Some Thoughts About Studying Joseki

  Difficulty: Intermediate   Keywords: Index page

Table of contents Table of diagrams
__Diagram 1__ - Basic approach move and some reply options
__Diagram 2__ - Basic joseki moves
__Diagram 3__ - Simple attach-and-extend joseki
__Diagram 4__ - Another example of attach-and-extend joseki

Introduction - Two sides of the story

I play here, he plays there, I play here, he plays there... good... next one... I play here, he plays there, I play here, he plays there.... good... next one... I play here, he plays there, I play here.... and so on.

Sounds familiar? This is what most of us are doing while reading joseki books. We call it "learning" josekis, or even, in the more self-deluded cases, "studying" josekis. And then we go to the local club armed with this wonderful knew knowledge expecting to give everybody 9 handicaps from now on! No wonder that there is a Go proverb saying that "Study joseki and become 2 stones weaker."

Indeed. This proverb seems to be so universal that not many feel fit to question it. It can be found in many a piece of respectable Go literature... And certainly there is a grain of truth to it.

On the other hand, there are people who swear that a thorough understanding of joseki patterns is one of the most fundamental and useful tools in mastering Go. You hear strong players talking about punishing joseki mistakes, or about learning new josekis to include in their already formidable arsenals... you see them explaining quality of moves with simple words "its a joseki", as if this was a sufficient reason for playing a move.

So - we seem to have two sides of the argument here, and the question is - who is right and who is wrong? Is studying of joseki patterns good for us, or is it something better left for all these weird dudes who somehow managed to break the mystical 1 dan barrier?

Let me make an attempt at answering this question in this article.

Stages in joseki understanding

First of all - let us examine the question in detail. What do we mean by asking "Is studying joseki good or bad?" The activity we are questioning is "studying joseki"... but what really does it mean? What do we usually imagine ourselves doing when we "study a joseki"?

Hmm... First - a little reminiscence from my own experience. I so like talking about myself, hehe... The understanding of josekis can be, as I see it, divided into four separate stages:

  • Stage one - I remember when I was about 20kyu and a stronger player showed me one or two basic josekis, explaining the moves a little, but not too much, not really... I was too weak to understand it even if he had. But I knew some patterns of stones, I knew some sequences of moves, I was not swimming aimlessly anymore, I had an anchor, some frame of reference, something to hold on to. From then on, I tried to learn more such patterns, more josekis, so my foundation grew stronger. I tried to understand the moves, but I did not worry too much if I hadn't - which was most of the time. This knowledge somehow propelled me up the ranking ladder a few notches, and soon I become 24kyu, and then 23kyu, and then 22 kyu, and so on... One can say that such knowledge was good for maybe 3-5 kyu levels to me at that time.
  • Stage two was to try to understand why the patterns called joseki were good, better than the patterns which were not joseki. Most of the time I had no clue... it was just waaaay above my head. But I started to have some glimpses of why a joseki is a joseki - I started to understand why a joseki is good. And the insight I gained from understanding some of the patterns helped me in turn understand other patterns. Soon I started sensing somehow which moves were joseki, and which were not... Of course I was wrong more often than not, but it gave me some self-confidence, and I remember thinking than maybe I had some talent for the game after all. I had big thrills out of figuring out how to "punish" non-joseki moves... This, I'd say, was good for about another 3-5 kyu levels in my Go "career".
  • Stage three came when I discovered that some josekis are better than others in certain situations. This was a revelation to me - up till then I though that josekis, by definition, were sequences giving equal result to both players, so how could some be better than others? This is a very common misconception, one that most of the players I met had to grapple with at one point or another. I started developing a global view, based on josekis, and suddenly it was important to me what was played in other corners. Not only that - I have started structuring my strategy based on the joseki choices being made, and vice-versa, I started choosing my josekis based on the strategies I was pursuing! I not only had the right tools (the josekis), but also the means to apply them (the strategy) and this gave my game some new and unexpected dimension. The moves of the stronger players starting making more sense, I could often follow what was going on even in pro games! Amazing. I can safely say that this pushed me at least 5 kyu levels upwards, making me almost a dan player! Life was good.
  • Stage four was quite unexpected, since I thought that stage three was "it" and that there was no more deep insights related to josekis. Hmm... This was not the case. After learning josekis, and discovering why they were good, I now had to figure out why they were bad! Pretty revolutionary thought, no? Hehe... The point is that it is not enough to know the moves of a joseki, the reason why each move is good, the reason why the resulting pattern is good, and the ways to utilize it in subsequent play... Above all this is the need to understand the weakness of the joseki shapes, to know what shortcomings are there in the resulting patterns, to understand what had to be sacrificed in order to play this joseki as compared to playing that joseki... in short - why a joseki is bad%%%

For example - a simple choice between a joseki in which you get influence and one in which you get points. Influence is not bad, but you have to understand that you may be falling behind on points and that it is up to your further play to prove that you can make good use of the influence. Conversely, if you choose the joseki which gives you more points, you have to understand that your opponent is probably getting good influence which can potentially give him more points than you have. It is up to your further play to make sure this does not happen.

Or another example - you might choose a joseki which completely encloses your opponent in the corner, but which leaves you with some weak points (bad aji) to be exploited by your opponent later in the game. Alternatively, you might choose to build a stronger structure, avoiding the weak points, but at a price of only partially enclosing your opponent. Give and take... Balance.

There are more subtle examples.

Diagram 1 - Basic approach move and some reply options  

Lets look at Diagram.1. The sequence showed here is a common situation, in which Black's choices include, among others, playing next at 'a' or at 'b'. What is the difference between these points? After we understand what is the strength and purpose of each of them, we have to also understand what is the weakness of each of them compared to the other. In what respect is 'a' worse than 'b', and vice versa. It seems like a very trivial matter, especially if you know the strengths of both moves, but I found it very enlightening to consciously set aside the positives and ponder the negatives of both moves. In the long run, it helped me to understand the moves more fully and thus to choose my strategies better.

Diagram 2 - Basic joseki moves  

Another choice is presented to you in Diagram 2. This too is a common position, in which White has, among others, the choice of moves at 'a' and 'b'. After White makes his choice, it will be Black's turn to choose - and his choices will include moves like 'c' and 'd'. What is the meaning of each of these moves? Why is one of them better than the other? Why is one of them worse than the other? In which positions is it better, in which is it worse? What do I sacrifice by making the better move, what weaknesses it creates as compared to the other move?

You see - I strongly believe that Go is a game of balance, that there are no best moves in the absolute sense, and that for every move you make you incur a certain loss which together with the gain this move brings constitutes the value of the move. In other words - no matter how good your move, it cannot simultaneously do everything you would like to do at the same time, and so certain goals must be sacrificed in order to reach other goals. To be aware of those little sacrifices is, to me, a sign of understanding of the game and maturity of a person as a player. To be able to choose which goals are worth sacrificing is a sign of playing strength.

But I digress here... back to the topic at hand now - the joseki and its study%%%

So what does it really mean to "Study a joseki"?

So - from the above chapter, we can now define the four stages necessary to understand a joseki. These are:

  1. Memorize the moves
  2. Learn the purpose of each move
  3. Learn to match the joseki to overall position
  4. Be aware of weaknesses you leave and trade-offs you make

The common mistake that people seem to be making with respect to learning josekis is that they stop at Stage 1 - they learn the moves and think that that's all there is to it. Bah! This is but the beginning of the understanding of josekis, this is but the first step on the journey.

In this sense, those who advise not to study josekis in fear of becoming weaker are right - but what they are talking about is not really the whole process of understanding josekis - its the mere memorizing of moves they caution against. This can indeed hurt your game, especially if you fool yourself into thinking that this is all there is to it... it gives you the false sense of confidence - and when you do not see your results going up, you are disappointed. But the real trouble is when your opponent forgot to learn the same josekis that you have... or, God forbid, he knows them better, with maybe some extra variations... and you get ambushed... and you lose... and you blame it on the blasted josekis you "learned"....

And so we have the proverb "Study joseki and become 2 stones weaker."

But now we know that what the proverb is talking about is not really studying joseki, it is mere memorizing of the moves which many people mistakenly see as "studying".

I could beat the subject to death right here and now, but I rather not... in case you still have some interest in this article - read on, hehe, read on.

Why studying joseki is good

Now that we have dealt with the issue of the proverb and the people who advise against studying joseki, lets deal with the other side - namely why investing your time in studying joseki is good. As opposed to studying life-and-death for example.

So - why is studying joseki good?

The answer to this question is so simple its trivial - Studying joseki makes you stronger! Duh!… hehe… Obviously! This is not really the kind of answer we are after here, is it?

Ok. So seriously - to understand why studying joseki is good we first have to understand what joseki are%%%

So - what are josekis? Those of us who come from the chess background would probably answer "openings" or maybe "standard corner openings". This is not very precise, especially considering the locality of corner josekis - they certainly cannot be called "openings" in the chess-sense.

Most of the Go players I have asked this question told me that josekis are "standard corner patters which give equal result to both sides", or some such. This is certainly a better answer that "openings", but it is still not what we are after. It is still too simplistic.

For our purposes, on the local scale, josekis are examples of exceptionally good play, often examples of perfect play! Every move of a joseki sequence is a locally good move, often the locally best move! Every idea incorporated in a joseki is a locally good idea, often the locally best idea%%%

Studying these moves and ideas, finding out why they are good or why they are not perfect yet - this is the process which makes you stronger! Mere memorization of moves and sequences is just waste of time, for most part (although it certainly also has its uses). When studying a joseki we should strive to understand the ideas it represents, and even if we forget the moves in a day or two, chances are that the ideas will stay with us, and we will be able to implement them in our own games. Sometimes these ideas can be applied to situations totally unrelated to corners, or to shapes different then the original josekis.

This brings us to another advantage of studying josekis - the shapes which they represent are often used not only in the corners, but also in middle game (chuban) fighting in the center of the board, or in endgames (yose) along the edges! By understanding the strengths and weaknesses of these shapes we can increase our skill in manipulating them and applying them.

Simplifying a little, we can say that Josekis are standard patterns, shapes, and move sequences, but the ideas they represent are not limited to corners%%%

Diagram 3 - Simple attach-and-extend joseki  

This is a very important point about josekis! Look at Diagram 3 - it shows the well-known attach-and-extend joseki in the corner. Seen in thousands of games every day in every Go club around the world, on every Go server! Nothing new, right? Simple shape, right? A corner pattern, right? So - why is this shape so good to know?

Diagram 4 - Another example of attach-and-extend joseki  

Lets look at Diagram 4. Here we have a White approach to a Black position with W1 and Black attachment at B2. What should white do next? Well - he should at least consider the sequence of W3, B4, W5, B6 - which is the exact sequence from the attach-and-extend joseki but this time played on along the side of the board instead of in the corner! Of course - there are other ways for White to handle the situations, but many of them can be found in the variations of attach-and-extend joseki! By studying this joseki, by knowing which shapes have which advantages or disadvantages, white will be able to choose his strategy in this position much better!

Examples can be found from professional games in which the attach-and-extend joseki shape is played in the center of the board.

There is also another reason why it is good to study josekis! As we have already decided - the joseki sequences are examples of a very good, often perfect play in local positions! Almost all of the other aspects of the game are included in many of these sequences - fighting, attack and defense, life-and-death (tsume-go), races-to-capture (semeai), shortages of liberties (damezumari), profit vs. influence, and many others! Even endgame issues are included - how often a sequence is a joseki because it leaves a better endgame opportunities, and so by understanding these opportunities, and why resulting shape is better than other shapes, you also learn about the endgame%%%

So, in other words, while diligently studying josekis - you cannot help but also study many of the other aspects of the game at their best - as represented by examples of perfect or near-perfect play! You also usually get this information in bite-size chunks, one joseki at a time, so the sheer volume of knowledge is not that overwhelming.

And this is why studying josekis makes you stronger! You soak in the knowledge from many different areas of the game while going over some relatively easy to understand moves. The trick is not to concentrate on memorizing the moves but on figuring out the ideas behind these moves, how these ideas apply to other situations on the Go board, and how they influence the overall flow of the game.


To summarize - there are seemingly two different schools of learning/teaching Go - one cautioning against "learning" josekis, the other advocating it as the best thing to do in order to improve your game. Which school is correct? I think that in a sense, both of them are! This is of course only possible because they do not really talk about the same thing.

The against-school says "studying joseki is bad", but what it means is that mere memorizing of joseki sequences is bad! And of course it is%%%

The for-school says "studying joseki is good", and what they mean is exactly that - studying the shapes and patterns represented by josekis as examples of perfect play can only improve your Go... provided you really understand what it means to "study"%%%

So - in conclusion - to coin a catchy phrase to end this tired musings and applease both sides of the issue:

Don't just memorize a joseki, study it!

- August 2000 (Bantari)


RobertJasiek: Although the ideas above are one of Bantari's best reflections and for the time of his writing pretty good, his idea of what it really means to study josekis (The stages 1. memorise moves, 2. learn the purpose of each move, 3. learn to match the joseki to overall position, 4. be aware of weaknesses you leave and trade-offs you make.) is rather incomplete and the order of stages is not justified. In particular, such and other aspects can be studied also in parallel; it is not necessary to comply with a strict order of "stages". Overlooked study aspects (see my books 1, 2, 3) include:

  • a general study of move purposes
  • meaning of each stone
  • a general study of stone meanings
  • matching a sequence on every scale from local to global environment (including Local Move Selection)
  • strategic lines
  • group meanings
  • strategic objects (also other than move, overall position and weakness)
  • strategic concepts (also other than weaknesses and exchanges)
  • principles and reasons
  • strategic choices (also other than matching the overall position)
  • analysis methods, general evaluation theory, in particular assessment of stone difference, territory count, influence and next turn
  • joseki classification

Some pages on SL related to the topic:

The Advantage of Knowing Joseki
More Thoughts About Joseki
Memorizing Joseki Discussion
Learning Joseki Loses Two Stones Strength

Some Thoughts About Studying Joseki last edited by on January 23, 2015 - 10:56
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