What is Go to Me?

Hikaru no Go (S1E3) - Akira Bares His Fangs
Hikaru no Go (S1E3) – Akira Bares His Fangs

Back in September fellow player BenGoZen returned to the world of baduk with version 3.0 of his (highly readable) blog. Since Ben’s site was one of the reasons I got serious about baduk, his return to the game was quite exciting. I was even more thrilled when, a few weeks ago, Ben asked readers a question: What is go to you? For Ben go “represents self-improvement and clarity.”

As I considered this answer, I recognized that the question was the same one I’ve been asking myself implicitly for the past three months. Since August my progress has really stalled. My play has been sporadic and my performance inconsistent; in many cases I would lose to players whom I’d previously beaten. Even so, this wasn’t a losing streak (I’ve had those and overcome worse!). Something else was getting me down. There were games when I’d play some bad moves and lose my confidence. My whole game felt fragile.

Since I consider one’s game a reflection of the person, it seemed like the real issue lay within me and not the game. And there was a lot going on! Work was very difficult and home life quite demanding. I am certain I was falling short in both. So I pretty much stopped playing and tried to put my mind at ease in order to tackle those areas where I needed to improve. The experience has been illuminating but not in the ways I expected.

In my work there is considerable activity at the end of the fiscal year and I found myself making the same small (and not small) mistakes time and again. This annoyed my coworkers and left me feeling terrible each time errors were brought to my attention. As I took stock of the situation I realized that the areas where I was misfiring were really like reading mistakes in go. Had I taken a few more minutes to review a product before hitting SEND I could have avoided a lot of my trouble. In the same way, many problems in my games resulted from me thoughtlessly plopping stones down on the board with only cursory analysis. OK, this is easy to fix, right? Not so much, but I’ve made headway. I’ve doubled down on quality assurance and tried to devote my full attention to each task before moving onto another. That’s all easier said than done.

I’m not going to say much about home life for privacy’s sake, except that I was letting emotions dictate my responses to certain stimuli. I was irritable and thin-skinned. Taking a breath would alleviate 100% of this situation, but in the interest of trying to “do” or “fix” things, I often would just react. Not a good thing for household wa (和)!

Upon further examination I recognized that my feelings and experiences were the effects of disorder. And, to paraphrase Russell Kirk, order is the first need of the soul. It seems that right order lies at the root of my struggle, and that my resistance to achieving this points the way to my solution. So achieving right order has become my mission.

As I put these words down I feel an enormous weight lifting off of my shoulders. Readers, I have just had an epiphany.

As I consider the matter further I realize that when I think of my predicament from the standpoint of order everything falls into place. In some ways I can already see the fruits of my effort. Recently I declined several commitments in the interest of devoting myself to my home and family. I tell you it felt great. Strolling through Union Station one morning I felt at ease because I knew I’d put my relationships in their place. Yes it’s good to engage with friends and colleagues, but these events can eat into my time and money. In the past I’ve let such things get away from me, and I was amazed at the difference making this simple change made to my well being.

Thinking back on the past few weeks, the time I’ve spent with my wife, son, and extended family has been fantastic. It’s really improved my appreciation of them and also of the other social contacts we have, including friends and colleagues. Another area where I’ve been working is on getting more sleep and waking on time. This is still a struggle but I’m progressing. It’s great to wake feeling rested, do some kettlebell exercises, and eat a good breakfast before starting my commute. I haven’t done this nearly as much as I ought to, but will keep at it.

I used to drink a beer with dinner nearly every night. Although there’s nothing wrong with this (and I wasn’t gaining any beer weight either) I still felt the need to cut back here, so I stopped buying beer at the grocery store. Instead my wife and I have enjoyed filling a growler with the brew from our local breweries. Not only is the beer fresher, it’s also a more enriching experience to drink it together with a hearty meal. I’ve also cut back on my coffee intake, substituting tea instead. The rank office coffee helps my motivation! I’ve enjoyed the focused feeling I get from drinking several cups of tea throughout the day as compared with the jittery, dehydrated feeling I get from too much coffee.

Social media and internet rabbit holes have also been cut back substantially, as as my reading list.

At the bottom of everything, however, is the soul. As I indicated above, order is the first need of the soul. What am I doing for myself in this respect? Well for certain making more time for prayer and meditation. There’s a Catholic church only a few blocks from my work that I’ve made more effort to get to during the work week. The fresh air and walk do me well but, more importantly, it’s being in a sacred space and quieting my mind that has had the most positive effect to date.

A lot of this might seem like negative adjustment. Cutting things out, etc. It might also sound like every other self-improvement regime you’ve read about online. This might be the case, but I wasn’t prompted by anything other than my sense of what things were out of proportion in my life and have adjusted accordingly. So what’s the positive takeaway?

Well, for starters, by paring down my social media, internet use, and reading list I’ve made more space for studying baduk. I’ve got 1001 Life and Death Problems in my bag and haul it out on the train instead of trawling through Twitter. If I’m tired of that I’ll play some 9×9 on my phone. Digital tsumego are still a no go for me because I can’t shake the ‘bash’ reflex when it comes to solutions, and this isn’t good for my reading ability! I’ve restarted regular work in Guo Juan’s Internet Go School. I’m also re-reading Hikaru no Go. I plan on purchasing one issue per month and to take things slowly. That way the expense of purchasing all 23 volumes is spread out, and my enjoyment of the series can be taken at length. Of note: I purchased the first volume of Hikaru no Go in Japanese with an eye towards teaching myself Japanese at some point. I’m still working through Eiji Yoshikawa’s Musashi because of the insights it offers for those seeking continuous improvement. Musashi, after all, is Japan’s greatest swordsman.

One of the things I’ve learned in subtracting and adding media is that I’m not simply getting rid of bad things. There are many good things too. In order to focus on baduk I have to sacrifice other interests, such as reading more fiction or history, and also learning Japanese (at least for now). There are many worthy things that I cannot do for the sake of my pursuit! This is an important lesson worth contemplating.

Another development has been my joining a group of other DC-based players for regular lunches. This has been a great support. We’ve played some 9×9 games and talked about baduk, but we talk about a lot more than just the game. In fact, I’d say the majority of our conversation is not about baduk at all. I will file this in the category of “finding people who are interested in the same things as you are” and starting your relationship from there. The encouragement I’ve received in my pursuit of baduk from this group is something I’m still coming to understand, but I know it’s been a powerful help!

The only thing I need to really restart is regular play online. I will try other servers, such as KGS and Tygem, in addition to my regular OGS play. The importance of actual play is not lost on me.

Alright, so how can I answer Ben’s question. What does go mean to me?

For me, go is the pursuit of right order. This encompass everything about the game: the harmonious relationship of stones, the relationship between the players, respect for past players and their games, respect for the game itself. From the pursuit of right order will emerge the divine move.

NB: Do yourself a favor sometime and check out his archives.

The Games of August

Of late I’ve been contemplating this quote from Miyamoto Musashi, the famed Japanese swordsman:

The purpose of today’s training is to defeat yesterday’s understanding.

With these words Musashi captures the essence of continuous improvement, of deliberate practice. These are qualities for which the Japanese are famous — their pursuit of perfection is legendary. It’s this approach to training that I strive for in baduk as well is other areas of life.

This ideal, however, is difficult to realize, and that has been particularly true this past month. In August I was out for two weeks from work, first for beach vacation and then for my brother’s wedding. Both of these were wonderful occasions that offered some respite from the day-to-day and gave me a chance to experience life differently. At work, I’ve been either preparing to depart or catching up upon my return — suffice to say it’s been a real challenge to find the time and energy to play serious games. Then there’s the frustrations I experienced on a pretty bad losing streak. While I was able to play many games on certain days, the quality of my play was quite poor, and this vexed me. I don’t know if readers have had this experience, but I made mistakes that I thought were well behind me. The games of August were certainly a rude awakening to my flaws as a baduk player.

What I’ve found most interesting about this past month is the way in which baduk reflects my life and shows me where I need to improve. What do I mean? Well I mentioned when I first started this blog that my wife and I had gone through a very hectic period: new job, new baby, new house. All of these are great things, but we had them all within a month! The intensity of that period has finally subsided and we’ve gotten into a quieter period, but we’re learning about the need to grow as a couple and not just as parents.

What is remarkable is how this was manifested on the goban. My wife and I both noticed games taking an emotional toll on me. Games were stressful, and losing provoked serious anxiety. I would lose my peace whenever I perceived my abilities as poor, and I found myself getting snappy. Upon reflection, I can see how my sensitivity was evident in the games I’d been playing for weeks, and how I already recognized a need to address this imbalance but had not yet taken the steps to do so. Seeing that my irascibility was not just isolated to the game made me stop and take a step back and look for the root cause and how to address this. The interplay between life and baduk is fascinating. It truly is life in 19×19 😉

It’s difficult to face one’s struggles head on. Oftentimes we can rationalize our behavior and feelings, explain them away as something they’re not. But when they are laid bare before us in our actions — in this case the quality of my baduk games — it’s more difficult to look away, and for someone like me that’s a good thing, because it gives me a concrete way to analyze myself.

That’s probably more amateur psychology than any reader came here for, but I wanted to share the experience because it has really helped improve my appreciation not only of baduk but also of the ways in which it’s helping me grow as a player, husband, and father. Baduk is a game of balance where every move we make counts and cannot be taken back. So, too, life. We cannot take back anything we’ve done and balance is an imperative if we’re to flourish. Let’s make every stone count!

Training Update

I have begun studying a pro games in order to shake up my training and see the game from new perspectives. Already I’ve memorized one game and am on my way to memorizing a second. With some effort I hope to commit more games to memory before long. I’m thinking of Dwyrin here who memorized a game per day for a year. Pro games are great because every move is worthwhile and playing them through gives me a sense of appreciation for the intangibles of baduk, such as timing and direction.

Tsumego remain the foundation of my study, and I’ve re-completed Graded Go Problems For Beginners #3. Now I’m working on the third volume of the Jump Level Up! series, which is exceptional. Life & death problems are like the wax on, wax off of baduk — the real importance lies not in the activity itself but in the underlying skill it develops, namely reading ability. So do tsumego, and do them correctly: without the solutions!

I was really pleased with my performance in a recent game. When I realized I was behind I managed to start and win a ko fight. Wow! Very exciting to actually succeed in that endeavor because I usually try to avoid such battles. In the event, however, it was satisfying to turn a loss into a victory. This is further evidence to me of the need to dig in during games and trust myself. This resilience was in marked contrast to the fragility I’d demonstrated in previous games during August. A welcome change.


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The Long Walk

Having returned from a week’s vacation, I am excited to resume my baduk training.

Even though I didn’t practice while away, baduk was never far from my mind. I wondered whether, absent training, I would struggle once I returned to the grind Monday morning. So far the answer seems to be partly yes, partly no.

What’s been made clear since starting Project Dan nearly six months ago is that getting stronger is far more difficult (for me at least) than I first believed it would be. It’s not that I expected linear progress, it’s just I thought I would progress faster. Turns out that I have to struggle for each rank gain (that’s the only metric I have). Even so, I’ve managed to move up from 13k to 9k, though I still wobble into DDK some days.

What has improved is my attitude towards this seeming lack of advancement. I’ve grown far better at taking the losses and the wins in kind, and not getting overly grumpy about a bad streak or prideful about a good one. I can see real growth in my approach to the game as a learning AND life experience and NOT just as a competitive pursuit. Every game, every review, every video and book I study, everything about this game leads me to want to become a stronger player. It is this resolution that was confirmed while on vacation. I don’t know exactly why it happened this way – perhaps I had to step away to see it? – but I’m grateful for the realization of this improvement.

Another upside is that I’m getting better at recognizing my bad habits and I’m working at eliminating these. My worst habit is creating weak groups, letting them get cut apart, and having to watch them die. Closely related to this is my seeming inability to kill some opposing groups in, what are in hindsight, relatively simple life and death situations. This points to issues with reading (the latter) and judgement/direction of play (the former). So I’ve got homework. What else is new?

The struggle, however, is real. I played several games Tuesday and lost all but two, though I count one of those wins as a loss because I didn’t deserve it. I wasn’t frustrated like I would get in the past (reference attitude adjustment above 😉 ) but it was still difficult. I found myself falling into bad habits – too many weak groups, responding without thinking, and missing a life and death situation. I’m grateful, however, for the opportunity to play so many games since coming back from vacation. Oh, how I wish I could play for hours at a time!

For me the road to dan isn’t short and it isn’t fast. Rather than zipping along through the ranks like some players, I’ve got to hump it – walk one step at a time until I get to my destination. The opportunity lies in the time I’ll have to soak up experience and learn from the games that I play or see played. The difficulty is in avoiding discouragement.

Six months into Project Dan – my first serious attempt to advance in the ranks – I know that I’m getting stronger, but that much work remains.