Becoming An Apprentice

This week Zhou Yuan (7D) became my shifu (師傅), or “master,” and I his túdì (徒弟), or “apprentice.” Finding a mentor like this is definite progress in my efforts to engage in deliberate practice; I also hope it is the beginning of a productive relationship. Until now my instruction was exclusively self-taught. This is alright as far as it goes, but it also means that my training has been incomplete, if only due to ignorance.

In our first lesson Shifu and I were introduced and analyzed the game below. Although I won, my victory was a fluke: my opponent made a critical reading error. I should have lost. I am not proud of the way I played.

Shifu weaved helpful advice into his game analysis. Often I could not remember the moves that either I or my opponent made. According to Shifu, this is because I made moves without purpose. Had I thought about the intention behind a move, he said, I would be able to replay the game from start to finish, like a story. This technique seems far more intuitive than the rote memorization that I had been trying to practice – after all, every baduk game is a story.

 

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Consider that it all starts with a blank canvas: the empty goban. In alternating turns Black and White communicate their intentions by adding pieces to the board. Words prove unnecessary, the stones tell the tale. Moves may be deliberate, submissive, greedy, aggressive, puzzling, etc. but each (hopefully) is animated by some purpose, which the opponent and observer must discern. Baduk is a conversation without words. Shifu helped me see this reality, and for that I am grateful.

Note: Zhou Yuan (7D) is located in Germantown, MD and available to teach in the Washington, DC metropolitan region.

Play Without Regret

The first advice extended to me upon being introduced to baduk was to “lose many games, fast.” Sources differed as to whether this meant 50, 100, or 200 games (nobody seems to agree). At first I balked and avoided playing many games. The thought of losing was painful and discouraging; the reality was often worse. Fear of defeat left me frozen, often unwilling to entertain battle; once engaged, however, there seemed nothing worse than watching my moyos being reduced and picked apart. After a few such games my enthusiasm for baduk was tempered, and I took a hiatus.

I retreated into baduk books and tsumego. Study plays to my strengths, and all of my research recommended some combination of these resources. So I acquired many books and began to work. Again, after an initial burst of excitement, my energy flagged, and again I experienced discouragement. I was tempted to put baduk aside.

Out of pride I resisted abandoning baduk. To give up would be to admit defeat, and I was not ready to quit. Upon further reflection I realized that these early experiences had exposed a serious defect in my character. I fled defeat because it hurt my ego and I embraced study because it was self-gratifying. My behavior was nothing less than sheer cowardice! I needed a new perspective.

Study and action should be two sides of the same coin (stone), but I had introduced an artificial division between them. By focusing on books and problems I conveniently avoided putting this knowledge into practice and really testing it. This unsound system collapsed under its own weight, because in baduk everything resolves on the goban.

Below, a painful game.

 

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For beginners (like me) losing is painful and necessary. Despite its simple rules, baduk can be a confusing game. Its strategy and tactics are not always clear, even to professionals. Concepts like shape, balance, timing, and reading require experience, and this can only be obtained through playing the game.

Study divorced from action is barren.

The only way to improve in baduk is to play. Engage against players of equal rank or, preferably, those who are stronger. All games against weaker players are teaching games. Crushing a weaker opponent just because it is possible is neither satisfying nor honorable. Stronger players will often defeat you, but this experience should be instructive. Such experience leavens study whether one is reviewing games or studying books. Recommendation: If a book is confusing, put it down and play more games. Come back to the book after a while, and if it still seems unintelligible then discard it.

Losing bruises one’s pride, but it is not unproductive. Like a beginner’s muscles aching after a workout, the discomfort is passing and the reward of continued effort certain. There is a saying that it takes 1,000 games to become a 1 dan. As yet I am only at the beginning of my journey to shodan. Though I lose 50, 100 or more games (which is certain), I will play without regret.