Kerwin's Go Advice


James Kerwin's advice on improvement

aka Professionally Speaking

This is a reproduction of material from the 2021 OGS forum thread [ext] James Kerwin's advice on getting to 10k, 1k and beyond.

That material was a compilation and typesetting of a series called Professionally Speaking by professional James Kerwin in the AGA E-Journal, specifically in the [ext] 4th February, [ext] 24th February and [ext] 6th May 2005 editions.

Getting to 10k

What is the fastest way to improve from 20+ kyu to under 10 kyu?

Play as much as you can, but get the most benefit from your play. You must have the right attitude and not get too caught up in winning and losing. Donít be afraid of a stronger opponent, and donít try to bully a weaker opponent. Simply try to play correctly, the best way you know how. This approach will be uncomfortable but you must bear with it. If you play comfortably you will repeat your customary mistakes and improve only slowly if at all. Your discomfort is a sign that you are improving. As Jane Fonda says, ďFeel the burn!Ē

Second, go over your games. Even without assistance you can see a lot of your mistakes if you look for them. And ask your opponent if he or she saw any moves that were clear mistakes. If you have the budget for it I would highly recommend sending some of your games to a pro for commentary. I comment games e-mailed to me and Iím sure many other pros do too.

I never recommend that a player study. You play go for fun, and if study is too boring thatís fine, donít study. If you do want to study, the most valuable thing is solving tesuji and life and death problems. Donít do problems that are too hard, concentrate on problems you can solve in 1 minute or less. The next most valuable thing is taking lessons from a pro.

Other forms of study are far less useful, although they have their place. Next best is studying pro games. Go through the game once. Then try to replay the game from memory. When you canít remember the move, think of where you would play. Once youíve decided, check the move actually played and compare it with your move. Try to understand why the proís move is better than yours. Keep doing this until you remember the game. Books can teach valuable concepts, but they canít teach you how to implement those ideas against resistance.

Studying joseki in a systematic way is a waste of time, which is why thereís a folk proverb declaring ďStudy joseki, become two stones weaker!Ē I recommend using a good joseki dictionary to look up joseki only when they came up in a game and you think you got a bad result. Look up that joseki, understand where you went wrong and what you should have done, and then put the book away.

Getting to 1k

When youíre starting out itís possible to improve quickly without doing anything special. It doesnít matter that much who you play. A lot of your progress comes from training your perception to see the patterns of the game more quickly and accurately. But when you have progressed to a single digit kyu ranking it will take more effort to improve than it did when your rank was double digit. It is a general truth in every area that the better you are, the harder it is to improve.

When you get to single digit kyu and above, you should know that the rate at which you can hope to improve depends on the difference in strength between you and your common opponents. You can improve quite rapidly when you are playing much stronger players. If you are mostly playing players of about your own rank or weaker players your improvement will be very, very slow. If you find it hard to get games with stronger players the only way to improve with any speed is to take lessons from a pro.

But in your efforts to get games with stronger players, I encourage you not to neglect playing weaker players too. These games can be very useful in learning how to apply go theory. Stronger players will resist your strategies making it hard to implement them. Handicap opponents offer less resistance, and itís easier to see how a strategy is supposed to work. In addition, if no one played weaker players no stronger player would play you either, and then where would you be?

If you get a decent percentage of your games with stronger players you can make good progress through your own efforts. First, play as much as you can. But donít play from habit or instinct. Hopefully, you have picked up some go theory by now: use it to help you think about your move. Know why you think the area you choose to play in is the important area. Knowing the reason youíre playing there should help you to know how to play there. Review your games and ask your opponents for comments or advice.

You do not need to study, but study will speed your improvement. Solving tesuji and life-and-death problems is by far the best study. Donít try to solve problems that are too hard. You should be able to solve most of the problems in less than a minute. You can spend up to 10 percent of your problem time on harder problems, but if you canít solve a problem in 5 minutes itís too hard for you.

The next best study is replaying pro games. Much of the game will be beyond you, but you can learn a lot by looking at the Ďbig pictureí. Go through the game once just to understand what happened. Play through it again and focus on which areas they played in at each stage of the game. Try to understand why that area is more important than other areas on the board at that time. At the end of each engagement, look at the outcome. You know the outcome of the engagement is even. (Even if the division of spoils was uneven enough to decide a game between pros, in an amateur game it can be considered completely even.) Does it look even to you? If not, reconsider your judgment. Donít make much effort to understand the fighting or the tactics; they are far beyond you at this stage.

But it is worthwhile to consider the big tactical issues. If a group looks weak to you and is not reinforced, look carefully at the attack and defense of the group to see why it wasnít reinforced. Or if a group looks strong and comes under attack, try to see why it was vulnerable. If youíre playing the game on a board you can spend up to an hour or even an hour and a half on the game. If playing on a computer, expect to take about half that much time. And donít forget to enjoy the game while youíre studying it.

Getting Beyond Shodan

Congratulations to those who have made it to shodan (1 dan, literally ďstarting danĒ). Only 10 percent of go players become dans, so you probably have at least some talent for the game and if you donít, you have my admiration for your work ethic. Either way, if you want to advance still further you must be prepared to work. As in all things, the farther you go the harder the next step is.

Take stock of your situation. First, honestly assess your talent. Are you very talented, moderately talented, or not very talented. Second, how easy is it to get games with stronger players, say taking 3 stones or more? If youíre very talented and can get games with stronger players you donít need to do much beyond play a lot. If youíre less talented and have stronger opponents you will need to supplement play with study. If you donít have stronger opponents you will have to work much harder and you still wonít make fast progress unless you take lessons from a pro.

Kyu games tend to be won by knockouts, such as the death of a group or a catastrophic loss of territory. To advance in the dan ranks you will have to learn to box and not just punch. You must be prepared to go fifteen rounds every game and to win on points, not by knockout. You must win a majority of the rounds, even if only by a little. Each punch must be well directed and solid. You can see the truth of this clearly when you replay pro games.

You must put more importance on details and small advantages. It is not enough to save your groups, you must learn to live gracefully and without struggle. It is not enough to press a group hoping to kill it, you must learn how to extract profits from the groups you attack even as they make life. It is not enough to take or destroy territory, you must learn how to do it in sente. It is not enough to win the battle, you must also leave the battle in good shape to fight the next one. It is not enough to play the right moves, you must make sure you play them in the right order.

So how do you make these improvements? There are three parts to your improvement plan; find better opponents, have the right attitude, and study.

If you donít have stronger players at your club you must find better ones. If youíre not on the internet, get on. Check out the online clubs and ask stronger players for a game. Many may decline to play, but some will accept. And donít forget to accept some games from weaker players as well. In addition, you can go to tournaments. There are many more now than when I started out, and there should be a number that wonít be too far from you. If you do poorly at first donít worry. The players at tournaments arenít better, but they tend to be very competitive and theyíll make you work for each win. Theyíre probably not outplaying you, theyíre outworking you.

In the kyu ranks attitude is important, but not critical. After you become a dan player you wonít make much more progress unless you have the right attitude. The right attitude is not humility exactly, but something like it. You already play good moves, but you canít let that fact blind you to better moves. Your moves may be successful, or powerful, or clever, but that is irrelevant. There is really only one question, and you must ask it every move. That question is: ďIs this move the best move, even if the best move is only a little bit better than this move?Ē You must be consumed with the search for the best move, the correct move. Any other attitude will slow you down or stop you completely. You canít afford pride, or fear, or greed, or complacence.

What should you study? The most important thing is to review your own games. Ask your opponent if he would like to review the game immediately after itís finished. If he wonít review it with you, review it later. If he will review it be sure to review the moves you were uncertain about. Ask him what he thinks, and listen carefully. He may be right or wrong, but he will surely say something you can use to get better. If you think you mishandled a situation, print out the board position and ask stronger players what they think you should have done. And donít be shy about sending games to a pro for commentary. After reviewing your own games the next best study is solving tesuji or life and death problems. And spend some time reviewing pro games.

Kerwin's Go Advice last edited by bugcat on October 16, 2021 - 16:45
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