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Perception of the Subtleties of Play

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It has been noted that in order to reach the higher levels of skill in go it is necessary to study. By closely examining the games of strong players, perception of all sorts of factors begins to awaken. Starting with the first dan ranking, that of shodan, one begins to appreciate some of the subtleties of play. That requires the awareness of things that are completely ignored by beginners.

Helpful for this is to discover games that are interesting or players that one can admire. For me, one of the first examples of this was in the form of Takagawa Kaku.

Takagawa occupies a unique position in the history of go. Few would put him in the company of the greatest of players, like Go Seigen, Sakata Eio or Cho Chikun. But all recognize that his game was more refined and outstanding than most top-ranking professional players. Takagawa won all of the major titles, capping his career with the dazzling capture of the Meijin title in 1967.

The go writers dubbed Takagawa “tanuki,” or “badger,” although in English the closer equivalent would be “fox.” The fact was that he stunned the go world by becoming the challenger for the Honinbo title in 1952. He himself remarked that there were others more qualified for that honor, particularly Sakata Eio, who had not only been the challenger the previous year, but had brought the titleholder to the brink of defeat before losing the match 3-4. The critique was widespread that somehow the wily Takagawa had outfoxed his opponent to supplant him as challenger. Besides that, Takagawa had a peerless technique of calculation that enabled him to edge out his opponents by the slimmest of margins. The komi had just been adopted and few players were as skillful as Takagawa in working out the most efficient series of endgame moves. He was at his foxiest in that aspect of the game.

In any event, Takagawa was superlative enough a player to win the Honinbo title for nine years in a row, an almost unbelievable feat that gave him legendary status over the years.

However, on top of that Takagawa had a simple but effective way of playing that was also widely admired. One of his other nicknames was “boshi,” or “cap” because of his fondness of using capping plays. One of the go proverbs states that “A one space jump is never a bad move,” and this statement seemed perfectly worded to characterize his play as well. In any event, Takagawa was renowned for his skill in the opening of the game. His simple and clear technique in that phase is even today worthy of close study.

At the UCLA Go Club, the library contained one of the volumes of the “Modern Master” series, that devoted to Takagawa and his winning of the Honinbo title. I borrowed the book and studied all of the games in it. One of them impressed me at the time and I still remember playing it through with a sense of wonder. That was the above-mentioned game that earned Takagawa the right to become the challenger for the Honinbo title. His opponent was Sakata Eio.

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Here is the game in its entirety. Takagawa, playing Black, wins by resignation after 193 moves. The reader is urged to play this game out on a board as I did myself many times over the years.

The overseer of the UCLA Go Club told me that he admired the play of Takagawa, and he regretted that he could not read the commentary. “For all I know, I might think that a diagram shows a good way of playing, when the Japanese actually says, ‘Only a fool would play this way’!”

Nonetheless, just playing out the moves over the board and letting the essence of their nature permeate one’s consciousness is sufficient to convey as feeling of the tremendous power of the players here.

Over and above that, the game itself is a gem. It is the featured game in the Modern Masters volume from which I have taken it. The editors devote 22 game records to covering in it, some comprised of just a couple of moves, along with 26 explanatory diagrams. It is a great fighting game, with the action starting in the opening and continuing right through to the end.

The battle starts with White 14, a provocative move that practically dares Black to start fighting in the upper right. Which is exactly what Takagawa does with Black 15. Of course, this is not surprising, since the move deprives White’s stones of a base, making it difficult to get stabilized. The disadvantage incurred in the upper right handicaps White all the way through the game. I have never seen this strategy adopted in any other game.

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Takagawa (left) facing Sakata in the 18th Annual Honinbo Title Match, 1963. Note Nobel prizewinner Kawabata Yasunari observing at the official’s table in the background.

So what is so extraordinary about this game that it retains its appeal after all these years? It is the way that Black sacrifices stones to build up thickness in order to take control of the board. At the end of the game, Black has discarded all of the Black stones on the right side of the board so as to consolidate the territory on the left side. Except for the tiny Black group that lives in the middle of the right side with a measly two points of territory. That is a beautiful touch.

The game ends with Black 193, destroying White’s last outpost on the left side. All players can understand how, when this last group of White’s falls, the game is over. It makes a fitting climax to this uncompromising clash between two great masters.

So there it is: this game is a perfect illustration of fighting go. It is especially interesting to onlookers when great numbers of stones are captured in the course of the contest. And one savors the skill required to sacrifice stones for thickness. The concept of thickness is notoriously difficult for weaker players to comprehend. Here, there is an example of using that strategy on such a missive scale that it is almost impossible to misunderstand what is happening.

What is essential to take away from all of this is how important it is to play over the games of the great masters if one aspires to getting strong at go. Takagawa is just one of the outstanding players of the past whose games are both wonderfully interesting and instructive, too. There are many other players just as accomplished whose games can be replayed profitably.

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Here is a photograph of Takagawa challenging Rin Kaiho for the Meijin title in 1967. The games from this match are fascinating as well. And Rin himself is one of the finest players of all time whose games are worth close study.

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Finally, at the end of his career, Takagawa made a trip to promote go abroad. Here he may be seen giving teaching games in Frankfort, Germany. One can only be envious of the amateur players in Europe who were given a chance to interact with the master at that time. It must surely be a precious memory for those who were lucky enough to have been granted that opportunity.

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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2 Responses to “Perception of the Subtleties of Play”

  1. Larry H says:

    Mispelled name, third line below the game record. Takagawa. No “l”
    Or use (sic) if that is what the overseer said.

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