Go and Learning

After my epic shoulder injury, I stopped lifting weights and playing ultimate for more than a year. This gave me some extra time, and I’ve decided to study Go “seriously” (well, as seriously as I can with the responsibilities of a graduate student) with that time. I stopped about a couple of weeks ago, after which I had some introspection about what I’ve accomplished and failed to accomplish. The tl;dr version of my progress is at http://senseis.xmp.net/?Eggplant86, though it is not very interesting by itself; what I’ve gained most from the introspection were some lessons and observations, both about Go and just learning things in general. I thought this would be a good place to write them down, both for a future me and for the case that someone else may benefit from them.

Go is a wonderful game. Although I’ve decided to stop learning for now, the decision came completely from a new time-consuming responsibility, rather than Go itself. Otherwise, I would still be passionately learning this game into and through the summer, because it really is that fun and that amazing and that deep and I feel I’m just getting to the interesting part (this is apparently a dangerous feeling that all Go players have at every stage of their development). I’ll definitely pick up the game again and try to learn it better the next time, but before that, I think it is best to split my adventures with Go so far into three main sections, and summarize the lessons I’ve learned from each. (to any stronger player sneering at a SDK calling his Go history a “history”: for now, excuse my ignorance of your much harsher and longer Go history and let me enjoy my stories as my own)

1986-2007: The Fence

While I found it was easy to not notice chess in the U.S., it was hard to grow up in China without touching Go. Like Starcraft (and Go itself, of course) in Korea, in China Go was televised, and children watch TV. My father was an enthusiast, so my introduction to Go was through his books and his set. The stones were glass and uneven, and the black stones broke more than the white ones so there were lots of half black-pieces that doubled as safety hazards. He tried to teach me and demonstrate his prowess to me at the same time, by beating me with a 15-stone handicap in the most ruthless and uneducational way possible. Needless to say, with an my ego as a child having been just as big as his, I didn’t play any more with him after a couple of games. I still peeked at the books for fun though and did problems from time to time, usually only the first 2-3 problems in each section, so maybe they paid off when I was re-introduced to the game years later. It was 2003 and around the Hikaru no Go boom, so some of the kids would play Go during our free activity periods. One of my best friends, J, played a few games with me. I didn’t play at all through college, and J came over to stay once after I graduated saying he got stronger (all of these stories involve him and some cute girl, this time a cute girl who played Go. However, he actually was stronger so who knows) and we played about a dozen matches, around one game a day, where our wins see-sawed from each day to the next. I was probably something like 12-11k around this time.

Lessons:

  • if you’re going to teach your kid anything, don’t teach by beating the crap out of him, especially if he was emotionally fragile like me (or if he’s, you know, like 5 years old).
  • I remembered only starting to “care” about the game when I had a “rival,” an experience I had in many other activities as well (especially sports). I think this is a great way to fuel study of competitive-type skills and to use that teenage male ego for something productive.
  • the only reason I started saving games was because I had no board when J came over, which accidentally taught me the lesson of saving and analyzing past games. I grew a lot from those games since I would secretly study them to beat J the next day. Furthermore, I learned the habit of reviewing and extracting information from past games, which was a very efficient way for me to learn.

2008-2009: The Teacher

Around the time J came over, I got word that one of my coworkers, G, played Go. Furthermore, he was really strong (funnily, someone described him somewhere as “a million dan,” which actually meant something like 6). I excitedly asked him to play and teach me, and he was somehow patient enough to sit through 5 games with me. I lost all of these 9-handicap games, though I came close in the last one. The feeling of going up against a forcefield was both crushing and exciting. Furthermore, G let me borrow his favorite Go book, Lessons in the Fundamentals of Go, which probably improved me by a stone from just reading it. Work got pretty serious so I didn’t get to play more versus him, but he continued to give advice and good discussions up to this day, for which I was extremely grateful.

After I quit work, I met several other teachers like J and D, mostly around first dan. From each I’ve not only seen strength, but also a maturity that I felt was a necessary step to achieve that strength. In these two years I only played just about 10-15 games and I was probably around 10-9k afterwards, but I’ve gained a new appreciation for the game after actually seeing a strong player, which built a secret desire to be strong. Unfortunately, work was fairly pressing and New York extremely distracting, so actually learning had to wait.

Lessons:

  • Lessons in the Fundamentals of Go may be one of the best Go books ever.
  • To generalize, in any discipline, even those that I think I’ve mastered at some point, studying and re-studying fundamentals have always been the sessions that improved me the most and broke the most plateaus. The problem with learning is that I often get into habits, some good even, but I might forget why I got those habits in the first place. By asking myself “why” and forcing myself to come up with either a reason or “I don’t know,” I usually reach a new level of understanding. Back when I was weightlifting more seriously, the breakthroughs definitely came when I thought/learned more about the form of an exercise and why it was the correct form. Recently, this happened to me in mathematics as well, as I really got down and asked myself why some of the fundamental things “worked.” The resulting calculations, though simple, suddenly showed me tons of stuff that were invisible before but definitely within reach.
  • It is not only inspiring, but also educational, to meet the strongest people you can find in a discipline. Not only will you learn what they did, you’ll also see what mentality they needed to get there. What the actual “good mentality” is seems to be discipline-specific, though I think it is universal that strong people are different from the rest – they all have a spark and they all have a fire to light that spark, whereas the rest of us tend to lack one or both. Also, without seeing what the strong can do in their discipline, I tend to fall into the trap as underestimating human potential in that discipline, which definitely stunts my growth.

2010-2011 The Program

This is the current story. In September 2010 I decided to start learning and gauge my progress at the end of May in 2011, after meeting some very enthusiastic and helpful teachers, such as L, A, and mate105, who had given me great reviews and feedback on my ideas. The funny thing was that my teachers would give very contrary advice – one would tell me to ignore openings completely and only play slow games, and another would tell me to learn feeling from careful study of openings and try to play as many games as possible. Thus, I decided to make sure I did things that they were unanimous on, which basically came down to – surprise – studying hard and playing hard. On the “theory” end, I decided to read some books including Attack and Defense and In the Opening, do problems via Sensei’s Library or goproblems.com, and view Wang Yuan’s lectures about Go fundamentals. On the “practice” end, I actually played games. Before this, I found it hard between work and my other hobbies to consistently fit games in. However, because of the injury I could now play games when I would usually go to the gym, which was a very regular rhythm. I played about 100 games in this period (excluding January and February because of the MIT Pokerbots competition during IAP), which was roughly one game every couple of days, about twice the number of games I’ve ever played before this in my life. I ended May with a KGS ranking of 5k before hearing about my new project.

Lessons:

  • not all games are created equal – games where my thinking is pushed to the limit but not too much beyond, especially when they’re well-reviewed by a stronger player who did not participate in the game, felt like they were “worth” several games. This is similar to Csíkszentmihályi’s description of “flow.” Before playing online games where players of similar rank are easily matched, I usually played games which were too one-sided (like playing against a 3d), which caused many hopeless situations and frustration because there were no positive feedback at all to any of my moves (even a move that would be objectively “solid” would be “punished” because of complications a dan player could concot, so it was hard to tell the quality of my own moves apart).
  • it was good to get a combination of theory and practice. I feel theory is like filling a cup with tea and practice is like enjoying the tea. With no application the cup will begin to “overflow” since I’ll be filled with theoretical ideas that I’ve seen in a book without seeing how they can be applied, varied, or countered, since most books only set up a few lines of play in each situation. When I binged on playing games with no studying, however, I frequently fell into the trap of repeating the same motions of ineffective play and often I would have no choice but to make the same mistakes I used to make, even realizing them as mistakes, because I couldn’t see a better alternative. In the macroscopic picture this describes the academic vs. engineer schools of thought, and I feel the right answer for me was, as always, a balance.
  • spikes of unusual and very intense training sessions help go over plateaus, since they challenge my limiting beliefs of what I cannot do. During my training montage there were two instances where I felt I got instantly stronger afterwards and they both fell into this category. The first instance was my first tournament, where the tournament situation made every move that much more nerve-wracking and tested my mental endurance more than it tested Go skill. The second was attending a Go retreat/workshop with Guo Juan, where I met avid and helpful players like Adam and Karen. This was about 3 days full of intense go in peaceful upstate New York, where I felt like I was breathing Go and still had dreams of Go after I came back.

It had been a really fun two semesters. I find it very sad that my new project requires me to leave this beautiful game for a while, just as I am finally learning to stand and maybe even walk after being on the floor for so long. However, unlike my new project, I think I will have Go all my life, so there’s no reason for her to be jealous. A. had told me her favorite moments playing Go had been when she was a single-kyu player; maybe it isn’t so bad to elongate that period of my life. One day, I will happily walk with the stones again; until then, you may find me randomly online as Eggplant86, if only to keep KGS from deleting my account.

-YZ

4 Responses to “Go and Learning”

  1. Eric Suh Says:

    Heh. I can’t remember anymore whether you still have my Go books or not. You can keep them if you do, though, since you seem to be getting more mileage out of them than I am now. :-)

  2. yanzhang Says:

    Hey stranger!

    I don’t quite have your go books, but I appreciate your thought =) what you should do is play with me and teach me/ get better with me, whatever one sounds better ;)

    -Yan

  3. dinoflage Says:

    Nice cartoons. I like the Paintbrush aesthetic, or whatever the Linux version of that program is.

  4. Tony Says:

    Sounds cool. We should definately play a game together sometime.

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