Last time, I said that Janice Kim and Jeong Soo-hyun’s “The Way of the Moving Horse” (Volume II of the Learn to Play Go Series) was the only book I know that discusses the process of Go from Opening to Middle Game to Endgame. Another good source that describes the stages of Go and the objectives a player must keep in mind at each stage is Antti Törmänen‘s “Ten’s Guide to Studying Professional Games”.
I will combine the knowledge from the book and the essay to make a general guideline for beginners regarding the flow of Go.
Go has three stages, namely: the Opening (joban), Middle Game (chūban) and Endgame (shūban). Read on Ten’s guide for more information.
In the Opening, there are no stones yet or only a few stones are on the board. The main goal of the Opening is to divide the board in terms of prospective territories. There is no severe fighting in the Opening. Törmänen counts invasions and reductions as a separate stage, but I think invasions and reductions are consistent with the idea of dividing the board without severe fighting.
The Middle Game involves the life and death of one or more groups. Players prevent one another from surrounding too much territory and sometimes aim for the kill.
The Endgame focuses on closing all open borders. Törmänen considers taking big open corners as a transition stage from Middle Game to Endgame, but I think we should just consider these as big Endgame moves that will set-up the small Endgame moves later. Players aim to keep sente while they finalize the borders that enclose territories.
Dividing Before Conquering
Kim and Soo-hyun give three basic rules of the Opening: corners first, then side extensions, and play on the third or fourth line.
When playing the corners, there are five standard ways (allow me to use the Japanese terms):
- Hoshi (4-4) aims at building influence or strength to the center.
- San-san (3-3) takes profit instantly. Contemporary Go players are not too fond of the 3-3 point.
- Komoku (4-3) also takes territory but has intentions to develop the side.
- Takamoku (5-4) radiates power to the center more than 4-4.
- Mokuhazushi (5-3) leans on side profit but still has claim of the corner.
Approach or enclose unsymmetrical corners, i.e. the 4-3, 5-4, and 5-3. Territories are easier to secure with unsymmetrical corners than with 4-4 that focuses on building influence. No urgent need to approach the living 3-3. After the approach move, players can use standard sequences called joseki to divide the board in terms of profit and influence. Remember the inherent values of the corner points because it is often better to be consistent. For example, if a stone at 4-4 is approached then invaded at 3-3, the defender should be satisfied in building influence rather than going for a kill. A small corner profit is worth sacrificing for a possible future profit using influence. Extend from thickness and make small bases. Extensions on the fourth line aims for influence while extensions on the third line secures profit. After occupying the sides, jump to the center or play invasions and reductions before moving to the Middle Game.
Fighting for Life
Fighting erupts when someone attacks and one must defend the life of a weak group. The balance of territory and power determines who shall attack and who needs to defend. The player who lags in points or has strength, attacks; the player who leads in points and did not build up too much strength, defends. (I will discuss this balance of territory and power more in later posts). Groups under attack either secure two eyes or run towards the center in search for living friendly groups. In this stage, the skills you learn from life and death problems, capturing races and counting liberties become vital. Some games may end in the middle game when you kill one of your opponent’s major group. Here is an example. Sometimes the life and death of a group hang in a ko fight, so be sure to count and evaluate your existing ko threats.
Closing the Edges
When all of the groups are alive or dead, players can now focus on closing the open borders. Endgame may not be as exciting as the Middle Game, but in my opinion, it is the most difficult to evaluate, especially under time pressure, when you used most of the time during the Middle Game. Endgame not only focuses on taking the biggest open borders, but also in keeping sente. Most of the time, keeping sente will be more profitable than taking the biggest moves left on the board that ends in gote. Watch out for big endgame plays in the center or on the sides. Small Endgame moves usually occur on the second and first line.
Disrupting the Flow of Go
Never deviate from the flow of Go. Always remember at what stage you are playing. The right moves played at the right stage ensures a good game most of the time.
Moves meant for a later stage give away big points to the opponents. Example: If you focus on killing a stone instead of extending, your opponent can sacrifice that stone and develop a better framework. The middle game will favor your opponent because of the better distribution of stones. Example 2: If you suddenly take a big Endgame point in the middle of a fight, your opponent can take advantage and go for the kill or build something while keeping the pressure. Losing a move in a fight can be deadly.
Moves meant for a previous stage lose points. Example 1: If you play an extension in the middle of a fight without securing the life of your weak group, your opponent may take big points by killing your group or by just keeping constant pressure. Example 2: If you attack a living group during the Endgame, your opponent will take the initiative and gobble the last remaining big points on the borderlines.
However, a game may skip a stage or part of the stage without causing too much damage to either player. Example 1: after approaching a corner, a crucial fight begins; the game enters the Middle game without giving the players a chance to make extensions, invasions, or reductions. Example 2: After the Opening, there are no weak groups on the board, play shifts to closing the open borders; the game peacefully skips fighting and goes straight to Endgame.
Conclusion: Be familiar with the characteristics of the Opening, Middle Game, and Endgame. Learn the moves you should play at each stage. Play Go by staying with the flow.