Mindset when playing handicap games

Hi there!

I don’t play often handicap games but when I do…

…I just don’t know what to do! :grin:

When I am black it’s quite easy: don’t play puppy go, use handi stones and reinforce, play for territory and don’t get mad about invasions.
Sometimes I can manage it to work.

But when I’m white I feel overwhelmed since the start an I can’t figure an efficient way of dealing with handicap stones.
I must assume that my opponent is weaker, so probably I should try and trick him and let him play wrong moves but I’m not used to do it, so I don’t know what to do.
Also I don’t like to trick people.
But if I only play solid moves I can’t compete.

So, what’s your advice when playing white?
What’s a good strategy?


I just play normally, but somewhat greedier than usual because the idea of handicap is that I should be able to get away with being greedier due to the strength difference, and thus reduce my disadvantage. Unless it’s like 8-9 stones. Then you have to try and kill stuff.


If you play ‘normal’, and B wins, good for B! Time to reduce one handicap stone. Takemiya sensei is known to play ‘normal’ and is happy when his student wins.

You can think of your moves as ‘probes’: you’re waiting for B to make a mistake. If B makes no mistakes (relative to your level), then, once again, B wins, and time to reduce one stone. If B makes enough mistakes, then you have a chance to win. You’re looking for weakness in B’s shapes. If you can exploit the weaknesses, then you have a chance to win; otherwise, time to reduce one stone. :slight_smile:


That makes sense in a teacher/student relationship or with recurring friendly games but in a handicap tournament you should be doing what you can to win. As White you might need to take measured risks as you would in any game where you are behind.


Don’t overplay, wait for their mistakes. Build the sides since corners are already partly theirs. Approach and tenuki is a good tactic in fuseki.


As white, I’ll try not to overplay but still play the sharpest sequences: if normally I would be 50/50 between a peaceful and a risky / light move, I’d go for the risky move (like if I was a bit behind in normal play). By doing this I am learning myself.

I will not play moves that I know are overplay until the point when I feel I should be resigning and normal style cannot possibly win me the game.

I am talking about ranked handicap go, not teaching games. These are another matter.


I think you mentioned it in the title (Mindset)
It’s all in the mind
You can play anyway you want
If you don’t like overplay, then don’t play them
If you do play them, treat them as probes as a test to see how opponent reacts
You make consider some moves to be overplay, but a stronger player might consider them “probes”.
Every move you make, your opponent will react, if your opponent doesn’t make the proper move, he/she will make more and more mistakes, all you have to do is make sure you react properly to his/her mistakes.

The reason you’re giving handicap stones to begin with is because you’re stronger than your opponent whether it be reading, fighting, opening and etc.
So fight your opponents with your strengths not with your weaknesses, take them into your stronghold and conquer their mind+body.

Many people often go into the mindset believing their rank equals their true strength
If you start believing you’re way stronger than you actually are, and start playing even games with stronger opponents, you’ll be stronger in no time

Anyways, back to the handicap stuff
Before you begin the game, start visualizing that

  1. You’re the ruler of the board
  2. You’re way stronger than your opponent, you play any move you want
  3. You will own your opponent’s soul
  4. You are in total control of the game, don’t like your opponent fool you into thinking you’re weaker than you actually are

And last but not least, have fun.
Enjoy the game!


Thank you everyone.

These are particularly resonating with me. I think I had a hint of it in my own games but seeing it clearly stated was enlightening.

So bold! :smile:
This isn’t my mindset for sure! :slightly_smiling_face:

Well, I disabled ranking display in my profile and quickly gained some kyu, so I suppose you’re right in some way.
Knowing in advance that my opponent was stronger probably was pulling my brakes. Now I just don’t know and do my best.


Don’t overplay, wait for their mistakes. … Approach and tenuki is a good tactic in fuseki.

Exactly this and I would like to add a few things.

Consider tenuki as your main weapon. Your opponent is bound to play redundant and slow moves. Take advantage of that by taking sente as soon as possible to play elsewhere. Avoid playing aji-keshi moves that fix the position. Try to keep the position fluid.

Stay calm. Don’t play overaggressive/big overplays, because that gets you into trouble. After all, as white you are faced with many positions that are dominated by black stones. So you need to make flexible groups and you need to be prepared to sacrifice some of your stones. Try to overcome the handicap little by little and make the game somewhat close by the time that the endgame starts.

Links to some handicap games of mine where I feel that I played quite calmly.

Opponent in 1st game is 5-6k in real life, handicap 5 stones and 25 points reverse komi:

Opponent in 2nd game is about 15k in real life, handicap 17 stones:

Opponent in 3rd game is about 10k in real life, handicap 9 stones. In this game I got an earlier lead (somewhere around move 92):


I haven’t seen it mentioned, you cannot play territorially - you have to take aim for an influential game. Your opponent already has an influence oriented position - so assisting them in continuing to establish their influence is the worst idea.


white should not play normal joseki. sprinkle your stones around the board. tenuki a lot, be patient. avoid heavy groups, you must play lightly. avoid the decision of whether to slide into the corner vs invade at the 3-3 point for as long as possible.


I’ve been playing and kibitzing more handicap games lately, and I’ve come to the conclusion that in a “high handicap” game (6+ stones) there are three playable styles available to White.

  1. Light. A rtayek said, to play to “sprinkle your stones around board. tenuki a lot”. This is how I originally thought White should play.

  2. Steady. To settle as well as possible in each area one at a time, never having two seriously weak groups. I’ve noticed that Michael Redmond plays this way, or at least seems to through my kyu-level eyes. I approach high handicap games in this style now, with what I consider to have been decent results.

  3. Dogged. White selects one of Black’s group to be slaughtered and continues to pursue it until it hopefully dies. I didn’t think much of this idea, but I recently won a game using this technique and I saw shinuito do so as well, so I’ve started to re-evaulate it. Unlike the first two methods, I don’t think it’s really suitable when Black is at least 9k.


Pessimistic approach for White to high handicap:
“Oh noes, so many black stones, I’m doomed!”

Optimistic approach for White to high handicap:
“Look at all those yummy stones to kill”

Also one tip is to not play too many sente moves, where the reply is obvious and good, because that’s one fewer move out of 150 for them to mess up and do something stupid. Sente moves tell them where the correct area of the board to play is. If you play a good gote move and give them the choice where to play, they are quite likely to play some really bad slow move somewhere and give you back sente to do something good, particularly against DDKs. Of course bullying moves which look like sente but aren’t really, but you can persuade your meek opponent to answer are part of White’s arsenal in a high handicap. How soon and often you can do these kind of moves takes some judgement of your opponent’s style and mental state.

RandomChromics vs. Uberdude is a 9 stone handicap game which shows some examples of how to approach them:

  • Move 11 good gote take care of my shape and reverse sente, his answer was ok
  • Move 17 good gote makes my base but also takes Black’s so I have future aim to attack that black group with k15 cut. But patience and preparation is important, I need to make my right side group stronger first.
  • Move 35 good gote to settle my group and prepare attack on Q10 handicap stone. His 36 tenuki was big but not urgent so then the attack commernces. I am not aiming to kill but change balance of centre power as he could have attacked my right side group.
  • Move 39 peep is slight overplay/bullying sente in that push and cut resistance is probably best, but this is the sort of reasonable low risk bully level your can get away with. I did not peep 1 move earlier because then push and cut counter would be heavier fight for me.
  • Move 41 light play offering bait of a bad cut which he fell for.
  • Move 57 slight bullying not really sente but persuade him to answer meekly.
  • Move 59 ditto but with k15 aim (remember I wanted to attack to right group 40 moves ago, now preparations are complete), by doing this after 57 I have conditioned the meek response on 3rd line. Handicap go is psychology.
  • Move 69 another centre play encouraging him to meekly defend what is already his territory in side whilst I strengthen in centre in sente.
  • Move 71 good gote but with attacking future intentions but don’t make it obvious what is a good answer.
  • Move 72 bad choice, gote to let opponent mess up strategy worked.
  • Move 83 was a sente he should have answered though!
  • Moves 88 and 90 from him are bad and help me fix some problems in my group, but by getting him into defensive mindset he was worrying about his group living or dying rather then counterattack.
  • Move 109 another patient preparation for future attack on handicap stone, Q10 this time.
  • Move 145 is good endgame. You will gain a lot in endgame, and you only need to win by half point at the end say move 250, so be patient and you don’t need to be winning after middlegame at move 150 (though I was here thanks to kill on left) so long as there are enough opportunities for them to make mistakes in endgame (keep aji for sneaky endgame kills if you can).
  • Move 147 another gote but with big and non obvious follow up to trash territory above. Don’t help your opponent find the best moves.

I think the fact that Black decided that there was no longer anything worth playing in the top right quarter of the board, and that (18) was the best thing that could be done, rather reflects his own mindset.

(18) O10 feels very natural to me, but no doubt I’m showing my own kyu as well.

Also that Black doesn’t try to really attack R6, eg. with (20) R5… his play seems to have some unnecessary timidity.

18 at O10 is good. If I was playing honte I would have jumped around there or a space further for move 19, but felt it was too slow for a 9 stone handicap as it would allow black to simply play r6 to connect his q4 and q10 stones together. In high handicap games White is trying to prevent black getting large scale connectivity, because by splitting black white can later turn the tables and attack and bully black into a submissive style of defending groups or even killing himself (it’s very hard for white to actually kill groups in high handicap, it’s more about giving black the opportunity to kill himself).

20 at r5 is risky as you help White kill Q10. The big mistake in that corner was the tenuki of 28 and then inefficient 30 which still let me connect under due to liberty shortage. In fact O10 would again be good, ignore the approach and attack White’s right side group. Black should be attacking in high handicap.

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It’s an useless skill, no need to worry about.

Handicap Go - the book at Sensei's Library nice book on topic.

Each chapter lists the guidelines which form the section headings. For example the first three sections of 24 in chapter one are “Black must attack”, “The star-points are defective in securing territory”, and “Black must play for influence”.

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