A Zen way to Joseki

June 7, 2006



Once upon a time, a great Zen Master was asked to tell his experiences on the path to enlightenment. He said: "When I was young and I didn't know what Zen was, the mountains were mountains, rivers were rivers and clouds clouds. Then I started to practice Zen, and after some time of hard study the mountains weren't mountains any more, rivers were not rivers, and the clouds were not clouds. Now I am enlightened, and mountains are mountains, rivers are rivers and clouds clouds."

So it goes with joseki.

When you start to play Go you have no idea of what a joseki is. At the beginning of the game, you play first in the corners, because you were told that that's the way it should. But you play with an attitude of freedom. Not knowing anything, you play moves that you like, relying on the little you know, on your still limited ability to read sequences ahead, on what you want to do and how to reach your goal. Very often you get crushed by stronger opponents.

Disappointed, you start studying, and discover that there are set corner sequences called Joseki which the professionals say give equal result to both players.

Set sequences??!? If they are set they can be categorised, studied and memorised!!! Such an approach appeals very much to the rational western mind: categorise, memorise and fish the right one out when you need a specific something. So you go and seek the ultimate Joseki book, repository, database or whatever, hoping to find a way to have a perfect joseki for all seasons.

I think that's a thoroughly wrong approach.

First of all, joseki are not set. They are a living organism, they change, they adapt, they are improved, they become obsolete. A professional works out a new move that gives an advantage: no joseki anymore. Another professional finds a countermeasure: a new joseki is born! In this way literally thousands of joseki are constantly created, transformed and abandoned. How could we, weak amateur, even think of memorise all possible variations? And don't forget that the fifty-fifty share is true only on the local scale: what is equal here could be a total loss on the strategic scale.

The supreme difficulty of joseki is in fact to choose that variation that fits with the strategic, global position on the go-ban.

Second: very often a certain move is not considered joseki just because it entails a loss of, say, two points. That's enormous for pro standards, but should we, weak amateurs, be bothered, when a few moves later we are likely to play a strategic mistake (for instance a wrong direction of play) that could costs us some thirty points?

Third. What happens if our opponent won't play as we expect him to do? Amateurs more often than not deviate from the so-called set sequence. Pro's do the same but for a very different reason, striving for that one-point advantage, and with very different results.

As we have read somewhere that a deviation from Joseki should be punished, we look for a way to kill our opponent's group that didn't agree to follow the "set" sequence. Of course in oh so many instances we fail to do that and we get frustrated. So frustrated that we could lose the game! To punish a deviating move we should first have thoroughly understood the real meaning of each and every move in the sequence. Most of the times we do not realise that the possible punishment is just the infliction of that two-point loss.

So hopefully after some struggle you will understand that joseki are not that important after all, at least until you reach, say, 2-3 dan amateur. If you think that Go is only about fighting power and tactical combat, think twice, or else move to chess (no offence intended, chess is a thoroughly enjoyable intellectual game). To me, Go is about strategy. Of course fighting power is important, and what happens in internet Go and in the fashionable styles prevailing these days in the international professional arena stand there to demonstrate it, but I happen to believe that Go is more than mere tactics and more than an intellectual game.

In the end you may realise that we should play having in mind a strategic goal and that we should play freely in the corners to reach that goal, relying on our ability to read ahead. I believe that we should play moves that we like, a style we enjoy. Takemya and Go Seigen apparently agree with me on that… 😉

I also believe that we shouldn't mind losing a lot of games, provided we learn something. The circle has been closed, but we are more aware.

If you want to improve, I believe you'd better study first the strategic concepts, the direction of play, the positional judgement, how to use thickness. Play along pro games, study tesuji and life and death to improve your reading ability.

Deviate from Joseki as much as possible, but do that with awareness: try to reach your strategic goal regardless, or to stop your opponent from reaching his/her goal. Read ahead!

Play simple joseki with weaker players and difficult ones with stronger players. Enjoy the complexity of joseki such as Nadare, Taisha, Muramasa's Magic Sword, but not for the sake of mastering variations: do that for the sake of entering deep, unknown and dark waters and learn to swim better and better.

Meanwhile, study the Endgame: it is an invaluable source of tesuji, and it teaches you the patience of counting…If you do that proficiently, you may find yourself a 3 dan. Only then is it about time to start a serious study of joseki: now you may have the tools needed to understand what it is that pro's call joseki. Again, not to memorise a thousand variations, but to be able to adapt your corner play to your strategic plan!

Why am I not even a shodan, you may ask? Weeeeeeell…

(These ideas were posted some time ago, with small variations, on the Sensei's Library)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: