I’ve always enjoyed playing games, but since graduate school I haven’t had much time for them. I discovered recently, however, that taking a break to play a game of some sort really helped my writing. The more engaged I am in the game, the more of a “real” break I have, and the better able I am to focus again on writing when I am done. Taking a walk, washing dishes, or the like never really refreshed me because my mind was still obsessed with the paper I was working on while doing those tasks. A game is much more engaging, and hence more refreshing as well.
But what game to play? Action games are somehow no good for me. I always feel like I am fighting the user interface more than the opponent. (Maybe I should try a Wii?) Nor am I good at word games. My brain seems to freeze up when I try to do crosswords or play Scrabble (unlike Shashwati who loves word games). So I needed a strategy game. At first I became obsessed with KDice, a Risk-like online game. That was fun for a while. I learned that despite the high level of chance, one could get better at the game by avoiding certain common mistakes. As I got better, however, I felt more frustrated by the limited nature of the game. It was then that I discovered SmartGo for the iPhone. This single-handedly revived my interest in Go (Weiqi 圍棋), a game I tried to learn in college but never got very far with.
Go rankings start at 30kyu (級 30k) and go up to 1k, after which you become a dan (段) player and can go up to 7dan (7d). A beginner is someone between 30 and 20k (up to 15k in some rankings). This summer I made it up to 11k, which puts me solidly within the ranks of what Wikipedia refers to as a “casual gamer.” That means I’m no longer just a beginner and am able to properly understand and appreciate the game. It used to be that when I played against a stronger opponent I would just feel frustrated and confused. Now even when I loose I can still have a fun game. More importantly, I understand the basics well enough to learn from my mistakes.
This post is about how to learn Go well enough to become a “casual gamer,” as well as where you can play Go online so you can find other players your level and enjoy the game.
So how to move from being a beginner to a casual gamer?
- Getting started
- You have to start somewhere. Here seems like as good a place as any, although a Google search for “how to play go” will give you many more options.
- Practice problem solving
- Once you understand the rules of life and death, you need to practice them enough so that you begin to develop the ability to see when a group is alive or dead. This is where I got stuck last time I tried to learn the game. One needs a fair amount of practice to develop this skill. That is where SmartGo came in. Go problems, like Chess problems, are a great way to build up your ability to “read” the board. For a beginner, however, it is hard to see why the right answer is the right answer. A computer can let you play out the wrong answers so you can see why they are wrong. Having it on your iPhone also means you can do a problem or two every time you are waiting somewhere and have a couple of minutes to spare.
- The problems are graded, so you can start with just the easy ones. I did them all through up to about 8k and then went back and started over. The second time I didn’t let myself play until I was pretty sure I had read the correct solution out just by looking at the board. This is vital for developing the ability to “read.” I find I can do this now up to about 12k, when I begin to have difficulty. Above that I can often guess the correct first move, but I can’t read out the whole sequence of moves before I play. After 8k it is harder to even guess the first move. This accords with my ranking as an 11k player. I think I need to read some books on life and death before I can improve further with these problems. But to become a casual gamer, you only really need to be able to read problems up to the 12 or 14k level.
- Play with real people
- There are a lot of programs, including SmartGo, which let you play against the computer. This can be fun, but I don’t recommend it. Go computing is not like Chess computing, and the current programs still play very differently from real players — and not in a good way. For more on the problems of making a Go computer, read this. Accordingly you need to find real people to play with.
- Almost every decent sized city in the world has a Go club where you can go play with real people, but it is now very easy to play on the internet as well. I’ve found two places I like to play: IGS and KGS. IGS has the advantage of supporting an open API so anyone can make software to allow you to play on their servers. There is even a fairly decent iPhone app, so you can sit in a coffee shop some where and play opponents from all over the world! (The link for the iPhone app is on the IGS home page. For the Mac, I recommend Goban.) However, I have to say that for a beginner, KGS is a much more welcoming place.
- KGS has several advantages. First of all, KGS seems to have more players from all over the world, so you can very quickly find a game. There also seem to be more beginners. Secondly, it is also easier to do things like talk to your opponent after the game is over, which is crucial for reviewing games. They even have beginners rooms and a “teaching ladder” where people volunteer their time to help weaker players or to play practice games with equally ranked players. Third, they also host analysis of games during big competitions (although IGS does that too). And fourth, even though IGS is international, it seems largely Japanese. KGS seems to have many more English speakers. In short, KGS seems like the main place people play Go on the internet. The only downside is that you have to use their own software, which takes a little getting used to.
- Online resources
- Before I discuss individual topics you should focus on, I’d like to mention some important online resources for learning Go. Most important is Sensei’s Go Library. This is a sort of Wikipedia for Go and it includes discussion of basic principles, expert articles, book reviews, links to external resources, and much, much more.
- There are many teachers who offer classes online, but I only found one school which offered a large collection of online lectures suitable for beginners as well as advanced players. That is Guo Juan’s Internet Go School. Each lecture costs €1, and while they are not all equally well done, I think it is a fair price. I especially like Guo Juan’s lectures. The lectures are done through software which also displays the moves being discussed on a Go board.
- Finally, there is the EidoGo joseki dictionary and professional game database. Although few beginner games turn out the way standard openings are supposed to look, and playing the standard openings isn’t much help if you don’t understand the principles behind them (see below for more on studying Joseki), it can still be very helpful to refer to these during your game, or during a review.
- What to study
- Four Basic Shapes: learning to see these in your game can be very helpful!
- You also want to avoid some common beginner mistakes. I strongly recommend the audio lessons on this subject at the Internet Go School. (Be sure to start with the 30k-20k lectures.)
- Then you need to learn some basic opening strategy. For this you really need to read some books. The best one I’ve found (and the best Go book I’ve read so far) is: Opening Theory Made Easy — Twenty Strategic Principles to Improve Your Opening Game by Otake Hideo. I really can’t recommend this book highly enough. It will make all the difference in helping you move beyond the beginner level.
- Once you understand opening theory you need to begin to develop your middle game. There are many books on this, but I found in practice that many lower ranked players, around my level, were beating me because they had a better understanding of the basic tactics of attack and defense. To help me with this I read volume four of the Elementary Go Series, Attack and Defense. The whole series seems quite good, but I don’t have that much time to read Go books. I think this book, together with Opening Theory Made Easy, will get you well on your way.
- Review, review, review
- I recently read the excellent neuropsychology book, How We Decide, by Jonah Lehrer. In it he interviews some many people who have to make difficult decisions, including airline pilots but also chess and poker players. One of the things I learned from reading this is that we we can improve our “gut” instincts by spending a lot of time reviewing our previous actions. Reviewing your games right after you play is crucial to becoming a stronger player. Hopefully, after following the steps listed above, you can begin to see your own mistakes, but it is also helpful to find stronger players to point out things you might have missed. The KGS beginner room and teaching ladder are a great place for this, but there are also online forums, like Go Discussions, where you can post your games for analysis.
What’s next? How to move from being a casual gamer to a single-digit kyu player, an intermediate amateur? That’s my next goal. In addition to continuing to do what I’ve listed above, I plan to spend more time observing and studying games between more advanced players. But it will also be important to study opening joseki. Joseki are standard opening combinations, but they can’t just be memorized (although that helps). You have to understand what to do if your opponent doesn’t follow the script (this often mans they’ve made a mistake but it is no good if you can’t identify the mistake), or if the surrounding stones significantly alter the situation. There are even some middle game joseki, patterns one often sees in the middle game — but here the chance of surrounding stones altering the outcome is even stronger. There are also standard openings which combine joseki with an overall strategy of play, like the Chinese Opening. But all that can wait. For now I’m reading the book Lessons in the Fundamentals of Go, about … the importance of sticking to the fundamentals.
I hope this tutorial is useful. If you get on IGS or KGS you can find me under the handle “gogramsci.”