DieterVerhofstadt/The philosophy of mistakes

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Exquisite moves and stupid mistakes

In the game of Go, the effects of making a mistake seem to be much greater than those of making an exceptionally good move.

Here are two questions:

  • How often did you win a game because of an exquisite move?
  • How often did you lose a game due to a stupid mistake?

My bets are that most people will answer a much higher number for the second question. I often hear comments like "I was ahead but then I misread that ladder" or "I self atari'd in the late endgame".

But even if we do not play such outright blunders, I believe most of our losses come from playing a move that we are analytically perfectly capable of dismissing, but somehow during the game we pick it as our favourite. It occurs to me that, most of the time, when I try something fanciful, the game goes astray.

Oddly enough, many students of the game focus their attention on exquisite moves, intricate variations where the difference between the masterful and the ordinary is two points. I refer to the large avalanche joseki, where the turn inward was a revolutionary variation by Go Seigen to the turn outward, which in the standard variation of the time represented a gain of two points, giving birth many new variations.

Although the comprehension of the large avalanche certainly contributes to overall skill, I believe comparatively little time is spent on the eradication of blunders or fanciful moves which do not suit the situation. The reasons for this behaviour of Go students are probably the following:

  • Scrutinizing your games for mistakes, then wonder what's the mental mechanism behind it (greed, fear, a desire for originality) is a somewhat negative approach. It feels like chastice to focus on what you have done wrong and seek to eradicate the mental process behind it or at least reduce its effects.
  • Moreover, the result of the analysis is often that one should have played the dull move, the common sense, the conventional wisdom, instead of the exquisite move, the highly original, individual effort.

It is much more fun for us to live in the illusion that acquiring expert thinking (like the large avalanche) will propell us into the higher dan spheres ... if it were not for those many moments of frustration when we are cheated by our momentary lapses of reason, our inexplicable behaviours, our stupid mistakes that keep coming despite all the expert study.

Given the fact that one blunder can throw away all profit acquired by many successive good moves, probably our focus in the game should be on reducing the scope for disaster. That is essentially what is meant by the sayings "Go is a game of patience", "Prepare (defend) before you attack" or the more basic "do not let yourself be surrounded" and "connect on a large scale".

There is more to it than avoiding blunders. At any move, the chance that you play the best possible move is very very low. That happens maybe a couple of times, especially in the endgame, when the outcome of perfect play can be calculated. So, rather than looking for the best possible move, we should perhaps look for moves that are "definitely not bad", meaning, "it is not easy to see how my opponent can take an immediate advantage of it". If you find a couple of that kind of moves, you can safely choose the one that appeals most. On the other hand, a move that looks like a killer move ... if it works, may as well be a candidate for a bad move.

Admittedly, this approach can lead to slack play. Adding a stone to an already alive group, reinforcing a connection which is not threatened ... these should fall under the general umbrella of big mistakes, because they are close to passing and rarely a move is worse than passing. Reducing the scope for errors does not mean to stop thinking and mindlessly play overly safe.

The analysis of mistakes may not be fun, especially for the ego. The positive approach of acquiring good technique and adopting sound strategy is a good counterbalance. But if we insist to study expert topics and neglect the scrutiny for mistakes, then we should not live in the illusion we are going to win more games. Few people however are capable of acknowledging that they're making progress while losing games. Most of us need some kind of an external criterium to tell us we're indeed making progress and except if we have a teacher watching our steps, that external criterium will be our win/loss ratio.

In conclusion, for anyone seeking improvement on their own, a strategy which is not backed up by measurable success, is not a very good one unless they have strong stamina. Measurable success comes from winning games and to win games, it is most effective to include the eradication of mistakes into the improvement strategy.

Kinds of mistakes

Last week, I found myself increasingly annoyed when watching some games of my fellow club members (mostly I ravel at the club atmosphere) while waiting for an opponent. I tried to stop these negative emotions and started wondering what it was precisely that frustrated me so much. After all, I'm a weak 2 dan myself and I'm sure stronger players will frown at many of my moves. So I thought about the kinds of mistakes one can make

The reading mistake

Putting oneself in atari, misreading a capturing race, not seeing a connection ... Although these classify in the blunder spectrum, which can make the game very frustrating, they are caused by lack of concentration or a plain brain failure. You have either not seen something which suddenly becomes apparent, or lured yourself into seeing something different.

Painful as they are, I believe these mistakes are forgivable.

The lack of knowledge

A mistake of direction, playing close to thickness, not sacrificing unimportant stones, invading prematurely ... all these things are caused by a lack of insight into the game. It is not until someone has thoroughly explained the concept you're lacking, or you read a book, or seen it happen, that you can start consciously working on this. This is what improvement is all about. So, this kind of mistake is highly forgivable, if not necessary.

The emotional move

If only you could always remain calm and analyze the situation ... unfortunately, or maybe even necessarily, we also have feelings about the game and want to punish, come back, finish off, display prowess and all other instances of seven deadly sins in Go. Not making such mistakes is another lifelong path of mental improvement.

So, which mistakes really do annoy me?

The mindless sequence

The moves that really annoy me are those that seem to come out of no thinking or feeling at all.

  • Playing small endgame moves and really taking your time for it, while a big group has been captured and you're more than 40 points behind and you know it.
  • Playing out a ladder while you *know* it doesn't work. "Yeah, I knew it wouldn't work"
  • Responding to a bad move by another bad move, because you think that, since the opponent made an odd choice, an odd answer is called for.

I see these things time and time again and they make me mad! Why would a player take minutes to play yet another move that fixes the shape of an already lost game? Please, try to turn around the game and go for a crazy invasion while you still can. Or push with every move, provoking conservative answers that may slowly grind you back into the game. Why playing out something you know doesn't work? And above all, why not play the simple, normal response to yet another bad move? What's wrong with basic technique?

Go is all about thinking and feeling. Thinking wrong or having bad feelings is ok. You'll learn from it. Not thinking about the game and having no feelings at all about it is not ok. You might just as well not have played.

DieterVerhofstadt/The philosophy of mistakes last edited by Dieter on January 20, 2012 - 13:49
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