Special Issues in Learning Go

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Moonprince (21k): One of the hardest problems for me in learning and playing go is dealing with medical problems[1]. Specifically, I have narcolepsy, a neurological disorder, and I can definitely see it reflected in my game play. I can't be the only person in the world who has a learning disability of some sort, so I hope we can have some discussion about alternative ways of playing and learning that might be helpful to us 'non-traditional' go players. I'll start the discussion by using myself as a guinea pig, but before I do that, let me establish some ground rules.

Table of contents

Ground Rules

Ground Rule #1: Focus on the game. Be specific in both your problems and your suggested coping techniques. For example: 'When there are a lot of stones on the board I get distracted and can't concentrate on the local problem' and 'Try using your hands to cover up the rest of the board so you can see just the part you want to concentrate on.' A vague comment like, 'I have a hard time paying attention' is difficult to know how to answer.

Ground Rule #2: Don't get involved in medical/personal discussions! It's very easy to get sidetracked that way, but this page is about go. If I come back and find stuff like that on this page, I will edit it out. You have been warned!

Corolary to #2: If you don't know what a particular medical problem or term is, look it up yourself.

Case 1: Moonprince (narcolepsy)

Moonprince (21k): Okay, lets float this boat and see if she sails. My issues:

1) I can't read ahead more than two or three moves or so because my brain simply won't map that much abstraction. And even if I could, thirty seconds later I wouldn't remember it.

To compensate for this I depend heavily on pattern recognition. Learning different shapes, like geta (called 'net' in English), is helpful because when a geta is developing I don't have to read it out, I know what it looks like and how to play it. I recognize the pattern and that guides my play.

2) Another problem, related to the reading problem, is that too much input overwhelms my brain, which responds by tuning out the 'extraneous' input and focussing on one small piece. This is a common novice error in go as well, where the player becomes engrossed in the local issue instead of considering the whole board.

Since I can't read all the details of the whole board I try to recognize overall shapes. I am trying to understand things like moyo and estimating territory to develop my whole board pattern recognition skills; I am also trying to develop a strategic feeling for go.

3) I get pushed around the board a lot because I have no plan when coming to the board and never really develop one — I don't grasp how the game works as a system. The only strategy advice I have really received is 1) corners, sides, middle, and 2) try to reduce the opponent's moyo.

I have checked the currently existing pages on strategy (as of 7 Sept 2002), and found only a little strategic advice. Mostly it seems to discuss 'elements' of strategy. The discussion of amashi and shinogi are what I consider 'strategy' while the other links such as miai and efficiency are elements of the game or principles of the game, which of course have an important role in strategy, but are not 'strategy' themselves. At least as I understand the term.

Tamsin’s suggestions to Moonprince


I'm very interested in the Learning Process and found the above intriguing. I have a suggestion which might help you to read a little more deeply.

First, make a string of beads (although you can just use your fingers). Then, use this string when playing a game or doing an exercise. When you need to read, read as far as you comfortably can in the sequence. It does not matter if this only a couple of moves ahead. Now, concentrate very hard on this sequence and move a bead along the string. Then, fingering the bead, go over the sequence in your mind once more, and again, until the bead and the associated sequence form a strong mental link. Next, try to see a couple more moves further ahead, but now associate them with the second bead on the string. Again, repeat until you have formed a strong link in your mind between the sequence and the bead that stands for it. Each bead represents a part of the big sequence — try to keep going for as many beads as you can manage.

To summarise, the aim is this: instead of trying to read long sequences (which you find difficult because of your condition), you break them down into shorter, manageable ones, and use the beads to help get these into the right order. Don't think of it as cheating, since anybody could do the same thing using their fingers (it's just that a string of beads is nicer).

With time and practice, you might find that you can use this method quite quickly, thereby improving your tactical ability substantially.

The idea of breaking large problems into more manageable, smaller ones may be applicable to strategy as well as reading. You say that you get around the problem of overload ("too much input") by "tuning out...'extraneous'" material and concentrating on "one small piece". Of course, this approach lays you open to many problems, since whole-board issues have to be taken into account when choosing local-scale moves. To get around this, why don't you try to look at each area of the board as a single unit characterised by its features. In other words, instead of seeing lots of separate stones, why not try to see the whole-board as a system of just a few "big" units. Thus, you might call the top "black thickness", the bottom "white territory", the left "vacant" and the right "white thinness". You could use your string of beads to keep these characterisations clear in your mind.

To most readers, such methods may seem slightly cumbersome and artificial, but I hope that Moonprince might find something useful in them. Abstraction is probably easier to deal with if the problems are broken into easy-to-handle units rather than taken as a whole; the beads (or counting on one's fingers) provides an aid to that process.

Best of luck to you, Moonprince. BTW, Sai is cool!

hmm. moonprince. have you managed to read more moves ahead now ? i have always thought that the brain will expand to fill needs...


Moonprince’s answer to Tamsin

Moonprince: Nope. It's approximately a year later and I'm still at the same kyu as before. I have learned a little more about how my brain works (or fails to work), but I haven't been able to translate it into any meaningful gain in playing go.

I did find a local go club and I discovered playing on a large board with real stones is easier than playing the online games. But, unfortunately, my ability to drive has been restricted so I can no longer go to the club :( So I'm back to playing online.

I have found adopting an intuitive, meditative state of mind works better. Too much concentration leads to confusion. It is better to 'think lightly.' Stones swap places, much as letters and words swap places when reading. Viewing the board as a pattern in a relaxed state of mind in which no particular stone is important is easier on my brain and avoids bringing on the symptoms. Unfortunately, looking at the big picture doesn't help determine if stones are alive or dead, or figure out the particular sequence needed for a fight.

In real life having an external structure helps keep me on track, so I'm currently searching Sensei's Library for information on estimating territory, openings, moyo, etc, to try and develop some sort of guideline for 'what to do next'. Not being able to read ahead makes it easy for other players to push me around on the board. I figure if I have some external framework I understand, then I can evaluate moves compared to the framework, and make a choice, rather than having to read all possible results of a particular stone.

ChipUni’s suggestion to Moonprince

ChipUni: May I make a suggestion that has helped me greatly? Try making the board small and unfocusing your eyes. Don't look for individual stones; just look at the board position as a whole.

From this blurred vision, you should be able to see where each side has more territory and where they meet. The battle areas are where territory isn't controlled by either side.

Good luck!

Sebastian’s suggestion to Moonprince

(Sebastian:) Would it help if you could mark empty fields and stones with letters and/or symbols during the play? Such a feature would also, in Tamsin's words "not be cheating" if it were visible to both players. (BTW, I'm impressed that you're better than me, even though I've played for 25 years.) (2003-10-20)

Chris Hayashida’s suggestion to Moonprince

Chris Hayashida: I teach a beginner's night, and have come across several people that have mental conditions which may hinder their Go. I offer the following advice:

  1. Concentrate your study on the parts you have the most problems with.
  2. Accept that it will take more time for you to "get it" in certain areas.

I have noticed that, due to a lack of time/availability of teachers, most Go players tend to be self-taught, reading books and things like that. As a result, they tend to buy and read more about areas that interest them instead of studying the areas where they need the most help. You're only ask good as your weakest link. (I'm a prime example of this. I should be studying the endgame, but instead I read about direction of play and other topics that are more fun.)

Maybe instead of worrying about strategy, you might see more benefit from directed effort towards improving your reading. I know it's frustrating, but I think it will help in the long run.

I found it frustrating when I felt I was being "bullied" by other players. They knew I couldn't read, so they would drop a stone in the middle of my territory, cut things to pieces and then just see who'd come out ahead. Bad Go, in my mind. But at the same time, I think that ultimately, I had to strengthen my weaknesses so they didn't get taken advantage of during a game.

I have some suggestions to help reading, but I don't know if they will help. They might not belong here, either. If you want to clip them and put them somewhere else, that's fine, too. But at any rate, here they are:

  • Try rereading Graded Go Problems for Beginners, volume 1. You've probably read it before, and maybe gone onto other volumes. I think there is a huge jump between volume 1 and volume 2. I think around problem 100 in volume 1, it gets to parts that are not obvious patterns (like ladders and nets.)

At this point, if you can read out the position entirely, I find that it helps one to read further. For example, if we set up the problem on the board, and read solutions other than the answer. I'd point at the board. "What if White plays here?" The beginner would answer, "Then I'd play here." "Then White plays here?" "Um, maybe here?" We weren't always right, and sometimes we had to play the sequence out, but I think it was gradually helping the person increase his reading. I think people sort of get the "well, I got the first move right" mentality about go problems, and the rest (like the variation they didn't get) doesn't sink it. I also think that playing problems out on a board, (often using trial-and-error) won't help your reading. It only works if you read through the problems, without placing stones. I think this might help get you further than three moves.

By the way, when I am reading a position, I don't remember the whole sequence afterwards. I just remember things like, "If he hanes here, I'm still OK. And if he descends, I'm okay, too." When it actually comes to the play later, sometimes I have to stop and reread the position to make sure. I don't know if this method would help you.

Also, very rarely am I reading in a middlegame position. I remember reading about a pro that gave an example sequence of a hundred moves of a middlegame fight, and then determined it was a bad variation for him and rejected it. I don't get how he could have read out a sequence out like that.

As an experiment on the side, I want to see how many times I really do read during a game. I think I'm going to keep a notepad next to the computer, and write down something like "move 32, read to see if group was connected." I have no idea how often I read. I'd like to see the results from other players and see if it's at all similar.

  • Have you tried the ladder-reading exercise at the beginning of Kageyama's Lessons in the Fundamentals of Go? It started with a ladder on one side of the board, and a position on the other. He said that it was often daunting for beginners to read that far. So start by moving the ladder much closer. Don't put stones down, just read. Then change the positions of the stones, move them one line over, or something else and then reread.
  • I was toying with the idea of flash cards, mostly for life and death. I know a lot of the corner positions (mostly from teaching) but I still see shodan players reading them out (when I think they are almost automatic.) Maybe flash cards for the J+1 Group, J-Group, L+1 Groups, and L Group would help? It might be further ahead than you need, but maybe similar things for other shape patterns might help.
  • Simplify your game. I looked at some of my old games, and they have these tangled messes in the corners where multiple groups are running for life and there are many weak groups. Too hard to read then, and even hard to read now.

I still lose games more often than not when there is a running fight between two groups.

Anyway, a couple years back, I started to play more solidly. Don't have more than one weak group on the board. Just extend instead of atari. Make a base for your groups before starting an attack. Jump out with "good connections" (knight's move, one-space jump plus the diagonal, and other moves that are typical patterns. The connections were easier to read out (ladder for the knight's move, or the firm connection for the one-space jump plus the diagonal, the bamboo joint, etc.) Like the geta, using these patterns meant that I didn't have to read as much.

  • Finally, the last thing I did was try to memorize a pro game. It took me forever. Other players were memorizing one a week, but there was no way I could keep up with that pace. I played the match between Dosaku and Shunchi on my board, referring to my computer when I couldn't remember. It was really slow going. I didn't worry about the "Why did he play there?" or any of the comments, but just tried to jam all of the moves into my brain. I don't know if it was just the effort involved, or what, but memorizing that one pro game (even if I couldn't reproduce it completely) seemed to "clear up space" in my brain. Maybe the connections between neurons for go patterns were being strengthened. I don't know. But it seemed to help. And it was sorta fun.

Well, I don't know how well this will help out, but it does seem to have helped some of the players that have had problems with concentration and reading. Obviously it's a lot of work, and won't happen overnight. However, I think even a small improvement in reading (if that's the biggest problem in your game) goes a long way, instead of working on one's strengths.

Other suggestions to Moonprince

Patrick Traill (2019-01-10): I am struck by the fact that your problems do not appear to stop you writing well-formulated and -organised English. I wonder if there is a clue there to strengths that would help your go.

Case 2: EN (Asperger’s)

Patrick Traill (2019-01-10): I note that this section, including comments from other editors, was inserted in a single edit (version 29 on 2012-07-29 – 21:23 by EN), strongly suggesting that it was originally created elsewhere.


This is a fairly old page, but however I would like to stick my spoon to the soup ^^; I'm a 23 old person (gender identity issues ^^) with Asperger's syndrome. This is a "disorder" (someone prefer to call it just neurodivergency) belonging to the autism spectrum, characterized by disabilities in communication and social interaction, unusual speech and body language, oversensitiveness to noises, touch or visual stimuli, etc. etc. So basically it's about nervous system, and brains, working somewhat differently. The worst symptoms are in the field of social skills, however not going to that now. Persons with AS often also have intense, narrow fields of interests, and they like to spend a *lot* of time studying it. And mine happens to be... go.

It struck me quite suddenly. Previously I've been into mathematics, programming, languages, knowledge about cats, drawing, martial arts. My excessive martial arts training actually destroyed my physical condition and I decided to find a hobby that doesn't stress the body. Last Christmas I trotted into the go club of my city, and now, practising for 7 months, I am 4 kyu (3 kyu at KGS). Recently, I have started thinking that there's some connections between my Asperger and my go. Some things are easy for me to learn, while some seem to be more difficult for me than "normal" people.

There's a theory that suggest the key feature of autism is "weak central coherence". That means (if I can interpret it right) difficulties understanding connections between local and global stuff. Or rather, there's no global stuff. Just dazzling sea of incredibly bright details, all seen at once, inessential things just as clear as essential things, so that we have hard time "recognizing the pattern" even when it's about something so basic as going to shower, cooking, or behaving properly at some social situation. In many ways I might be the opposite of Moonprince who started this page. I am *just* reading. And somethimes it gets me to not so good result.

Few weeks ago, I lost to a sempai (2 dan) with five stones. He said after the game: "You read no worse than I do. You're very close to beating me at even game. Just... you can't keep your game together." That's it, I can't keep it together... I enjoy reading long sequences, studying out all the variations and possible refutations of a life and death problem, some particular cut or connection or capture, but at actual game, most of it isn't so... discrete. When there's no clearly right and wrong moves, no exact solution (and no exact problem), I'm at unknown territory. If I have sente and can choose where to play, I usually make some ridiculous strategic blunder. I wonder if my 4 kyu rank is average of 1 dan tsumego strength and strategic level of a 8 kyu. Tactics is "easy" to my brains, as usually you have moves that gain and moves that don't gain, and the amount of alternatives is restricted (albeit large). But when there are moves that gain and lose, and one has to evaluate the ratio between them, so when it's about using your resources wisely... Ugh. Frankly, I don't understand how other players can do that. Most of my games are about me playing meaningless fuseki, being 30 points behind, then killing a large group. If the kill fails it's me who loses everything. I wonder if I should study joseki to get some sense to my openings, but I'd like to know all the variations too... Why are joseki played as they are? They are very fascinating, but I cannot understand them at all.

So, the main problem of mine is playing good moves in the situations that I can't read out. And in go that makes most of the game :p Coherence. I'd like to have.

Suggestions to EN

tapir: Try replaying professional games, take them from the internet or a nice database and put them on your board. If you understand what they do, great, if not you still may borrow some intuition from them.

Anon: This is an interesting and rather moving page. I have (cough) some experience with Asperger’s myself, so please do not be shocked if socially inappropriate comments follow. EN is actually doing well to have reached 3 or 4 kyu after only 7 months, and I doubt that his/her Asperger’s is much of a handicap. Not seeing the wood for the trees is a fault of Go players of all strengths.

The SL page on Iyama Yuta shows a man whose hair appears to be a stranger to the comb, with a silly expression on his face and a neck-tie that is off-centre even for his official Nihon Kiin portrait. John Fairbairn also tells us that Iyama's calligraphy is poor and that he is the son of a relatively old father. I have no medical qualifications, but these facts are suggestive. Yet Iyama has done extraordinarily well as a Go player.

A lot of the people attending Go tournaments in my part of the world appear to be amiable eccentrics. And the great thing is that it does not matter: our shared interest in the game is the thing. With practice, one can even learn to discuss ones defeats as if they did not really hurt.

Reaction from EN

I think I´m getting better at dealing with losing. I have tendency to take especially tournament games too seriously. I never show my emotions regarding the result of a (tournament) game, but especially if losses pile up, I can get very stressed, and because I can´t express it to other people, it can disturb my mental condition. Extreme cases of tournament stress have even led to self-harm, to which I also have tendency. Recently I have learnt that losing usually means learning, and is as itself a completely neutral thing. One´s game might have been very beautiful and ingenious, with many great moments. Because I worried too much about losing, I decided to start playing for an interesting game, not for a win. And as surprising result, I started winning more often...


[1] See also disabilities

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Special Issues in Learning Go last edited by PJTraill on January 11, 2019 - 00:19
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