GoStone's Blog


Playing the man, not the ball.

This is a footballing (soccering?) concept. If the opposing player is going past you and you can't take the ball off him, take him off the ball by kicking his legs away. It is against the spirit and letter of the rules, and may result in the offender being sent off. When I apply the phrase to Go, I mean it in a slightly different sense, but it carries with it shades of unsporting behaviour.

I learnt Go by playing once a week against a friend. After three years I thought I was reasonably strong, not having lost in months, and I went along to my local Go club with some confidence. I played a 2-kyu who gave me nine stones (which I thought risible) and left me at the end of the game with not a single stone on the board!

My problem was that I knew my friend's game very well and was playing him, not the ball. Much of the skill I had acquired over the years was useless playing anyone else. If you want to really improve at this game, or any other, you should play a range of different opponents, including stronger and weaker.

There were two 4-dan players at my previous club, who had very different approaches to giving me nine stones. One would just beat me, goading me mercilessly the while. Not as bad as it sounds, actually. He was funny with it and you can't help learning from someone of that strength. The other would talk about the 'the honest move'. He could see overplays which would work against me, but he knew they were essentially incorrect and wouldn't let himself play them. He would beat me just as often as the other 4-dan.

This is a virtuous way to play Go that possibly comes from the Japanese tradition (he is half Japanese). By not overplaying you give the weaker player something solid to emulate. But it isn't a tradition I have been brought up in, properly understand, or even particularly agree with.

These days I rarely get to play Black, and I'm often up against a number of handicap stones. It's not the most balanced environment in which to improve my game. I don't treat the games as teaching opportunities, I just enjoy playing and hopefully winning. I am happy to teach and discuss the game when it's over, but I don't restrict myself to 'honest' moves. I usually find myself playing unrealistic moves from the start. In fact I don't see how I can do otherwise. The only 'honest' thing to do when faced with nine black stones is to resign. But that would be playing the ball, not the man.

Go, as we play it, is a game of luck and chance. Only in a theoretical sense can it be read out to the end. We each walk in our own fog of understanding and misunderstanding and simple unknowing, if it weren't for which there would be no point in playing at all. A light mist settles around the pro, while the beginner is lost in a pea-souper, but it's just a matter of degree.

A pro (Cho Chikun) was once asked how many handicap stones he might need for an even game with God. He thought four would be sufficient. I don't argue strongly with his assessment, and the comment was probably made lightly, but I sometimes fantasize about God being unbeatable even with a nine-stone handicap. After all, how would He win against even two stones? We must presume God can read the entire game ahead in an instant. But against two stones every first move ends in a loss, so that doesn't help. But God can win, and therefore God knows he can, and therefore knows how that can happen. His great advantage is that he can see into the pro's soul. He knows what the pro is thinking, what he knows and what he does not know. By playing the man the way ahead is clear.

Armed with this sort of knowledge, who's to say God wouldn't be unbeatable even with nine stones? Forgive my whimsy, it isn't meant to be a theological argument. But how complex is the game really? We have no idea. The fog covers us both individually and collectively. Our entire body of knowledge about the game is derived from playing the man. Homo goens. We don't even know where the ball is.

So when we think of Go, let's draw analogies with other games of chance; share dealing perhaps. The analyst may conclude that a company or business sector is less secure than generally thought, and shares are not worth their current price. Should he buy or sell? There is no point being too 'honest' and selling if you know the market doesn't understand the issues and the bubble is likely to float upwards for another year. You may as well play the man and stay in the game for a while.

On this basis is most human discourse conducted, including Go. Remember to aim for the legs!

Update: Over lunch it occurred to me that the title of this entry is used in rugby not soccer. A fog of unknowing indeed.

HansWalthaus: Cool read. But it's also a soccer term. It's why shin-protectors are mandantory.

I kind of disagree on the God part. I like to seem Him as a shepherd (when I agree with myself on His existence), so he wouldn't play the man. He would teach the man. As long as the man doesn't bring any snacks such as apples to the game.

Velobici: GoStone, there seems to be a common practice at SL of adding comments to the blogs of others. Given that practice and that you have not requested people to treat the page as read-only, I am adding a note. If you wish it to be read-only, please delete this text that I have added.

Regarding playing the honest move (honte), a stronger player can do this regardless of the handicap provided the handicap is reasonable for the disparity of strength between the two. The weaker player will at times make moves that are at best inefficient and at worst are self-atari. The stronger player need only await these moves and exploit the errors of the weaker player. The most recent time that I saw this was at the Mid-Atantic Go Championship at the University of Maryland. The tournament champion and 1D Chinese professional, played a game against an AGA 5d. The 1D won the game, using 2 minutes of clock time. The game ended in resignation with the 5d using almost all of his allotted time. Clearly the 1D read the situation while the 5d was thinking, taking only a few seconds more to play and hit the clock. Impressive!

A similar situation occurred in a lesson by Yang Yilun for another player that I was able to watch. The other player, an AGA 1d, played without error till about the end of the middle game. Throughout Yang Yilun played honest moves, patiently waiting for the errors that make an AGA 1d a 1d. The 1d played without error! At that point Yang Yilun resigned and congratulated the 1d on a excellent game! Needless to say, the AGA 1d does not manage to do this often, perhaps never again. But it did happen. At least once in a lifetime.

GoStone: Comments very welcome Velobici. Thanks for asking, and for your nice anecdotes.

Tas: Then I will comment a bit also. Staying in a christian metaphor (although I am not a christian.) I have heard those thoughts before, but I donīt think you describe the hand of god. God plays honest, always playing (one of) the best move(s) available. And in this way it might be true that the mistakes of top pros would lose only 4 stones worth through the course of a game. However against the "devil", the devil plays dirty (plays the man) he knows which mistakes you will make, which overplays you will not punish and "he" might well be able to beat top pros at nine stones. (Although he will never be able to beat god.)

In short, I agree with your observations, I just use another terminology.

GoStone's Blog last edited by xela on September 21, 2007 - 02:12
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