I’m currently rated somewhere around 12-13kyu on OGS. I don’t play humans very often, and when I do, it’s usually correspondence, so my rank progress is slow - but I don’t mind. My real goal is to become a stronger player, and I figure - once I put in the work - my rank will eventually reflect my abilities, so I’m not in a hurry. I spend months playing bots - learning and studying - and then play 3-4 human games per year to see how far I’ve come and how much I still have to learn.
I recently had an interesting game against a GnuGo bot, and I’m documenting this for other DDKs who have been trying to figure out how to level up and play using a more complex strategy. I’m sure there were lots of things I missed or could have done better, so if you have feedback on that I’ll do my best to learn from it.
A FEW WORDS ABOUT MY LEARNING STYLE
Early on in my Go journey, I realized that - when there is a skill difference between two opponents - the more advanced one is often playing a completely different game. They are following strategies and paying attention to elements that are often unthinkable or invisible to their opponent. Since I lack patience, I’m always racing ahead - trying to grow a new set of eyes to see those more advanced strategies that allow me to make big moves. The problem is - those big moves are just one piece of the puzzle. I still have to learn all kinds of discipline and structure to make profit from those big/risky moves after I’ve played them. Over time, my strategic thinking vs my actual tactical abilities have gotten spread out over a large skill spectrum. I find myself playing moves that are bigger than my britches, and then having a hard time making profit from them.
My main mode of studying in the past few years has been pitting a Dan-level bot (Leela, Katrain) against an SDK level bot, (GnuGo, Cosumi) and trying to distill individual exchanges into global strategies. I’ve written about this before - what I do is (whenever I have sente):
- Evaluate my strongest and weakest groups vs the weakest groups of my opponent
- Look for big move opportunities
- Find my top 3 moves based on that assessment
- Force myself to pick 1 of those 3 moves as my top choice
- Only then do I check with the Dan-level bot to see if their recommendations match my assessment.
If Leela or Katrain agree with me then my learning and confidence are reinforced. If the teacher bot picked one of my other 3 moves as their top choice, I take the time to try and understand what makes that move better. If the teacher bot finds a completely different move, I take a lot more time to figure out what new strategy this move represents, and try to see those opportunities next time.
After playing a bunch of assisted games, and feeling like I’ve absorbed some new strategy - I’ll play an unassisted game against the GnuGo bot on my phone to see if my new strategy actually works. My GnuGo is set to level 8 out of 10 - which is somewhere around 9-10kyu, and just slightly ahead of my own level.
This bot plays a fairly tight territorial game - it’s good at creating large extensions and developing those into big moyos early on. It’s merciless when I over-stretch my groups, and is good at cutting and chasing me when I make mistakes in traveling across the board or making shape. It teaches me to balance my big moves with careful / solid play (on a good day) or just shows me where I am likely to make mistakes (on a bad day).
HITTING THE DDK WALL
Recently, this method of learning has stalled, because the strategy I’m trying to learn VS the strategy that my Dan-bots are trying to teach me are so far apart. I’ve been trying to play the same kind of calm, territorial game that GnuGo plays. Instead of responding in kind, Katrain and Leela usually attack one of GnuGo’s weak groups within the first 50 moves and are able to capture completely - taking a 20-30 point lead right from the start.
When I try to play similar strategies unassisted, I always mess it up somehow. I am unable to capture those weak groups in the opening, so I end up chasing them. Then, in late mid-game, I’ll make some silly mistake in making shape or managing cut points, and get my chasing stones captured, erasing my earlier advantage.
Recently, I’ve been trying to play closer to my own skill level - trying to meet GnuGo on its own terms and playing the same type of territorial game (create large extensions, make big moyos, try to take 3 corners, do big moves in the middle, etc). The games would end up close - sometimes I lose by half a point, sometimes I win by half a point. But when I step back and look at the final result - it always seems like a typical, boring DDK game - big moyos, everything is alive, no big captures. I wanted to play a more interesting game, but I didn’t know how.
THE LIGHT BULB MOMENT
A few weeks ago, while I was on vacation and had more time on my hands, I found this old thread by AdamR about NHK commented matches with English subtitles:
This comment caught my eye: “The way they think about the game is inspirational. Watch all five for (money back) guaranteed five stones improvement.” I took that to heart and watched 6-7 different games - trying to pay attention to the (vast) difference between their strategic thinking and mine, and came away with some interesting ideas:
- After the first 6-7 moves of the opening, pro players will play risky/aggressive moves that deny eye-space rather than trying to create large extensions or secure territory,
- When those risky moves are chased or pincered - pro players will balance playing additional risky moves with solid moves that make shape or connect their weak groups to distant reinforcements
- Rather than settle or connect their groups quickly, pro players will create many unsettled groups and increase the complexity between them - often waiting until late mid-game or end-game to make eyes or create solid connections.
TRYING ON BIGGER SHOES
With these new ideas in mind, I tried a different approach to my GnuGo games - rather than playing safe moves to grab potential - I tried playing more risky moves to invade, pincer, or deny eye space, and then see if I could keep those risky stones alive. While playing, I realized I was more confident using this strategy because I’d gained a better understanding of when I can steal sente. Let me use this joseki variation to explain what I mean by that:
If White approaches my Q3 komoku at Q5 - this usually requires an immediate response to avoid losing that corner.
However, if White approaches that Q3 with an R5 knight’s move - I can steal sente and approach a different corner (i.e. tenuki for move 2) - knowing that even if White presses the attack at P4, I can settle the stones with this simple joseki. If White tenukis after I play M2, I can bide my time - wait until I have sente again, and then enclose that corner with S4 if there are no other corners to approach/enclose. If White secures the corner with S3, I can just play L4.
So, keeping all that in mind, please feel free to take a look at the actual game:
Throughout the game, I’ve annotated various turning points along the way in the comments and on the board - showing places where my old strategic eyes would have played safer moves to settle stones or grab more potential, and where I chose to play riskier moves instead to attack White’s eye-space (my old strategy moves are marked with Os)
I’ve also noted times when I made mistakes in my game, and then went back and played better moves that worked. The goal here is to try and learn from those so I avoid those mistakes in future games (mistakes marked with Xs):
Not only did I feel different the entire time I was playing this game (more confident / less worried), but when it was over I was surprised to find that I had won by 24.5 points:
To my satisfaction - the end result looked more complex and interesting than my previous games - it let me know I was on the right track. Here are my main take-aways:
- When you have a chance to steal sente, look for moves that threaten your opponent’s eye-space, or threaten to cut loose groups apart, rather than playing safe moves to extend or settle your own stones
- Make those risky moves in such a way that you can be fairly confident of keeping your own stones alive if they’re pincered or chased
- When you are pincered or chased, look for opportunities to counter-attack rather than immediately running to reinforcements
- When you have a weak group in the middle running to reinforcements - play thick moves to make good shape
- When your risky strategy is paying off in one place - don’t be distracted into making safe securing moves by a sente attack in another - continue to push your advantage with the risky strategy because it should net more profit, even if it means suffering a minor reduction elsewhere
- Don’t get distracted by moves you want to play, or moves that are easy to spot - you might be missing a much bigger move on the board
- Be patient and don’t expect your attacks to pay off immediately - you might set up a situation which creates cut points or a shortage of liberties at move 100 which might not pay off until move 200 - find the right time to make the most profit from that situation and don’t rush to complete it before it is ready
- If your weak group is attacked - see if you can steal one more sente move to attack elsewhere before you connect / secure the weak spot
One final caveat - I know that I didn’t actually “win” this game against GnuGo. Given that I made 7-8 mistakes, those would have probably cost me most or all of my advantage if I were playing against a human opponent with no take-backs and un-dos. Also, I realize that this is only my first step down the path this strategy represents. All through the game, I found that I’d often get threatened and revert to my usual / safer strategy rather than playing something risky, so there is still a lot more for me to learn.
However, as a tool for reviewing my moves and trying to come up with better strategy, I find this type of exercise very useful, as it allows me to slowly develop better perception abilities and playing discipline over time. Hopefully you will find it helpful as well.