Antti’s Guide to Studying Professional Games

Published 16 Sep 2020 by antti (last edited 17 Sep 2020)
tags: guide

The domain of my old blog,, is expiring in a few months, and after giving it some thought I decided I will not renew it. Instead, I am ferrying any useful non-personal material over to – in the end, this amounted to just this guide and my English-translated bachelor’s thesis.

I posted this guide originally in September 2012 when I was 6-dan, having recently finished my first, seven-month term as insei. If I were to spend some effort to write a similar guide now, the result would probably not look quite the same, but this eight-year-old piece does have its merits.

Antti’s guide to studying professional games

Being a go teacher, I often get asked about how one should study professional games. While it is difficult – likely even impossible – to create a universal guide that will work for everybody, I thought I could fashion a fairly helpful framework to show how one should go about their study. As long as one understands a professional game on a fundamental level, it becomes possible to learn something useful out of it.

First of all, let’s make a rough sketch of what a general go game is like. I find it useful to divide games into five stages, all of which have their own characteristics. I derive this five-stage division from Jeff:

Stage 1: Opening (, joban)

The opening game lasts until the corners and sides have been tentatively divided out, usually ending by move 20 or 30. Fighting is scarce or nonexistent.

Stage 2: Transition from opening to middle game

In this stage, some territories and eye bases get secured, invasions and reductions are made, and players in general develop their positions towards the centre. If a fight breaks out, the game moves to Stage 3; if no fighting erupts at all, the game may directly move to Stage 4. The length of this stage varies a lot depending on the game: in a peaceful Japanese professional game this stage might last from move 15 to move 80, but in your typical Lee Sedol game this stage might not exist at all (as the game would jump directly from the opening to middle game fighting).

Stage 3: Middle game (, chūban)

In the middle game, there are one or more weak groups on the board that fight for their life. Victory is often decided by how skillfully the running groups are handled. In some games, this stage doesn’t exist at all.

Stage 4: Transition from middle game to end game

In this stage, the weak groups from Stage 3 have been ensured their life, and play switches to closing the biggest open borders of territories on the board. The first few moves in this stage are usually very big territory-wise.

Stage 5: Endgame (, shūban)

In the endgame, the borders of territories are finalised. Skilful play in the endgame revolves around keeping sente as much as possible. (The endgame stage, shūban, should not be confused with endgame moves, which are called yose.)

One should note that there are valid reasons why the game is structured as above. Some amateur mistakes (and punishments) are as follows:

  • A plays Stage 2 moves in Stage 1. As a result, B develops more quickly all over the board and thanks to that gets a better position in middle game fighting.
  • A plays Stage 3 moves in Stage 1 (tries a relentless attack on a single stone, for example). B makes a small local sacrifice and again develops more quickly all over the board.
  • A plays Stage 4 moves in Stage 2. B’s stones get better access to the centre, and middle game fighting again favors B.
  • A plays Stage 4 moves in Stage 3. B kills a huge dragon from A and wins the game right there. Alternatively, B gets sente attacking moves against the weak group that still needs to live, and profits significantly in another way (by for example increasing the size of his territorial framework).
  • A plays Stage 5 moves in Stage 2. B is happy to answer and gets stronger shape for his stones than he should have.
  • A plays Stage 5 moves in Stage 4. B ignores A’s small endgame threat and takes a bigger move that encloses (or opens up) a sizeable territory elsewhere.

I’m sure some or all of the above generalisations sound familiar to most readers.

The reason I made the above distinction between the five stages was to make it easier to approach a given professional game. As long as one understands what stage the game is in, it is possible to point out some factors that should be observed in the professionals’ play. Here are then my in-line tips on what and how to think:

Stage 1

Follow how the professionals spread out their stones on the board, and try to get a feeling for the general flow of the game. If there is a rare joseki variation, ponder a bit on why it was played. Don’t expend too much effort here!

Stage 2

Make a prediction on where the final significant territories will be located at the end of the game. Then see how the professionals carry out their invasions, reductions and territory-expanding moves, and see if they had similar predictions as you.

In addition, note how the professionals deal with weak groups. Try to figure out why some groups are sacrificed, why some groups go for an early eye base, and why other groups escape to the centre.

Stage 3

Make a plan for how you would strengthen and attack the weak groups on the board – doing both at the same time, if possible. If there is no profitable way to attack, is there a way to quietly make profit while threatening to attack?

Try to get a feeling for what the professionals are attempting to achieve with their fighting. Usually an attack is carried out in order to strengthen a group or to enlarge (or finalise) a territory. Other times, a player may be attacking to defend his weakest group in sente, so that he can get the first move of Stage 4 (which can be a really big territory-enclosing move).

Keep track of when the players deem their weak groups strong enough to play tenuki, and when they find it better to play a ‘slow’, group-strengthening move with a smaller territorial gain.

Stage 4

In this stage, all the groups on the board should be cleanly alive. Get a feeling where the biggest endgame moves on the board are. They are often located near the corners and the edges, next to the weakest living groups.

Make a note whenever a player makes a slow-looking gote move. Often, the gote move will have a big sente follow-up that makes it worthwhile! Alternatively, the move may be making a slightly weak group absolutely strong, fixing all bad potential.

Stage 5

Try to get a general feeling for where the biggest endgame moves are located, and then see how the players played the game out. Note that the players fight hard for sente, often paying a point or two so that they can turn elsewhere first!

With the above tips, observing any professional game on a fundamental level should become possible. It is still recommendable that one try to find commentaries of professional games, but for an average amateur, they may either be expensive or too difficult to procure. In such a case, I can recommend going with the study framework sketched above.

Comments (2)

sig wrote 3 days ago:

What about the "sente gains nothing" endgame posts? Or are they obsoleted by the Rational Endgame book? :)

antti wrote 2 days, 17 hours ago:

They don’t seem to be obsolete, but I do think they would benefit from better phrasing and structuring, not to mention presentation. For the time being Rational Endgame is of course great fallback material, but maybe in the future I will make some new endgame posts when I get an inspiration.