Immerse Yourself In Baduk

My first exposure to baduk was a March 2014 article in Wired magazine on the game ‘computers still can’t win‘ by Alan Levinovitz. Interest peaked, I clicked through and began to read. As I scrolled downwards my attention became fixed upon the game’s history and its simple, beguiling aesthetic to the point that I hardly noted Levinovitz’s extensive technical discussion. With imagination aflight, I determined to learn more about the game.

In subsequent weeks I discovered Hikaru no Go and Teach Yourself Go by Charles Matthews (n.b. libraries are incredible resources!). I was introduced to KGS and IGS and began a few 30-kyu games. Although I recoiled at the instant challenge the game presented I did not lose interest. As weeks turned into months I dabbled in online play but did a lot more procrastinating (i.e. reading about baduk). I became a teen kyu but wasn’t really serious about my play even though I told myself that I wanted to get stronger. This start-stop routine continued until I began Project Dan in March 2016, a whole two years after first learning about baduk!

A lot of life happened in those 24 months, but none of it extinguished my interest in baduk. And since initiating Project Dan – I am now approaching its hundredth day – I’ve spent a fair amount of time reflecting on what drew me to baduk and what sustains my interest in the game despite all of the challenges that it presents. One comparison I’ve been drawn to in this thinking are the similarities between becoming proficient at baduk and learning a foreign language (something I also have some experience with), both in terms of its rewards and challenges.

Since I always like bad news first, let’s start with the challenges.

Learning most things, but especially something as foreign as a new language or a profound game, is effortful. There is no easy way around this challenge. Like faddish fitness programs, products that promise language proficiency in weeks or days or hours rely on our desire to make things easy, simple, and readily digestible. We fall for these promises because they make the road to some difficult thing seemingly more navigable. Their power lies in fostering an illusion (not a trick!) – in capturing our imagination. Oh I can learn German in three weeks! Great, sign me up! As if the language of Goethe was something that could be packaged and shipped, ready to use upon delivery. When we expect media to deliver to us a mastery of a given subject we are setting ourselves up for failure.

The need for effort frustrates our imagination and wounds our pride. Acknowledging inability presents a monumental challenge. This is an individual obstacle that each person must face on their own even if they have recourse to external aids (e.g.,  friends, media, etc.). Steven Pressfield terms this force Resistance. It is the enemy of any person seeking to do anything that will move them from a lower plain of existence to a higher one. At times, Pressfield writes, Resistance may pose as an external aid – a friend or a book. Recall my procrastination above. I was reading about baduk instead of playing it! There is a cartoon Pressfield referenced. In it a man was standing before a table and the pearly gates. Above the pearly gates it said simply “Heaven” and on the table was a stack of books labelled “Books About Heaven.” Which one would Resistance have us choose?

Inability sucks but it is a fact we must confront. Even Socrates in his Apology acknowledges that the more he learned the more he realized his own lack of knowledge. Our relative weakness should lead us to humility – a realization that we are not the best at each and every thing right away and all at once – but instead it often causes us to clam up and abandon whatever it is we were seeking. I know that I’ve confronted this temptation many times with regards to baduk and my German studies. It’s a continuous challenge. On good days my very weakness spurs me to love and pursue baduk all the more.

Along with effort there is a need to accept a prolonged period of incomprehension. In a foreign language things that were once commonplace, such as expressing a basic need or thought, become difficult. Lacking words we resort to gestures and other crude devices. We might be able to communicate but it is nowhere near as fluid as in our native tongue. The same is true with baduk. Although it is sometimes referred to as a ‘conversation without words’ the games of beginners (like me) often resemble encounters between complete strangers who share no common tongue. We’re trying to communicate, however poorly, and often fail! We play slack or meaningless moves, for example. Nevertheless we make the attempt, and we keep trying – eventually we might be able to communicate with a degree of coherence. As with language, in baduk comprehension requires immersion.

The product of this effort and immersion is this: To transcend words and deeds and reach a deeper level of understanding. As it is between a husband and wife, words often fail or or not necessary. The mutual comprehension is so ingrained that the medium of communication shifts from vocabulary and grammar to something higher, more profound. A baduk game between masters is similar: It is a thing of beauty which most cannot comprehend. The collective experience gained from a shared endeavor is something powerful to behold. Is it paradoxical that through learning another language, even one of actions such as baduk, that we somehow reach a plain beyond words and deeds to a deeper experience of reality?

Perhaps it is not a paradox because we have in our imagination and the wonder which fires it a signpost to something beyond ourselves and the object of our attention. The deeper reality is the experience of beauty. In language it might be the cadence of the words and phrases or the culture which these undergird. In baduk the beauty is found in its complex simplicity. The fact that from slate and shell and wood a game with more possibilities than our minds can comprehend could emerge and continue for millenia is amazing.

Thoughts On Practice And Silence

I’ve worked hard at clearing away distractions, now I have to think about how best to use the time I’ve freed up.

It’s kind of scary, actually, having this time. It’s easier to claim “I don’t have time!” instead of actually doing my work. But now that I do have space available to learn baduk, shouldn’t I be doing it? If so, how? These are the questions I have been contemplating.

While I told myself I’d play at least one game per day, the reality is that I often don’t, and I want to change this. It’s been stop and start. Some days I actually cannot play a game, but this is not every day. Becoming stronger at baduk requires me to work hard each day. If I don’t put in the effort how can I expect to advance?

At bottom it’s not a question of knowing the right thing to do, but doing the right thing.

I have made some progress. My daily practice is now more consistent:

  1. Listen to one lecture on Guo Juan’s Internet Go School (IGS) and do the accompanying problem set.
  2. Review available problems in IGS’ Training System.
  3. Play one game each evening (working on this!)
  4. If I can’t play a game then get some studying in while at lunch or commuting.

The more I consider the use of my time and resources the more I recognize the need for silence.

I love to read, especially nonfiction, but this often leads to distraction; and working through the books I’ve accumulated sometimes feels like an obligation. Paring down this stack affords a measure of peace. I’m also less drawn to Netflix and Hulu. All media requires my time and attention, and recognizing this has been less a revelation than an unfolding realization.

The whole silence piece gets back to where I started this post off: having free time.

It seems like it should be easy to use our time well, but a little experience shows that this is not so. There is a war for our time and attention: The battle resumes each morning and is followed (maybe) by an evening truce. This contrary force is both internal and external. Christians regard this as the experience of Sin. “I see in my members another principle at war with the law of my mind…” writes St Paul in his letter to the Romans. Steven Pressfield calls the enemy Resistance.

However it is termed – and this terminology matters – the experience seems universal. It is proof that we are not yet as good as we could be or ought to be. Practice is meant to help us improve, to overcome inability and ignorance. There is proof of its success all around us in professional players, saints, and athletes – those persons who live their vocations heroically. We look up to these people, and rightly so: their achievements speak for themselves.

I never expect to become a professional baduk player, but I can improve my abilities by practicing each day. Even if I don’t achieve high rank or public recognition, the effort invested in developing this skill is worth it. Above I described my routine in hopes that it might encourage other players. I have also attempted to discuss some of the musings that surround this regime to provide some context because I think these touch upon the human realities of training.

Our willingness to do the right thing can be halting. To sustain our effort is noble and right but it can be easily frustrated. It’s easy to fall into the trap of ranking our value with the skill we are trying to cultivate, but to accept this is to accept a lie. We know also that our lives outside of the game affect how well we play. This is why it is important to use our time well.

Balancing action with repose is a necessary ability, one that is essential for effective practice. I am getting better at training as an activity, but I also need silence. As strange as it may sound, this is something I am resolved to work on, to incorporate into my life. Enjoy the silence.

Turning Pro

I am a terrible skater.

I learned this about myself while in Victoria, British Columbia where, along with some friends, I visited an ice rink. After lacing up we stepped through the gate into the counter-clockwise fray, and – bam! – I fell. The others, my friends and fellow patrons, glided about like NHL pros. I was, by far, the worst skater present.

That experience has stuck with me, I think, because it mirrors so much of my life. Reality often checks early enthusiasm by revealing inability: I fall, for example. Yet learning the ropes demands that I stand up and keep moving. Skill comes through activity, through practice. Only when I get my legs can I determine the pace and afford, perhaps, to stand still.

As on the ice my beginnings with baduk were wobbly. I looked at the empty grid with trepidation; I still do. Fearful that I would play a fatal variation, I made slow, redundant, and artless moves. Naturally I lost many games. I still lose more than I win, yet my outlook has matured.

One reason for this is my reading of Steven Pressfield’s Turning Pro.

Pressfield is not a prodigy. Until his late twenties and early thirties he fled from writing, losing himself in a “shadow career.” Driven to write he fled further still into a decrepit North Carolina cabin, and then bounced around still more until he landed again on the East Coast. In the Big Apple he continued doing “shadow” work as a cabbie until one night he couldn’t take it any longer. Pressfield then confronted his enemy, Resistance, by writing for a full two uninterrupted hours. It was rubbish, he knew that much, but he was okay. He had turned pro.

Author Steven Pressfield.
Author Steven Pressfield.

There is much to commend Turning Pro.

Like all of Pressfield’s writing it is lean and muscular. It hits hard and keeps moving, driving readers with inexorable force. It is powerful stuff.

Turning Pro is about self-transformation, and it has far reaching relevance. It speaks to the artist and the warrior as well as the baduk player.

One way to understand the professional is through his opposite: the amateur. In The War of Art Pressfield asserts:

The word amateur comes from the Latin root meaning “to love.” The conventional interpretation is that the amateur pursues his calling out of love, while hte pro does it for money. Not the way I see it. In my view, the amateur does not love the game enough. If he did he would not pursue it as a sideline, distinct from his “real vocation.

In Pressfield’s mind, many of the world’s ills, addictions, and anxieties have their origin in amateurism. This is because the amateur has succumbed to Resistance, which is understood as an all-encompassing force hostile to all higher human endeavors. The amateur knows that they’ve knuckled under, hence the self-loathing, self-hate and other destructive/distracting behaviors.

Turning Pro, by contrast, means confronting Resistance and, above all, doing your work. In The War of Art, Pressfield identifies four qualities and habits of the pro which the amateur lacks:

  1. The pro shows up every day.
  2. The pro stays on the job every day.
  3. The pro is committed over the long haul.
  4. For the pro, the stakes are high and real.

Within these habits and qualities rest others, such as the need for practice. This is the practical aspect of Turning Pro where Pressfield begins to sound like other writers, such as Anders Ericsson with his theory of deliberate practice and Malcolm Gladwell and his rule of 10,000 hours. I do not, however, find Pressfield unoriginal here; instead, I think he is approaching the same issue of professionalism (i.e., mastery) as these others and coming up with similar solutions. The key difference is that Turning Pro tackles this question from the perspective of mentality while these others try to understand it through pedagogy and activity. All of this together is quite compelling.

Still I have my reservations about giving Turning Pro an unequivocal endorsement. My main objection is the author’s elevation of the professional life above all else, including bonds of marriage and family. To me these relationships are fundamental to any endeavor. Far from being an encumbrance, a spouse and good home life afford the best foundation for personal and professional fulfillment. A steady 9-to-5 job, which also comes in for criticism, furnishes the means to support many pursuits. I do not see the incompatibility of a steady life and the life of the professional like Pressfield does, and therein lies my principle objection to his thesis. When Steven Pressfield makes these claims his thinking is at its most banal.

As an aside, The Master of Go offers a convincing counter narrative. The book shows how the players’ wives and secure finances actually support their professional lives.

There are several aspects of Turning Pro that will benefit baduk gamers. The first is Pressfield’s description of the professional mentality. The professional works at a remove from their art, treating it like a job, even a daily struggle. Their focus is on honing technique, not with the public reception of their work. The professional’s concern is always quality – the fact that they did their work and they did it well. In baduk this means not being obsessed with rank or win/loss records, and focusing solely on playing well.

Second, the need to do your work. The pro works every day. This aspect of the book speaks to the importance of deliberate practice as a means of achieving mastery of one’s art. Being a professional is effortful.

Finally, Resistance always gets a say. Pressfield quotes the Dalai Lama saying, “The enemy is a good teacher.” Some days the pro makes no progress in his art, nevertheless his effort is not in vain. Sometimes the professional has to take what the defense gives. Patience means that the defense can always crack in the late game. The professional is in it for the long haul. As he writes, “In the scheme of our lifelong practice, twenty-four hours when we can’t gain yardage is only a speed bump.”

In spite of its weaknesses, Turning Pro is both inspirational and instructional. It forces readers to confront their own Resistance, however manifested, and so, I think, renders a great service. I know Turning Pro has influenced my own training in baduk, and I hope it benefits others as well. It is also good to see that Steven Pressfield, who started writing in his thirties, can still succeed in his art. For baduk players it is often the case that professionals start their careers in adolescence. Knowing, however, that professionalism is, in part, a mentality, people who are not ranked pros (or who will never have that opportunity) can still play baduk as if they were professionals. This is the main value of Turning Pro.

I am still a reluctant ice skater.