Product Review: Level Up! vs Learn To Play Go

I found a good bit of information on both series online, but I had to do some digging and ended up buying both to compare. So I’ll collect my thoughts and impressions on both series here in one place, since these seem to be the most prominent beginner books for learning Go in English.

Learn to Play Go, by Janice Kim and Jeong Soo-Hyun will be abbreviated to LPG

Level Up! By Lee Jae-Hwan will be abbreviated to LU! For the rest of this review/comparison.

Initial impressions:
The LPG series will look better on your bookshelf, though neither set of books is particularly classy in outward appearance. The LPG books are printed on substantial paper, and the covers are sturdy enough despite being paperback.

LU! Could be mistaken for a children’s coloring book both in appearance and construction. The covers and pages are somewhat flimsy and it gives me the idea that these workbooks are intended to be semi-disposable.

Curriculum:
LPG purports to instruct up to about 10 Kyu by the end of Vol. 5. Each volume has 160-170 pages, except for #5 which has 224.

LU! Instructs up to about 18 Kyu by the end of Vol. 5, and 10 Kyu by the end of Vol. 10. Each volume and review book has 168 pages. No solutions are provided for puzzles in the books, ostensibly to increase the instructive content.
However, all solutions are available online here
http://baduktopia.dtrinks.de/answers.htm
And here
http://baduktopia.co.kr/asapro/board/list.htm?bn=pdf

Strengths:
Here LPG prepared me to play an actual 19×19 game in very short order. Though, as a consequence the program does not dwell for very long on any particular principle. After completing Vol. 2, I was prepared to play a whole game (albeit poorly) without too much confusion. Further volumes touch on the mindset and habits of successful Go players, provide analysis of 3 complete games, and cover core strategies and tactics for what is probably the Go equivalent of Chess club-level play (1200-1700 elo).

LU! breaks everything down into little bite-sized morsels that are easily and thoroughly digestible. The cartoony aesthetic is appropriate for children as young as 5 or 6, but is not patronizing even for an adult who is new to the game.
None of the chapters and themes feel rushed. Each principle is thoroughly explored with a few dozen problems to build confidence and prepare a novice player to reliably identify similar situations in real games. Each page is packed with diagrams and the books do not waste any space. Even the cartoons have an object lesson.

Weaknesses:
LPG moves quickly through the curriculum, which is a mixed bag at best. While it does introduce many facets of the game quickly, it does not bother to explore them in depth. Further, the page format is generally inefficient with few diagrams, plus abstract doodles that serve no purpose. Volumes 1-3 could probably have been combined into 1 book for all the information they contain.

LU! Does not seem adequate to prepare the reader for real games by the end of Vol. 5. The focus seems to be more about exercises in microcosm, to perfect and refine thinking processes for later incorporation in real games.

Cost and Value:
LPG brand new costs about $20 per volume. To be completely honest I’d feel cheated by that price for the first 2 books. However, they seem to be plentiful on eBay and available for very reasonable prices in used condition. I ended up paying about $40 for the whole set including shipping, with some volumes individually costing only $4 or $5. In a nutshell, these 5 books are a good deal at $40, a fair price at $50-$60, and a ripoff at $100+.

LU! series has more books, so the total cost will naturally be higher for a complete set. Books 1-5 plus a review book currently cost about $40 including shipping from Yellow Mountain Imports. Books 6-10 and the second review book are only available individually for about $16 each before shipping is calculated. I have not been able to find any used copies of this series on eBay. So to complete the 30kyu-10kyu curriculum it will cost at least $135 for the 10 regular books and 2 review volumes.

General Observations:
For 900 pages of instruction I believe the author(s) of LPG could have done a better job. However, taken as a whole the series is an adequate primer. That is, provided the reader is willing and able to supplement their studies with plenty of teaching games and tactical puzzles. The same could be said of any beginner series, I suppose.
Volumes 4 and 5 seemed like they were really ramping up the intensity of study, and the second revision of Volume 1 teases up to 9 volumes before #5 was completed.


I would love to see the full potential of this series realized in volumes 6-9, but with the latest entry approaching 20 years of age, that just doesn’t seem likely.

Now about LU! - A wise man once said “If I had just 5 minutes to cut down a tree, I’d spend the first 3 minutes sharpening my axe.” If you find yourself agreeing with that sentiment (as I do) then it seems Level Up! would be a good series for you. The focus is not immediately on whole-game application. Rather, it deconstructs each element extensively and individually before moving on to larger themes. There are over 2,000 pages jammed full of instruction by the end of the second review book. There is a second series entitled “Jump Level Up” that targets players from 10kyu to 1kyu, and I have heard talk of yet ANOTHER series called “High Level Up” for even further advancement. This giant collection from a single source should theoretically ensure a cohesive program with plenty of instructional value and little unnecessary overlap between books.

Final thoughts:
Either book series should serve as an adequate primer to begin playing Go.
Just understand that neither is a complete road map to the game. Be prepared to supplement with real games, self-analysis, annotated master games, and copious amounts of tactical puzzles.

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All you need to get going is ‘Go, A Complete Introduction to the Game’ by Cho Chikun and ‘Graded Go Problems for Beginners Vol1’ by Kano Yoshinori.

Later ‘Fundamental Principles of Go’ by Yilun Yang is excellent for adapting to the full size board and general improvement.

By comparison I found the ‘Learn to Play Go’ series very disappointing, inefficient and cumbersome. Not user friendly. Fortunately it was free with my 2nd hand board.

I haven’t seen the ‘Level Up’ series. It looks interesting but perhaps its format makes it overpriced?

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I have not read the Learn to Play Go series, but to be honest I never found that series appealing.

I own and read the Jump Level Up series intended for intermediate players level 5-9 kyu.
I found it very useful for learning new moves/ hammering home fundamental principles.

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I’ve been going through the Level UP series as well. I had seen them before on Amazon but the price was about $80 for each 5-book + review pack, and that seemed a bit high so I just added them to my go wish list. Then a couple months ago I noticed that the price went way down (more than 50%) and that some items were going out of stock, so at that point I bought the entire series directly from YMI at https://www.ymimports.com/collections/go-books for what I think is now a quite fair price.

I’m not sure why they are slicing their prices like that, it looks to me as if they were trying to close their inventory which is kinda why I paniced and bought the entire series at once.

I’m quite happy with my purchase though. Going through exercises at various levels (even ones that are easy for me) has been quite helpful for improving my reading in general, and also I did learn a few techniques there that I now recognize in tsumego as well as in real games.

The book series also include “essential life & death” which is very similar to level up, but without the cartoons or the sections where they explain new techniques. Instead, each chapter is just a list of go problems where a given technique is to be used. There are often several problems for closely related positions, i.e. the first one is what you would see in a classical tsumego book, and the next few problems ask you to consider what would happen after some of the possible opponent responses. Maybe having so many related problems lowers the density of the book, but this is also helpful when using the book to learn new techniques (rather than just testing ones you already know about).

There is also a joseki book which goes through each joseki in depth, testing you on evaluating what would happen in several variations from the expected moves, looking at real games and asking you to find mistaken moves, etc…

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I havent seen the LU! books before, but i have to say that buying 5-10 books intended to get you to 18k seems like overcommitment. One introductory book +a couple of teaching games and reviews can probably do the same for you.
But i guess you can still have fun with the books ^^

@Skurj
thanks for your comprehensive review!

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My first go books were volumes 1 through 3 of LPG. I mostly agree with @Skurj review (with respect to those 3 volumes). I think the main strength of that series is that they are a very friendly and gentle introduction, and hence could be good to give to a novice that you are trying to introduce the game to, without worrying too much about scaring them off. However, I think that doesn’t quite justify their main weakness: superficial and sparse treatment of topics needlessly stretched over three volumes (when the material could fit in one), which results in low overall value at their full retail cost.

I’m glad to hear that appraisal of Cho Chikun’s book. I bought that book for a friend (as a farewell gift) to help introduce him to go. I never read through that book myself and relied on other reviews.

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Does anyone know where to purchase the Level Up series from Asia? I went to their website and emailed (info@baduktopia.co.kr) them but no replies.

Cheers!

(I currently live in the Philippines)

Reviews are always fun to read, thank you for reviewing the two series, of which I’ve only read Ms. Kim’s volume 2 and liked it. Thank you, Skurj.

I am currently enjoying the series ‘So you want to play go’ by 4 dan amateur Jonathan Hop. The books have a have casual style with plenty of wit that make them an entertaining read—as though a good friend is teaching you the game. His Youtube channel has a similar style. The books read super smoothly compared to most Go books, with examples and problems, but an emphasis on general “pearls of wisdom” to be used during the game; I remember what I’m being taught better with applicable principles than simply repetitive brain teasers. I like that his 4 books in this series (of which I bought numbers 2,3,4 as 1 is an introduction to the game) give teaching from ddk up to 1 dan level, and that they are available for $9.99 each on Amazon Kindle (most decent go books are not on Kindle). Try a free sample on Kindle if you’re a kyu player in the market for new books so you can determine if you like his writing style. Note: I did not receive any products free or at a discount, do not work for Amazon, and Jonathan Hop is not my cousin. :laughing: :blush:

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That’s exactly why Chernev (RIP) is my favorite Chess author! I’ll have to check out that series you mention.

Edit: Now that I just googled him I realize his Sunday Go Lessons were the first videos I watched a few years ago to learn the basics of Go. I really like that guy!

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Jonathan Hop is a great guy and his book series So You Want to Play Go was the most helpful to me when I was first learning the game. I agree that his humour and wit make them a fun read.

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