Writing on the Go: Sente, Shoulder Hits, and the Road to Dan

After a couple months of infrequent play and stagnation, my Go skill has begun to improve. A single explicit conceptual breakthrough I’ve had has led to better play. Beginner-intermediate Go players might find my ideas useful.

Disclaimer: When it comes to Go, my ideas are those of a rank amateur. Take what’s useful; toss the rest.

Thanks for the direction, r/baduk!

My Brand New to Single Digit Kyu post gained significant traction on the r/baduk subreddit and received a number of comments. I paid particular attention to one of the them, which came from 7-dan player u/back_cow, who had a precipitous climb through the Go rankings:

“Invest time in shoulder hits as potentially light invasions. You don’t have to do deep, complicated invasions so long as your stones impede the enemy’s growth.”

When I posted Brand New to SDK, I knew what a shoulder hit was, of course. But I didn’t grok the why of the shoulder hit. Today I understand the shoulder hit as an (possibly the) essential tactic of Go’s mid-game.

Readers of Brand New to Single Digit Kyu know that my play style is one of strong fuseki and ducking fights. I climbed through double-digit kyu rankings basically just by opening games better than my opponents did. I built such strong “scaffolding” that I couldn’t lose! Or else, that was the plan.

I still lost a lot, of course. Often I’d reach the mid-game with an advantage but then I’d have no idea what to do. As of the publishing date of Brand New to SDK, I’d say my mid-game assets were the below general concepts and tactics:

Concepts:

-Reduce my opponent’s territory or invade

-Expand my territory

-Strengthen my weak groups

-Attack my opponent’s weak groups

Tactics:

-Common continuations of joseki

-Common invasions (such as the 2-5 invasion)

Missing, of course, was the concept of maintaining sente and the tactic of the shoulder hit. And sente and shoulder hits go together like a dance and a tumbao, as they might say in the Cuban Go Federation, which, by the way, is run by an expert Judoka!

Shoulder Hits and Sente

There is a Go proverb that says something like “sente is worth 30 points.” Whether it’s true or not seems to be a matter of debate. Nevertheless, go players will all agree that sente is worth something.

At the end of last year I didn’t understand just how sente could be worth so much. How could a single move be worth 30 points? The answer is that each sente move is an opportunity to maintain sente. A single sente move may not be worth any points at all, but a string of sente moves may be worth the whole board.

When I reach the mid-game, one critical question I ask myself with each move is, “Will this move allow me to maintain sente?” If my opponent doesn’t have to respond, I may try to find another move.

Herein lies the beauty of the shoulder hit.

Shoulder hit at Sensei's Library
From Sensei’s Library.

“Never ignore a shoulder hit,” says a lecture by Cho Hun-hyeon, one of the great players of all time. The mantra is so widely held that it can be exploited for advantage.

Let’s look at an example of a shoulder hit I made during a game I recently won. I am playing white. (Move 20 of this game.)

Black has just played K3, expanding his territory in the bottom right and squeezing the white stones into the corner. It feels like a good idea for white to respond locally. (AI disagrees, by the way, and suggests R12.)

I decide to respond with the shoulder hit at J4 (see image below).

I know that it’s going to:

1. Likely trigger a black local response at J3 or K4. (He ends up playing the latter.)

2. Help my bottom left stones get out of the corner.

In other words: It is helping me expand my territory and maintain sente. After continuing to run with J5, triggering a black response at L6, I am able to play C11 in sente, expanding my top left corner, and putting real pressure on the black stones in the bottom left.

And, jumping to the end of the game, you’ll see that it is the kill in the bottom left corner that sparks black’s concession.

Here’s a second sente-maintaining shoulder hit in a fierce game against a 5-kyu. Again I am playing white. Black has just played C12, making a base on the left side of the board.

I respond with the shoulder hit from below at C9, threatening to undercut black’s base while expanding my bottom left hand corner territory. I am hoping, maybe, that black responds with C10, but I am also pleased if he responds with D9, which he does. I play D8 and expand and strengthen my territory in the bottom left.

It was a coin-toss of a game, but you’ll notice a nice chunk of white territory in the bottom left, courtesy of the shoulder hit.

What comes next?

I’ve grown accustomed to doing brief reviews of my games. I pay particular attention to things that go wrong in my losses. I’ve noticed a few trends.

Life and Death Tactics

Far and away, my greatest and most obvious opportunity for growth is to improve my life and death tactics. I’ve lost three recent games after egregious life-and-death blunders.

The path to dan-level play is paved with tsumego. If I were aiming to reach dan in 2021 (I am not.), I would prescribe an hour per day––at least––of tsumego.

But who wants to do that when you can play blitz?

Messing up the same old continuation (4-4 point diagonal attachment joseki, 3-3 invasion)

One particular joseki continuation has been causing me headaches. I could only dig up this specific instance of it, which came in a very narrow loss (.5 points!) against a stronger player. That said, the continuation troubles me every time I face it, even in victories!

I should really bookmark the continuation’s page over at Sensei’s Library.

For any software engineers who read this: I think that a really neat app could be developed to allow Go players to do “positional sparring.” This is an idea from Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu training.

In BJJ classes, training partners often begin sparring rounds in a specific position: one player in the bottom half-guard position with an underhook, his opponent in the top position with a “whizzer,” for example. Each player then tries to improve his position. Once a player has improved a better position––if the bottom player sweeps his opponent, for instance––the players reset in the original half-guard position, and they try again. In my experience, “positional sparring” is the best way to improve quickly in BJJ.

Difference between a whizzer and an overhook? : bjj
The Underhook versus the “Whizzer”

I’d love to be able to practice attacking with and defending against the “4-4 point diagonal attachment joseki, 3-3 invasion” in the same fashion.

Endgame Impatience

I played chess regularly for a few months before switching my focus to Go. And in chess, endgames are of manifest importance. Good chess games often come down to a difference of a single glaring imbalance: a pawn, a knight, and a king versus a king and his knight, for example.

Chess players cannot hide from the importance of endgames. If you don’t understand how to win endgames, you just can’t win.

Go endgames are more subtle. One of the strange things about Go is that even as the game draws to a close, it’s not always clear who’s winning to beginner and even intermediate players. All Go players at some point have the befuddling experience of thinking that they are ahead, only to find out that they have lost the game when it is finally scored.

An aside: I cannot think of another scored game where this is the case. It’s a common occurrence in judged sports, such as MMA. But is there another scored game where point leads are so ambiguous?

And so, in my opinion, Go endgames require unusual patience and discipline. A monkey jump here, a minor ko fight there, or even just a small sente move… All of these present opportunities to score a few points. I have lost one or two games by passing too early and many more by being too impatient to search for ticky-tack, one-point endgame moves.

Go endgames may not be as obviously important as they are in chess, but subtle endgame moves swing close games all the time.

That’s it for now. See you on OGS!

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