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.