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!

Keep Calm And Game On

“They’ve got us surrounded again, the poor bastards.” — Creighton Abrams

Playing baduk is stressful; and, short of not playing, there seems no way to escape this condition. But that’s the good news (and just one of many ways in which baduk mirrors real life)!

Amateurs (like me) may think they have a monopoly on competitive stress, but this claim fails upon examination. Unlike us, professionals have staked their livelihoods on succeeding at this game and, in the words of Takeo Kajiwara, they have to be “strong to survive.” If you can imagine being worsted four games to one by AlphaGo on the world stage, like Lee Sedol was this spring, you might have some idea what this strength entails. I can’t, but perhaps readers can. As a child, professional player Lee Haijin would drink watered down whiskey to help calm her nerves before big matches. Even the indomitable Lee Sedol suffers from the effects of competitive anxiety. His high-pitched voice is the result of aphasia resulting from a case of nerves following his professional debut. Their stress is a world apart from the amateur’s, yet it is rooted in the same concern: Performance.

Baduk is (mostly) an individual affair. Two players face off across the goban and only one can emerge victorious. Without teammates to lean on (or blame) it is easy to see the game result as a litmus test of one’s intelligence or ability or self-worth. The error here is frequently an over-concern with one’s rating or, put another way, winning.

It is easy to perceive a connection between performance and winning. If I perform well, I should win. If I win my rank should increase. Yet, however straightforward the relationship between success and reward may seem in theory, it often proves elusive in experience. Consider that at the correct rank a player should expect to lose 50% of their games! Now that the linear reward seems less established it is perhaps more evident why anxiety seems to haunt players at all levels.

Having dealt with the why of anxiety, let’s turn to the how.

“I always get the shakes before a drop.”—Johnny Rico, STARSHIP TROOPERS

Like the infantryman in Robert Heinlein’s famous tale, it’s common for players to feel the effects of stress before, during, and after playing baduk. For me this means trembling hands as I create a game challenge and sweating while playing. Oftentimes I’ll begin shallow breaths, or have a kind of tunnel vision. All of this is part of the ‘fight or flight’ response anxiety induces. Our physiological response is the same as if we were in actual danger: The body releases adrenaline and the bloodstream is redirected away from the extremities towards major muscle groups. If I needed this to save my life, great, but in a baduk game all I am left with is cold hands, the shakes, and a pounding heart!

Whether we like it or not our bodies will treat baduk as a life and death experience! Haha, tsumego in real life.

Even if it’s not fear, it’s probably like the trembling of a horse in the gate. Ready for the game to commence, ready to race or fight, we’re eager to begin. If this is the case then the anxiety most often (for me) sloughs off as the game progresses. Other times it doesn’t, but that’s usually because I’m making foolish moves!

So what can we do about it?

Keep calm and game on.

When Creighton Abrams (quoted above) remarked on being surrounded he did so to boost the confidence of those around him. In a seemingly hopeless, inescapable situation he wanted to show those he was leading that they could overcome their foe. If anxiety is our opponent, and if it has us surrounded, the only way out is to push on through it. That’s the ‘fight’ part of the ‘fight or flight’ response.

In the case of baduk this might mean playing more serious games. By serious all I mean is playing with sufficient time and mental acuity to concentrate on finding the best move each time, rather than, say, a blitz game where it is solely intuition. In this article about action, The Art of Manliness argues that inaction is often scarier than acting. I find that thinking about losing is scarier than losing itself, so I try to play through rough patches and when I’m afraid. In this sense anxiety also serves as an indicator of which direction to go. If you’re afraid of it, charge and overcome the foe.

Sometimes, however, a ‘flight’ is more prudent. Taking time off from playing after a bad streak or after getting angry at losing can help us calm down and refocus. In the case of anger doing something else, like push-ups, can help redirect the feeling away from ourselves. Remember that it’s not the loss that causes frustration, but the handling of the loss poorly. Team Liquid advises players to always congratulate their opponents, especially after a frustrating game, in order to help handle things well. Learning to play not to win is also helpful for maturing gamers.

While not playing review your own games and professional games, practice life & death problems, and watch some baduk streamers on YouTube. All of this will help connect you with the reasons the game is great in the first place. Above all they will help remind you that it’s supposed to be fun.

Whether a fight or flight is warranted in a particular circumstance is a prudential choice, but the key thing, in my mind, is to keep playing, even after a break. Baduk is supposed to be fun, not business. We’re not professionals so we can afford to lose many games. Heck, even professionals lose a lot! It can be hard at first to keep putting yourself into a difficult situation, but the challenge will help us overcome anxious feelings. All of this is still a work in progress for me, but what isn’t? We have to put in effort every day in order to grow stronger.

One last thing.

Recently I began revisiting the Graded Go Problems For Beginners 1, 2, & 3. It’s been amazing! I tackled the first volume on my commute, spending only a few seconds on each problem before finding the correct (100%) answer to every problem. The succeeding volumes require more concentration but I am still (75-90%) finding the correct answer. What is more, I am finding these answers by reading them out without resorting to a board or pen and paper like I had to in the past. Experiencing this strength reminded me that I’ve already come a long ways from the 30-kyu beginner I was two years ago. Being able to do these beginner problems with ease is no guarantee that I’ll reach 1-dan, but it sure is encouraging. I’m getting stronger even if it takes a while to show and I’m not going to let stress obstruct my path.

Three YouTube Baduk Stars


The world of online baduk has been blessed recently with the appearance of three outstanding YouTube personalities: Andrew Jackson (4d), Nick Sibicky (4d), and Lee Haijin (3p).  Each channel offers something different. Both Jackson and Sibicky lecture at the Seattle Go Center for single-digit and double-digit kyus respectively. Their lessons focus on everything from basic tactics to higher-level techniques, such as not helping an opponent make shape.

Lee takes a different tack. Posting as Haylee L., Lee, a Korean professional with the International Go Federation, records herself playing baduk and thinking out loud. Her purpose is to open the mind of a professional player to viewers. Anecdotally, commenters attribute their improvements of one or two stones to watching Lee’s videos. There is nothing quite like Lee’s channel elsewhere on the internet – it is a real treat for baduk players everywhere.

As of this writing, Jackson has 44 single-digit kyu classes posted. Sibicky clocks in at more than 140 double-digit kyu lectures. Lee just celebrated her 100th video. Aside from multi-part lectures, such as Sibicky’s series on fuseki, viewers can jump around these channels without risking continuity issues.

Through their combined efforts, these three YouTube personalities have made a valuable contribution to baduk players of all ranks and abilities. Even considering that, at times, I do not understand the material, my own experience has been uniformly positive. I also do not seem to be alone. Based on the ratings and comments these videos receive, their producers should be encouraged, and I hope that this groundswell of support inspires Jackson, Sibicky, and Lee to continue their outstanding work.