The Right Way to Study Go Problems

Strong go players extole the virtues of go problems as a key way to improve your skills, but rarely spell out exactly how to get the most out of your go problem study time. Having the wrong attitude or the wrong general method to solving problems will result in a frustrating and largely unrewarding experience. On the other hand, if you know the right approach you will get the most out of your study time and enjoy yourself too! Here I will present what I’ve learned to be the most effective ways to do go problems.

Go Problems are Not a Test

The first thing to remember is that go problems are not a test, they are a study tool. There is no reward for getting them all correct, and no penalty for getting them all wrong. There is also no penalty for looking at the answer when you can’t find it in a reasonable amount of time!

If you spend an hour trying and failing at one go problem, you’re likely wasting most of that hour. There’s only so many things you can read out and you’re basically guaranteed to be missing something important about the problem at that point, so just look at the answer, read it through in your head and try to figure out what you were missing, then do better the next time you solve that problem. The entire point is to train your brain to see the common patterns in go, so there is no reason to feel bad about having to look at the answer when it’s a pattern that you haven’t trained into your brain yet.

How Long is Too Long?

How do you know when you’ve spent “too long” on one go problem? There’s no hard and fast answer, but my rule of thumb is that when I’ve stopped trying new things and I’m repeating the same reading steps over and over, them I’m no longer getting anything out of the exercise.

Don’t Give Up Too Early

That said, it is important that you don’t immediately give up on a problem and look at the answer (or guess). You need to try to find the answer, read out the sequence and see if it works (trying to find and refute good counter-moves as you go). Only after you’ve expended a reasonable amount of effort trying to solve it should you look at the answer and find out what you were missing.

What Types of Problems to Study

Of course the first step when you get started is choosing some go problems to solve. You should have a good mix of problems by two criteria: subject matter and difficulty. At the very least your subject matter should contain life-and-death problems and tesuji problems over a broad range. I like to have three different collections at the following difficulty ranges and study them separately:

  • Easy: can solve in under twenty seconds with high (>90%) confidence

  • Medium: can solve in under three minutes most of the time (>50%)

  • Hard: can solve in about ten minutes most of the time (>50%)

The majority of your time should be spent on the medium difficulty problems, then easy problems should take up most of the rest of your time. The medium problems will burn into your brain the patterns and shapes that are important to read. Once you have these patterns naturally encoded in your mind, you will be able to apply them in order to get the upper hand in real games of go. Easy problems are to help you solve at a glance certain situations. Hard problems are good practice for stretching your ability to read deeply, which is an important skill but can be gained during games as well.

You could of course get practice similar to the easy and medium problems during games, but it would take thousands of games to happen upon the various interesting shapes that have already been compiled into problem sets for you.

Do not be afraid to do the same problems over and over again, in fact you should; one view of a problem is never going to be enough to train your mind on the pattern, you’ll need many attempts to really get it down. As you practice, the problems will get easier and easier. Eventually the medium problems will become easy, and etc. Keep this in mind as you’re studying, and make sure you adjust your problem sets as appropriate so you keep improving.

Motivate Yourself

All the planning in the world won’t make a difference if you can’t actually bring yourself to do the go problems. Don’t try to get it all out of the way in one shot; you need to space out your study time to a little bit every day or you will burn yourself out. You can also use some simple tricks to improve your motivation: reward yourself with some dessert or a favorite activity after training sessions and suddenly you’ll find it much easier to find time for it every day.

  • Go Grinder: A great tool for doing go problems easily and keeping records of your study time and results.

  • Korean Problem Academy: My favorite set of life-and-death problems. I have transcribed them to SGF for use in Go Grinder, but unfortunately cannot share that due to copyright laws :-( You might want to do the same if you enjoy the problems as much as I do.

    I’ve unfortunately never been able to get a copy of the books that these come from, if anyone knows where to get them please let me know!

  • Segoe/Seigen Tesuji Dictionary: An absolutely amazing set of tesuji problems that cover a broad range of subjects.

    Thomas Hsiang 7 dan once told a group of us that this set of problems was the quickest way to shodan, and it was a big part of my path there. You will never outgrow this problem set, so it’s a great investment if you can grab a copy. I plan to do the entire set again ten times as a step towards my goal of reaching 5 dan.

    The links to purchase the set in the page linked above are out of date. The only source I currently know of that has them is Yutopian, which sells a nice Taiwanese printing that I currently own.