Laddering Anxiety

I suspect I’m not the only player who’s been afflicted with Internet Go Anxiety (IGA). Symptoms include an aversion to playing, attachment to rank, and anger/frustration/despair upon losing. If you’re like me, IGA can be a serious impediment to becoming a stronger player, but there’s hope. We can overcome!

During his 25 days of go series this past December, Dwyrin spoke about laddering anxiety, what it is and how to beat it. I was astounded that *he* – the internet-famous Dwyrin – suffered from IGA even after achieving a dan-level rank. It might sound weird, but I expected higher-ranked players to not have anxiety while playing, especially somebody like him who streams his games. Yet there he was telling the world about his struggle.

How did Dwyrin beat IGA? Welp, he began streaming! That’s right. He put his games before the public and forced himself to get over the anxiety. Is that an extreme step? Of course it is, but it shows the lengths to which one might have to go in order to beat this senseless anxiety.

Now I’m not about to start streaming. There are already a number of excellent players out there far more capable than I, and besides I don’t think adding my games to the mix would do anything positive for the community at this point, but I will say that Dwyrin’s advice is right on. Basically it comes down to playing more games. In comparing KGS to Tygem, Dwyrin notes the disparity in games played. Tygem players often had tens of thousands of games per account, while KGS players had far fewer.

Does that mean that Tygem players are stronger or better than KGS ones? I don’t know, but that’s not Dwyrin’s point either. His point was that many players like to dabble at baduk – playing a handful of games per day – and others seem less cautious – playing a high volume of games. Now Dwyrin’s speculating, but I think there’s some basis for his thinking that this difference in volume can be attributed to certain players’ anxiety while laddering.

I know that my own tendency has been to play one game per day, win or lose. If I win the temptation is to hold onto that win and preserve my rank by not playing again that day, the same is true for when I lose. It’s like a circuit breaker. The purpose is to stabilize my rank, but I’m seeking the wrong goal. I don’t my rank to stabilize, I want it to fluctuate. Move up, of course, but stability isn’t a good thing when I’m trying to get stronger.

Overall I felt as though Dwyrin was speaking directly to my experience of baduk. Now I’ve gotten a lot better at overcoming anxiety. It’s a wonder what playing even a single game per day can help one achieve in that regard, but it’s not enough to really bury IGA for good. Last night I went 0-4 while laddering. It didn’t feel good losing, but I was able to convince myself that it doesn’t matter. What matters is learning from my mistakes, because I know I played quite poorly. How can I get better? That should be my concern, not a piece of flair next to my username.

Just to prove that losing doesn’t matter, and that life will go on regardless of one’s record, Dwyrin purposefully lost 20 games in a row once. It reminded me of Fight Club where the members had to start a fight and lose it. Both sides gain. The winner gains confidence and enthusiasm for the game, perhaps they learn that they’re capable of something they previously thought impossible. The loser learns that life goes on. That they started something, failed, and still exist. While I don’t embrace the fantasy upon which Fight Club dwells, there is a certain compelling dimension to this way of thinking and acting, a certain detachment which I find appealing.

I am working to get stronger at baduk no matter how long it takes. I cannot be concerned with a handful of losses, even a decent losing streak. It’s all part of the experience of becoming a better player. If you play a high volume of games I’d advise those to be 10 minutes main time with 3×30 second byo yomi or something comparable. In my experience nothing good comes from playing blitz baduk, but your experience may be different. If you can learn from each game, you are winning and getting better.

More YouTube Baduk Stars!


Watching baduk games and lectures on YouTube helps me learn and gets me excited about the game. Back in July I did a write up on Haylee, Sibicky, and Jackson—three stars I was following at the time. Today I want to do a profile on the three streamers I’ve been watching the most these past few weeks: Dwyrin, Lightvolty, and In Sente.

DWYRIN is the most established and prolific of the current crop. His YouTube page features over 200 videos on go and a host of other games, such as Sim City. Dwyrin’s style is perhaps best summarized with the question: “Can I kill all the things?” That question and the little “doot, doot, durp” sounds he makes while reading variations out on stream have made their way into my own games. Currently Dwyrin is a 6-dan AGA, and he started playing baduk around 2000. At first I didn’t give Dwyrin’s material much of a chance, but that is to my discredit: His videos – both lectures and live games – are top quality. Each post contains nuggets of wisdom for a little kyu like myself, and I try to apply his lessons to my games.

LIGHTVOLTY is a Maryland-based baduk player who is ranked 6-dan AGA. His YouTube features many Tygem games, mostly from his climb to digital 8-dan. In real life, Lightvolty is Justin Teng and he’s been featured in several AGA E-Journal stories. Justin runs the University of Maryland Go Club, which hosts an annual tournament at the Baltimore campus. What I especially like about Justin’s material is his writing, which has inspired me in my own journey to shodan. There are three documents in particular that I keep nearby: his reading list, a description of his journey to 6-dan, and a guide to becoming a single-digit kyu. Good games, solid inspiration. Thanks odnihs!

IN SENTE is another East Coast-based player, and he just made 1-dan on Tygem after a 10-month push. Way to go! I appreciate In Sente’s material because he’s a newly minted shodan and appreciates the struggles many kyus face to raise their baduk abilities. I’ve found some really engaging games and lessons on his YouTube page. What is more, as player who raised his rank from 13-kyu to 1-dan in under a year, In Sente’s journey directly mirrors that which I am on, and that’s inspiring!

The Obstacle Is The Path

All week I’ve been in a running battle with myself, facing an almost existential despair over my (in)ability to play baduk. I’m becoming discouraged by my apparent lack of progress. While it sucks to admit this, it’s the truth, so it must be faced.

On Tuesday I fell 0-5. Although not my worst streak, it stung in a particular way because my play was rubbish. Time and again I put good money in after bad, and the result was consistent: Resignation. The aspersions I cast on myself intensified as the board situation worsened. I know. How could I win with such an attitude?

But I don’t think it boils down to attitude. My frustrations, my anger, my disappointment were all justified by an abysmal performance, or so I feel. They did not spring from nothingness, but were born out of a genuine dissatisfaction with my abilities, which it is safe to say are not what I’d imagined them to be.

Are my expectations out of line? Perhaps. I know that investing in this effort would be costly. It is natural to expect rewards from hard work, yet I know that when it comes to baduk these positive effects are non-linear – that is, I can’t expect a 1:1 relationship between input and output. So, yes, in a certain sense, I have misled myself.

If only it were that simple though. If only I could tell myself that it’s only transitory, so shrug it off and move on, but I can’t, at least not right away. The temptation to despair is stalking me. I know what is right but I struggle to do it.

So I distracted myself all Wednesday and I barely did anything Thursday. Sure I played a game, but it was work! I’ve been procrastinating. Heck, writing this post is part of my procrastination.

In my reflections, though, I’ve come to some preliminary conclusions:

  1. The obstacle is the path: Leo Babuta explains, “[W]hen there’s an obstacle, don’t go around it. Don’t run from it. Go into it. Work with it. Explore it. Learn how to be with it and deal with it, and you’ll have a skill for life.” If I want to get stronger at baduk the only choice I have is to advance. Resistance points the way to go, march to the sound of the guns. Pick whichever expression you like, this feeling leads to an inescapable conclusion: I must work or otherwise abandon my pursuit, there is no alternative. Reflection: In exploring the obstacle I must question my method. How do I study? Can I do something better, or different? What are the feelings or thoughts that inhibit me. What should I add, what should I subtract?
  2. Strength is earned, not given: You could slap a 1-dan rank next to my profile name but I wouldn’t feel accomplished. Why not? Because I didn’t earn it. I revisit this thought constantly while reviewing my games and solving life & death problems. I cannot check the answer key while playing a game. The end result is my answer key! The only abilities I have are those which I can utilize while playing against my three opponents: myself, the clock, and the opponent. Reading means nothing if it cannot be done in an accurate and timely fashion. The same is true with my resilience. If I hate on myself mid-game that is a sort of mental capitulation, which has in-game effects. Sun Tzu advises the successful general to encourage the arrogance of his opponent. What he means is to use the psychological weakness of the enemy against him. Well, I do that very successfully against myself. If I want to get stronger – authentically better – I have to earn it through my own effort.
  3. Strength cannot be earned like money: Effort is not proportional with result. The relationship between my passion/effort/devotion and my rank (as a measure of strength) is not linear, it may not even be positive. Lately I’ve been thrown back almost to the starting point of Project Dan. It sucks. I’ve got to go back over the same ground again. There is some evidence that my effort will help me get ahead, but I cannot think of this as a truth or a sure thing. Strength is a mystery to be contemplated, not a paycheck to be earned.
  4. Flexibility is key: When I started Project Dan I adhered to a strict regimen. This worked until it didn’t. Like the Constitution, my program isn’t a suicide pact. If I’m breaking down something’s got to give, and I should adjust accordingly. Benjamin Teuber recommends two things: (1) Playing, playing, playing and (2) Tsumego done right. He leaves out lectures and ‘book learnin’ almost entirely (although he does make some allowance for these). Lately I’ve gotten more value out of playing/reviewing and life & death problems than Guo Juan’s lessons. I think I’ll give the Internet Go School a break for the time being and see what happens. It’s good to have discipline, but my focus should be on getting the most value for my effort, and my reasoning has led me to put a higher value on playing/reviewing games and tsumego than on lectures. I also find that doing tsumego in books is more conducive to reading than digital alternatives, because I have to think about the solutions rather than ‘bash’ my way to the answer. Watching YouTube streams like Dwyrin, Lightvolty, and Haylee is also conducive to my learning, so I’ll rely on these more.
  5. Perspective is necessary: I’m 29 with (I hope) many years ahead of me. That means I can enjoy baduk for decades and it is not necessary to rush myself. This doesn’t mean slackening my effort, rather it puts it in the context of my whole life. I’d love to teach my son to play baduk, but he won’t be able to learn for another three or four years at least. Project Dan is one year, it’s a step along the path, not the destination.

Don’t run from the obstacle, go into it. Work with it. Explore it. I’m learning how to do this, how to deal with my obstacle. I know the path, now just have to walk it!