to the opponent". Ignorant of his level (15k? on KGS) I told him not to care too much about territory. Cutting and connecting was more important.


But he insisted:"if Black occupies the second line, and White the third line, who then controls the territory to the left? And can we say the right is White?" I urged him not to view territory as any zone delimited by lines of the same colour, but instead as some area where the opponent cannot put down living stones any more. "But therefore, you first have to understand when stones live".

Territory 2  

As if I had been talking to the clouds, he asked his second burning question: does the zigzag line make territory too and if so, which of the two ways is better to make territory?

I started realizing that this person had a serious flaw in his thinking, hammered into his head by overexposure to some kind of explanation of territory. Perhaps he had just read a text about the rules, where the objective of the game was stated as "surrounding empty points".

With some trouble I managed to have him acknowledge (maybe understand) the above stated concept of territory: where the opponent cannot go without dying. Then we went into the analysis of the teaching game I had unfortunately started.


After some Q&A he agreed that one of the corners was least disputed, and a play there would maximize the investment of a stone. Then I asked where he would put it down. He suggested the a points. From this you could clearly see that the idea of marking territory by straight lines got stuck pretty nastily in his head. I pointed out that the end point at the border had only three liberties. "Three, I only see two."

So at the end of the teaching game, I was so embarrassed to find out that this newcomer had no understanding of liberties while I had been trying to explain about territory, cut, connect, efficiency ...

Well, to my defense, I had asked him about what he already knew. But he dived so readily into the territory questions, that it didn't occur to me at all that he might lack the knowledge even the most fundamentally basic concept.

I have seldom seen so good an example of what harm these awful introductories can do, when they start off with "surrounding empty points" as a game objective. If well explained, with diagrams and patience, or by a teacher, well, maybe ... Any introductory explaining "alive stones" as a game objective, at worst runs the risk of newcomers having to learn a different way of counting later.

23. The KGS Teaching Ladder

It was only a question of time before I would give my first lesson on the KGS Teaching Ladder. I jumped into a lesson by Ray Tomes and he motivated me to give one of my own. I came up with the subject of psyching yourself up, inspired by Bill. I took a relatively fast game between two 1d players and waited for the audience to reach some critical mass (10+). First I asked them for heuristics they use in Go. I collected and listed them. The we set about tackling the game with these heuristics in mind.

Those who know my teaching, will confirm that I've evolved to a method of asking questions to keep the audience active. I do not like lessons where the teacher pours his wisdom over the audience, not caring if they're following at all and more fulfilling his vanity than any pedagogic purpose.

But, there is a drawback which particularly comes to surface online. Some people do not need encouragement to talk. They will talk and interrupt and make all kinds of irrelevant remarks and it is very difficult to keep the lesson from drifting away to one big mess of chat. In real life, you can look at these disturbances, roll eyes, snap fingers, smile ... but all these non verbal powers are absent online. Moreover, in real life people simply behave more maturely and politely and don't seem to need to establish themselves so badly.

In this particular case I kept receiving disappointed remarks about Black's poor play, which was rather due to the blitz than his capabilities etc. It was difficult for me to convince the audience of the study method I proposed: study games of players a bit better than you (in rank) and find their mistakes: it will psyche you up to above their level.

I might try it again on KGS TL but with a little more preparation and a more technical subject.

24. The DGS experience

Lately I have fallen in love with turn based go and its splendid implementation at DGS. Despite a charade by our club mate Alex I had previously not such positive thoughts about tbg. It took a long time before I tried it out and now I'm very active, not to say a little addicted.

Now what does this have to do with teaching? It occurred to me that reviews of online games are somewhat degraded by blunders below the players' level, so that their actual conceptual thinking mistakes, or calculating abilities, or technique, do not correlate all that well with the end result. Such frustration is very common in online go, but rather exceptional in turn based go.

Hence it is much more productive to base a player review on a slow paced game, which displays the player in his full capacity. This is why I offered our club members, to play me on DGS so that I can review afterwards (I'm unfortunately still the strongest member).

Incidentally, what I like most about tbg is that it very naturally inspires you to watch the whole board at every move. It reestablished the full power of this beautiful game for me. The number of tenukis I've played has increased dramatically. You can abort unpromising local sequences much earlier, leaving aji or exploring sacrifice techniques. You sense the endgame much earlier. On the other hand, the opponent too will not fall into easy traps, so the overall level increases bigtime.

Now I know real go is played with time constraints, to prevent a player from using tools and encyclopaedia to extend their brain power. I don't think this happens very often and the impact on the game cannot be that big. Yes, the one who spends more time thinking has a bigger chance. But isn't this good for the player's development?

25. 1 dan in 1 year

I have proposed to our national council to start an experiment under the flag 1d in 1y. I will take a student under my wings, preferably one who has been playing since not more than one year. The objective is to help him reach 1 dan in a year. Some players are capable of this all by themselves, by merely playing a lot online. However, I am interested in the long term effects of a player who was well trained, if a 2d can provide proper training at all - hm, well, obviously I think I am a good teacher with a sound theoretical framework, which should balance my lack of Go skills and playing strength.

The programme is largely based on my ideas on improvement, a subpage I will rewrite for the occasion.

As a second objective, I want to refine these ideas and understand where the proper balance lies between guidance and self-motivation. Clearly, it would be better to have more students for this purpose.

The proposal has been submitted to the council, who will mainly debate the financial details. Not only won't I do it for free, I also believe a financial stimulus for both the board and the student, added to increased visibility, are vital for the project to succeed.

Herman Hiddema: Sounds like a very interesting idea! Many western players lack a sound basic fundamental theoretic understanding of the game, and are sometimes held back by this. Having players learn from a dan level teacher from the start may remedy this somewhat. An even nicer title would be 1d in 1d, for 1 dan in 1 day, but I think that would be aiming a bit too high ;-)

Bill: Much luck! It sounds like a great case study. :)

(later update): the Belgian federation did not swallow my proposal and came up with criteria for teaching activities instead. While I fully understand their position, I am also worried by the tendency - abundantly present in society - to "criteriarize" initiatives. Criteria aim to justify an activity or its sponsorship and often take fairness highly into account. Sadly, most initiatives which originate naturally or organically do not meet preposted criteria. Either the initiative is modified to meet the criteria (to bend), losing much of its original appeal or momentum, or it doesn't (to break) and drifts into oblivion. Even the process of deciding whether or not to comply, is often enough to break the initial motivation, which may also prove that the motivation is not strong enough. Anyhow, 1d in 1y is not going to materialize.

26. Parkour

I'm currently passionate about parkour or free running. I read a training program for parkour and I was struck with its applicability to other areas of development, such as playing the guitar, or Go. Those who have read my earlier essays will remember that my thoughts on teaching Go have been heavily influenced by [ext] Jamie Andreas, the guitar teacher. She focuses on muscle memory and the physical aspects of proper technique, among other things. She stresses vertical growth (studying hard on techniques you don't master) instead of horizontal growth (playing many songs with the same technique).

One could say in Go vertical growth is the study of techniques which may appear in your games, acquiring new knowledge, but also the eradication of bad habits in your play. Horizontal growth is playing another game, relying on the belief that more of the same will gradually lead to better (which Andreas defies).

When I was studying the guitar according to Andreas' teachings or studying go by doing many tsumego, I would sooner or later experience a drop in motivation. Andreas will answer that your motivation should come from inside. If you are not motivated, there is little that can be done except for deciding you are motivated, is what she says. But different people have different ways of being motivated. Some of us feed their motivation by response from the outside. We need taps on the shoulder, victories, applause. Our motivation does not come from the inside alone, we seek recognition.

In the essay on parkour training methods, the author distinguished (1) the method of specificity and (2) the method of decomposition. In (1) you will work on one specific move or combination of moves at the time. After acquisition, they are merely maintained. In (2) you will decompose the moves into general exercises, which are not executed at maximum charge. Once the body is sufficiently strengthened, moves can be learnt. The advantage of (2) is that the ligaments and other weak parts of the body are not overwrought and parkour can be maintained in the long term. The advantage of (1) is that the aspiring tracer will keep his short term motivation by doing the fancy stuff immediately.

The method of decomposition is very close to Andreas' way of teaching, making you perform a lot of seemingly uninteresting exercises, which in the long run will reassemble into a greatly improved skill at the real thing. The method of specificity reminds me however of the so called Japanese school, where you will follow the master's example (replaying pro games) and gradually, uncanningly move into the higher ground.

The analogy can be flawed here and there, but the main thing to remember here is that, yes, we must teach our insei so that they will progress in the best possible way and with the highest possible potential, but no, we cannot expect everybody to have the same kind of motivation or pretend our teaching method will necessarily suit all pupils because we know it is best.

27. Reviewing games - part 2

We're halfway 2008 and I'm playing rarely these days. I did a fw GTL reviews and I've been very modestly coaching two enthusiastic Ghent players on their way to shodan. Doing a good game review is not easy. There are quite a few traps in it.

The first trap is to just browse through the game, add any comment that comes to mind, and add variations wherever the position looks interesting to you. This is what I would call the "How I would have played"-review. It's not very useful. At best it gives a few ideas to the reviewee, ideas which he'll get anyway by watching stronger players' games. At worst there are plain mistakes in the review because you're travelling on unfamiliar ground. Mostly it is so unstructured and confusing that the reviewee just gives up on it.

A second, related trap, is teaching the reviewee everything you think he should know to come close to your own level (never equal, of course). This I call the "isn't it just extraordinary how much I know and wouldn't it be great if you knew it too"-review. It does little but crush the ego of the reviewee and boast the reviewer's. Lately I've seen an example where the receiving end's reaction was: "now I understand that actually there is a big gap between us; I think I'm going to rest for a while". The reviewer was shocked, because he didn't want his new found cherished pupil to give up, but his comprehensive review was bound to have such effect on an already insecure 20 kyu.

A minor trap but very seductive, is the "let's unconsciously pretend I'm a mastermind"-review. You know: firing off variations, then inspecting the result in 10 branches, 20 moves deep, cleaning all but leaving the two branches with the most equilibrated result and then say in the main line that "something like variation 1 can be expected" or "variation 2 gives an acceptable continuation". What on earth is a reviewee expected to do with that advice? It's not only of little use, it is also highly unfair. One shouldn't add advice one is incapable of carrying out oneself.

Oh yes, and there's another trap. Spending two hours on a review for a game that took only half an hour on the Go server! It's simply ridiculous to give tactical well thought variations for a blitz game. If people send me a blitz to review I will only assess their intuition, for intuition is all they used. For any kind of review, spending an amount of time equal to the time used for playing, is a good rule of thumb.

Having fallen in all those traps and still not sure to avoid them, I now browse through the game first and think about what could be the theme for the review. Which mistakes is the reviewee consistently making? What are his strong and weak points? Where did the game reach a turning point or a decisive point? Based on these questions I try to limit the comments to this theme, or explicitly mention leaving the theme for this move. I also try not to include variants in more than 3-4 places. Instead I will often mark the first move with "A" and let them work it out for their own.

Depending on what I think the reader expects, I will include exercises. Clearly a review is most useful when it is a dialogue. Often I ask them to make a preview themselves. But even the exercises can be putting off and some people don't want to work on your carefully chosen problems, just have some advice and move on (and some just want to hear how well they're playing). And that is the final trap to avoid: taking your reviews too seriously. There's a reader, a place and a time which you do not control. So I shouldn't perhaps be so perfectionist about it.

28. Rank and potential

I often hear or read "I'm officially x kyu but I am (probably) stronger". It is rare for someone to say "... but I am weaker in reality". Also recently heard: "I think book x is only a suitable read above rank y. When I am assessing a player and what may be a suitable read, I seldom think that way. Rather I will think:

  • This player will soon transcend his current level, because I sense a desire to improve, a critical attitude towards his and the opponent's moves, determination in carrying out a plan (even if the plan's wrong) and absence of fear. Or, ...
  • This player will not improve anymore, because I'm sensing the same spirit, seeing the same moves, the same plans as last time.
  • This player wants to improve and his game lacks some knowledge of life and death. So I'll advise him to read ...
  • This player doesn't really want to invest effort in improving his game, so he can read whatever he likes.

29. 1 dan in 1 year, in practice

The enthusiasm of a new member of the Ghent Go club, has succeeded in having me break my sabbatical already after three months and update this page to record his proceedings. I have agreed to teach him until he is strong enough for my teachings to become a limiting factor instead of a stimulus. I am using Tamsin's Compass as a teaching device, on top of the principles laid out at /Ideas on go theory.

The Compass consists of the four cardinal directions:

  • North: strongest attention point
  • East: secondary attention point
  • West: secondary attention point
  • South: main strength to keep

Week 1:

  • North: strategy, cut and connect on a large scale; Go is about putting as much alive stones on the board as possible. Play games with this in mind.
  • East: technique, explanation of the four basic haengma for development; replay games by Otake Hideo in Gobase to develop intuition.
  • West: tactics, report track record of tsumego; tsumego are also useful for developing intuition
  • South: mentality, keep open and independent attitude; do not let yourself limit by any thoughts, especially your teacher's

Play 4 serious games with the compass. Avoid blitz games. Apply self analysis.

Week 2:

Play 4 serious games with the compass. Avoid blitz games. Apply self analysis.

Week 3:

  • North: technique, apply basic instinct to find the first move.
  • East: strategy, continue to focus on cut & connect and let territory grow naturally.
  • West: tactics apply life & death knowledge to games, read out situations where one or more groups are enclosed (invest game time in that); study L-group
  • South: mentality self analysis goes well

Play 4 serious games, against new opponents

Week 4: rest, free play

After 4 weeks, it became apparent the young man had become stressed out with the idea he had to live up to my expectations and become 1d in 1 year. He didn't enjoy playing that much anymore. I've realized the all too obvious: joy is the true motor of progress. I do not want to suppress his joy at all, so I assured him there is no obligation at all to reach anything at any moment in time. I did not want to set a suffocating goal. Please, enjoy the game and let my teachings just be a stronghold for when in doubt.

We played two H9 games. Every few moves, I would comment and suggest an alternative that reset the focus on cutting and connecting on a large scale. In the first game, he confidently killed a cut off and surrounded group of mine. We left it there.

Week 5:

  • North: strategy, reset focus on cut & connect and let territory grow naturally. Have faith in large scale connections!
  • East: Mentality Enjoy the game!
  • West: Technique omit shoulder hit and peep for a while.
  • South: Mentality & Tactics Self analysis goes very well! Continue. Also application of L&D to the game, especially the killing, works out fine.

He suggested himself to play high handicap games to be able and focus on cut, connect and attack. By all means.

Week 6:

The virtue of cutting and connecting is slowly crystallizing. I should perhaps write a separate article about cutting and connecting. I think you can become quite good already if you focus only on c&c during opening and middle game.

This seems about the right time to play many blitz-games, to test how well the intuition about c&c has developed.

I see a tendency to resign even when the position is even or slightly advantageous. I didn't expect replaying Otake games would have that effect.

  • North: Strategy, keep focus on cut & connect and let territory grow naturally. Have faith in large scale connections!
  • East: Mentality Don't resign for a while.
  • West: Technique Keep looking for alternatives for shoulder hit and peep.
  • South: Tactics Application of L&D to the game goes very well.

Week 7:

Still the life and death skills are more rooted than the tendency to cut & connect. At this stage, more games are needed to speed up the crystallization of cutting & connecting into the game plan.

  • North: Strategy, keep focus on cut & connect and let territory grow naturally. Have faith in large scale connections!
  • East: Mentality Don't resign for a while. Play more games.
  • West: Technique Be aware of small gaps.
  • South: Tactics Application of L&D to the game goes very well. Good self analysis too.

Report _:

The "1d in 1y" project was discontinued with this student, first because of exams, then for a physical move but altogether perhaps due to a too stringent teaching practice. This is a learned lesson!

30. Can anybody learn anything?

This blog entry is not about teaching but about learning. I will try to answer the question can anybody learn anything and the derived question if not, what is possible to achieve, particularly in the field of Go.

On her great website [ext] reknowned guitar teacher [ext] Jamie Andreas goes to great lengths encouraging even the most untalented (*) people that they can achieve a high level of guitar playing, provided they put great effort in it and take the correct approach. She does not explicitly state what that "high level" would be, but implicitly the message is there is no reason to believe there should be any upper limit to "vertical growth". She acknowledges thought that to some people, progress comes very fast and in a natural manner, who naturally take the correct approach, even unconsciously. The need of consciousness and effort probably distinguishes those with talent from those without, but she stresses time and time again that this difference is often overestimated and the potential of conscious effort is underestimated.

(removed large vanity part)

Any idiot can drive a car. That's something my friends and I often say to each other in response to a statement that "I will never be able to X". Driving a car is by no means a trivial thing. It requires great motoric skill, spatial intelligence, knowledge of the driving code (well, some users of the road don't seem to think that way) and sublime coordination in a multi-user environment. The reason why so many are able to drive, according to me, is that it is a vital skill in modern society, making all those people very motivated to learn it. After that, we do a lot of maintenance of that skill and become very proficient at it, sometimes in very challenging conditions. This leads me to believe that, if such motivation and practice is moved to another field, a high level of proficiency can be reached there too. That is another way of looking at Jamie Andreas' claims.

If anyone starts practicing Go many hours a day, under proper tutoring, professional level is still out of reach, but 5d-6d must be possible. But ... it will require a lot of sacrifice. For me to reach such goal, it would require me to remove all other areas of development, reduce social life to a minimum, take regular professional breaks or resign from a profession altogether. The lack of social investment and financial return would undoubtably weigh very heavily on my relationship, urging her to leave me or me to leave her. As much as I believe 6d is within reach for me, I believe these effects would be the necessary result of my quest. I would be a lonesome, broke, 6d, isolated in a dark cellar appartment, living of social fare.

Even if I would accept that fate, my nerves would most likely not survive it. No, I will not accept such sacrifices. I do not want to throw away all I have achieved in exchange for excellence in any field, if I do not excell enough to regain my standard in life.

Can anybody achieve anything? No. Then what is possible to achieve? That depends on what you are prepared to sacrifice.

Is that answering the question. Hm, I guess not. My feeling is that, under proper guidance, with focussed but moderate training, anyone with a bit of talent (*) for the game can become 2d.

31. What is talent?

In the previous part, I asterisked the word "untalented". What is a talent, or a gift? I think most people see it as a natural ability, as if someone just needed to show you the existence of the activity, and you immediately excelled at it. Oddly so, I think we see talent more in other people than in ourselves. That is because we see the ease with which others perform in an area where we are ambitious and we envy it. The mere fact that we are ambitious means we aim at achieving something and it doesn't come easily, so we're not gifted to the point of our ambition.

(removed large vanity part)

32. Reviewing games - part 3

When I am doing reviews, it often strikes me that people are asking the most engaging questions about matters that really don't make a lot of difference. This is on one hand not surprising, since if players always knew where the big problems are, the solution would be a few steps closer. But on the other hand, questions indicate a willingness to learn and the area where everybody seems very keen to learn is the opening.

It appears to me that we, Western Go players, have the following perception of the three stages of the game:

1 - The opening is interesting and engaging. This is where on one hand we can let our creativity flow, with all the open space on the board, where we can deploy our strategy and where we can, on the other hand, make maximum use of our study of standard situations, aka josekis. We feel that we are in control of the opening, lest our opponent lures us into a large avalanches or other magic swords and even then we "know" what's going on. We know from professional game commentaries that one line makes a difference, so we want to know what the effect is from playing a high shimari versus a low one and we play low Chinese if that has come back into fashion. These are examples of questions I often get.

2 - The middle game is confusing and treacherous. When the fighting starts, groups spread over the board and stones have to be sacrificed or saved, we feel we have lost control and the game has taken both players into hostage, until a semeai turns out to be in either favour or that big dragon fails to make another eye because of move 3 that happens to be precisely on the correct spot. The questions I receive about the middle game are usually proposals of another tactic that might have worked. Most of the time my answer suggests that the invasion was premature or too late.

3 - The endgame is boring, a necessary evil, if the endgame has been reached at all. If the opening is the business plan and the middle game is the sales negotiation, then the endgame is the book keeping and the small print in the contract. The endgame is for them nerds, not for us artists.

This is the predominant view on the game of Go in amateur circles and I find it rather distorted. First of all, if you don't like the endgame then you don't like go, because the majority of games goes into the endgame (maybe not on KGS, where +T consumes a large part). Secondly, it leads to (or stems from) the idea that moral victory will be obtained in the opening, whereafter the events are beyond the player's will. Indeed, the comment "I was ahead in the opening, but then I made a stupid mistake" is very popular. Likewise, some players feel guilty about playing a bad opening but then "they were lucky".

Secondly, the middle game, with its lack of specific standard situations, leaves the biggest scope for applying basic technique and strategic principles. Shapes for connection and eye shape matter bigitme, there is already thickness to be used and avoided, aji left in paused contests, disposable stones and heavy groups. Rarely do I get questions in that regard and my biggest efforts go to stressing that this is where it really mattered.

Some amateurs, if they have studied the game, know that the inward turn variation of the large avalanche, as invented by Go Seigen, represents a 2 point gain over a standard result of the outward turn variation. Since a 2 point loss is unacceptable by professional standards, amateurs will follow suit and dismiss the outward turn. Those same amateurs will accept any loss up to 4 points by lacking endgame technique. I'm quite convinced that anyone who can carry a game into the endgame and has studied "Get strong at the endgame" has a big chance of winning.

It all boils down to modesty[32]. Only professionals or 5-6 dan amateurs can confidently carry through a clear advantage in the opening to a victory. The rest of us must not disregard the opening for that matter, but not overestimate its value either. I would not discourage studying the opening, like I would never advise anyone to start a business without a plan. However, we must learn to love the middle game, appreciate the value of the endgame and the beauty of middle game and endgame techniques.

[32] Actually I think this is just another aspect of present day society valuing ideas over their execution.

33. Inspire

As you know by now, I'm a great fan of [ext] Jamie Andreas, the guitar teacher who focuses on the physical aspects of guitar playing, leading to her "principles of correct practice". Her theories have led me to develop "principles of correct practice for the game of Go", with the related concepts of "vertical progress", "attention" and "observed training". One of the success stories she tells is about a famous guitar player who did not practice that many hours a day, but who was tutored so as to practice only the correct way [33]. That way, he did not acquire any bad habits in playing and as such did not have to spend any energy to unlearning them, while the rest of us spends probably most of our time doing that, or should be.

A first critique to her method concerns the assumption that reassembling a decomposition into separate parts to be mastered, results in mastery. Observation of learning stories has taught me that decomposition often troubles more than it solves. The human brain works in a progressive, time related way, using prediction/feedback techniques (an assumption I have drawn from [ext] Jeff Hawkins' work On intelligence) and the decomposition technique seems to stray away from that strength of the brain.

A second critique has dawned upon me more recently. A teacher should not, or at least not always, lead his students by the hand (as we say in colloquial Dutch). It is good to have an educational trajectory, a path along which you as a teacher believe the student will make the fastest progress, but you should never leave the student himself out of the equation. There is a person with their own strengths and weaknesses, but above all, desire and motivation. I used to discover strengths and weaknesses early, and incorporate them in my teaching scheme for that particular student, but I have been dismissing their motivational factor. And that is perhaps the strongest mistake a teacher can make. A teacher should never decide why a student is interested in the subject. As Bill Spight stated so eloquently study what you like. If a student is interested in joseki, there is little use for me to hammer on the negative aspects of learning joseki, or to state it is too early to do so. He will perhaps succeed in demotivating the student to study joseki, but redirecting the original motivation and desire to the appropriate subject will prove a very tough task. If rank is the main driver for the student, perhaps the teacher should accept that, instead of declaring that "rank is a welcome effect of improvement", just because that happens to be so for the teacher (or even what he likes to think!)

Focussing on the educational aspect of the teacher's job leads to paternalism. There is another part of the job which a teacher should not underestimate and continue to carry out and that is to inspire. Occasionally, or even permanently, a teacher should not care too much about what information is appropriate for the student, but display his love for the game, the techniques he uses, the games he has played, the professionals he adores. Even if a student is not equipped to understand, intellectually, the aspects of the game the teacher is talking about, the underlying passion and love may well be transmitted and increase the motivation and desire within the student. "If that is what sensei feels for this game, I want to feel it too", instead of "I better study this part, because that is what sensei wants me to do".

If Analysis and Attention are the two A's of Andreas, then Imitation and Inspiration are the two I's of Iwamoto.

[33] Who would you prefer to be: this player, or his teacher?

34. Another introduction session at work

The personnel service organized a games event and I was there to introduce the game of Go. Sadly, only two people attended, one of them being an active competitive chess player (and one of the smartest people I know). I applied my usual stone counting teaching method with the same satisfaction as always, being an immediate understanding of the game's purpose and 5x5-board action within five minutes, moving to higher boards pretty soon, leading to about 3 accomplished 7x7 games on introduction day, within less than an hour, and already a first sensitivity to the concepts of eyes and territory.

I added a feature to the tutorial: on one board a game proceeding (black plays here, white there) and on another board the explanation of liberties. That allows to keep the game proceeding and not remove the attacking stones for showing a chain to have 6 liberties.

I think I still fell into the trap of explaining too much: I felt compelled to explain the bookkeeping that allows to switch to territory scoring, which is really not necessary until a novice becomes a club player. Yes, they waste some time filling their own territory, but again these two players understood who was winning and they resigned whenever the result was crystal clear to them.

And so it should be: it's not for the instructor to tell the novice that "those stones will die because they will fail to make eyes". It is much more powerful if they realize and fully understand that for themselves. The time spent to see what happens to stones in another one's territory is not wasted at all, especially since it can lead to a throw-in killing maneuver. Again: that's for them to find out.

35. Sting

From an interview with Sting: "Yes I've been a teacher for a while, but I've realized that there is no such thing as teaching. There is only learning. The only job a teacher must do is radiate his love for the subject.

Wasn't "Synchronicity" an album by The Police? See 33.

36. Enjoying the game

Since I have been forced to give up football and tennis, but want to recover, I have been running, lately. I don't really like running, or at least I do not experience instant runner's high. It is something I need to do, to build or maintain shape, as an aid to other more joyful activities.

Now, the key to happiness, I think, is to try to do the things you enjoy (and keep you fulfilled after doing them), but also to try and enjoy the things you have to do (and draw some fulfillment from having it done).

So, after deciding running was something I had to do, I tried to enjoy it. The key to enjoying things, I thought, is to concentrate on making the activity enjoyable and not to try to finish it as soon as possible. So, instead of trying to finish my 5km run asap, drawing joy from the added musculature, burned fat and increased oxygen capacity, I tried to wrap myself into the running itself and focus on every moment and move of it. I succeeded and "runner's high" soon rang my mental door.

This is a general flaw in Western thinking and a fundamental difference with Eastern thinking (I think). We focus on the end result, while "they" focus on the process. It struck me that focussing on the process is much more promising and natural. In the end, the result of all our human efforts is ... death, while the process leading to it is called life. Put into this awkward perspective, it indeed seems more natural to enjoy life than to focus on death.

It is also a particular flaw I see with (Western) Go players. They are so obsessed with the result (winning) that they seem to forget the joy of playing. So nowadays, when I play a game, I try to enjoy every moment and move of it. Am I winning? Good! Let's enjoy the feeling of being ahead. No need to finish that early! Am I losing? Okay, let's take the opportunity to find a problem solving move, or a move that keeps me in this exciting game! Is my opponent trailing to make a move? Let's use this time to thoroughly assess the position and its possibilities.

Oh, there is so much to enjoy when a game is busy! When it's over, it is over.

37. International colleagues

February 2011 - On the occasion of a company workshop in Ghent, I've organized a few social activities, one of which is an introduction to this wonderful game. Of the 15 people who responded affirmative to the doodle poll, only 4 showed up. The others' brains had been cooked during the workshop, I guess, and also they had joined the hotel near the belfry right after work, whence their bodies must have refused to walk the extra mile to the club venue. Of the 4 attendants, one American colleague had learned the game back in childhood, but forgot most about it. Nowadays he's still a competition bridge player and he also regularly plays poker tournaments. I'll call him Phil.

Two club members joined to administer the expected 15 attendants, so we had to deal with a bit of teacher overload. I had anticipated to teach all simultaneously, then have the club members overlook the games. We ended up with individual teacher-pupil relationships and it was interesting to see the differences.

One teacher did not feel comfortable with my imposed stone counting approach, and went for the capture game instead. That did not seem to bother her pupils very much, and indeed it does a good job in explaining the rule of capture. However, they seemed to have a harder time shifting to the real game, when all of a sudden this strange objective of making territory is added to the equation.

My pupils, including Phil, played the real game from the very start, discovering ko (nobody ever objects when that rule comes along) and discovering the concept of two eyes when in the end the stones start filling all the (own) liberties. The next thing they learned is that you don't really have to fill all the empty spots you control: territory. After a couple of 5x5 and 7x7, we ended up playing 9x9 with handicap 4. Phil couldn't get enough of it. He fully understood the concept of two eyes, but he struggled with spotting the vital point of groups. I say, if that's the issue after an introduction, it's a big success.

It struck me again how little I have to explain, or rather, how I've disciplined myself to explain almost nothing. At the other tables I heard lengthy explanations of ladders and nets, life and death exercises, territory estimations ... Maybe pupils ask for that information, but I rather maximize play. Though even Phil asked me to play an even 7x7 where I explain every single move I'm making. Although this was an interesting exercise superficially, where he could hear my thinking out loud, I still believe it was information overload, and I'm not going to repeat it unless asked for again.

Maybe the tendency to overexplain results from an insecurity. Many players are so enthusiastic about acquired knowledge, they want to share it as much as possible, as some kind of reinforcement, I think.

On the other hand, Phil kept on playing (and losing) so ardently that I felt guilty for not explaining the benefits of connection sooner. He deserved at least that basic strategic advice, and surely would have beaten me soon using it. Just like two eyes can use a short break to be specified after discovery, the principle of connection is perhaps too important to leave for spontaneous inference.

38. Low back pain

Since a long time I've been suffering from low back pain. Last year an intensified running program added a foot injury to it. To cut that story short: I went to a physiotherapist. He related back pain to foot injury, thoroughly analyzed the physionomics of my body and showed me a number of exercises I should do to create a "brace" of muscles around my back, which should result in an overall increased facility of movement, therefore less strain on certain parts, therefore a vanishing pain.

I could not bring myself to do the exercises, although I had nothing but confidence in his analysis. I really wanted to believe his analysis and suggested remedy, but on a more primitive level, there was not enough faith going on, apparently, urging me to perform those pesky exercises. There was no instant gratification to these exercises, so my spirit was discouraged and my body not engaged.

When the new year came by, I made a casual resolution to do daily push-ups. I thought my upper body muscles were slacking and I could do with some exercise. The motivation here was very direct and superficial: I wanted to look good. The training program was easy: I would start at 20 in the morning and increase whenever the number became easy.

We're 4 months further and I miraculously kept my resolution. I do daily push-ups, between 30 and 35, depending on how I feel. A predictable but still intriguing side effect is that I've now "braced" my body much in a fashion that should have been reached by the exercises of my physiotherapist. I have no more low back pain. I play tennis again, without any of the stiffness and strains I used to have after a match. There is still a bit of pain left in my foot, but it is negligible and doesn't increase with doing sports.

What's the morale here (and what does this mean to teaching Go)? We all have motives deep inside us, which may not be the motives that are acceptable in our society, which we don't allow even ourselves and therefore obscure. Still, these motives are sometimes our true motives, or at least they are necessary for the short term drive. The more noble motives, which show their effect in the long run don't often give immediate stimulus.

As a Go teacher we can be convinced that a pupil must walk the path of basic technique first, to have a lasting effect on his Go skill, and knowing joseki by heart is merely superficial image building. What we may ignore there, is that knowing joseki by heart, even if somewhat detrimental to the overall skill, may provide the instant gratification that keeps a student of the game going, whereas (to be forced and) gaining steady ground in haengma may put off more than anything.

39. Two girls, one teacher

Yesterday (we're September 2011) I had another opportunity to explain the game, using my beloved method of alive stones on small boards. Maybe it's just a self fulfilling prophecy, but what other predicate than successful can you give to a method that has two novices play real Go after about five minutes and continue for about two hours, moving from 5x5 over 7x7 to 9x9. During that time I only needed to explain ko when I overheard them say "but now you can take back, and we go on forever". They occasionally asked me to confirm something, such as capturing by removing the last eye and recapture (sending two returning one). I was so happy!

It was also very interesting to see how anxious my fellow club members were to interfere and teach them about two eyes and territory, as if I forgot to do that and had drifted off into my own game. They could barely stand the sight of them playing inside their own territory. But they only did so at the end! They naturally played the borders of their territories first. They understood territory without knowing it was called territory. And when they didn't consider some area as territory, they jumped in, to verify for themselves, without someone telling them they're giving away points. I only needed to tell them the rest of us score the game differently, because my mates hated to see those territory points go lost and the game to become pointless. The girls did not bother about that: they were busy understanding what was going on, by experiencing it instead of being explained.

When I was finally forced to reveal there are two scoring methods but they're equivalent, I sensed their bewilderment and a first loss of enthusiasm. It was the only thing that night they didn't understand by experiencing it. It is the Achilles heel of the stone counting teaching method but there is no need to expose it early (which is not true for the weakness of the classical method, to explain territory and life).

I'm not as rigid as I used to be about there is one teacher at the goban but still I didn't really like it when I overheard "Yeah but he taught you Chinese counting" or "You shouldn't play inside your own territory!" They're playing Go, real Go! Let them wander off into the night without the frightening thoughts of counting methods or losing points in Japanese rules. It's their first time!

40. A club rant

We had an interesting rant in the club about teaching beginners. My stance is sufficiently known if you have read the above. One experienced club member disagrees with what I call "overexplaining" and advocates an early exposure to certain principles. I still disagree and am very strict about not telling anything to a beginner that is not apparently confusing them. A few examples:

  • ko is the only thing I explain after the first few (stone counting) games, and only when it appears and troubles them.
  • seki will also appear naturally. If it does and still one of them puts himself in atari it is better to let it happen (I think). It is only when self-atari is deeply recognized that seki starts to make sense. Edit: and beginners don't understand the difference between seki and nakade
  • eyes is something I really want a beginner to discover, by covering his one-but-last eye and then die. If it keeps happening, there is something to be said for explaining the principle of two eyes. In my experience, there are mostly no eyes on very small boards and many eyes on a big board. The game will often be over without two eyes being any issue. From my observations, beginners with an early exposure to eyes start making them obsessively, not because they know their true value but because sensei said it was important.
  • territory is really only needed as a book keeping technique, explained when switching from stone counting to territory counting. Only then the idea of "playing inside your own territory" becomes harmful and understandably so.
  • cut and connect is the one true governing principle, but on small boards that is evident as a measure to reduce/increase liberties, which is the only concept that really needs to be explained at the start.

When you are that far, I don't believe any pupil is still in his first evening of go but will have returned, which means their interest has been triggered and they will probably already have figured out a few things for their own. From that point onwards there is plenty to ask and teach, the first tsumego will be for the offering and the path is chosen. I'm not that opinionated on what should happen next. I do think however that any teacher who still makes mistakes against counting liberties should be at least a little skeptical of their own explanation of higher principles. And that unfortunately includes me too.

There is yet another reason not to explain too much. There is truly a huge difference between what we know and what a beginner knows, even if our knowledge is somewhat superficial and not backed up by deep reading. If you confront a beginner with all that knowledge, it may inspire them but it may also and more likely discourage them. I think a beginner should not be facing the steep learning curve that lies in front of us on their maiden night. The well intended efforts to push them up the hill on the first evening may well be counterproductive.

41. Frank De Bleeckere's Compass showing North

Perhaps this is more related to improvement than to teaching, but here's an interesting thought from an interview with Frank De Bleeckere, Belgium's top football referee, who's close to retirement (december 2011).

He refers to his father as his prime teacher, who was an accomplished referee too. The dad would attend every match and review. The first match Frank refereed, his dad said "today I'm only going to watch your positioning on corner kicks and I want you to only concentrate on that." They went through the proper positioning and indeed, his dad would only comment on that. The next game, he said "now that you know how to position on corners, today we will only review free kick positions and you will concentrate on that only".

He claims this rather unique, constrained style of teaching has been instrumental for him to ascend the hierarchy of top referees. Indeed it has appeal but is difficult to execute. It's similar to Tamsin's idea of compass but it only takes ONE direction.

The hard part is to completely detach from the result of a single game, in our case winning it or losing it, in his case what the press would say or the referee committee's inspectors. The only thing that mattered to him was his improvement in one single aspect of arbitrage. I wonder if it would be possible for us to postpone the immediate gratification of winning at the profit of improved skill. Surely it requires a teacher to review that single part of the game and moreover to keep our focus on that aspect, and reassuring us it is ok to fail in all the other parts.

Go requires attention in many different aspects simultaneously. You can never really switch of your life and death module, etc. It is not even desirable. But it is worth trying to teach or learn by concentrating on 1 single aspect during a few consecutive games.

42. Barry Mazur's critical mass

I was reading [ext] Barry Mazur's response to the question "which mathematics should every mathematician know" and paused at the following caption:

Before offering a concrete list of good “fields of acquaintance” I want to convey an idea of a friend of mine, who is a student of European History. He tells me that at one point in his career studying European History, he experienced an abrupt phase shift. Once you’ve achieved — says my friend — a certain critical mass of historical information, all of a sudden your view of the entire subject changes. First, your power of simply retaining information increases multifold; but more importantly, your way of thinking about the subject bears no relation to the way you approached things initially. My friend accounted for this surprising moment as a consequence of accumulation, perhaps to overload, of somehow-connected specifics that forced him to involuntarily re-configure—in a more meaningful way— his modes of organization, and contemplation, of the entirety of this corpus of knowledge.

Just like Mazur wonders whether this may also be true for mathematics, I also believe that sheer exposure to pro games, books, problems, talks and obviously one's own games, may account for such phase shift. I believe such a major phase shift is what takes a 5d to a 6d, which I really consider the difference between amateur and professional level. Of course, every amateur experiences minor phase shifts in their career. I did when I moved from 2k to 2d in a year or so, due to reviewing my own games. Still, a minor phase shift is just a big word for palpable improvement. I have never really felt that my understanding of the game has improved in a profound manner. There has been ONE cognitive phase shift, when I realized that Go was not about territory but about alive stones. It didn't propel me to 4d however. There is no harmony between theory and practice (yet).

For teachers this may be yet another caveat for constructing "ideal paths for pupils' improvement" although I am still convinced a good introduction is vital to keep beginners interested. See my /recommended introduction.

43. Find yourself a top coach

Early 2013 I started playing table tennis in a club, after a life long disregard of my passion for that game. Mid 2013 I participated in a summer camp, led by Belgium's number 7. Throughout I have been coached by A. Gupta, an overseas colleague, friend and former youth champion of India. He came over once for work affairs. We took advantage of that week to share our passion for the game and for him to teach me.

When you have been playing on and off for years, by the time you reach your forties (or earlier), there is an awful lot to unlearn and relearn. I was fortunate to have a top player available to give me proper directions. He can see the bad technique with a blink of the eye but also has the experience to help me unlearn it.

If I see the progress I'm making, I reaffirm one should be coached by the best as early as possible. A top player with good coaching abilities is invaluable. I'm getting one for free but given the experience I would pay for one if I hadn't my friend as a coach.

In the wake of Web 2.0 people resolve to free teaching resources. Most of these are well meant, or try to establish themselves by virtue of the volume and speed with which the advice is given. Only very occasionally a top player goes out of his usual ways to provide something for free (I believe Haengma tutorial for beginners was such an example and currently An Younggil is doing such efforts at gogameguru).

Aspiring amateurs should embrace these rare events but mostly should try and find a top player as a coach, swallow and apply every bit of advice, and stay away from other, more mediocre resources. I found it very easy to disregard advice, coming from club mates who play just one class higher than me, well meant and valuable in itself, when it conflicted or was suboptimal to the advice of my coach, who played with Jan-Owe Waldner.

Find yourself a top coach.

44. The study journals at L19

At L19 there are a fair amount of study journals, where mostly kyu players relate of their study activities and mostly dan players comment on their games. I've been following a few, the best of them being Hushfield's "Studying go in China" which is the one most deserving the name "study journal". I have my own at /deliberate practice. In the others I have observed two patterns:

  1. The students often use the journal as a vanity blog, seeking consolation from other players for their mistakes, their attitude, the dire conditions they have to play in ... Also, when mentioning tsumego, they say something like "did 50 problems today", without mentioning which ones.
  2. The commentators on the other hand, who are supposed to act as substitutes for a teacher, often use the posted games as a bait for showing the difference in understanding. The game review takes longer than the game itself. That's not what I think teaching should be like. When reviewing a game, I try identifying what the major issue is here and give advice for the next game. I think we shouldn't pause at one game for too long. What matters is the next game and practicing lessons learnt.

I'm sure both students and teachers converse in the best of spirits and intentions but I find the exchanges in knowledge somewhat dispersed and undirected.

45. Teaching Ian Butler

In 2018 my enthusiasm got fired up by a young man going by the nickname of Ian Butler, who showed great determination to become a better player. After a few game commentaries on L19, we found out we were living in the same area, a few 100 meters away from each other. I soon found myself staring at a go board again and became his teacher, for as long as it is useful. In the meantime he continues getting the great advice he can get from Bill Spight and all the other experts in L19. He's moreover spoiled with the occasional attention of Gerald Westhoff 6d, whose inspiring comments I had the privilege to witness live myself.

Ian seems to be driven by internal motivation and by feedback from better players. He seems to be not so much affected by rank or results, which is quite rare. Still, I wanted to give him tangible results from any advice and increase his winning chances by focusing on his biggest area of improvement first. Unsurprisingly these were the two fundamental principles 1) connect & cut 2) surround & escape and the basic techniques documented as basic instinct. We also looked into the middle game overall, getting ideas from such great books as attack and defence and tesuji.

Where I used to think about a generic ideal path, I now also humor what a student wants to do. Apart from learning new stuff, Ian gets his kicks out of playing a strong opening, a flexible game and trying original ideas. He likes reading books but doesn't enjoy tsumego all that much. There's no point in trying to turn that around: a man's gotta do what a man loves to do. The great Bill Spight already told us so a long time ago: "above all, study what you like".

Incidentally, I recorded a number of /bad habits Ian is getting rid of.

Dieter Verhofstadt / Teaching experiences last edited by Dieter on May 17, 2018 - 18:35
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