There are many reasons I enjoy playing go: complex gameplay arises out of simple rules, single mistakes rarely decide games, games between between people of different skill can be handicapped without changing the dynamics of the game too much, there are no draws, and I just like the way it looks. The purpose of this article is to illustrate something else I like about playing go: the ways that it provides practice in basic habits of rationality, that is, the ways in which playing go helps me be less wrong.
I've tried to write this so that you don't need to know the game to follow it, but reading a quick introduction would probably help. (ETA: A commenter below has helpfully pointed to more go info online.) The main aspect to understand for this article is that go is a game of territory. The two sides vie to occupy space and surround one another. If a group of stones is surrounded without sufficient internal space to support itself, it is killed and removed from the board.
Lesson 1: Having accurate beliefs matters.
Here are three examples of a group of white stones being surrounded by black stones. The important distinction between them is whether the white stones will eventually be captured, i.e. whether they are "dead" or "alive".
Fig 1: The white stones are dead.
Fig 2: The white stones are alive
Fig 3: The white stones have ambiguous status.
- In Figure 1, the white stones are being smothered by the black stones. They are overwhelmed and cannot escape eventual capture. They are "dead".
- In Figure 2, the white stones are surrounded but have sufficient structure to protect their internal space and thus will not eventually be capture by the black stones. They are "alive".
- In Figure 3, the issue is unsettled. Depending on how play proceeds, the white stones may eventually live or may eventually die.
Accurately determining whether the white stones in situations like Figure 3 are doomed or not is essential to winning go. There are go training books that consist of nothing but hundreds of exercises in correctly assessing the status of stones and learning the subtleties of how their arrangement affects that status. Correct assessment of life and death is one of things besides a large branching factor that makes computer go so hard.
I once read something on LessWrong which was later labeled The Fundamental Question of rationality: "What do you believe, and why do you believe it?" I have found this useful to adapt to go: when playing, I constantly ask myself, "Are these stones alive or dead, and how do I know that?", and this practice in turn has encouraged me to ask the original fundamental question more in the rest of my life.
Lesson 2: Don't be too confident or too humble.
Overconfidence leads to bad play. If white were to mistakenly play further in the scenario of Figure 1 in an attempt to salvage the position, she would be throwing good stones after bad, giving black the chance to make gains elsewhere. But underconfidence also leads to bad play: if white were to play further in Figure 2, she would also be wasting her time and giving up the initiative to black. As is true in general when trying to achieve your goals, too much humility is a bad thing. Go punishes both false hope and false despair.
Lesson 3: Update on new evidence
The status of a group of stones can change over time as play in different areas of the board grows and interacts. Stones that once were safe could become threatened if nearby battles have a side effect of increasing your opponent's strength in the area. It is thus essential to constantly update your assessment of stones' status when presented with new evidence (new moves), and act accordingly. This used to be a big weakness of mine. I often would take a strong lead during the opening and middle of the game, only to lose when a large group I thought was safe gets captured late in the game because I forgot to pay attention to all the implications of further moves elsewhere.
Lesson 4: Be willing to change your mind
Even when you pay attention diligently, it can be difficult to act in response to new information because of emotional attachment to your previous beliefs. When I launch an invasion of my opponent's territory, sometimes the battle that follows reveals that my invasion was too aggressive. My invading stones are doomed. But I don't want to give up. I throw good stones after bad and in the end only end up strengthening my opponent's position. Better play would be to 1) realize as soon as possible that the invasion was overplayed and then 2) shift from using the invading stones as part of the attack to using them to aid your efforts at containing rather than invading (this idea is called Aji). Go rewards those who are willing to change their minds as soon as is warranted.
Lesson 5: New evidence is the arbiter of conflicting beliefs
Games usually end in a curious way: by mutual agreement. When both players believe there are no more moves they can play that will either expand their own territory or reduce their opponent's, both pass. The players then reveal their beliefs about the "alive" or "dead" status of each group of stones. This is done to avoid the tedium of playing out all the moves required to actually capture doomed stones. If the players agree, then dead stones are removed and the score is counted. But if the two players disagree, the solution is simply to resume play. Further moves inevitably reveal who had the more accurate belief about whether a group of stones was doomed or not.
Lesson 6: The road is long
One interesting feature of go is the broad range of skill levels at which it is played. If you want to make a line of players such that each of them could defeat the player on their right 90% of the time, you can make a longer such line of go players than players of any other game I know. This game is deep. And as with rationality, it takes practice to internalize productive habits of thought and banish self-delusion.
Moreover, as with rationality, it is usually possible to appreciate the skill of those one or two levels more advanced than oneself (kind of like the way listening comprehension leads speaking ability when learning a language). Thus, there is a constant pull, an encouragement to reach over one's own horizon and achieve a deeper understanding.
Lesson 7: Shut up and count
Go games are decided by a balance of points (roughly speaking, one spot on the board or one stone is worth one point). Out of a few hundred points available, games between closely matched opponents are often decided by a margin of fewer than 10 points. (Different counting systems vary the absolute numbers here but not the spirit.) This means that accurate quantitative evaluation of the board is essential to good play. It's not probability theory, but it definitely shows how numbers can serve your goals better than feelings and hunches. No matter how skillfully you manage to read ahead the moves of a complicated tactical fight, if you pursue that fight instead of playing a simple move elsewhere that has a bigger impact on the score, you're making a mistake.
Edited to add: If you find the exploration of this go/rationality analogy interesting, be sure to read the comments below, where several people have pointed out additional generalizable lessons.
As much as I enjoy go, I feel I should finish by noting that in the end it is still just a game. Time spent playing will probably not do as much to advance your goals as actual direct work. Sometimes, the more you play, the less you win.
One of the things I like best about Go is the lessons it teaches about reductionism vs holism. Success at Go requires the ability to think at several levels simultaneously. A play may be motivated by tactical considerations or by strategic considerations, or most likely by both. A well played game is frequently attracted toward a state with some similarities to what the chaos-theory-geeks call "self organized criticality", in that structures at all levels of organization become equally important.
I would also add something about "guessing the teacher's password".
If you do things you saw a stronger player do, but don't understand them, you will sooner or later be punished - either because you applied the move in a situation where it doesn't work; or because you don't know how to continue.
I don't doubt that there are lots of rationality lessons in deterministic games like Go. But I think in some ways they crucially misrepresent life. When you've lost a game in Go you can always think:
"I lost because I didn't play well enough."
In games with a random element, like poker, you have to think:
"I lost because I didn't play well enough AND/OR because I was unlucky."
To become good at poker it's crucial to be able to distinguish between bad luck and play mistakes. You have to keep your cool when your opponent makes bad moves and wins anyway. You have to be able to think thoughts like this:
"That the card on top of the deck should have happened to be the only one that would let my opponent win the game is not evidence I should update on. It tells me nothing I didn't already know. It's just that Nature felt like slapping me in the face right now and there's nothing I can do about it. She'll wipe the grin off my opponent soon enough if he keeps playing like that."
In life, we are very often faced with situations where we have to analyze to what extent something is the result of our own actions and to what extent it is the result of factors outside our control.
I think you should link to some learning resources about go in your article, for people who want to start.
KGS Go Server
Sensei's Library - wiki
Sorry for all the comments, I thought of some more things:
The "dark side" has an analogy in go. It is tempting to play moves that you know don't work because you think your opponent won't be able to figure out the correct response. It is usually not obvious to beginners that doing this is really holding them back.
I commonly hear beginners justify a move with the reasoning, "I played X because next I can play Y!" To which the response is, "But after you play X it's your opponent's turn. And he is not stupid and will prevent Y."... (read more)
In a thread on Reddit about coping with the fear of death I suggestlearning to play Go and playing in tournaments (for the timed matches) as a way of getting used to managing a limited stock of time.
Robin Hanson ponders trying to stick to clear, simple methods of rationality in the hope of avoiding judgment and the biases inherent in the exercise of judgment. I comment that this has worked poorly for me and Go with the implication that it is likely to work poorly in real life because real life has even more of the nasty complication than Go.
Is it true that all of these points could be said for any goal-centered action, such as making paperclips? Or for any game? How is Go different that those other games and tasks with respect to these lessons and insights?
Thank you for writing this article.
If I can add one thing: A game of go is very long, often 250+ moves. Mistakes you make early on might take 50 or 100 moves before you start to feel their effects. As such, the game encourages long-term thinking. If you are rushing around putting out fires all over the board, you are not winning. I often find myself wishing I could teach my company's management go for this reason.
Go really does reward rational thinking. Games I play by feel and intuition are fun, but if I take my time and try to make rational decisions at each point I play much better.
For me, Go helped to highlight certain temptations to behave irrationally, which I think can carry over to real life.
One was the temptation to avoid thinking about parts of the board where I'd recently made a mistake.
And if I played a poor move and my opponent immediately refuted it, there was a temptation to try to avoid seeming foolish by dreaming up some unlikely scheme I might have had which would have made the exchange part of the plan.
The lesson I learned most effectively from Go was to acknowledge mistakes; when I was a weak player one of my worst faults was being unwilling to admit to my opponent that they had outplayed me. This is particularly clear when compared to chess.
In chess, if you fall behind in material or tempo the correct thing (in my experience; I am a weak chess player) is almost always to see what you gained in exchange and try to exploit that. If you gained nothing in exchange and the loss was significant, your play is typically irrelevant because you lost. This encour... (read more)
Two quick comments:
This was interesting to me, because one of my 'viewquakes' for Go is that it's NOT a game of territory. It's more about the strength, flow, and structure of stones. I hit this around 8kyu while stuck. Territory is just a side-effect and the Japanese standard of measurement (it may be surprising to learn that there are several scoring methods, and they don't significantly change the character of the game).
The other lesson I can think of is that Go taught ... (read more)
I find the concept of "aji" especially fascinating when it comes to Go. The word means roughly translated means something like "taste", and as a go concept it refers to set of possible moves and continuations that can dramatically alter the local situation. For example, if there is a weakness in the opponent formation somewhere on the board because of the mistake opponent just made, but the opponent is able to somehow defend it under direct attack, I would most likely play away from this weakness for now, and try to steer the game so th... (read more)
I found it really important to start asking myself a bit broader question, "where do I want to play, and why do I want to play there". If, say, my answer is something like "To prepare the move X", it makes it quite straightforward to play X straight ahead, if it's any good.
"Overconfidence leads to bad play."
As an avid chess player, I can tell you that this is true in chess as well. People look at brilliant sacrifices by grandmasters (Bobby Fischer was famous for this) and think they are brilliant enough to pull off the same thing. In my experience, 80-90% of material sacrifices fail. When they do succeed, it is usually because the sacrificer is considerably better than her opponent. I've learned to subdue my desire for a sacrifice and a quick strike and work on a longterm plan instead.
Go and chess provide clear demonstrations of opportunity cost, the first-mover advantage (esp. go), and the importance of not wasting time on trivial moves.
Go provides proof of, and some understanding of, the power of human intuition. My dad can make moves that I don't think he knows the reasons for, that turn out to have amazing consequences 10 moves later when I discover eg. that a group of stones of mine is dead because, even though I have more liberties in that group than he has in his attacking group, he can use his liberties while I can't use min
As some commenters have mentioned, we should be able to derive lessons of rationality from any game (such as Backgammon or Chess), not just Go. After all, rationalists should win, so whatever helps us be rational will help as win, at games as at life.
However, just because being rational helps with the game, that doesn't mean that students of the game will learn this. (After all, being rational helps with real life, yet many students of real life miss these lessons entirely!) Each game (at least each that has long been widely played) has its own literatu... (read more)
Comment to 7: Important in Go, as in real life, is that taking the most recent change way more into account than reasonable is very easy to happen, and most times a very bad thing to do. (I think this may not be clear for non-players from the description.)
Beginners (that includes me) usually have a model of the game, see the opponent's move, and concentrate 90% (or more) of their thinking time a few points around the move. It's similar to the priming problem, and it's similar to how our emotional state is influenced by things that just happened, whereas everything in the past gets more and more muddled up.
And I'm too lazy to pull out the corresponding links.
I think you're overstating the difficulty of Go to computers. The latest wave of Monte Carlo programs -- when run on fast multicore machines -- are able to beat professionals with a modicum of handicap on 19x19, or at even games on 9x9; they're certainly now better than the average club player.
The position in Figure 3 looks alive to me. One eye in the center, and miai for eyes at the two points diagonally below.
Related article: "The benefits of the Japanese game of Go"
...and book: "The Way of Go: 8 Ancient Strategy Secrets for Success in Business and Life"
Go teaches: don't always respond to what your opponent does. Instead, survey the situation and make the best move.
I was quite pleased to see that an article had been written on Go's effect on rational thinking. It's a subject I had been thinking about quite a bit recently. #3 and #4 are the most relevant to my experience of Go and it's effect on my level of rational thinking in general. After playing Go for quite a while, I noticed that it promotes a sort of soft game/decision theoretic strategy to approaching everyday problems and more importantly it makes that approach feel natural. The equilibrium position becomes the natural one.
An additional benefit to playing go, especially on an online server that shows a detailed plot of your rank (as KGS does, for example), is that you can use it as a proxy for brain function when you are doing self-experimentation. I mean, it's rather more fun to play go than to time yourself solving simple arithmetic problems (Seth Roberts' method for measuring mental performance). For example, I noticed a marked increase in performance after I started standing up for most of my workday. More obviously, I lost a stone during a time when I was exhausting ... (read more)
I find backgammon to also be a good analogy for life in general, though I don't really have the time to get into all of the details... perhaps the most important lesson, though, is that if you always take the "safest" move, you're almost guaranteed to lose! You need to take risks - smart risks, where the payoff is worth the danger and the danger is non-fatal, but risks nonetheless.
And sometimes, even if you do everything right, you still lose. That's life.
Go teaches: behave differently when you are winning - don't take risks, consolidate, play conservatively. Also, to figure out how you are doing - so you can adjust accordingly.
On the other hand, there are some ways of thinking which are useful for Go but not for real life. One example is that damaging my opponent is as good as working for myself.
Another example is that, between equal players, the sunk costs fallacy is sometimes sound reasoning in Go. One form is "if I don't achieve goal X I've lost the game anyway, so I might as well continue trying even though it's looking unlikely". Another form (for stronger players than me) is "if I play A, I will get a result that's two points worse than I could have had if I played B earlier, so I can rule A out."
Lately I've been looking into various board games (in a broad sense--there doesn't have to be a board) that are good practice for good thinking. Anybody here have any recommendations?
It would be interesting to know if people have learned anything about resigning from go.
Go teaches: prioritisation and time management skills.
Go teaches: hide your thoughts from your opponent - control your speech and body language.
IMO, there's a lesson in the Japanese rules of go. These have complications that lead to a shorter game. I think the lesson here is: don't adopt other people's culture and then start making changes before you have understood it all properly.
Go teaches: trade! If you gain points while threatening one group, and your opponent responds by gaining points while threatening another one, sometimes trading one group for the other one is the best thing to do.
What's your playing strength in Go? The article reads a bit like it's either too much targeted at people without understanding of go or is written without by someone with a playing strength >5 kyu?
I'm 1 kyu.
Awesome, I've voted it up simply for bringing this subject to LW. I've always wanted to learn about Go. I've already got a book, but what I'm missing is someone/thing I can play with. I know computers are no good at Go yet, but I wonder if there are programs for beginners to play against before bothering humans with their lack of sophistication? I'll have to check out the link provided in the OP. Thank you.