Go Wizardry

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Speed and Pace

This past Sunday, Rafael Nadal won the French Open tennis championship for a record eighth time. He played magnificently, using a combination of power and finesse to overwhelm his opponent in straight sets. It was exciting and entertaining, though the spectators at the stadium surely wished that it had gone on longer.

That is the point. In the past, the French Open seemed to drag on interminably. The slow clay surface forces players to put a premium on patience. In the days when they used wooden rackets, a player like Björn Borg would hit ground strokes from the baseline for hours, stoically waiting for his opponent to make mistakes. It was boring for spectators, and the women’s matches were even worse, since they had less power in their games.

These days, play has been speeded up on the clay surface by composite rackets. In fact, the women’s matches can be just as exciting as the men’s. The lighter rackets allow for more power, in the same way that aluminum bats in baseball make it easier to swing for power. Of course, those bats are banned in baseball since they make it too easy. (In tennis, the size of rackets is strictly controlled for the same reason.)

But one can still tell how slow the game of tennis is on clay compared to a fast surface like grass. Clay court specialists, especially the Spaniards, excel there, but it is hard for others. For instance, Roger Federer has only won the French Open once, and that was probably because he deliberately made the effort to do so, in order to perfect his incomparable record of winning play. Federer is known for his all round game, so winning on clay must have been important to him.

Go players can learn something from all this. The game of go used to be played at a very slow pace. That is because there was no komi, the handicap of points that Black gives at the beginning of a game to equalize play. The first move is considered to be equivalent in value to ten points, so these days Black gives six to eight points in advance as a handicap. This speeds up play because Black must play energetically to overcome that handicap.

On the other hand, in the opening of a game White is advised to play at a “leisurely pace” so as to slow down the game. This gives the greatest opportunity to equalize play. (Although the size of the komi has grown over the years and is now equal to 7½ points in some tournaments, Black still wins a majority of games by a small percentage. The first move is still a definite advantage.) Once a balance is obtained, it is possible to look for opportunities to gain an advantage. However, as one is struggling to catch up, it is impossible to strive for superiority.

The implications of these simple facts are nonetheless often overlooked or misconstrued by go players. And not only amateurs, but professional players make unnecessary overplays or misjudge the positions in more cases than one might imagine.

Regardless of this, amateurs should realize that when they are playing against strong opponents, especially when taking a handicap, the most intelligence course to follow is to slow down the game, consolidate territory, and steer the game into simplified channels. Take advantage of handicap stones to plan a straightforward strategy. Take big points, like the handicap points on the side of the board or the point just below them, to make extensions from one’s positions in the corner. Play at a leisurely pace whenever possible. This is just common sense.

And yet, when I play weaker players, they often try to fight with me. This is crazy. White starts with a disadvantage, so an early fight is exactly what White hopes for in order to take advantage of White’s greater experience. Fighting picks up the pace, and when it occurs in the beginning of a game, Black usually has not had time to build up the strength around the board in order to fight effectively.

Here is a secret of playing with White against a weaker opponent. In such cases, I am always eager to either make thickness or have my opponent make thickness. Why should this be? Didn’t I just say that playing at a slow pace is to a weaker player’s advantage?! Well, in general that is true, but thickness is another matter. I am willing to play a slow move that builds thickness because I know how to use the power that results from it. Weaker players do not understand the nature of thickness and very often end up making over-concentrated positions. This is a waste of effort.

Speed, pacing and thickness are elements of go that are essential components of effective play. Understanding and using them in balance with everything else, such as territorial concerns, is necessary for a winning game.

Those who wish to comment on the opinions expressed here may send their thoughts to info@GoWizardry.com. The most interesting responses will be addressed in future postings.

Robert J. Terry

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