On identifying ladder breakers

Hello!
I’m a beginner go player. I hope this post is relevant and will be helpful to other beginners like me.

I was practicing ladders and I’ve often found myself in a position in which I could start a ladder against an opponent’s stone, but somewhere along the general direction of the ladder there was a stone or a group of stones that could potentially break the ladder, and for the life of me I couldn’t find a way to consistently decide whether I should bother starting the ladder or not without spending full minutes calculating the whole sequence.

I’ve often seen on Youtube experienced players looking at the board and immediately identifying if a particular stone, even if it’s miles away on the opposite side of the board, is a ladder breaker or not and I was wondering how they do it. Also, many instructional resources on ladders (or at least all the ones I’ve been able to find) talk about ladder breakers and rightfully warn against them, but never truly explain how to identify them.

I know that this is a skill that comes with experience and practice (and I definitely need a lot more of it myself), but I also wanted something that I could reference while studying and practicing. So I made my own diagram:

The points marked with a triangle are on the direct path of the ladder, so it’s obvious that if a white stone is on any of these intersections, white will connect and live. But what about a stone on, say, F4? Or B5? Or G3? They would be in the general vicinity of the path of the ladder, but are they “too close” or is it safe to start the ladder? That was the question that I had in mind, so I just tried different options and I found out that a white stone on any of the intersections marked with X will eventually break the ladder, either by white directly connecting to it or by black being put in atari. On the other hand, the intersections marked with O are safe and any white stone placed on them will NOT interfere with the ladder. In general, I was surprised to see how wide the range of potential ladder breakers actually is and it’s no wonder why it’s so difficult for beginners like me to correctly identify a ladder breaker at a glance.

This is probably already common knowledge among experienced players and I apologize if this post is redundant, but I do believe that having a visual diagram like this that clearly shows all the “safe” ladders could be helpful to other beginners like me and, given enough practice and experience, hopefully makes it easier to avoid basic mistakes. Also, I encourage more experienced players to check the diagram above to see if I made any mistake in marking the intersections (which is also a very likely possibility).

Edit: thanks to all the examples that you guys have shown me, I’ve learned that other factors that might affect the life and death status of a ladder that I hadn’t considered are:

  • Quirky interactions with corners and edges
  • The starting position of the ladder (higher/lower and closer/farther from the edges)
  • Walls and other patterns along the way
  • And who knows what else :joy:

My best conclusion at this point is that my effort of drawing an “easy” reference diagram for ladder breakers was futile haha! That’s good to know, though: from now on I’ll stop worrying so much about finding the “theoretical” ladder breakers and I’ll focus my attention on studying the actual board position more closely

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Great work! A good exercise would be to think about why X’s near the edge/corner don’t break the ladder, e.g. a1

I liked

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And after that you can enjoy this:

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Thank you for the links to the videos!

But what do you mean that A1 doesn’t break the ladder? I tried and, unless I’m making a mistake, if there’s a white stone on A1 black ends up in atari either on B1 or on A2 and the ladder is broken. Can you show me the correct sequence of moves in this case?

I hope I have this right but does black need to play on A3?

Yes, and that puts white in atari, but then white plays on B2 to escape and suddenly it’s connected to the white stone on A1, so it doesn’t matter from which direction black attacks, it will be in atari and white is alive. This is the position that I have:

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Ooh! Okay, now I see it! Thank you! I’ll have to update my diagram, then haha!

Edges and corners is where a lot of good stuff happens in Go!

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Nothing about learning is redundunt :slight_smile:
Overall, I’d say that diagonally extending the stones directly involved are the “certain ladder-breakers” … the extra diagonals (one up and one down) definitely work in an empty diagram, but they MIGHT NOT work in an actual game where the game has progressed and those stones might be attached to other opposing stones (e.g. it might prevent an atari, but lead to a snap-back).

If you do not mind here are some beginner pages on the matter and how it can be practically used initially (a ladder breaker is usually a very good threat that can gain you a free move elsewhere. :slight_smile: ):



Context and the full book (it’s a free download) here:

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That’s also something I’ve considered while studying this topic. I’m fully aware that in an actual game things are never so simple, but I didn’t feel confident enough to tackle these more complex variations yet, and that’s why practice and experience are so important :sweat_smile: I’ll definitely check out the book you linked, though, I didn’t know about it. Thank you!

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Another example of a white stone on X that doesn’t break the ladder.

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That’s another great example! That means that by starting the ladder just a few lines lower the ladder breakers change as well. That was unexpected! :hushed:

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Generally walls change the behaviour of the ladder. Even if you have many stones all along the “ladder-breaker” diagonal, if those stones are next to opponent’s walls and do not have enough liberties, then they seem safe, but they are not. Example:


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even funnier, I just noticed that even if White had an extra stone (marked with the triangle) and FOUR initial liberties, this ladder still works. Nice:

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Yes, I can see that!

So far, then, thanks to all the examples that you guys have shown me, I’ve learned that other factors that might affect the life and death status of a ladder that I hadn’t considered are:

  • Quirky interactions with corners and edges
  • The starting position of the ladder (higher/lower and closer/farther from the edges)
  • Walls and other patterns along the way
  • And who knows what else :joy:

My best conclusion at this point is that my effort of drawing an “easy” reference diagram for ladder breakers was futile haha! That’s good to know, though: from now on I’ll stop worrying so much about finding the “theoretical” ladder breakers and I’ll focus my attention on studying the actual board position more closely

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That is a great out-take from all this :slight_smile:

If you want something else to add to this, you could add the idea that ONE stone as a ladder breaker, without any attachments to it, somewhere towards the center of the board, can always be considered a safe ladder-breaker.

A second beginner out-take which is worth adding to your arsenal is to ignore the stone you are losing and play a ladder breaker and grow elsewhere. For example:

Is your opponent playing four moves to capture one stone really worth it OR maybe your TWO extra moves and the ladder-breaker is worth much much more? (4 and 6 elsewhere and 8 is the ladder-breaker threat that makes Black capture at 9 in this simple theoretical scenario).

Personally I dislike capturing opposing stones in ladders because that means that I have committed a lot of stones in the result of that ladder. Then, what usually happens, is that the ladder-breaker which the opponent will play is much more severe and worth more points than me defending, capping or capturing the stone that is in the ladder.

Good luck and have fun :slight_smile:

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My gut feeling when I saw this problem was that, although the ladder would “bounce” around the board a couple of times, black would eventually be able to capture white. It took me a couple of tries but eventually I found the correct sequence. It was fun, thank you!

https://online-go.com/demo/view/864145

Edit: Nope, that was wrong. Here’s a better solution:

https://online-go.com/demo/view/864159

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try it this way!

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