19x19 FOR BEGINNERS SERIES
THINGS I WISH I KNEW WHEN I WAS 25 KYU
PART 3: PLAYING A BALANCED OPENING
[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. I say this because you may become concerned at all the crucial elements of the opening I’m about to leave out of the story. All through this article, I am going to encourage TPKs to avoid cross-cut games, pincer moves, complex joseki that create 5 unsettled groups, etc. Until beginners understand whole board play, just playing a balanced opening is really difficult. Throw a few eye-less sticks into the mix, and determining the correct direction of play gets much more complex.
My goal here is to introduce beginners to some simple, functional, and fundamental aspects of the game, that can provide them with an advantage if they know what to look for and how to make the most of it. IMHO, the right time to experiment with more aggressive openings is around 19-15k. Until beginners grasp the basics of whole board play, it’s too easy for an experienced opponent to grab a big advantage out of the gate.
If you would like to fill in those gaps and expand on the topic, I welcome your input. However, I humbly ask you to take the time to craft your explanation with the 25 kyu player in mind. Chances are your contribution may 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.]
Welcome back! In my last two articles, I tried to introduce some aspects of play that apply throughout the game:
- The interplay of sente and gote within one sequence
- Settling one’s stones at the end of each sequence.
As I go through the following articles, I’ll keep showing how these elements inform and shape the various stages of the game:
- The Opening
- Transition into Midgame
So let’s begin at the beginning - and talk about the deceptively slippery and surprisingly risky first stage - the Opening.
As an isolated beginner, this part took me a long time to figure out. No matter what I tried, it always felt like my opponent was the one with the big enclosure, and I was the one making hopeless last-minute invasions. At one point, I stumbled onto the brilliant idea of reviewing my own games (forehead slap!) Now that I knew where that big moyo ended up, could I track the moment when it first started?
It was humbling to realize the structures my opponent needed to grab that advantage were usually built within the first 20-50 moves. Even when I started training myself to look for them, they were still really hard to spot.
Understanding sente and gote helped me stop making lethal opening blunders. Settling my stones helped me hang on to the potential I’d managed to grab. But it wasn’t until I started to understand whole board play that I learned how to make it through the opening on an even footing with my opponent.
So what are you trying to do in the opening, and how is it different from other stages of the game? Imagine - if you will - that you are playing card games for chips at a casino. The casino floor has bunched their tables into groups of 8 like this - where every box represents one table with multiple players betting on games:
Every evening, at Happy Hour, the casino has a special deal. As the cards are being dealt, players can hop around from table to table, putting bets on as many card games as they want. The more you play on any one table, the more of a chip-advantage you can get there.
There’s one more catch. As soon as Happy Hour is over (it’s much shorter than it seems!) the player that’s in the lead on any 3 adjacent tables gets double chips! So, while some players may be focussing on one table - or betting on whichever tables have the best hands - the crafty players are picking their battles so their winning tables end up next to each other.
To translate this into Go terms - as you focus on the interplay of sente and gote in approaching corners or creating extensions - you have to zoom out and make sure your groups are either helping each other create the most potential across the board or keeping your opponent from grabbing that potential for themselves. You’re racing against time because, as soon as all the corner and edge potential is claimed, the opening is over and you have to start Midgame.
Take a look at this example - Black has used whole board play to grab the lead in just 14 moves (note: taken from an actual TPK vs DDK game):
Black starts by grabbing the star points along the bottom with moves 1 - 3 - 5.
6: C6 was supposed to be a sente approach move for White, expecting a gote response
7: Instead Black plays its own sente move at D6
8: White plays a gote move at D8
9: And Black grabs another star point with Q10.
White tries their best to take the 2 remaining corners and Black creates some small potential along the top. I remember seeing this kind of position as a beginner and thinking - this is fine! White’s got two corners! And those gaps between Black’s stones are so big - I’ll jump in and reduce them later, right?
What I didn’t realize was - in the casino metaphor - Black has already grabbed the lead on 4 adjacent tables:
White’s plans to invade Black’s potential moyo will soon be rendered even more risky by Black playing vertical moves away from the edge to enclose and expand that potential. For higher level players (say 15kyu and up) those invasions wouldn’t be too difficult. For 20-25 kyu players? Believe me, it’s harder than it looks!
Compare that to this hypothetical* opening position which is a bit more balanced (*created with some AI assistance).
In this example Black’s potential on the right side is balanced by White’s potential on the bottom. The rest of the board is sliced up into smaller pieces - with Black having a better chance on both left corners, and White with a slightly bigger framework on top. Now that all the unclaimed potential along the edge is gone, both are ready to start making vertical moves into the middle. But - as you can see in the second example - both start Midgame on a much more even footing.
There’s one last thing I want you to notice in the second example - Black and White both ended up with “most of” one edge of the board. If they had tried to cut each other into smaller pieces - that would require a more fight-heavy game, and take their focus away from grabbing unclaimed potential. Letting your opponent have something they want is not necessarily a bad thing in this game - as long as it gives you an opportunity to grab something valuable in return.
As you gain experience, you will find that this game responds to your play style. What sort of resistance you encounter, and what size enclosures you end up with, depend very much on what sort of game you’re trying to play. When you focus on playing a balanced opening - you’re aiming for that sweet spot where you’re grabbing stuff for yourself WHILE reducing stuff for your opponent. If you are a beginning player who starts the game with an appetite for destruction, you may have to shelve that until Midgame. The good news is - having played a more balanced opening - you can then attack with confidence having first built a base (i.e. playing from thickness).
LEARNING TO SEE EFFICIENCY
The duration of the opening is defined by the availability of unclaimed potential on the board - as soon as it’s gone, you start Midgame where expanding your potential into the middle becomes the bigger priority. Since some parts of the board are more valuable than others, each side must attend to where that unclaimed potential is, and grab it in the correct order before the other does. The value of each part of the board depends on how efficiently that potential can be turned into territory:
Here’s a classic illustration of the concept: each of these enclosures are using 12 stones. However, the corner at A encloses 36 points, the side at B has 16, and the middle at C has 9. It may not seem so important in the opening, when the rest of the board is up for grabs, but even a tiny edge in efficiency at the beginning can add up to a big advantage down the road.
In order to grab potential as efficiently as possible, follow these handy rules of thumb:
- Enclose your own corner or approach your opponent’s corner
- Create large extensions or disrupt large extensions
- Create small extensions or disrupt small extensions
- Make vertical moves away from the edge into the middle
Think of it as a finite buffet on a cruise ship. It’s put out every day, but not restocked. You can walk up to the buffet and fill one small plate at a time, but you must finish that plate before you go back for more. The lunch crowd is hungry, and everyone wants the valuable stuff first - the lobster and crab legs. Then it’s on to sushi, hors d’oeuvres, cold cuts, and bean salad. The thing is, if you get distracted on your second plate and over-focus on cold cuts, others will go back for a second helping of lobster, and finish it off before you can get your share.
THE FIRST FOUR MOVES
Now that we’ve made it too complicated, let’s back up and focus on the fundamentals. We start with a blank canvas - a pristine 19x19 board. But where to play first? Feeling some analysis paralysis?
Let me take the pressure off - until you level up to 18-15 kyu, it really doesn’t matter what opening you play as long as you have some stones near each corner, and make at least one extension from those stones. As long as your stones don’t get killed or chased out of that area, you’re doing fine. You’ve got the rest of your Go journey to experiment with more aggressive openings. For now, just follow the priorities and try one these options for your first move:
The 4-4 point:
PROS: The most flexible opening. Rather than trying to get most of that corner, Black is willing to split it in half in return for being able to build structures in either direction.
CONS: Vulnerable to the 3-3 invasion. Can lose some or all of the corner if not careful.
The 4-3 point:
PROS: Easier to enclose a corner in 2 moves. Not vulnerable to the 3-3 invasion. Increases the chance of keeping more than half of that corner.
CONS: Invites their opponent to approach the corner at P16 or P17. Starts slightly lower on the right side, and will have to climb away from the edge to increase potential.
A WORD OF CAUTION ABOUT CROSSCUT GAMES
Now it’s time for White to respond, and whether they know it or not - they are at a crucial cross-roads which can shape the rest of the game:
If White plays the diagonal corner from Black, then the game has the potential to be more balanced. If Black plays in corner A, White plays in corner B - or vice versa. Either way, both sides start with the ability to develop potential along one side of the board.
If White plays on either of the adjacent corners, then Black can play on the diagonal and initiate a cross-cut game. From the start, this will be a more fight-heavy game, create more unsettled groups, and more complexity to keep track of. Until you have a better understanding of whole board play and are comfortable juggling multiple priorities, I encourage beginning players to stay away from cross-cut games.
Focus instead on the possibilities where Black has one side of the board and White has the other. Take a look at these 3 options for Black - they will work just as well for White:
What this opening says about you: No matter what happens, I will be ready.
What this opening says about you: I want to develop potential on the right, and I want to get more than half of the lower right corner.
What this opening says about you: I’m expecting White to jump in at P16/P17 or Q5/R5, but I still want to get more than half of those corners.
FOCUS ON PRIORITIES: EFFICIENCY AND WHOLE-BOARD PLAY
While any of these options above are a good start, I’m going to use Option 2 for demonstration purposes. As we look for move opportunities, let’s apply those 5 priorities:
- Enclose your own corner or approach your opponent’s corner
- Create large extensions or disrupt large extensions
- Create small extensions or disrupt small extensions
- Make vertical moves away from the edge into the middle
When possible, look for ways to apply multiple options with one move. If Move A allows you to approach a corner and prevent a large extension while Move B allows you to approach a corner and create a small extension - you have to weigh the relative value of those options and decide which is the best result for you.
So, it’s Move 5 and Black has sente. Where to play next? Let’s look at our priority list. Are there stones in all 4 corners? Yep. So, we move on to Priority 2: Approach an opponent’s corner, enclose your own corner, and see if you can create or prevent a large extension along the way:
The triangles show where Black can enclose their own corners or create a broad framework on the right. The circles show where Black can approach White’s corners on the left.
The opening where Black creates a broad framework with Move 5 is referred to as the Chinese Opening, and it’s complex enough that I’ll have a separate discussion about it at the end of this article (note: not all of the triangles are examples of the standard opening) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chinese_opening
By enclosing their own corner or framework, Black cashes in their opening advantage as quickly as possible. This also gives sente away, and allows White to approach another corner first. From my experience, this is useful in higher-level fight-heavy games, where Black wants to have something secured as quickly as possible, or to put their opponent on the back foot by forcing them to invade early in the game. For beginners, I would encourage you to use the sente available in Move 5 to disrupt White rather than playing it safe.
For now we’re going to look at the circles on the left. What options does Black have, and which are the best for whole board efficiency?
If Black approaches at F17 or F3, they can approach a corner and create the potential for a large extension. However, that potential cannot extend all the way across because of White’s stones on the left. Also, if Black approaches from the outside then White might try to develop the whole left side like this:
Until you get better at invading and reducing in tight spaces, I advocate for beginning players to try and prevent large extensions, as this will lower the chances that your opponent will grab an early lead.
If Black plays D15, they can approach a corner and prevent White’s large extension on the left, while leaving open the possibility of developing a large framework on the right. As you can see, when making these decisions, sometimes you have to compare WHAT YOU CAN GET versus WHAT YOU CAN TAKE AWAY, and make a decision about which would be the better result. In this situation, I would advocate preventing White from developing the whole left side and playing D15. But before we get into White’s response, I wanted pause briefly and give you:
A CAUTIONARY TALE ABOUT THE PINCER
What if rather than responding in gote for move 6, White decides to counter-attack with a pincer move at D13? Seems like a good deal for White to put Black on the run, right? The problem is, by starting a fight this early in the game, White has created the potential for run-away complexity. Here’s an example from a different game at Move 17:
In this game the pincer occured on the bottom at M3. Rather than following the usual list of priorities and grabbing unclaimed potential, both sides had to attend to keeping their stones alive by making vertical moves into the middle, creating more unsettled groups and increasing complexity as they went. Here’s the same game at move 98:
The lower right turned into a life-or-death puzzle, but it looks like both Black and White can live (highlighted green). However, you can see 4 different groups highlighted yellow that are still fighting to connect and make eye-space - a very risky situation for both. Bottom line: until you are ready for this level of complexity, I encourage you to stay away from pincer moves.
BACK TO THE STORY
Black approaches the corner at D15, starting this simple joseki variation. White gets most of the top left corner and will try to develop potential across the top. Black settles their stones in such a way that they will try to develop potential down the left side.
Now White has sente. The priorities are - approach corners and either create or prevent large extensions. If White approaches from the inside (R14, R5, Q5) they can prevent Black from making a large framework on the right, but will have to be satisfied with developing only half of the potential in between. Since Black can hem White in from either side, they can only count on a small extension.
Or White can approach from the outside at O17 or O4. Because White already has the upper left corner, O17 allows them to develop the most potential, tipping the balance towards creating a large extension rather than preventing a large extension. Let’s play O17 and see what happens.
White approaches at O17, starting this simple joseki sequence. Because White wants as much top potential as possible, plays another sente move at Q18, then settles the stones with L16. Even though there are still weak points at the top (H16, etc) White is doing pretty well.
Now Black has sente. Black can either enclose a corner at R5, approach a corner at F3, or approach a corner and create an extension at C6. While R5, and F3 both create the potential for large extensions, the space between Black’s stones would be stretched pretty thin, and White could jump into the middle and try to cut either of those.
If Black approaches at C3, the stones on the left side are loosely connected, meaning Black doesn’t have to play a gote move to settle them. If White plays a gote move to protect the lower left, Black can still play R5 as a follow up and get two things they want for the price of one. So let’s go with the above variation.
Now White has sente. Can White approach a corner or enclose a corner? Well White can enclose their corner with B4, but that’s a fairly small enclosure compared to what could happen if Black plays at R10 and tries to grab the entire right side. Before, White decided against splitting Black because they had the opportunity to create a larger framework across the top. But now the whole-board situation has changed, and preventing Black from developing a large framework has risen higher on the priority list.
If White jumps into the middle right with R10, Black extends down at R12 (protecting their weakest group), and White makes a simple 2 point extension with R7. Black then makes an extension from their corner with N4. This looks a lot more balanced, so let’s go with this variation.
The Opening is almost over. White still has one more sente move to enclose a corner or create another extension. Securing the top with H16 is a tempting option, but it is the most passive one. Should White enclose their corner with B4, or create an extension with K3?
Playing in the lower middle at K3 may seem like White’s making the bigger extension, but if Black jumps into the lower left corner, they could reduce White and create a larger extension along the left side at the same time. This is not a good result for White.
If White encloses their corner with B4, and Black grabs the last big extension at K3, then the board is more balanced. And with that, the Opening is over. For White, securing the top with H16 is no longer the biggest move on the board. Now that we have shifted to Midgame priorities, protecting their weakest group on the right, and making vertical moves away from the edge and into the middle to expand the potential there have become more valuable.
Now - I will freely admit that the moves I used for this demonstration may seem a bit awkward because they were designed to prove a point. At every point along the way I tried to restrain myself to
- Simple moves that TPKs might play
- Avoid pincer attacks and other complex positions
- Make fairly conservative decisions rather than taking big risks
As such, this example is a bit of “a perfect sphere rolling on a frictionless surface” - an abstraction of what might happen if both players made similar decisions for similar reasons.
In a real game, you may see more variety in terms of which priorities each player might choose. Depending on how aggressively your opponent plays, you may have to set these priorities aside, and protect your stones from local attacks. However, as soon as you have sente, just
- Focus on the list of priorities in spotting move opportunities
- Weigh those opportunities against each other and pick the one that will either give you the biggest whole-board advantage or prevent your opponent from grabbing a similar advantage
- Settle your stones after each attack so you can hang on to the potential you claimed.
As long as you follow those steps, you should come out of the opening on an even footing with your opponent (if they’re following the same priorities) or perhaps even in the lead (if they keep going back for cold cuts and you end up grabbing most of the lobster.)
A FEW WORDS ABOUT THE CHINESE OPENING
I know this article is already dangerously long, but I would be remiss if I didn’t discuss the Chinese Opening, since you’re likely to run into it when playing others. While this may seem like the simplest opening, it’s actually surprisingly complicated!
Think about it this way - Black starts the game with an advantage for going first. Komi formalizes that advantage to between 6.5 - 7.5 points depending on the rules. All through this article, I’ve encouraged beginning players to use that advantage by putting pressure on your opponent’s stones - to approach corners rather than enclosing your own corner for instance. But what happens when Black cashes in that advantage with Move 5 and tries to create a large framework right off the bat?
White may be tempted to match Black’s tactics with some mirror-go. If Black can try for a large framework on the right, why not try to make a large framework on the left? When Black makes a large extension on top, White mirrors with a large extension on the bottom. The problem is - Black still has that first-move advantage, and if they grab the K10 (tengen) point, then this situation is a bad outcome for White. Also, the above board is a mess of isolated stones, and both sides will spend the rest of the game playing risky invasions in tight quarters.
If White knows what they’re doing, they’re going to make it their mission in life to invade or reduce Black’s potential framework starting with Move 6. By trying to grab a large advantage first, Black is “inviting their opponent into their house”, so rather than attending to the usual opening priorities, White will spend the next 30-40 moves contact fighting with Black.
Here’s one possible sequence of 51 moves. This is from a pro-game, and is discussed in this thread on the topic here:
As you can see, this quickly gets into very complex fighting for both sides. As such, while you are leveling up from 25-20 kyu, I would caution you from using the Chinese opening against stronger opponents. Against weaker opponents, you may be able to get a nice advantage out of the gate. Stronger opponents will respond aggressively, and may throw more complexity at you than you can handle.
If you would like to learn more about the Chinese opening, I recommend these 2 videos here:
THE 3-3 INVASION
Again, I would be doing you a disservice if I left this out, because it is something you’ll see all the time in live games. Basically, if your opponent has a stone on the 4-4 point, and you’d like to take that corner away, you can play the 3-3 point, and be fairly certain of succeeding.
This is the simplest joseki variation (there are many, many more!). White starts with a stone on D4, and Black invades at C3. The resulting chase allows Black to make eye-space in the corner, and white secures with C6.
While it might feel good to take the corner away from White, Black has only gained a modest 8-10 points in that corner, and will have a hard time creating a large framework that can connect to it. In exchange, White is getting a solid wall pointing towards the middle, with the options to create potential on the left side or the bottom. As such, if you’re using the 3-3 invasion in the opening, try to do it towards the end of the opening, to prevent your opponent from developing large extensions rather than at the very beginning (that’s more of an advanced-player / high level AI tactic).
If you’d like to learn more about the 3-3 invasion I would recommend this video here.
That’s it for now! Stay tuned for my next article JOSEKI BASICS FOR BEGINNERS - coming soon!
Introduction: Making sense of Go
A big thank you to AdamR and Kaworu_Nagisa for your assistance with this article. I ended up taking your advice and used my own positional judgment rather than relying on AI assistance or waltheri.net searches to come up with the moves used in the examples. All of the higher-level aides kept advocating much more aggressive play, and more complex moves than a TPK would be comfortable with. Hopefully, I managed to come up with some moves that would still feel realistic in a 20-25kyu game.