Some misconceptions about Go

This is a subpage of the main page about misconceptions. This page contains claims made by people which I consider erroneous, but where the exact correctness can be seen as a matter of definition or opinion and which can be disputed or even controversial.

Thus be warned that the answers to these claims express my understanding of the subject, my opinion, and that some people (including players much stronger than me) may disagree with them. However, I try to argument my view as well as possible.

A joseki is a sequence which gives an (about) equal result to both players

The definition of joseki is actually quite interesting. Even professional players disagree on the definition. (I don't mean they disagree on whether certain sequences are joseki or not, which is rather normal; I mean that they disagree on the definition of the concept of "joseki" itself.)

I once had a conversation (online) with a (western) pro player about whether the standard sequence which follows from a 3-3 invasion (when there's a lone opponent stone at 4-4) is joseki or not. Another standard sequence discussed was the one which follows when there's a lone stone at 3-3 and the opponent makes an approach at 4-4.

Rui Naiwei, a Chinese 9-dan professional, writes in her book Essential Joseki about the latter case as "a perfect example of a joseki". She defines the former case as a joseki as well.

This western pro, however, stated firmly that those sequences are not joseki. He was especially firm on the former case (ie. the sequence following the 3-3 invasion).

It all came down to a different definition of joseki. This western professional didn't consider those sequences joseki because they don't give an equal result to both players (in the former case the one who invaded at 3-3 gets an inferior result).

I was laughed at when I disagreed with his opinion. Of course it's rather amusing for a mere 4k to disagree with a professional player. On the other hand I had the word of a 9-dan professional behind me.

I still believe this western pro is wrong: He has a misconception about what "joseki" means. He thinks that for a sequence to be joseki it has to give (on the whole-board situation) an equal result to both players. However, this is not the definition of joseki at all. (I'm rather puzzled about how someone can become professional and still have such a misconception about a Go term...)

This is the best definition of joseki which I have come up with based on different sources:

Joseki: An established/standardized sequence which, starting from an initial arrangement of stones, gives locally the best possible outcome for both players.

There are four very important key concepts in this definition which are extremely relevant in order to understand the concept of joseki:

  1. Established (or standardized) sequence: It's a standard sequence developed and carefully studied (move by move) by professionals, most of which agree that it can be considered joseki (by the rest of the definition). Some players may come up with a completely new sequence in a game, but if it has not been established/standardized it can hardly be called "joseki".
  2. Starting from an initial arrangement of stones: This is an extremely important part of the definition. Josekis never start from an empty corner, they always start from an initial position of (a few) stones. Often this means that one player has made a move in that corner and the other player approaches that stone (although sometimes there may be more stones already there).
  3. Locally: A joseki is always a local sequence. Whether or not a certain joseki is globally a good choice is irrelevant in the definition of "joseki".
  4. Best possible outcome: Not "equal result". This is another extremely important concept to understand.

It's a very common misconception to think that a joseki has to give an equal result for both players. There are numerous josekis which do not give an equal result to both players for the simple reason that one of the players has already more stones in that corner than the other. For instance, there exist josekis which start from an arrangement where there are three eg. black stones and one white stone in a corner. It's naturally impossible for white to get an equal result from that corner anymore. However, that is not relevant with regard to the definition of "joseki". For a sequence to be joseki white has to get the best possible outcome from that situation.

A joseki can also be inferior for one of the players in a particular whole-board situation. However, this is a question of strategical choice of joseki and has nothing to do with the definition of joseki. The fact that the player chose the wrong joseki in a certain whole-board situation doesn't make the sequence less joseki, it just makes it a bad strategical choice.

What this western professional actually opposed was the idea of making a 3-3 invasion against a (lone) 4-4 stone. Doing this too early in the game is indeed usually a bad idea. However, what this professional (for whatever reason I cannot fathom) did not understand is that the 3-3 invasion move itself is not a joseki. It's the sequence which follows from that which is joseki. In a certain whole-board situation it might give an inferior result for the invader, but the error was not in the sequence but it happened earlier: The error was the 3-3 invasion itself. Now, starting from that situation, when the error was already done, the best possible outcome locally for the invader is the joseki (globally it might even be better to play elsewhere, but once again, that's irrelevant with regard to the definition of joseki).

So the mistake is to think that "joseki" has something to do with strategy. It does not. Choice of joseki is the strategy, and there it is where one can easily go wrong. However, that doesn't make the established sequence less joseki, it just makes it a bad choice.

(Besides, the 3-3 invasion and the joseki which follows it is not always bad. You can find it in hundreds if not thousands of top-pro games. It's just a question of when to do it, not if you should do it at all.)

So, even at the risk of sounding astonishingly arrogant, I dare to repeat my opinion: This western professional was wrong.

An empty triangle is always a bad shape

The definition of bad shape is also a rather interesting subject. There are basically two possible definitions:

A group of n stones (of the same color) arranged in a certain way is always a bad shape.

vs.

A group of stones form a bad shape depending on the board situation.

When looking at those two definitions just as they are, it probably makes one immediately think that the second one must be more correct than the first one. It sounds more logical. In fact, I think this way too.

However, many people go with the first definition, and this is where, in my opinion, they go wrong.

I once had a discussion with someone who firmly stated that for example the so-called "empty triangle" is always a bad shape, regardless of the situation, that it doesn't matter if it eg. makes a group alive (while any other arrangment of those three stones would make it dead).

However, there is one problem with that definition: Trying to define the concept of "bad shape" in such way that certain arrangements of stones are always "bad" is surprisingly difficult.

In order to understand what I mean by this, think about why the empty triangle is a bad shape.

A shape can be considered bad if it's inefficient or makes the group unnecessarily weak or heavy. A group of stones is inefficient if there are too many stones for what they are doing (eg. with respect to the influence of that group). A group is weak if it can be attacked and it has less chances of winning the fight compared to a stronger shape (this usually means that the group has too few liberties, cutting points or other similar weaknesses). A group is heavy if it's eyeless, weak and there are too many stones in it for it to be sacrificed.

The empty triangle is usually an inefficient shape because it lacks liberties (compared to other shapes) and usually makes the group heavy. Why is it bad that it lacks liberties? It's bad because it will be weaker when fighting against another group. Thus there's a bigger danger for it to be captured.

However, and this is my point, this is not always so. If an empty triangle for example makes a group alive, it cannot be captured, it cannot lose a fight and it's not heavy (because a heavy group is by definition eyeless). In fact, in some situations making a group alive often makes that group superstrong (it can eg. be used to attack a weak enemy group). It might not even be inefficient in the sense of having too many stones for the purpose of what they are doing (in this case forming a live group).

So, in this case, what is it that makes it a bad shape? How can you define the concept of "bad shape" so that it also includes this case? You can't use "it lacks liberties, it's weak, it's inefficient". If that cannot always be used, then how can "bad shape" be defined?

Wouldn't, thus, a better definition be "an empty triangle is a bad shape when it makes the group lack liberties, weak and/or heavy"? If this is an acceptable definition, then it immediately means that whether a shape is bad or not depends on the situation.

One claim which this person made was that some honte moves (even in pro games) form bad shape. This is, in my opinion, extremely contradictory: If a move is honte, it's a good move. Making a bad shape is a bad move. A move cannot be considered honte if it makes a group weak or inefficient, because that's about the exact opposite of the definition of honte: A honte usually removes weaknesses, it doesn't add them. How can a shape be considered bad if it is not weak, inefficient nor heavy?

A strong player once told me that Go is not so much about sente, gote, joseki and so on, but about making good shape (IOW in the context of making good shape sente, gote and similar things are not all that relevant). Whether a shape is good or not depends on the whole-board situation. I think this is a beautiful insight of the game.

The definition of tesuji

Tesuji is actually something which I don't really know how to define well even myself. Thus it might be a bit presumptuous to claim that many people define it in the wrong way. However, when discussing about the definition of "tesuji" with people you get a rather varied and often inconsistent set of definitions.

I was once watching a high-dan game at KGS when one of the players made a sequence (which captured some important opponent stones which clearly were not sacrificed) which I thought was rather beautiful. I commented "that was a nice little tesuji". Another player (IIRC he was 2d back then at KGS) said that it was not a tesuji.

When I asked for his definition of tesuji, it was surprisingly difficult for him to come up with anything concrete and coherent.

It became quite clear that the common short definition of "clever play" is rather imprecise and ambiguous. "Clever play" suggests that it's a move which is difficult for the average player to see, that it requires deep reading. However, this obviously cannot be the definition of tesuji because there are sequences which are called "tesuji" but which are very trivial for even an almost complete beginner to see. The most prominent example of this is the so-called "crane's nest tesuji".

I once put the initial position of the crane's nest tesuji to a beginner who had played just some tens of 9x9 games and he guessed the right move in just a couple of seconds. Still, it's a tesuji nevertheless. Thus it cannot be a question of difficulty.

"Clever play" may not be a wrong definition per se, but all by itself it's very lacking and a bit misleading.

Sensei's Library defines tesuji as: "A tesuji is a clever play, the best play in a local position, a skillful move, a special tactic. Tesujis come in all forms and shapes, some are more known than others."

I still find that definition a bit imprecise and lacking. It raises many questions. For example joseki moves are best plays in a local position, but can you call a joseki "tesuji"? I think tesuji is a bit different from joseki. Naturally many josekis contain tesujis (and these are often mentioned explicitly in joseki moves), but is each single move in a joseki tesuji? Why would joseki books explicitly mention that a certain move is tesuji if each single move in all josekis were tesuji?

In the end, this player at KGS couldn't really explain me very well why he thought that sequence was not a tesuji and what is required for a move/sequence to be tesuji.


Copyright 2005 Juha Nieminen


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