Sunday, February 23, 2020

The Philosophy of Go: Good and Bad Behaviors

One of the things I've gained an appreciation for is how Go relates to real life.  I'm going to start a new series where I talk about Go strategy and how I personally apply it to my everyday life.  I already spoke a bit about how playing Go is like meditation, I wanted to talk more about how I use the tactics of the game to help me navigate life.

Humans have difficulty predicting the future with accuracy.  You go through life making dozens of decisions.  It's hard to tell just how impactful a decision is until you see its fruition, and by then, it may be too late to do anything about it.  We take the information we have and try to do our best with it.  In the game of Go, there are sometimes dozens of possibilities.  The difference between one move and another can be the difference between a peaceful game where both players haggle over a handful of points, to an all-out life or death struggle.

Good Go players have a variety of tools at their disposal to handle this problem.  The first is past experience.  Strong Go players just avoid certain moves because in the past they did not yield a good result.  They may not know what the BEST result in a given situation is, but they definitely do not spend their time going down rabbit holes.  People do this in real life.  You want to have money to buy things.  Shelter and food are always nice.  You go to work.  You earn money, but you have a habit of being late.  You don't put forth enough effort at work.  You call off when you would rather stay home and play video games.  Eventually, you get fired.  You have money problems.  The next job you get, you are there on time and you learn how to perform your job better.  By making mistakes and observing outcomes, you prune away behaviors and ideas that do not serve your purpose.

Punctuality, self discipline, and industriousness are qualities that serve you well for getting a job and keeping it.  Keeping your stones connected, making good shape, and keeping your options open are qualities that serve you well for playing a good game of Go.  Good Go players have learned to forget certain moves because the outcome is always bad.  They also learn to make certain shapes or play certain moves because they know there will be a payoff.

Take the shape above, for example.  It's classic.  Black slides at 1 and then comes back to make a framework at the bottom with 3.  Black has already damaged himself by making thin shape.  We tend to think that when our opponent makes a mistake, there must be some magic move we can play to automatically destroy him. That is not always so.  In this case, Black has left a gaping hole.  White simply needs to continue playing the game, always keeping an eye on Black's weakness at A.

To appreciate Black's plight, imagine this: Black has a hole in his roof.  The hole in his roof is at A.  When it's sunny outside, he can putter around the house and not notice.  When it storms, he has a problem!  That's the way it works in Go.  If you make weak, brittle shapes, you might be forced to pay a price later.

Let's say the game progresses.  Black thinks all is well.  Now, White invades with the circle marked stone.  It's raining and Black's house is about to be flooded.  His two square marked stones are in trouble!  Black will be able to save them, but the cost will be that White gets to destroy a lot of Black's potential territory.

Throughout my life I try to inspect my own habits and behaviors.  I try to draw a direct causal line between behaviors that help me and behaviors that inhibit me.  Going to the gym results in a bit of pain the next day, but helps my energy and focus levels immensely.  Taking the extra time at work to make sure a project is done correctly helps me build a better rapport with my co-workers, who may be more inclined to help me when I need it down the line.  Good trees bear good fruit! Take stock of your own behaviors, and see which ones bear you good fruit.


Saturday, February 15, 2020

Go as Meditation

A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of going to the Midwest Go Open in Delaware, Ohio.  I was shocked by how many people turned out!  Finding 40 some odd Go players, let alone getting them in the same room, is quite the feat.  I got to see other Go players I hadn’t seen for years.  Towards the end of the week, I headed to the bar with a friend of mine, Ben.  I find that during Go tournaments, I have the best philosophical conversations.  Ben and I talked about what is the actual distinction between a 3 dan, 5 dan, 7 dan player.  Part of it is attitude.  Ben made a great observation.  He said that lower ranked dan players have less focus than higher ranked players.  He noted this when he saw a 1 dan Japanese professional play in the U.S. Open, she had laser like focus on the game.  When she played, she poured herself into every move.  I thought I would try it myself the next day. 

The next morning, I sat down to play my third game of the tournament.  I decided that I would make it a goal to remain utterly focused on my game.  I immediately recognized that my attention would wander.  When waiting for my opponent to play, I would look at my neighbor's board and see how things were going. My eyes would wander.  I would remember the lyrics to a rap battle I had listened to earlier in the week.  I’d fidget and think about how cold the room was.  

I realized that my lack of attention was wasting precious time.  Did I really have the game so well in hand I could afford to not pay attention? Instead of letting my mind wander to the next extraneous object, I instead gently pushed myself back to the game.  Every second I spent looking at my neighbor's board position, watching the ceiling, or humming a tune in my head, was one second I was not spending on the here and now, the board in front of me.   

I decided to just gently bring my mind back to the game every time my eyes would wander.  It shocked me just how unfocused on the game I was!  It was hard at first, but I started to force myself to use my time wisely.  If my opponent was taking a long time to think about their move, I forced myself to read out variations.  If I felt that I had the variations read out to the best of my ability, I counted territory.  If I felt I had a handle on the balance of territory, I read out end game moves and tried to find good tesujis.  Where were the sente, double sente, and gote moves in the end game going to be?  What order should I play them?   
I felt the game took on a new dimension for me.  It was like meditation.  I’ve done mindfulness meditation before.  It relies on focusing on your breath, letting your wild brain wander, and then refocusing it on a focal point in the physical world.  To keep your brain on the straight and narrow, you usually have a focus, usually counting forwards or backwards from 1 to 10.  Playing a game of Go where I focused all my attention on the game was no different.   

My level of play went up.  My opponent didn’t surprise me with moves I hadn’t considered.  I could make better tactical decisions because I counted constantly.  I won 3 out of the 4 games at the Midwest Open.  The second I started focusing completely on my game, the more I was able to bring my knowledge of the game to bear.  I also noticed my emotional state was better during the game.  I didn’t feel anxious, nervous, or fearful of losing.  Focus brought me a feeling of objectivity.  I think in the future I will take this lesson and apply it to life, and focus on the board in front me of me, wherever I happen to be.