This article is taken from the third chapter of the book My Views on Go by Cho Chikun. It was quoted in its entirety in the book Korean Baduk Classic Life and Death Drills by Li Ang as “The Significance of Go Life and Death Drills 围棋死活训练的意义”.
I believe that this article is very beneficial to go players of all calibre and that it should be made available to the Western audience as well. So I have translated it to the best of my ability. Hope you enjoy it as much as I do.
The Important Skill of Calculation Starts with Doing Life and Death Problems (by Cho Chikun)
A long time ago when my go level was not very good, my teacher and fellow students often posed life and death problems to me. If I could not answer correctly, I could not sleep; because if I gave the wrong answer, I would be asked to leave the school. Thus I had to rack my brain and consider the problems from all angles.
At the time, I thought the problems were difficult, but now when I look back, those were very easy problems.
I don’t have any experience of special feelings of interest for life and death problems, but when I was a 5-dan, there was a period when I specialized in studying difficult classical life and death problems. My interest in life and death problems was however just ordinary (so-so).
I can’t say I’m an enthusiastic creator of life and death problems. Although new problems do unexpectedly emerge in my brain, as I’m usually unable to record them punctually, after a short while they disappear into thin air without a trace. Still whenever I am asked to pose a life and death problem, I can immediately come up with one. But in any case, please do not consider Cho Chikun as a life and death problem specialist and overly rely on him.
Life and Death Problems Can Improve Go Skills
Everyone says that doing life and death problems is a great method for learning and practicing go skills and I agree. I can also say that this is the primary path for progress. Why should I assess the value of doing life and death problems as such?
There are two reasons.
First, to groom the proper way of calculating.
Second, because we will also think from the perspective of our opponent, we can calculate deeply.
These two reasons are proof that doing life and death problems benefits the progress of one’s go skills.
Amateurs and even professional often are like this: They don’t calculate properly and just meander around in their thoughts. Studying life and death problems can definitely change this kind of bad habit.
Moreover, I believe that while one is weak, simply doing a few easy problems everyday is very beneficial. If you have an hour to spare, doing 60 easy problems which you can understand in one minute each is much more advantageous than doing one hard problem which requires all 60 minutes to solve. In general, reading life and death problem books where you can figure out 80% is much more helpful than those where you can only solve 20%.
The Importance of Calculation
What is the most fundamental skill in go? It is calculation. In the middle of a game, 80% is calculation, the rest is intuition. And for training this most important skill of calculation, life and death problems have a direct relationship. In solving life and death problems, there is no leeway for incorporating intuition.
Though we think of a game as being quite a distance from calculation and life and death problems, a game will still come to a stage requiring fierce contact fights. At such time, calculating skill will be most important. Even saying so, there are still those who teach beginners without teaching life and death problems or capture races. They only teach fuseki, intuition and the logical order of moves, etc. This is totally wrong. It would be the same as teaching multiplication and division to children who have not even learned addition and subtraction.
The So-called Strength in Go is Actually the Strength of Your Calculation Skill
Especially in amateur games, the type of fuseki chosen is not highly correlated with winning or losing. The deciding factor for winning and losing is found in contact fights. And when winning or losing rests on whether a group lives or dies, the player whose calculation is more accurate will win.
In professional games, winning or losing is more about squeezing out that extra point. Professionals must fight out every small advantage and strive to play the best moves. And subtle moves played in the opening may sometimes directly influence winning or losing.
With this in mind, the difference between amateurs and professionals rests in calculation skill. Without calculation, there is no logical way to win. But in assessing professionals, we do not look at their calculation skill but rather their fuseki and intuition. For example, Meijin Shusai’s calculating skill is exemplary. Whereas, it goes without saying, that Meijin Shuei’s calculation is very deep and his intuition is first class. Thus his intuition allows him to play very beautiful intuitive go. From a modern perspective, we can assess them as follows: Shuei is brilliantly outstanding, but we would not give the same assessment to Shusai. This is not based on their individual achievements in go history but rather only on the content of their actual games.
With regards to contemporary professional players, we lack the depth of calculating ability of the great players of the past. This kind of talk may seem arrogant, but I only say this after some deep personal soul-searching. My own calculation skill is comparatively poor. I think that a professional must be able to solve Igo Hatsuyo-ron without a hitch. It would be a shame if a professional could not solve and explain Igo Hatsuyo-ron.
Just Calculate, Don’t Memorize
Some people pride themselves in being able to remember 200 to 300 joseki sequences. But they don’t realize that not only is it not beneficial, but there is no value in doing so at all. Using your head to memorize the sequence of every move is not the way to progress in go skills. You should understand how both sides can use joseki logic to fight out the corners during the opening stage of a game. And only thus can you grasp the vital point of learning joseki.
The same with tesuji, you can’t fixate on rote memorization. Joseki and tesuji both come from calculation where poor plays are rejected. No one wants to play moves they think are bad. You just need to calculate clearly and you won’t bother with whether a move makes a bad shape or a zokusuji (crude move).
Life and death problems are the same. Don’t rely on memorization. In the past I have looked at Mr. Maeda’s life and death problem collection from the beginning to the end, but with only a cursory look, there are bound to be two or three problems I solve incorrectly. I would review and note where I went wrong. After a period of time when I look at the problems again, I would still miss two or three problems. This proves that every time I do life and death problems, I always make fresh calculations rather than rely on rote memorization.