James Kerwin's advice on getting to 10k, 1k and beyond

Comments on improvement methods by James Kerwin, the second Western professional, from AGA E-Journal editions 4th and 24th February 2005.

Getting to 10k

What is the fastest way to improve from 20+ kyu to under 10 kyu?

Play as much as you can, but get the most benefit from your play. You must have the right attitude and not get too caught up in winning and losing. Don’t be afraid of a stronger opponent, and don’t try to bully a weaker opponent. Simply try to play correctly, the best way you know how. This approach will be uncomfortable but you must bear with it. If you play comfortably you will repeat your customary mistakes and improve only slowly if at all. Your discomfort is a sign that you are improving. As Jane Fonda says, “Feel the burn!”

Second, go over your games. Even without assistance you can see a lot of your mistakes if you look for them. And ask your opponent if he or she saw any moves that were clear mistakes. If you have the budget for it I would highly recommend sending some of your games to a pro for commentary. I comment games e-mailed to me and I’m sure many other pros do too.

I never recommend that a player study. You play go for fun, and if study is too boring that’s fine, don’t study. If you do want to study, the most valuable thing is solving tesuji and life and death problems. Don’t do problems that are too hard, concentrate on problems you can solve in 1 minute or less. The next most valuable thing is taking lessons from a pro.

Other forms of study are far less useful, although they have their place. Next best is studying pro games. Go through the game once. Then try to replay the game from memory. When you can’t remember the move, think of where you would play. Once you’ve decided, check the move actually played and compare it with your move. Try to understand why the pro’s move is better than yours. Keep doing this until you remember the game. Books can teach valuable concepts, but they can’t teach you how to implement those ideas against resistance.

Studying joseki in a systematic way is a waste of time, which is why there’s a folk proverb declaring “Study joseki, become two stones weaker!” I recommend using a good joseki dictionary to look up joseki only when they came up in a game and you think you got a bad result. Look up that joseki, understand where you went wrong and what you should have done, and then put the book away.

Getting to 1k

When you’re starting out it’s possible to improve quickly without doing anything special. It doesn’t matter that much who you play. A lot of your progress comes from training your perception to see the patterns of the game more quickly and accurately. But when you have progressed to a single digit kyu ranking it will take more effort to improve than it did when your rank was double digit. It is a general truth in every area that the better you are, the harder it is to improve.

When you get to single digit kyu and above, you should know that the rate at which you can hope to improve depends on the difference in strength between you and your common opponents. You can improve quite rapidly when you are playing much stronger players. If you are mostly playing players of about your own rank or weaker players your improvement will be very, very slow. If you find it hard to get games with stronger players the only way to improve with any speed is to take lessons from a pro.

But in your efforts to get games with stronger players, I encourage you not to neglect playing weaker players too. These games can be very useful in learning how to apply go theory. Stronger players will resist your strategies making it hard to implement them. Handicap opponents offer less resistance, and it’s easier to see how a strategy is supposed to work. In addition, if no one played weaker players no stronger player would play you either, and then where would you be?

If you get a decent percentage of your games with stronger players you can make good progress through your own efforts. First, play as much as you can. But don’t play from habit or instinct. Hopefully, you have picked up some go theory by now: use it to help you think about your move. Know why you think the area you choose to play in is the important area. Knowing the reason you’re playing there should help you to know how to play there.&n bsp; Review your games and ask your opponents for comments or advice.

You do not need to study, but study will speed your improvement. Solving tesuji and life-and-death problems is by far the best study. Don’t try to solve problems that are too hard. You should be able to solve most of the problems in less than a minute. You can spend up to 10 percent of your problem time on harder problems, but if you can’t solve a problem in 5 minutes it’s too hard for you.

The next best study is replaying pro games. Much of the game will be beyond you, but you can learn a lot by looking at the ‘big picture’. Go through the game once just to understand what happened. Play through it again and focus on which areas they played in at each stage of the game. Try to understand why that area is more important than other areas on the board at that time. At the end of each engagement, look at the outcome. You know the outcome of the engagement is even. (Even if the division of spoils was uneven enough to decide a game between pros, in an amateur game it can be considered completely even.) Does it look even to you? If not, reconsider your judgment. Don’t make much effort to understand the fighting or the tactics; they are far beyond you at this stage.

But it is worthwhile to consider the big tactical issues. If a group looks weak to you and is not reinforced, look carefully at the attack and defense of the group to see why it wasn’t reinforced. Or if a group looks strong and comes under attack, try to see why it was vulnerable. If you’re playing the game on a board you can spend up to an hour or even an hour and a half on the game. If playing on a computer, expect to take about half that much time. And don’t forget to enjoy the game while you’re studying it.


What a horrible title! Getting to 1k? Why not just make it 1d instead. It’s not that there is clear line between a 1k and 1d. :joy:

It’s like: kid, if you work hard, you may become a 1k someday, but you may never be good for a 1d.

Mancini: kids, if you work hard and do as I say, I will take you to Euro 2020 final. :smiley:

It may have to do with the ranking system used by the AGA in 2004, though I doubt it since this was already the 21st century.

In the previous century, there was a clearer line between kyu and dan.

For instance, in the '70s and '80s the British Go Association allowed its individual clubs to promote, without any control exerted by the national body, their members to any kyu rank the club management thought appropriate.

However, to advance from first kyu to shodan required the permission of the central committee, which operated by secret criteria relating to which dans and 1–3k players they thought were particularly strong or weak. It was a whole different ballgame to cross that divide.

Repeatedly in 20th century materials, there are references to 1k players who are thought to be too strong and overdue for promotion.

Consider the song The Strong Dutch First Kyu, originally printed in the BGA Songbook and reproduced in the AGA one.

What shall we do with the strong Dutch first kyu?
What shall we do with the strong Dutch first kyu?
What shall we do with the strong Dutch first kyu?
If they won’t promote him?

Way-ay, make him shodan,
Way-ay, make him shodan,
Way-ay, make him shodan,
Why won’t they promote him?

Certainly Kerwin would have been very familiar with the traditionally meaningful kyu–dan split, since he was already in his late 50s when this advice was published (and presumably, but not definitely, written).


The AGA songbook contains 120 pages!
Did they still have time to play go?
Alas, the strong Dutch first kyu is history.
Maybe 20 years ago, but not anymore.


To go from 1k to 1d would just deserve one more article.
There is a step there modulo the difference between rating. It’s said to take as much experience as to go from 30k to 1k, and the fact is I met a bunch of strong players enjoying their step after a quick progress.

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This makes my shallow selfish soul very satisfying now that I am a 1d. :joy:


I found another instalment!

This is one of the most clear, constructive, and excellent pieces of literature on improvement I think I’ve ever read.

By James Kerwin 1P
[6 May 2005]

Congratulations to those who have made it to shodan (1 dan, literally “starting dan”). Only 10 percent of go players become dans, so you probably have at least some talent for the game and if you don’t, you have my admiration for your work ethic. Either way, if you want to advance still further you must be prepared to work. As in all things, the farther you go the harder the next step is.

Take stock of your situation. First, honestly assess your talent. Are you very talented, moderately talented, or not very talented. Second, how easy is it to get games with stronger players, say taking 3 stones or more? If you’re very talented and can get games with stronger players you don’t need to do much beyond play a lot. If you’re less talented and have stronger opponents you will need to supplement play with study. If you don’t have stronger opponents you will have to work much harder and you still won’t make fast progress unless you take lessons from a pro.

Kyu games tend to be won by knockouts, such as the death of a group or a catastrophic loss of territory. To advance in the dan ranks you will have to learn to box and not just punch. You must be prepared to go fifteen rounds every game and to win on points, not by knockout. You must win a majority of the rounds, even if only by a little. Each punch must be well directed and solid. You can see the truth of this clearly when you replay pro games.

You must put more importance on details and small advantages. It is not enough to save your groups, you must learn to live gracefully and without struggle. It is not enough to press a group hoping to kill it, you must learn how to extract profits from the groups you attack even as they make life. It is not enough to take or destroy territory, you must learn how to do it in sente. It is not enough to win the battle, you must also leave the battle in good shape to fight the next one. It is not enough to play the right moves, you must make sure you play them in the right order.

So how do you make these improvements? There are three parts to your improvement plan; find better opponents, have the right attitude, and study.

If you don’t have stronger players at your club you must find better ones. If you’re not on the internet, get on. Check out the online clubs and ask stronger players for a game. Many may decline to play, but some will accept. And don’t forget to accept some games from weaker players as well. In addition, you can go to tournaments. There are many more now than when I started out, and there should be a number that won’t be too far from you. If you do poorly at first don’t worry. The players at tournaments aren’t better, but they tend to be very competitive and they’ll make you work for each win. They’re probably not outplaying you, they’re outworking you.

In the kyu ranks attitude is important, but not critical. After you become a dan player you won’t make much more progress unless you have the right attitude. The right attitude is not humility exactly, but something like it. You already play good moves, but you can’t let that fact blind you to better moves. Your moves may be successful, or powerful, or clever, but that is irrelevant. There is really only one question, and you must ask it every move. That question is: “Is this move the best move, even if the best move is only a little bit better than this move?” You must be consumed with the search for the best move, the correct move. Any other attitude will slow you down or stop you completely. You can’t afford pride, or fear, or greed, or complacence.

What should you study? The most important thing is to review your own games. Ask your opponent if he would like to review the game immediately after it’s finished. If he won’t review it with you, review it later. If he will review it be sure to review the moves you were uncertain about. Ask him what he thinks, and listen carefully. He may be right or wrong, but he will surely say something you can use to get better. If you think you mishandled a situation, print out the board position and ask stronger players what they think you should have done. And don’t be shy about sending games to a pro for commentary. After reviewing your own games the next best study is solving tesuji or life and death problems. And spend some time reviewing pro games.



For improving from 20k+ to 10k:

  • Play as much as you can
  • Don’t get too caught up in winning and losing
  • Play the board, not the player
  • Review your games yourself and, if possible, with your opponent
  • Consider buying professional reviews
  • Don’t study unless it’s fun
  • If you are going to study, do quick tsumego and tesuji problems
  • Study and memorise professional games
  • Don’t study joseki until they appear in your games

For improving from 10k to 1k:

  • Play both stronger and weaker opponents
  • Consider buying professional lessons
  • Implement theory
  • Review games yourself and, if possible, with your opponent
  • Do quick tsumego and tesuji problems
  • Replay professional games

For improving from 1d (the mysterious kyu–dan leap having been taken):

  • Assess your talent and your access to stronger opponents
  • Consider buying professional lessons
  • Focus on achieving gradual strategic progress, paying attention to detail
  • Always search for the best move
  • Review games yourself and, if possible, with your opponent
  • Do tsumego and tesuji problems
  • Review professional games