19 X 19 FOR BEGINNERS SERIES
THINGS I WISH I KNEW WHEN I WAS 25 KYU
Part 2: Settling Your Stones
[A quick disclaimer for any readers who are SDK and up: this series was written by a DDK for TPKs, with the goal of making the process of “losing their first 100 games quickly” less confusing and more productive. As you read it, you may become concerned at the number of important concepts I’m leaving out, or the crudity of analysis used in the examples.
If you find yourself wanting to fill those gaps - to discuss how other moves are more efficient from a whole-board perspective - or sabaki, or honte, or any other high level concepts - I welcome your input. However, I humbly ask you to step back, examine your response, and take the time to craft your explanation with the 25 kyu player in mind. Chances are your contribution might include elements that are obvious to you, but far from obvious to the beginning player. If you can break your explanation into parts that TPKs can understand, you will be doing both me and them a great favor.
Lastly, please know that the examples I use in these articles are moves from actual games I’ve found on OGS. I’m not suggesting that these are the best moves to play in those situations - or that my minimal analysis of play-ahead possibilities is in any way complete - I’m just using them as fairly simple or self-contained examples to demonstrate the concepts in question.]
Word Clues for 25 kyus
SDK = single digit kyu (9k to 1k)
DDK = double digit kyu (19k to 10k)
TPK = twenty plus kyus (20k to 30k)
Welcome back! In my last article I discussed the ways that a sequence of sente and gote moves resembled the thrusts and blocks in a swordfight. Now I’m going to extend that metaphor and talk about settling your stones. Think of it this way - the two sword fighters have leapt at each other, slashed and blocked with their swords - and now it’s time to take a look at the landscape and make sure they can stick the landing.
Picture if you will the Dread Pirate Wesley fencing against Inigo Montoya in this cluttered and treacherous setting. While the swinging blades may demand their primary attention, they cannot neglect the particulars of the terrain under their feet, since they may need to run uphill to attack, or run backwards down some stairs to defend. Being able to secure their footing allows them to run in any direction and attack or defend more effectively.
I find it useful to think of a sequence of Go moves in the following way: the first part of any attack has a clear purpose - to threaten the opponent’s territory in some way that will demand an immediate local response. After that, the attacker must manage the counter-attacks, blocks, and responses from their opponent. Finally, each side must examine where those new stones are on the board, and anchor them to the landscape by attaching them to existing stones or creating the potential for eye-space later in the game.
There is one other important thing to pay attention to and it is an element that many beginning players miss - the closer both sides get to settling their stones in one area, the greater the likelihood that the biggest move on the board is going to be somewhere else. In Go terms, we talk about finding the right time to tenuki - that crucial moment when it’s time to pull out of the tunnel-vision of the current situation, and seize the opportunity to play somewhere else and make more profit. Tenuki is a complex, and many-layered concept that we will not discuss in detail here, but it is a good time to become aware of a few of the underlying factors that shape that decision making.
As each side works to settle their stones, they must attend to some or all of these goals:
- Secure their existing stones on the board in a way that makes shape, connects new stones to existing frameworks, or creates the potential for eye-space
- Close up gaps or cut points that will create local forcing moves for their opponent and result in them being trapped, forced to run, or make life in a tight space
- Reduce the chance that the next best move for their opponent will be a local one, increasing opportunities for both to initiate another attack somewhere else
- Weigh the relative urgency of each remaining weak spot or the efficacy of continuing to play locally against the potential to play bigger moves somewhere else on the board.
SETTLING STONES IN ISOLATED GROUPS
Let’s start off with a simple example. This is a fairly common opening position you might see on OGS:
Black played the 2 star points on top and White tried to stretch out a bit on the bottom, maybe getting ready for some variation of the Chinese opening.
Black doesn’t want to give White the potential for such a large framework right out of the gate, so Black decides to disrupt White with this simple joseki sequence:
1: Black’s P4 demands an immediate response. There are many options, but in this example, White’s priority is keeping as much of the lower right corner as possible.
2: White’s P3 is a counter-attack, which takes away one of P4’s liberties, so this also demands a response
3: Black counter-attacks at O3, taking White’s P3 stone from 3 liberties to 2 - this also demands a response
4: White extends at Q3, giving that iron-pillar (2 stone) group a total of 4 liberties, and connecting to the R4 stone
5: Black closes the cut point by playing at O4. Please note that there are other variations - like N4 - this is simply the most secure and conservative option (I’ll discuss this more in a second).
So, OK, that’s great, there are 5 new stones on the board, but - if their ultimate goal is to enclose the most territory - neither side has gotten very far. Also, if either side were to play elsewhere, it would increase the chance of their opponent coming back to the lower right, and making some other move to reduce potential, or to force them to run to the middle. If White approaches another corner instead of this one it might get the following response from Black:
Instead White calmly settles its stones like this:
Since there are no local stones to connect to, White extends up from the right corner and develops the potential for more eye-space up the right side. This is one of many ways that White can settle its portion of the corner - I’ve also seen Q5 and Q6 as variations. This is probably the most conservative and common one you’ll see on OGS.
Now, let’s see what might happen if Black decides to be silly and tries to create a large framework on top rather than settling its stones on the lower right (I don’t think this is a very realistic game position, but let’s just use it for demonstration purposes).
By failing to settle their stones on the lower right, Black has given White a better reason to come back, exploit that weakness, and play a local move to threaten Black’s group. Instead of creating potential eye-space on the bottom, Black’s stones must run to the top.
The more sensible option for Black is to finish their portion of the joseki and settle their stones. Here I am showing you the most simple and conservative variation. It creates the least potential for White to disrupt it in the future as a trade for grabbing a smaller extension along the bottom:
Both sides have now settled their stones, created the potential for eye-space, and wrapped up this local sequence. White has sente, and is free to attack elsewhere because both sides have done their best to reduce the chance that the next best move will be in the lower right corner.
Just a quick side note: the joseki variation above is the slowest/safest option for Black. The more common variations you’d see in OGS games might be something like this:
These variations balance the PROs of extending further and grabbing more potential eye space with the CONS of creating potential weak points. Because there is so much space between Black’s stones, White can play forcing moves at places marked with Os later in the game when it wants to do something else in the lower right. White’s calculations of whether to make those moves will naturally be influenced by other moves Black might play in the interim. If at some later point Black extends that group and plays J5 in the top example or J3 in the bottom example, that might reduce the chance of White attempting something in that area.
The point I’m trying to make here is that - as players gain more experience - they develop a better sense for how to balance potential risk with potential reward. Learning to settle your stones isn’t as simple as looking up the right answer in a book. It is a slow, gradual process where each person finds their own balance, and one where you might find yourself making different decisions over time as you gain experience.
SETTLING STONES IN CONTEXT
Since our first example took place at the start of the game, the groups couldn’t rely on other stones for assistance. But as the game continues, and the board gets more crowded, the analysis of whether a group is settled now needs to take more factors into account. Let’s take a look at this other game at Move 27:
White sees that Black is developing a potential framework along the left side. It wants to disrupt that framework - maybe even steal some edge and corner territory for itself. Remember those weak points and forcing moves I was talking about? Can you spot them? Let’s see how White uses them:
1: White plays a forcing move at the C6 weak point. If Black tries to secure the corner, White might cut Black off from its 3 stones above, so staying connected is Black’s top priority.
2: Black responds at D6, making a tentative connection between the 4 lower stones (C14 is still in danger)
3: White jumps towards the corner with C4.
4: Black counter-attacks at C5 - threatening to split White, and taking both invading stones down to 2 liberties.
5: White counter-attacks at B5 and puts Black in atari.
6: Black protects at D5, connecting its 4 lower stones together.
Even as a beginning player, I hope you can see how unsettled the stones are at this moment. White’s invading group has so many weak points (C7, B6, B4, C3) that playing elsewhere would be suicidal. Since there’s little chance that White can connect with reinforcements, it needs to settle its stones in a way that creates potential eye-space.
Black is dealing with the flip side of that coin. Where before it was banking on making eye-space using left edge territory, now half its framework has been pushed out to the middle. Black needs to connect to the rest of its stones as efficiently as possible, or they might get cut off and trapped inside a huge White enclosure. Let’s see what both sides did to stick the landing:
1: White’s C7 protects the C6 stone and creates potential eye space by threatening to cut Black at D7.
2: Black protects at D7, creating a tentative connection with the C8 stone (there’s still a cut point at D8).
3: White creates potential eye space with B8, and threatens Black’s C8 stone.
4: Black extends at C9, protecting C8, and making a secure connection with the B10 stone.
With just a few moves, White got what it wanted (potential for eye-space) by allowing Black to get what it wanted (secure or potential connections). So are the stones settled now? Not as clear anymore is it? The level of tension appears to have gone down, but there are still several weak spots that more experienced players can see, and beginning players often miss. Even though various Big Moves beckon from other parts of the board, these players took the time to close two more crucial gaps:
1: White’s B4 securely closes a lethal cut point. Any other move (D3, C3, B3, C2 etc) could leave White open to some sort of local counter-attack from Black. If White tenukis and Black cuts at B4, all the resulting possibilities will be very bad for White - undoing all the work it did with this clever invasion.
2: Black has two problems - it still needs to connect to the C14 stone, and deal with the remaining cut point at D8. Connecting takes priority because - if White cuts at C12 it could make a huge enclosure on the upper left, whereas Black could play some other move down the road (like E8) to secure the D8 cut-point and harrass White’s stones at the same time.
Once Black plays at C12 and makes a tentative connection between its left side stones, White decides that this group is settled enough to tenuki at D13. Both sides still have weak points (Black can play B7 and White can play D8), but these are no longer the biggest moves on the board. Now that Black has tentatively connected its stones up the left side, they have turned from potentially trapped prisoners to potentially powerful attackers. White needs to secure eye-space at the top or it might get cut at E15, or separated from its two stones at D10 / E9.
PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER
As you can see from these two examples, settling your stones can take different amounts of time and effort depending on context. The first example took only 7 moves, while the second one took 12, and required more analysis from both sides to read out the worst-case scenarios, and determine the right time to tenuki. Also, in each example, players had to make choices about conflicting priorities: Do you grab a smaller extension and minimize weak points? Do you grab a larger extension and open yourself up to forcing moves? Do you play one last move to settle the stones? Or do you play a bigger move somewhere else knowing you left weak points in your group?
When I was just starting to play Go, I kept looking for the One Right Answer. But Go isn’t like that - everything is situational, because so much depends on the strategies each player is capable of imagining, and what sort moves they are able to execute successfully. I started off playing long extensions because I didn’t know what I was doing, and my 18-24k opponents didn’t know how to exploit them yet. Eventually, I started playing 12-15k opponents who did know, got cut and reduced, and started playing more conservative extensions. Eventually, I will rank up and get more comfortable with managing the risk, and start playing larger extensions in a calculated manner. Which is right for you? Well it depends on your strength, and the strength of your opponent.
Think of it this way - as you are playing Go, you are telling your part of a collaborative story. One sentence in your story might be, “I invaded my opponent’s framework, used these forcing moves to create some potential eye space, then secured two weak points so I wouldn’t get killed right away.” It’s a long compound sentence, and there’s always more that it could have said, but at least it’s fairly self-contained. It has a beginning, middle, and end, and it accomplished something useful at each of those points.
Your opponent is also collaborating on this story. Neither of you have full control over the whole narrative, but there is a natural back and forth where they create a plot point over there, and you create a plot twist over here.
The more you leave your sentences half-finished, the more you provide opportunities for your opponent to come back, and finish them for you. Except now, rather than stories of triumph over adversity, they will be stories of how you suffered the brunt of an attack, and scrambled to survive. Alternately, if you get tunnel vision and focus too much on one aspect of the story, you might lose control of the whole narrative. Your opponent will take the initiative to start writing sentences in unexpected parts of the board, and your contribution will be running after them and trying to stop them, rather than driving the narrative in your own direction.
Advanced players have a higher tolerance for ambiguity because they can manage more stories across the board, keep track of where all the unfinished sentences are, and understand where each one might fit within the scope of the whole narrative. If someone comes and disrupts their story over here, they can hijack a different sentence somewhere else, and turn the narrative back to their advantage.
Beginning players lack the experience to manage this much ambiguity or make sense of the resulting complexity. Given multiple conflicting priorities, it’s all too easy to jump from one plot point to another, leaving unfinished fragments all over the board, getting increasingly flustered as you lose control of the narrative. As such, I strongly encourage beginning players to write your stories in clear, complete sentences as best as you can. In Go terms that means - pay attention to sente and gote. When it’s your turn to initiate a new sequence, look for the biggest move on the board, deal with the resulting resistance, then settle your stones.
When sente passes to the other player - don’t be alarmed. You’ll get it back soon. Just block, secure, and counterattack to the best of your ability, then settle the stones so you have sente to initiate a new sequence. If your opponent leaves big weak spots and attacks somewhere else, don’t run back to the weak spot right away. Calmly respond to the new attack, settle the stones in that area, wait until you have sente, and then come back and play on the weak spot.
The more you can track the story - the more you can relate to the story - the more confident you will feel contributing to that story. Make peace with the fact that perfection is an impossible goal. Your potential eye-space won’t be finished until endgame, and you can’t close up every weak spot in your group. Learning to read the rhythms of the game and minimizing your risk along the way will give you the flexibility to run backwards down stairs and up hills to attack, knowing you’ve looked behind you, and made sure you can stick that landing.
Good luck and see you next time!