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The 5 Dan Challenge Continued

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Photograph courtesy of Doug Cable

Since lower ranked go players everywhere aspire to reaching the 5 dan level, perhaps it is worthwhile to explain in detail how I did it myself. Just to recap, here are the minimum requirements:

1) Have a role model. In Japan, that is easy, since there are strong players everywhere whom one can take as models to emulate. However, in the U.S. it is harder to find those kind of people. I was lucky, at least, to have several 5 dan players I could look up to. But I regret that instead I did not have professional players I could have patterned my play after.

2) Play go often. It does not matter who you play with. I recently played against someone in my club who had to take 11 stones from me. That is a huge handicap! I had a sinking feeling in my heart as I wondered how I could possibly develop a position against those odds. And yet, I won the game. (I had to kill three huge black groups to do so!) Anyway, if the handicap is correct, one will learn from playing games with everyone.

3) Study. When I was learning to play, there were very few go books in English available. I taught myself Japanese to take advantage of all the reading material about go available in Los Angeles written in Japanese. But today there is a plethora of go material available in English. I, myself, have produced 35+ works. (I used to write down all of the works that I produced as soon as they were published, but in recent years there are so many works of mine that find their way into print, that I no longer keep track of them.) There are go books available in English on virtually every aspect of the game. That is a great resource.

4) Play out professional games on a board. I do not know how many games I played out this way. But for one solid year, I played out three games on a board everyday. I took them from the Kido Yearbooks. This is what I did: I played a game out from the first move to last on a go board. Then, I tried to replay it without looking at the game record. I could usually remember 100 moves or so. Then I would look at the game record and finish playing out the game. Then, I would play out the game in its entirety without looking at the game record. Normally, it would only take me three times to get it right, but sometimes playing out the complete game from memory would take an extra look or two at the game record. But I never ended the day’s study without being able to play out all three games from memory.

5) Fujisawa Shuko, one of the greatest go players of all time, used to say that one has to play as it one’s life depended on it. “Attitude is everything. Go has to be so fascinating to you that you can’t stand it. If you want to learn absolutely everything that you can about the game, you will naturally improve. But above all, play your games with the mindset that they are a life-or-death affairs.”

6) Some advocate taking lessons from professional players, but I do not. I have never learned anything from professional players, although I have played literally dozens of games against them. I find that although the advice that they give after the game is played is reasonable, it is virtually impossible to incorporate it into one’s own game. This is not only my personal opinion. I have watched amateurs take lessons from professionals on a regular basis over the course of years. But I have never seen them improve, except in a slow way that one would expect in the natural course of things.

7) Kato Masao, another great professional go player, once said that a player should be resigned to failure. It is inevitable that one will experience failure over one’s go playing career. If one could limit one’s losses to just one in every four games played, one will become world go champion without any problem! (A 0.750 average is just as impossible in go as it is in baseball.) “Slapping down stones on a board without thinking is no way to get stronger. On the other hand, thinking too long is no good, either. In particular, when playing with a very skillful opponent, thinking too long will end with an overly conservative move being played. Calm your spirit, then determine what your first impulse is to play in the position, make sure that there is nothing you are overlooking, then go for it without inhibitions. It is no good to be afraid of failure. Rather, it is important that one accept failure as a part of the game. If one is too obsessed with winning, it will be impossible to maturely accept losses. Please understand that reconciling oneself to failure is a prerequisite to improvement.”

8) Kudo Norio recommends cultivating reading ability. GoWizardry does the same, offering life and death problems every week so that visitors to this site can train with them. However, it is interesting to read Kudo’s comments. “In evaluating the elements of strength in go, there is perception, reading and counting. These are the three things that I think are most important. Among these three, the most generally valuable is reading, is it not? Developing one’s reading ability is, first and foremost, absolutely essential. For that, studying life and death problems is best. One should be able to find the first move at a glance. That should be the aim. If one does not have confidence in one’s reading ability, one will avoid complications in one’s game, and that is no way to improve. It is desirable that one approach difficulties in one’s games head on, full of fighting spirit.”

9) Rin Kaiho advises to use players two or three stones stronger as role models. “Playing out professional games, memorizing joseki and the like is one way to get stronger, I suppose. But when one is weak, understanding professional games and joseki is quite difficult. In a way, it is a waste of time, and one should instead concentrate on studying so as to conform to one’s own strengths. For weaker players, far and away the best thing to do is to play any time that one can. Whatever opponents are available is fine, the play is the thing. But, if possible, play with those who are two or three stones stronger than oneself. In that case, the thinking of opponents two or three stones stronger are understandable, and one can compare one’s own thoughts with theirs’ so as to get a good perspective. That way, the outcome of a game becomes meaningful.

I had planned to explain in detail this week how I reached the 5 dan level myself, but in writing about the preliminaries, I seem to have taken up all the space allocated! That is just as well. The material given here is valuable in itself, and I would prefer to have the whole space available next week to tell the complete story. And what a story it is! I will explain how I jumped a whole rank, from 4 to 5 dan, just from reading a book of Kobayashi Koichi’s. It was some book!

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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