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The Empty Board: Philosophical Reflections on Go #11

Wednesday October 31, 2018

By Bill Cobbart poster-purple

I’ve been working with Yuan Zhou on a new book about the astonishing degree to which pros are adopting an AlphaGo tactic that is a direct rejection of traditional theory about how to play. The move in question is invading on a 3-3 point behind the opponent’s 4-4 point stone very early in the game—even as Black’s third move! Any strong player would have laughed (or screamed if it was your teacher) if a relatively weak player had done that a year ago. But now, even the very top pros do it. I have seen several games in which Ke Jie 9p of China, considered by many to be the best player in the world, has done this, including invading with move 3 as Black. If you browse through the games in any pro tournament, you will find a lot of these early 3-3 invasions. I don’t know whether amateurs are picking up on this—the people I play on DragonGo often seem somewhat startled when I do it. But it is an amazing instance of how much freedom there is in playing go. The fact that AlphaGo has pretty much proved that go is not going to be “solved” so that a knowing player with first move can always win (even AlphaGo can’t do that), you can enjoy participating in something that truly offers a real opportunity for creativity and freedom. Of course, this doesn’t mean that anything goes and can be freely tried. Starting on the 1-1 points is not going to lead to a happy result. In that regard, go continues to be a lot like life. There are a lot of quite appropriate restrictions on our behavior, but no one really knows the limits of what can be done. Don’t just stay with the same old routines all the time—look for new possibilities. They could be revolutionary.

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The Empty Board: Philosophical Reflections on Go #10

Wednesday September 19, 2018

by William Cobb2018.09.16_empty-go-board-with-bowls-and-stones-water swirl

A big part of life is experiencing things you have never experienced before: flying in a plane, hiking to a mountain top, being in a snow storm, visiting a country where you don’t speak the language. We think of such things as enriching our lives, making life more interesting, and fun besides. There’s an obvious parallel to this in go: the game has a virtually infinite range of possibilities, but some players seem resistant to getting outside their already familiar circumstances. There are a lot of things that many of us have seldom if ever experienced: playing tenuki in response to an approach move in the opening, knowing what to do when the opponent attaches to a 3-4 point stone, being confident about the best way to continue after the first dozen or so moves, consistently judging the status of small groups accurately, knowing where to invade common positions, etc. In this regard, we’re like people who are perfectly happy to have never seen the ocean or a snow-capped mountain. The world is full of amazing and wonderful things; we’re happy to spend time, money, and energy exploring and becoming familiar with as many of them as we can. We should have the same attitude toward playing go. Just playing won’t get you to a lot of the amazing amount of beauty and fascination the game offers. You’ve got to get outside the familiar patterns you already know. This is why it makes no sense to refuse to read books, take lessons, or study the games of stronger players. There’s a truly amazing world out there. We need to spend some time and effort exploring it and not just stay inside the familiar area we already know. Don’t just buy books—read them. Don’t just look at the results of pro games—play through them. Don’t just play the same opening moves—try some you’ve not used before. You’ll discover that go is even more fun than you thought.
photo by Phil Straus; photo art by Chris Garlock

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The Empty Board: Philosophical Reflections on Go #8

Wednesday July 11, 2018

by William Cobb2018.07.11-empty-go-board-with-bowls-and-stones-night-vision

Go is like life, but it’s not like every part of life. Take war, for example, or a political election. You may have certain sorts of respect for your opponent in such cases, but you don’t really wish them well. Not only do you want to defeat them, you want to put them in a place where they won’t be a threat in the future. Go is not like this. Instead of wanting to permanently defeat them, you want your opponent to become stronger since that will make for more interesting games. Of course, you hope to become stronger at the same time. Both players are primarily interested in becoming better players. Winning games is part of the path to that end, but so is losing games. Just winning is not the goal we have in playing this game. It is very frustrating to find yourself having to play an opponent who cannot possibly win (being say, ten ranks weaker than yourself in an even game—like in one of my Dragon Go games at the moment). I don’t want to just win; I want to become a better player. Playing even games against much weaker players does not help me learn to play better. And it doesn’t help the much weaker player either, who just gets demolished and has little idea why. I’m happy to help much weaker players by playing handicap games. Those are a teaching process and something we all can benefit from. We should all try to do our share of playing on both sides of handicap games. My main point here is that while I don’t want my opponent to win this game, I do want to have a good challenge and to learn something, and that is more important than winning. Of course, I enjoy winning, but go is an odd game in this regard. I have no interest in leaving my opponent completely devastated. I want my opponent to become stronger so I can do so as well. Please, show me my weaknesses so I can correct them. That’s why the loser so often says, “Thank you for the game.”

photo by Phil Straus; night vision photo art by Chris Garlock

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The Empty Board: Philosophical Reflections on Go #7

Monday May 21, 2018

by William Cobb2018.05.21_empty-go-board-blurred

“Blitz” games are an interesting phenomenon in the go world, often played at ten seconds per move. They do count as go games since they follow the rules of the game, but to me, they’re about as appealing as playing blindfolded (although I have heard of one guy  who plays amazing well blindfolded). Actually, blitz games are not that different from playing blindfolded. Although you can do a bit of analysis in a few seconds, you certainly can’t see most of what is going on in the game. Since you don’t have time to think, except in a very superficial way, there are inevitably a lot of bad moves, although I suspect a stronger player would usually beat a weaker one. And you can’t deny that such a game can generate a lot of excitement—sort of like a dog fight. So I can see why some people like to play blitz games. So-called trick moves should be very effective. However, it seems a way to create a lot of bad habits since the results would generally just be a function of luck, instead of superior understanding, strategy, and analysis. Trying to figure out what is happening and how to best counter your opponent’s moves is what makes go such an engrossing game. If you minimize that intellectual challenge, I would think the game would soon become boring. I suppose there are times when you are too tired to really play the game but would like to have something to do. Maybe the people who play blitz games are just exhausted or bored and looking for a little easy stimulation. Are there ever blitz tournaments? You could play a lot of rounds in a day.

photo by Phil Straus; photo art by Chris Garlock

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The Empty Board: Philosophical Reflections on Go #6

Monday May 14, 2018

by William Cobb2018.05.14_empty-go-board-polar-coordinates

As go players, we cannot say whether playing the game is itself good or bad. We can only say whether particular moves in particular games are good or bad.  To make judgments of what’s “good” or “bad” you have to have a context which provides criteria for making such judgments. Sports in general are a good analogy for making this point clear. Not just any toss of the ball can be called good in baseball. So what about human actions in general? To make such judgments you must have a set of rules and in particular a clearly specified overall goal in which the rules are determined. Unfortunately, there is no general agreement about the ultimate goal of life. Insofar as that is the case some suggest we would be better off not judging good and bad. Of course, people often set certain goals and are then able to determine what’s good and bad in relation to those goals. But how can they be sure those goals are in fact “good”? In order to say a particular move in a go game is good you have to assume a view of the nature of the game. But to justify playing the game as a good thing you have to appeal to something outside the game. So a question is how to deal with people who show no interest in playing go. Just saying they should play because it’s fun or interesting doesn’t seem adequate somehow. We can try to find some value we do share with them and to convince them that playing go will promote that value. Japanese efforts to show that playing go can diminish the effects of dementia are an interesting example of this. The Japanese go community also believes that playing go can promote world peace; hard not to approve of that.  Another interesting example is some of the claims that are made about the value of teaching groups of children to play. Go is certainly a very special game. We’d like to say it makes you a better person.

photo by Phil Straus; photo art by Chris Garlock

 

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The Empty Board: Philosophical Reflections on Go #5

Monday May 7, 2018

by William Cobb2018.04.07_empty-board-heat map-red

I hope at least some of my readers felt at least a slight twinge at the statement in the last Empty Board (#4): “the player’s ultimate goal, which is of course to win.” If you are talking about the making of decisions about good and bad moves, the criterion is how the move relates to the goal of winning (except in teaching games), but for many players, it is misleading to suggest that they play the game in order to win. Certainly there is a sense in which you are trying to win, but I don’t think I’m the only player who would say that some of my most enjoyable games have been losses. I like to play the game, not just win the game. If we are talking about why we play, it seems more accurate to say that we play to enjoy the amazing challenges of trying to find the best strategy and plays, which may or may not result in our winning. So there are two somewhat different senses in which good and bad come up in go:  1) does this play contribute to victory? and (2) am I enjoying playing this game? This distinction surely applies in life as well. In life, as in go, it’s fairly easy to answer the second question. In life, however, the first question is very difficult to answer with confidence. You decide to play go, so you have some sense of what you are doing and why, but you don’t decide to be born. Maybe if we had a chance to play the game of life more than once, we could figure out what it is all about. In the meantime I recommend trying to play go more often.

photo by Phil Straus; photo art by Chris Garlock

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The Empty Board: Philosophical Reflections on Go #4

Tuesday May 1, 2018

by William Cobb2018.05.02_empty-board-kaleidoscope

Decisions about good and bad moves have a big role in go. It’s often not that easy to determine, but a move either promotes or hinders the achievement of the player’s ultimate goal, which is of course to win.  Whether playing the game is good or bad is a different issue. To decide that you have to appeal to some goal independent of the game. This is a way in which go is not so much like life. Not because life situations are more complicated, but because the ultimate goal or purpose of life is much more difficult to determine. So deciding what is good and bad in life is much more difficult. As a result there is a lot of muddling through and a lot of just following along. That’s why in most cases we just don’t think about this very much. But if you want to be able to feel more confident about making decisions about good and bad in life, you will have to make an effort to determine what the goal of life is. Nevertheless, playing go can be very relaxing and comforting. It’s nice not to have to worry about what we are really up to.

photo by Phil Straus; photo art by Chris Garlock

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The Empty Board: Philosophical Reflections on Go #3

Thursday April 26, 2018

By William Cobb2018.04.26_empty-board-bas relief

In the classical age of go, players would spend several hours or more playing a game. Ever wonder why they did that? What could they have been thinking about? Here’s an experiment for you: Go onto one of the turn based internet go sites, such as DragonGo, and start a game with someone at your level. After the first four moves in the four corners, spend more than a few minutes after each move thinking about the board situation. Print it out and mull it over: where are the biggest plays, are there any weak groups, any ways to start a fight or disrupt the opponent’s plans, what is the balance of territory and potential, etc. Read out (even try out) possible sequences. Spend some time thinking about the game just to see what it’s like. As the game develops notice what it’s like to not be under time pressure trying to figure out what to do. You’ll also discover that there are a lot more possibilities than you had noticed before. You’ll find times when you’re not sure what to do or whether a situation is good or bad and maybe you’ll even see why it might be interesting to read some books and study previous games, especially those of stronger players. Of course, this will also make you more frustrated about playing with only 45 minutes basic time, but at least you’ll get a better idea of what makes go such an interesting game.

photo/art by Phil Straus

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The Empty Board: Philosophical Reflections on Go #2

Tuesday April 17, 2018

by William Cobb2018.04.15_empty-board-glowing edges

Except for the 90 minutes basic time of games in the US Open at the Congress, almost all official games in US tournaments have a basic time of 45 minutes. Why? Well, it makes it possible to have four rounds in a day. But why not have three rounds or two? Four rounds make it possible to separate the group for ranking the players for prizes and such. Anyway, most players don’t use the entire 45 minutes, let alone the 90 at the Open. Why? Don’t they have anything to think about in those extra minutes? They’re probably worried about running out of time, but perhaps having a ranking for getting prizes and status seems more important. So the whole idea of modern tournaments is primarily a function of catering to a desire to win prizes rather than to play the best go you are capable of? Yes.

photo/art by Phil Straus

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The Empty Board: Philosophical Reflections on Go

Tuesday April 3, 2018

by William Cobb2018.04.03_P1230835-tri-tone

“Go is like life.” It’s a common claim—and true. But go is also like death. Every game comes to an end and every player eventually plays their last game. Is that a bad thing? With individual games, even if you lost, you always made some good moves and there’s always next time. But what about that final game? Does the fact that it’s inevitable mean that playing is a waste of time? Of course not. Each game is an end in itself. You don’t have to play forever for them to be one of the best parts of life. The same goes for all of life’s games. The fact that they come to an end and there is no continuation does not undermine the enjoyment or the significance of life. A lot of people seem to be confused about that.

photo by Phil Straus

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