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.

Weak Groups: Don’t Create Them!

Yesterday was a frustrating day on the goban: My groups just kept on dying!

Why did they die? Because they were weak, and I created them that way. It’s been a problem in several of my recent losses, so much so that I’m on a pretty bad streak!

In his video on ladder anxiety, Dwyrin says that the players who fail to improve are those who don’t know what they’re working on. The fix, he says, is to write down what you want to work on and put check marks next to it whenever it arises in the course of a game. The thing with the most check marks is what you need to prioritize.

I think I need a post-it with the following: NO WEAK GROUPS! 

Every time I see one of my groups die I remember a (paraphrased) line from The Divine Move: Large groups are rarely captured. The line was spoken by Tae-seok, a former professional baduk player who’s doing time after being framed for his brother’s murder. In the scene he’s instructing other prisoners on how to improve their play. I don’t know quite what I like about this prison scene so much, but I suppose it’s this: I see myself as one of those poor players who wants to get better. When one of my dragons is slain, I know that I’ve failed, and I’ve got to get to the root cause.

Players of all levels will find much to work on, but for me right now I’ve got to stop creating weak groups. Here are a few examples where this bad habit led me to defeat.

Game One:


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Game Two:


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Game Three:


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What is to be done?

So now that I’ve identified a problem, what can I do to address it? I plan on using the following resources to help me:

This is not an exhaustive list, nor are all of these resources equally valuable. I think I will end up relying on Dwyrin’s back to basics series more than the others, but we’ll see. Of course I will be doing tsumego (the right way!) throughout this, as I’ve been doing daily since beginning Project Dan.

The onus for all of this falls upon me. I will have to stop creating weak groups – Dwyrin, Haylee, and Nick can’t do that for me. None of these resources will magically raise my level – and it would be foolish to substitute this kind of study for action. In order to improve, I actually have to play games. That’s my main takeaway from reflecting on these recent games: Play more games, but try to play better.

Far from being a discouraging prospect, the need to revamp my practice and hone in on fundamentals is rather exciting. Even though I will probably continue to lose more than I win, I am confident that the sustained effort will bear fruit. This is an exciting place to be, I think! It seems that I’m finally reaching a place where the effort no longer relies on the result (i.e. winning) but instead is based on applying my method (aka system).