Understanding Joseki as a Beginner

  Difficulty: Beginner   Keywords: Joseki

I have a question about how to go about understanding joseki and in general when looking at a game afterwards with the other player. I've looked at various positions. Some I've seen develop in my games. The ultimate question though in a given situation is: "How do you know the other player will play someplace?"

In joseki this is illustrated by commentary on the positions. Invariably Black will do one thing and then White will "naturally" do the next thing. Sometimes the move does seem natural as it follows out of ideas of good shape, or types of connections and so forth. Other instances though seem truly off the wall. I'm not saying there's no basis for it, just that it's not terribly apparent.

In game review, quite often we'll look at a position where I've made an error and the reviewer will say "You should have played here. If that happens, play will continue as follows..." and then proceed to show a branching play. I guess the word that gets me is "will". What if the play didn't follow that? Sure it illustrates the points, but after about two or three moves, it seems somewhat fruitless. If I'd played differently after that "correct" move, then that branch will not develop.

The only situations where it seems to make sense to say "will" are issues of life and death and sente and gote. Obviously in those situations there are moves that must be made to preserve life.

I've only met one teacher on KGS who almost always says, "It might continue like this...". That makes all the difference in the world as a student, at least to me. Perhaps it's because I'm an engineer and when you say "will" you're indicating a certain rigidity that perhaps wasn't intended.

Is this just experience, or am I completely blinded to something that would impose that kind of rigidity on the game?

-- Remillard

I guess "will" means that this is the best response the teacher can come up with. If something else was played, it would be worse, at least if you know how to respond.

-- Niklaus

Stefan: The reason why your move x deviates from joseki can vary from "your corner dies for a 30 point loss without compensation" to "taking the whole board into account, the aji in the end position is such that White has a 51/49 chance of grabbing an extra point in the endgame", and anything in between. In the cases you describe, the teacher should limit his comments to something that is useful to you - there's no point in mystifying people with comments that can't be understood (and this is true regardless of their level).

The truly great teachers I have encountered don't comment a lot of moves, although I'm well aware that at my 2 kyu level there are lots of moves worthy of criticism. They focus on the one or two moves where you can *really* make some progress.

Velobici: Concur. The best teachers will show you a few of the most serious errors per game and concentrate on those errors till you overcome them. Then introduce you to other errors in your play.

RobertJasiek: The best teachers fit their style to the pupil's needs and the current teaching topics. At times, this can mean what you suggest; at other times it can mean that the teacher comments on a greater variety of mistakes.

JoeSeki Most joseki are shown without full board context, and some books try to give you that context. Most of the evaluation of a joseki is local only. Some moves are thought about for a long time before a final conclusion over whether it was a good move or not. Usually those types of moves are the ones you can learn the least from. They are usually 1 or 2 point difference in an endgame maneuver you may not understand anyway. Then there are the one-way street moves. If you don't answer this way, then there is a catastrophic end to the sequence if you know how to play it. These types are the best for learning how to fight. In general the way to study a joseki is to determine the purpose of the move, define the trade off being made. Once you understand the purpose and the trade off then you can make up your own joseki on the board that has a full board context. It may be a bad local joseki, but wonderful full board. If you can't figure out the meaning of a move or the trade off, then perhaps the move is not of the "one-way street" variety, and you shouldn't worry about it too much. Change the move a little bit and see if there isn't a variation that follows your line of thinking. If there isn't then maybe you found a variation that turns out to be the 1 or 2 point difference in the endgame types. To all but top level players, those 1 or 2 point moves are meaningless.

Velobici: Whole Board Thinking in Joseki is very useful for how to choose among the various possible joseki.

RobertJasiek: Would you not agree that "very useful" is a great overstatement in comparison to related other existing books, which I may not mention due to a possible conflict of interest?

Perhaps we should list a bunch of tips to help learn a lesson from the joseki.

I have found that when you see an extension rather then a hane, there's a very good fighting reason they extended rather than haned. Try the hane, and see what happens when you get cut. You may learn a new tesuji, or you may discover that they can sacrifice the stone and get tremendous thickness for the exchange. Maybe they end in sente rather than gote.

Scartol: A joseki is a series of moves whose results benefit both sides, in roughly equal amounts. So when two sides play out a joseki sequence, they are playing the moves that give them each the largest gain. If one player doesn't play the joseki move ("white will play here"), the underlying meaning is that there is a way to punish the deviant individual.

RobertJasiek: Speaking of "roughly equal amounts" applies only for the stone difference 0. If both players have played a different number of stones, then the result must not be roughly equal. Instead, a mightier evaluation theory is needed, such as in chapter 3 of Joseki Volume 3 Dictionary.

Velobici: Punishing and Correcting Joseki Mistakes is helpful here.

Of course, as beginners, we don't know all the ways to punish non-joseki moves. So it does us no good to have better players say things like "White will play here," because we don't know what to do when White doesn't!

This is my point exactly. It's not really endemic to joseki
but really ALL review. On the other hand, perhaps there's
a certain charm in the game where it could take years to
fully understand and project moves and variations into the
future. Certainly it's difficult for computer AI.
-- Remillard

This is why memorizing joseki takes a player down several stones. You have to learn why each move in the joseki is played, what it's aiming for, what the possible deviations from the joseki are, and what to do when a player deviates. This can only come from experience.

RobertJasiek: In general, it is false that "memorizing joseki takes a player down several stones". This can apply to only memorising joseki. Combining it with understanding of josekis and underlying go theory can make a player several stones stronger. It is false that "learning why each move in the joseki is played, what it's aiming for, what the possible deviations from the joseki are, and what to do when a player deviates" can come only from experience. It is right that it can come from learning and understanding go theory, from experience or due to other efforts.

lavalyn: A joseki sequence must last the entire sequence - and not all deviations from what you expected will be punishable, for they may also be joseki. At my level, I see a lot of hoshi/ikken tobi formations in the opening. But that is not to say the hoshi/ogeima, hoshi/keima, or hoshi/outward kosumi (as favoured by Takemiya) is wrong because you are not familiar with the joseki variations arising from that.

Try going through the joseki of a thousand variations and "punishing" your opponent when they did not make the expected move.

Dieter: I think Stefan has made a very useful comment up here. Another reason why learning/knowing joseki can be harmful to your game is that when you notice the opponent to deviate from it, you risk thinking he made a big mistake and should now be severely punished. So, your judgment becomes fuzzy. In those cases where disaster is invited, it will show as much from your knowledge of basic techniques and principles as from your knowledge of joseki. Still, studying joseki is a good way to enhance your knowledge of techniques and principles. #:-7

DaveSigaty: The most important thing about Understanding Joseki as a Beginner is - You Can't! It is not only that you do not understand. As a beginner, you can not. I might add that this condition is not actually confined to beginners and in all likelihood will last for your entire Go career (it has for mine and shows no sign of going away :-). I think this quote has some relevance.

"The problem is not that there are problems. The problem is expecting otherwise and thinking that having problems is a problem."
- Dr. Theodore Isaac Rubin

What can't you do about joseki?

  • Understand any joseki in its entirety. In any case, all "joseki" that can be understood in their entirety have been relegated to the scrap heap by the pros since it is impossible that they can simultaneously offer hope to both Black and White unless there still remains some uncertainty and tension in the evaluation of the resulting position(s)!
  • Understand the full implications of any important choice within any joseki. Remember that the degree of understanding of these implications is one of the things that separates the title holders from the also-rans amongst the top pros.
  • Understand the explanations of players who are stronger than you. They know things about the game that you have not learned yet and their explanations will include those ideas (normally without directly referring to them).
  • Imagine and understand all the moves and variations that are missing from joseki dictionaries and other materials on joseki. These are all the moves that pros dismiss out of hand but bother amateurs constantly, "But what if...!"
  • Get your opponents to play the correct lines in the joseki you try to use in your games. You should give this up as hopeless!

What can you do?

  • Study joseki (in whatever way seems most interesting to you). I think that you will constantly learn interesting things from such study. However, if you sit down planning to "learn" the two-space high pincer (pick any approach move :-), you will be disappointed. Unless you have the talent, drive, and time to become a pro this is not a realistic objective for your studies. I find that studying joseki after they have been (mis)used in my games helps put them in some perspective.
  • Learn from players who are stronger than you. You should be looking for some new insight onto the mysteries of Go. Any insight will do on a particular day. Most of the time you can not learn what they are trying to teach you (see above), so learn something else instead! Listen to them and see what there is that you can relate to the game you have just played that you might be able to carry over into future games.
  • Study the direction of play (Kajiwara's book is a fun place to start if you have not read it yet) and tesuji. Successfully navigating the corners has more to do with applying these in the context of the game than remembering "the right" joseki lines.
  • Play with joseki. Since you can not understand them, admit it. Then think about them during your games and try things out. It helps if you have clearly in mind something that you are expecting from what you set out to play in a corner. Afterward you can look at how close you came, discuss it with your opponent, and then check joseki dictionaries for alternatives that seem to achieve what you were looking for.

Kungfu says:

I slightly disagree with (well OK, I agree but had an idea about) what Dave Sigaty said above:

He said "What you can't do is... Understand any joseki in its entirety.".

I believe this is true unless you have a whole-game book somewhere, but I believe you can basically understand any joseki, especially the ones where you don't understand the moves in the joseki. Joseki is a form of balance, as someone above said. And as JoeSeki said, you must find exactly what is being traded. If you find yourself not understanding the moves in a joseki, then the reason is because you don't understand *what* is being traded. We could build a simple list, for example, territory, influence, aji... And you would immediately recognize most of the territory-exchanging josekis. All the double-digit kyu josekis are territory exchanging josekis (in my opinion). Then you get josekis which trade territory for influence, influence for influence, and maybe even some which trade other things like the potential to do x for a small amount of territory and the potential to do y. You'd have to factor in the values of x and y in addition to the territory exchanged. Finally you may need to compensate for sente, which is why some josekis don't look like josekis. But just imagine that the player with the few points less in territory gets to make the next move - that, too, can make a difference.

In conclusion, since you will probably be playing with players of your own strength most of the time, take a look at what you are fighting for. Is it just territory? Or more than that? This way of thinking is a learning way and takes some time, and you are bound to make mistakes, but the more you think about that then maybe the more you will see what is going on.

Or here is another way to think maybe. Each move in a joseki is asking for something. What are you asking for? If you'd like to punish someone the best way to do it is to get what you are asking for. But that's kind of one sided - if your opponent gets what he is asking for too, then it's a joseki. So you need to understand what both players are asking for - i.e. what is being traded in the joseki. Where is the balance?


DaveSigaty: I am not sure that we disagree. I probably just expressed myself poorly. I believe that through study combined with thoughtful practice we can understand aspects of various joseki and the overall positions that we try to apply them in. If we could not, Go would be extremely boring I think. At the same time we can not understand joseki completely. For most of us the gap between the aspects that we understand and those that a pro understands remain very large. We may have an understanding comparable to that of our typical opponents - that makes the game enjoyable for both parties. However, if you have ever had the experience of playing your heart out and then having the game thoroughly critiqued by a much stronger player, it was probably a very humbling experience.
The only point of this is to give advice on what expectations beginners (and non-beginners) should have in trying to study things like joseki. I have studied Go (in my usual feckless fashion :-) for 25 years now. Most of the time I have picked up books hoping to "learn" something concrete. This has seldom happened. Recently I have moved more to the view that the most appropriate expectation with any Go book in hand is not to "learn" bits of knowledge but rather to "practice" aspects of the game. I think that Go is mainly a game of skill rather than a game of knowledge. The main difference to me is that I think of skill as something to apply dynamically to the situation at hand while knowledge is something more static that is used to classify the situation. I think that the struggle between two people in Go has much in common with fluid sports like tennis, while the organization and static nature of joseki books tends to make it look more like a game of Trivial Pursuit (here is the question; now what is the right answer? :-).

RobertJasiek: This replies to Dave Sigaty's earlier statements where they are wrong or where I disagree. I do not repeat his statements but make mine instead:

  • It is not necessary to rely on the "scrap heap by professionals". Instead, amateur players can provide general go theory far superior to a scrap heap. See my Joseki book series for abundant evidence.
  • Although it may not be possible to understand the "full" implications of important joseki choices up to knowing a game's final score, it is possible to understand all the relevant implications of important joseki choices. If you can't, then you have read the wrong literature! Of course, it is hard to impossible with literature teaching no or only very little general go theory. What is required for a broad understanding of implications is literature with much, mighty and detailed general go theory.
  • Of course, it is possible to understand explanations of players stronger than oneself, provided the players are good teachers and the learner wants to learn.
  • For situations and moves missing in dictionaries, one must not sigh "But what if...!". Instead one must apply generally applicable go theory such as in the books mentioned above.
  • Sitting down and learning the, e.g., two-space high pincer is a valuable learning task. Needless to say, valuable if one also learns the understanding, i.e. also the background go theory.
  • The book Direction of Play is outdated. Nowadays there are books with better go theory. See the books above or books about haengma.
  • There is no need to be a pessimist and think that one can have an understanding only comparable to one's opponents. Of course, it is possible to acquire an understanding far above one's opponents. If one does not beat them, then because understanding is not the only requirement for playing strength; e.g., there are also reading accuracy and endgame calculation speed.
  • Mikado is mainly a game of skill. Go is mainly a game of knowledge, regardless of whether a player has explicit knowledge or implicit, subconscious knowledge (what some call "intuition" for a lack of finding a better word).
  • Knowledge is static if it is already perfect (such as proven semeai theory). Knowledge can be dynamic in two ways: it can be enhanced / corrected and it can be applied dynamically to many or all positions or local positions.
  • It is false that the nature of joseki books is like Trivial Pursuit. It is correct that dull reading of many traditional joseki dictionaries would qualify for that characterisation. Good joseki books avoid this danger.

Jasonred Some would argue that joseki do not exist... Since there are a ridiculous amount of different possibilities that you can attempt. In any given situation though, you can probably narrow down your selection of choices to a few really useful conventional moves, some outlandish moves which show promise, occasionally a move that even a pro might miss cause it's so unusual, and a LOT of moves which are BAD. Joseki seems to be "the reasonable response". Also, there IS more than one joseki in a given situation, sometimes.

Ultimately, it's all a matter of reading ahead, and reading the general position of the board. The simpler the situation (life and death?), the less of the above is required, and thus even beginners can understand why a sequence plays out the way it does. Trading points for influence, etc, seems more complex, and some would not understand why it's joseki to trade a loss of a corner for a solid wall there.

For God (divine strength/ hand of god?) maybe even the opening fuseki would have joseki, eh?

An example of what you can do with joseki:

Last night, my teacher hit me with a new variation of a joseki. In each of our teaching games, he builds on previous results, previous concepts and moves that express those concepts. To date he had shown me, and corrected my play, two options in the 34PointLowApproachTwoSpaceHighPincer joseki. Those two being the two space jump to the center ('a') and the diagonal (circled Black stone) towards the pincering stone. From examples, I am to discern when each one is desireable. He had also shown the elephant jump response ('c') as one of his own moves. Last night he played the foot sweep from the corner under my approach move (the circled White stone).

Black Hallucinates  

Being the weak player that I am, I responded correctly and then failed to follow up correctly. On my own, I was able to determine that the appropriate move was to move to split his stones...that was the way to proceed. (Having Black stones in both the lower right and left made outside thickness more valuable for Black.) Alas, I failed to apply his teaching regarding forcing moves and free atari correctly and played B7...obviously wrong...it is forcing but the result is horrible for Black after W8.

The correct continuation  

I will not make that mistake again. I have looked it up in Essential Joseki and looked at other variations. (Black can choose to descend after W8. If White saves the two stones, Black gets to seal White into a small corner. I believe.) So, have I learned the joseki? No, but I do understand it better today than yesterday, and I read it 9 moves deep, but as my wont I hallucinated and played that horrible descent. Progress. "Joseki are like onions; they have layers." Try to learn some about each joseki each time you play one. Velobici

Bob McGuigan: There is so much to learn from joseki study. I agree with a lot of Dave Sigaty's comments above. But I want to make one comment. It is important to have a reason for every move you play. You might not think about it actively at the time you play your move because it has become second nature, but the reason should be there in the background, at least. This is true for joseki sequences. Each move has a reason. Understanding the reason for every move makes it easier to figure out how to take advantage of "mistakes". A lot of the time the reason is fairly simple. Something like helping a stone or stones that has become weak, or maintaining a connection, or preserving access to the outside, or making earlier plays meaningful, or ... Things like these are important in lots of places in the game, not just in the corner, and recognizing them in the corner helps us to see them elsewhere. These are the sort of "basic" ideas that help us to find good moves without following rote sequences. As amateurs we all make meaningless moves from time to time. Studying an established joseki has the advantage that all of the moves are at least locally meaningful, so trying to find the meaning makes sense.

RobertJasiek: A move can have more than one reason!

tapir: Didn't read the page... but:

Way more common... B11 at a  

This means the problem with the first diagram is not the intention to descend but omitting the atari. And of course it is not by chance that there are variations for both directions, because professionals too have to choose the direction they want more. Rare are the cases where there is only one joseki. Imo, trust your preference for the direction and look for a joseki that achieves that (even if only after the game) instead of playing a joseki for the other direction just because you happen to know it.

RobertJasiek: All the discussion above is for SDK or dan level, but not for beginners... So let me make at least some points for beginners:

  • Maintain connection of your stones!
  • Maintain life of your stones!
  • Maintain your big territories!
  • Avoid overconcentration!
  • Do not let the opponent have a too big corner territory!
  • Do not take a too small territory while your opponent makes too much influence!
  • Do not play just some move for a purpose but play the best move for the purpose!

Understanding Joseki as a Beginner last edited by on January 25, 2015 - 22:20
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