How Does It Feel to Improve at Go

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    Keywords: Question
  • How does it feel, subjectively, to improve at Go?
  • Can you tell the difference between your play now, and when you were several stones weaker?
  • Can you identify what it is about your play that allows you to win against opponents who used to give you several stones?

As I explained in Why Did You Start Go, I began to play because my father loved the game. I'm a competitive wretch, and I needed to beat him at his own game. Then I fell utterly in love with Go, and you know how that goes.

Last summer, my father gave me nine stones, and won.

In January I took Black in an almost even game (no komi) and won by a single moku.

When I went home for Spring Break a few weeks ago, I took White and won several times, by thirty or so points at least or by resignation.

The thing is, I can't tell what makes me stronger. I'm not sure what the difference is in my play between January and now. (I can tell the difference since last August, though.) It's like trying to remember the first time I learned about death - I just can't. I can think of a few tesuji I've studied, and I read a book on fuseki (and promptly forgot most of it), but that doesn't seem like enough.

Can any of you put your finger on what it felt like to be a weaker player, and what it felt like to gain in strength? Has your mindset changed, or your attitude? What happened?


Scartol: It's odd for me to write about this, seeing as how I'm still so weak (27-25k). But I know I'm stronger than I used to be, because I don't make the stupid mistakes I used to (and I can beat weaker players because they do). The impression I get, however, is that definite things like this are less tangible as one progresses in the ranks.

HolIgor: Easy. You were a blind puppy and now you see.

Bill Spight: Sometimes single ideas have an almost immediate effect. When I was starting out, "Play the whole board," and "Throw stones away," were worth several stones each. A few months later, "Play efficiently: make the stones you have already played work," was worth a lot. Even at the dan level, "Is good shape good enough?" was worth a stone in a month or two. The rapid progress that follows such insights can be exhilarating.

But, more than any game I know, character is important in Go. In my 20s I often had no chance to play anyone for over a year. Although I would occasionally read Go material, I didn't really study. But on moving to where I could play regularly, I often found that I made quick progress, even though I had reached a plateau before. I think a lot of that had to do with emotional maturity. In one place I lived, we could always tell the state of a local 2-dan's marriage by the quality of his play. :-)

Matt Noonan: As for how it feels, I like Go Seigen's words on this the best: "Becoming one stone stronger is the supreme enjoyment." (From A Way of Play for the 21st Century.)

BlueWyvern: I've noticed two things myself. One is my score scale has changed. I used to think that 15 points was a close game, and 30 was a game with a few mistakes in it, and maybe 50 was a crushing defeat. Now I think anything under 5 stones is close, 10 is a solid victory, and if I am investing serious thinking time in the game I will usually resign when I am 15 points down in the late middlegame. 20 points is a crushing defeat, and anything over that is just embarrassing. :-) Another thing I've noticed is that I don't play nearly so thoughtlessly anymore. I'm able to recognize moves that look forcing but really aren't, sometimes turning the table on my opponent, and I've learned how to do things like play in such a way that I lose 1-2 points but gain sente, things like that. And now more than before, I am playing much fewer blunt mistakes.

Kendrah: I know I'm improving, but I don't feel any different than I did when I first started. In fact, I tend to feel more confuddled now-a-days than I did before.

Recently, I went back and looked at my games when I was a 30k, and it's startling to think how much I've improved... I think I'm stuck in the beginners mindset. ('Course, I'm still a beginner, 22k, just not so wet behind the ears as I was.)

Tamsin: Sometimes things have to get worse before they get better. When you're learning something new, your game can fall out of balance and you might find yourself making silly mistakes and losing more than normally. After a time though, things fall into place and you become able to apply the new knowledge more properly, with the result that you're a stronger player.

Scartol:When I feel myself improving on the goban these days, I hear this snippet of dialogue from The Matrix:

Neo: You're telling me that I can dodge bullets?

Morpheus: No. I'm telling you that when you're ready, you won't have to.

deg: As a 10-15kyu, I remember a game where one of my groups was in trouble. I saw a sequence where I could get a double-atari, so concluded that my group was safe. My opponent played the sequence anyway, I captured a stone but gained only a false eye. My group died. My opponent had read past the double atari! After this experience, I tried to do the same.

Nacho: The main difference I have noted is that the board tends to become "smaller". When I was a total beginner, a stone at the opposite corner of the board had no meaning, but now that I'm just a beginner (no more "total" there), it influences my decisions on what to play. At the same time, as BlueWyvern said, the differences in score also become bigger. A 30 point loss used to be "not that bad", but now it is just too much.

Egao: Some little thing make me feel improving improve a lot.

Seeing ladders cut. I agree Nacho on this point.
Using moves that have two goals: attacking and defending. When i play a move, i feel it's a good move when the two conditions are performed.
Seeking sente at all cost.
Avoiding yose moves when in fuseki or chuban.
Playing lightly, not attaching stones.
Shape seeking.
Monkey slides.
Connecting, cutting. <- first step of improvement
Having all this techniques one by one improve your game each time. Using them really make me feel far better than before !
In fact I think you can feel your improvement when you can put a name on each of you move. When you can't put a name on your move you feel that this is not a good move. I noticed that the games i won i have named most of my moves !
Improving in go give you the same feeling that you have when you go to school. As long as you learn, you feel improvement. It's the same.
And handicaps stones reduce has long as you learn as much as your opponent. And you'll give him stones when you know more than him.

Stefan: In general - I know I've reached another phase of improvement when I start to see certain aspects of the game in a different way. It's consistent with what Bill Spight wrote: a deeper understanding of "throw stones away" or any such thing always translated itself in progress a bit later. Another example that I remember is when my understanding of thickness changed and I thought differently about the meaning and value of stabilizing groups. On the contrary I know that I could improve by getting better insight in the true meaning of sente, but somehow I'm not quite there yet, more or less stuck in my current simplistic views. Currently I can feel something moving inside on the topic of shape (no doubt caused by reading Charles's chapters), so get ready for my leap to shodan, people! :-) Oh, wait a minute. I may have to actually play to get stronger, I guess...

Dieter: How does it feel to improve at anything: you only want to get better.

P7A77: Gaining strength has two effects on me. First, it fills me with joy that I've gotten over my latest "slump" (which usually turns out to be the gestation period for learning new techniques). Second, it fills me with dread that maybe I happened to catch people on an off night, got lucky, etc. When I'm losing, I'll play game after game, effectively on "tilt". The more I win, the more anxious I get about starting a new game because I don't want to ruin my streak. Thankfully I'm learning to get past that silliness.

I've been hovering between 10-12k on KGS for quite a while now. A combination of reasons for that: I shot up too quickly as a result of drift and chutzpah, I took several months off, KGS had its own ranking quirkiness, etc. I'm 11k now (early 2005), and while it's for sure frustrating to "still" be at this level, I feel worlds stronger than I did at 10k six months ago. I found myself in a position suddenly having to defend why I was there, and now I have a much deeper understanding of the game, which has lessened my fear of starting new games.

The main difference I notice in play as I get stronger is my opponents making moves I've learned/discovered aren't worth that much (or even better, outright mistakes). It shows me I'm growing past my current peers, and of course is great fun to exploit. I can't usually identify anything specific about my play, but I do periodically feel like concepts I've been studying are starting to make sense, and that I can apply them to good effect when the situations require them.

LOSING strength, on the other hand, sends me into the deepest pits of depression. And then I get over it and become even more determined to improve.

kritz I don't know lately - I play on kgs which means my rank keeps dropping!

mjlthebest Improving at go feels great! About once a year i shoot up 6-9 stones at a time before that though, is a year long slump where i barely gradually improve.

Calvin I have similar experiences to Regyt's. I cannot recall doing anything differently or feeling different when I was much weaker than I am now. I remember the first time I gave someone a 9-stone handicap and won, even though that person wasn't a complete beginner and knew something of the game. She wasn't even making very bad moves; it's just that, well, I guess I was expecting more from each move than she was. And then I thought that I must have played like that once, even though I don't have a feeling of change or improvement. So the feeling is all the same. Go is just so mind-bogglingly deep that even top pros feel overwhelmed by some positions. There are always crazy things hiding in the depths, just 1 or 2 moves beyond what you can read.

Xris: I remember that when I started Go I put stones at almost random places. Then I started seeing that getting territory somewhere is the better than just "snailing around". This made me quite a bit stronger from a beginner. I progressed to maybe 12k by just fixing mistakes. I dont think my reading improved a lot, because I could not see the moves my opponents would play (maybe because they were just as weak as I was...).

Then I hit a stage where I did not make obvious mistakes anymore (hence where I thought groups were connected, yet could be disconnected and so on). This is where I hit my first real barrier. I could not understand that there is something else than tactics. To break through this barrier, understanding that other areas of the board might be bigger was very important. Just by improving the opening (with the help of a friendly 2d at my club) I gained another few stones.

There was the next barrier already. Although my fuseki was very sensible (yet territory oriented) my opponents started surpassing me by just gaining more during attack. As an 8k its difficult to understand when an opponent's move really is threatening. A big mistake hence was to answer moves that don't need answering. So I started doing tsumego for the first time in my life. Suddenly it became all clear when to protect and when to risk it, because the "puppy effect" of following your opponent just got less.

I progressed until 3k where I hit the next barrier. Although I was playing "proper" and solid moves, my opponents always ended up with more territory. The margin was always around 15 points. I did not really understand why until that 2d at my club muttered to himself: "still making strong groups stronger and connecting living groups in gote..." and walked over to his next opponent. I realised that now I can see better where my strong groups are, but only used it in tactics! I could tell when a move was threatening but I did not followup or use strong groups to attack.

I started picking harder on my opponents weak groups and started solidifying my own weak groups. In addition to some tsumego and the odd teaching game I progressed to 1k. Confident that I would be shodan soon, I kept on self confidently playing my games.

Yet I hit another barrier a month ago; and I have no clue why. I played in a tourney beating all 1k's, but when I played a 1d I started a huge fight and lost. Subsequently I also lost to 2 other 1k's who had the same winning ratio. Ever since then it seems like I am actually becoming weaker! People who I know have been stable in their ranks for years, who I beat before start beating me regularly. I played a friend of mine, a 4d the other week and he said my midgame is a bit weak. And now I realise I have lost all orientation once the fuseki is over, it seems like, again, I am unable to see where weak groups lie, how to attack in a profitable way...

Has anybody else experienced the same? I am sure the barriers people experience in progressing must be because of lack of understanding of similar ideas.

I also have to add that every time until I hit a barrier I was confident that I actually understand the game (even though I did/do not). To answer the initial question: I found 3 things most pleasing in progression.

  1. I used to have nemeses, hence people who were 2-3 stones stronger, I used for motivation to play seriously. It was always greatly pleasing to me to beat someone I could never beat before.
  2. Suddenly the aims of my opponents became clear. It is was very pleasing not only to see what they're up to but also to see and punish actual overplays.
  3. Success in tourneys was also great. Not to win any prices, but to see how you compare to people your own strength. I still get an adrenaline rush when I think back to when I played my first tourney and even won against my first opponent.

tderz It felt simply great !
(cf. my How Does It Feel Not to Improve at Go) Actually I remember better the satisfied feeling when I solved problems correctly - heureka!

C.S. Graves: I don't play on the internet anymore, and there aren't many people in my hometown to play, so I can't gauge my own progress (my former rival moved away). However, I do feel good when someone I'm teaching improves at the game. Having to put less handicap stones on the board is less of a chore too, heh.

Rakshasa: Improving doesn't feel great, the feeling I always have is that of frustration. It's when you aren't improving that you feel good about your play.

ivoSF?: for me it feels like improving is mainly about making less mistakes, and refining the basic principles. for example at 15k you get a lot stronger if you not let your groups live in gote while being pushed around, and at 1d level defending ahead in the form of good shape seems very important.

Jared: I just made AGA 1d and it feels very good. The most important factor is to try your best. This seems silly, and obvious, but it's true. Also, like ivoSF? says, not being pushed around is very important. Recognizing weakness is critical, both in knowing what to attack, and knowing when to defend.

ChrisSchack: I don't know how it feels to improve anymore ... my rank has been mostly dropping for months now, after months of not going anywhere much prior to the KGS rank adjustment.

Malweth: I have a rather unique perspective... incredulity. I recently was ranked at AGA 3k, but although I'm currently unranked (I haven't played in a tournament since), I did have the opportunity to spend a day at the nihon kiin. Although playing against people there was of limited benefit I did get one (English) book that had a profound effect on my game. Ohira's "Appreciating Famous Games" increased my fuseki level.

Upon returning home after reading this book, I've been able to hold my own against dan level players as long as tricky reading isn't a concern. The first time I found this out, I didn't believe it! My direction of play got much stronger very quickly, and yet other skills were left behind.

Now I'm faced with the difficult prospect of increasing my 8-kyu reading ability in order to really reach dan ranks. (I think this may be another reason my KGS rank is stagnant at about 7k).

Coyote: I can tell you what it felt like to get stronger at Go, and weaker.

I was first introduced to Go it was at work. We played games on the job and a collegue had brought in some stones and a hand-made 9x9 board. In fact, it was a square of cardboard with the lines drawn roughly with a straightedge but no measuring, taped to a piece of wood.

I actually asked another collegue to teach me the game as we sat closer together amongst the cubicles. He taught me the game and defeated me again and again. A little tired of losing constantly I then had another collegue learn the game so we could play against each other. However, within a few games he was able to beat me, and even went on to defeat the one that taught us.

That night, I went home and studied the game a little, so that I could understand it better. When I returned to work I was able to beat both of them easily. Later I started to play against my colleague who had made the board, who had been playing regularly and was the best at the office. I continued to study everything I could. In the end, I was giving him a stone handicap.

It was the first game I even felt that type of improvement. I estimated 14k based on a couple of games against a 10k club player.

For various reasons I left the game for a while and have just recently returned to it. I think I'm lucky to be 20k. I've looked up SGFs from before and can tell that I was stronger then. Losing strength is not fun.

Gresil: improvement happens when I'm not looking. Most often I notice it when I fetch a bunch of the ol' Random Unsolved at As it happens I never check correct answers when I get a problem wrong there, and I also never look at the problem info (ie. difficulty level, problem type, how many times I've tried it etc.) before I've solved it; then when it gives me a random unsolved problem and I solve it by first glance and look up to see Tried: 6 - Solved: 0 I wonder what the heck I've been thinking the previous six times and why it now is so easy.

In a game a couple of days ago I approached my opponent's lone 3-4 corner stone at the 5-4 point, and continued with a 3-3 slide. I didn't think anything of it right then - it felt like a nice and natural sequence. A couple of moves later it hit me that I'd never done that before, not even thought about it. I don't remember studying the sequence or consciously noting it before.

Patrick Taylor: I felt it was hard to feel improvement until I got under 20k. I could tell that I understood things better than I had before, but implementing them didn't start to happen until I'd dipped into the mid-kyu range (where I currently reside, waiting for another precipitous rank improvement). So far, I've had three seminal experiences which stood out.

  1. The first time I won against nine stones. That was a rush.
  2. Reading something completely for the first time in a game. Wow! Thinking ahead really helps, doesn't it?
  3. The first time I killed something by reading ahead. I knew how to play inside of killable shapes, but landing on the vital point before the eye emerges or throwing-in in a game situation is a completely different experience. I actually feel stronger when I read out and kill groups.

Lynx: I can't quite place my finger on how it feels to improve. The whole process is slow and agonizing. You don't know you are improving at the moment and you feel like crap.

But I love when you have some sort of tangible landmark. For me, I'm about to be 3d, KGS. This is a quite respectable rank. A great moment for me is winning a game by, say, 1.5 points, and being able to point at exactly where my opponent lost those points. It is kind of sad, though, when a 2d misses 3 completely free absolute sente moves!

Another thing is that I can see 6 moves with relative ease. I don't remember ever not being able to, but if I encounter a problem that I remember being challenging, being able to solve it instantly is a joy,

Like anything, it is a process, and the best part is doing it with friends and sharing the whole thing with them, so that your win is their win, and their win is your win.

The main difference in stones is twofold. It is of course tactical. But mainly it is a powerful sense of kiai. It is hard to explain until you play against someone much stronger and feel a sense of profound moral despair. You just *can't* seem to make anything work. You capture a stone only to realize that it wasn't worth anything at all, only 2 points.

It is command of direction of play that is a huge difference between ranks. A tactical mistake may cost you 5 points, if it is carefully controlled. A direction mistake, if grievous, is rarely so lenient.

HoangVu?: Eh ... first time i'm writing here, oh well, I do know and feel when I improve... my head starts to explode and i feel like puking all day ... often happens every week ( sometimes more ) and the day after i immediately feel stronger, I read an article about "regular" is better for improving, so I thought, why not all the time? it's regular... so .... I just do it all the time and improve sometimes a kyu a week sometimes a few kyus a week. I actually FEEL the neurons growing and it's not a pleasant experience. I am quite a beginner, right now at 7k ( unstable strength ) never felt stable in my play.. :p

ray?: well, when i do improve at Go i don't notice till i destroy someone i normally wouldn't, or review an older game, but it feels pretty good. I just looked at 1 or 2 game records of mine last week that weren't very old and i was like "O_o i actually played that way?!" So i guess i have gotten better :)

meh: To me, the feeling of improvement is looking over an old game that you won and thinking, "Wow. If I was my opponent, I could have wiped the board with me." It's an odd mixture of glee and mortification. "I'm so much better than I used to be! But, jeez, I -actually- thought that move was good?!"

Tapir: Sometimes, I feel I get stronger, but my rank is declining... but getting stronger is still great :)

Firearasi?: During the course of upgrading from 15k to around 10k, I think the biggest change in my games is realizing the importance to use influence/thickness to attack rather than encircling territories. This helps a lot and increases the excitement of games by a great margin.

Kirby: In my experience, when I have improved, I don't really feel much like it is me improving. Rather, I get the feeling that my opponents are playing poorly, or making silly moves.

DanSchmidt: Kirby, in one of his books the chess grandmaster Jonathan Rowson quotes another grandmaster as saying almost exactly the same thing: (paraphrased) "I didn't feel like I was playing better, just that my opponents were suddenly playing worse." This also fits with my experience; it's not so much that you make brilliant moves that you realize you couldn't have made a couple of ranks ago, it's that when you play someone of your old rank they make lots of obvious mistakes and miss the natural moves.

jgannon: I'm fairly new at Go (probably 19-22k I think), and have been mostly learning here at SL and practicing tsumego at For me an enlightening moment happened while reading Charles' book Teach Yourself Go. I was looking at a problem on page 43, it was just an example on nets suggesting you play it out in your head the ways white can extend and how black can block. The idea was to show that white was trapped and how to enclose in a net.

After looking at the problem for a minute and going through each possible "escape" (I use quotes because white was quite trapped, obvious even at a glance) I said to myself "why does white need to escape? It can make life in the corner!" Suffice to say, I almost jumped out of my chair. It wasn't the goal of the problem, but when I looked at the example it was an exciting moment for me. I applied the example in the context of what to do in an actual game, a "best move" life and death scenario. I realized that I was stronger at that moment than I was previously, and would not have seen it in the past.

An aside, sorry about the lack of links. I'm new to posting on SL and not entirely sure how to do so. If anyone would oblige me to fix them and remove this line I'd greatly appreciate it.

Phelan: Links are easy for the most part. You can just put the words you want to link between square brackets. See TextFormattingRulesIntroduction.

jgannon: Thanks Phelan, I appreciate the tip (and the formatting).

majamin?: there are several things that I've noticed as I've practiced playing Go. Firstly, your sense of urgency is heightened - you suddenly become aware of the importance of certain plays, and are able to be aware of multiple points of urgency at once. Secondly, and this is connected to the first, is that your opponent's moves becomes less of a surprise as you become aware of possible moves, and what moves she finds urgent to her advantage. I've kept a sense of "creativity", even while progressing and formalizing my gameplay. I think it's important to make mistakes; to force yourself into situations that you can learn from. I've been getting better at an emotional level: not focusing on rank, not getting desperate when under pressure, always letting a game "teach" me, not "embarrass" me.

some times you need to know how to GettingOutOfASlump

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How Does It Feel to Improve at Go last edited by on January 26, 2015 - 07:01
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