From BGJ 198 February 2022
It’s nice for everybody to see the progress that British youth players are making, so we’re taking the chance to highlight one such player, Sam Barnett (Year 10) and see what he thinks of the game, and how he has improved.
Background: Sam is a student at Cheadle Hulme School (CHS), in South Manchester. In just over three years, Sam has learnt the game and reached 2-kyu, a grade that even most UK adults do not attain. He had no relatives or friends who knew the game.
You can see Sam’s progress in the European Go Database.Sam kindly answered the following questions for us. The ’us’ ( Q:) are Helen and Martin Harvey, a married couple from the BGA, who are delighted to have been volunteers at CHS throughout Sam’s Go-learning (except for Covid lockdowns of course).
Q: Sam, could you tell us how you got into Go, and at what age?
A: Well, when I was in Year 5 [age 9-10] I went to a brief introduction to Go, whilst on a ’taster day’ – a co-curricular fair held at CHS. Back home, I told my parents that if I got into CHS, I would like to go to the Go club, and the MUN (Model United Nations) club. And so I did, enjoying both clubs greatly and getting properly into Go when I joined that secondary school. I had such great fun at Go club that I started going to tournaments.
Q: What do you remember about your first tournament?
A: It was really enjoyable; I was in Year 7, and it was the ’Northern’ tournament, for all ages, held at my school. I lost two games; then I won in round 3. Even though I won just one game, I was assured that it’s not a sprint, but a marathon, and often the players who ultimately do best are those who show determination. It’s a good life skill, to handle upsets. They say you need to lose hundreds of games, before you become good. It can be better for you to lose as, by spotting what mistakes were made in a game, that’s a top way to improve. I need to practice and not just rely on spotting good and bad patterns.
As part of my progression I went to the London Open Go Congress (LOGC) with a classmate and have got fond, fun memories from there. We could review our games with experts and indeed a couple of evenings we played some card games. I have continued to enjoy playing Go whenever I can, despite the lockdown, during which my Go grade became rather stuck, as I wasn’t able to attend tournaments.
Q: Could you explain how you know what grade you are?
A: You start at the lowest grade, 40 ’kyu’ (kyu, or k for short, just means grade). Then if you beat a person of your grade three times on the trot, you promote yourself to the next grade (39k) and so on.
Q: Your school was one of several schools where the BGA introduced Go badges, showing your grade, with a badge for every five or so grades from beginner up to 1k, then 1 Dan, 2 Dan, etc... Did this idea help at your school?
A: It worked really well face-to-face because it motivates you and it shows you’re doing well on your ’right of passage’ and it gives you confidence, and encourages you to progress to the next badge.
Q: We see that you have played for the national team, representing the BGA. Could you tell us about this?
A: Yes, I played for the UK team, against other youth teams from a dozen European countries. This was in an organised League, where the Divisional tables were updated after each round of games. This included matches during two or three months of lockdown. The team played well and we came second in the competition. I got to know new players, who then became pals.
Q: Do you have a future Go personal ambition, broadly?
A: If I have to dream big, I would say that becoming UK champion would be fantastic, but the main thing is that I keep enjoying the game.
Q: Have you tried teaching Go to your relatives, friends or schoolmates?
A: I have and enjoyed doing so. Because the game’s rules are simple, it’s not hard to show the basics. But on the other hand, some aspects are more abstract so, as with anything in life, it will take a lot of practice to become a really experienced teacher. Having said that, I have tried to teach in my form and the school Go club. Also, I have demoed it sometimes in my free time, when people have asked me questions about what the game is. Like this, I have been able to help others improve, and help them refine their own skills.
Q: Can you think of an example of how players help each other?
A: Well one example is when I was playing at Go club. I was showing somebody a new corner opening, which I thought I knew well. In fact, we both learnt, as they came up with a variation I’d not seen, and they managed to kill my corner stones!
Q: You have mentioned that it’s good to get practice against friends and to know patterns to recognise, but what other things would you recommend?
A: Reading books is good. Mrs Harvey has enabled me to get invaluable progress through my double-digit kyu and grades. CHS library has some Go books that I have read. But of course you can’t beat playing many games and getting in that practice. I have been lucky to get many of my games reviewed, which is tremendous for learning. Also, as I see my grade go up, it boosts my morale Playing online helps a lot; I use an online Go server called OGS where there is a school site, and also there is a national site where British youngsters can play. It means I can have lots of games with fellow players and try out infinite game positions and it is all good practice.
Q: The UK press has been keen to talk about the progress made by Artificial Intelligence (AI), in particular its ability to beat professionals at Go. What do you think about AI? Has it helped you?
A: Well to some extent it has, but it is not perfect; for instance you can’t ask it questions. Also it is difficult for AI to review your game, as it can show the best move but that is predicated on one having perfect skills, but of course each person has their own grade and really what you want is advice for your particular grade.
Q: Do you use any apps for studying or playing Go?
A: Yes I use SmartGoKifu on an iPad, for ’tsumego’ (life and death problems) and on a mobile I use Android apps like WBaduk, which is in Chinese, and Pandanet. I think that they are very useful. I also use Fox Go Server for Android and also on the PC there are lots of different websites which I like, but probably I prefer OGS for its stylistic difference. Also it’s nice when I can click and get a game in 10 seconds against another opponent.
Q: Have you used YouTube to study Go?
A: Yes I have used it, and it’s good for basic principles. I have watched quite a few YouTube videos on Go and I concentrate on basics, where it’s a very useful tool.
Q: The British Go Association runs an annual residential Go camp, organised by PGL. Have you been to that?
A: Yes I have and it was really great fun – not just for the Go workshops but also the outdoor activities like rifle-shooting, zip-trek, kayaking and raft-building. In addition I enjoyed the Go tournament matches in the evenings. The whole four days are very sociable, with the Go and the activities. It is a great chance to meet new players and I’ve made lots of new friends that way.
Q: You mentioned that when you learnt the game you were given a demo via an experienced player. Have you ever demonstrated Go?
A: Yes; for instance I went to the Manchester Doki Doki Japanese cultural festival, which is held every year. It was very enjoyable; people showed genuine interest in learning the game. It was lots of fun but then there is some time when it’s quiet, which means we get to look at some other stalls. Some schoolmates came with me and we tried different Japanese things – for instance the food – and we sampled other Japanese culture.
Q: At the Japanese festival, did you buy any items of Japanese culture?
A: Yes, for instance I bought a fan off a woman at a stall.
Q: Have you done any other Go demoing?
A: Yes; at the school open day, when children come to sit their entrance exams in the afternoon, but in the morning they are given a tour of the school and a chance to look at the clubs that the school has on offer. At these the Go club always hosts a stall all morning, where we give them demos on how to play capture Go. This is very popular with the visiting students and it keeps several of us busy all morning. On another occasion I helped demo Go one evening, when the Sixth Form Centre was being opened and we were able to demo Go on all sizes of boards, including some nice big boards which were very enticing and well made, and this again brought in genuine interest.
Q: What is the best thing about Go?
A: Well that is a very hard question; everybody likes it for different reasons. I like it because it’s intuitive and beautifully creative. If you compare it with chess, you don’t have to know all the Go openings; all you need to do is have an understanding of good shape and bad shape, and you just need a memory of those patterns. But not all people have such a good memory and they take a bit longer to learn them; one example of the pattern is an “empty triangle” which is bad shape in Go. Sometimes I find that I am asked ’Why did you play that move (which turned out to be a good move), and my answer is that it just felt right; that’s the intuitive side of Go.
Q: At school or indeed at home what other passions do you have other than Go?
A: Well I like French, German, Latin, and Ancient and Modern Greek, but perhaps most of all I like maths (my dad is a maths teacher).
Q: What would your tips be, for other students – youth players or adults?
A: I think the biggest thing is to be able to concentrate. When you play Go you use your maths brain for calculating the amount you are ahead or behind, and you use the intuitive side of your brain to recognise patterns, and you have to read out a lot of variations to choose your best move; if you do, it helps in Go tremendously.
Q: The British Go Association runs one annual Pair Go tournament. Have you been to that?
A: Yes; I have only been once but it was great fun. I partnered Lizzy Pollitt from school and we won the handicap section. I certainly want to play this competition again several times.
Q: Of course in Go the strongest players are referred to as Dan players. Have you been able to speak to many?
A: Yes; I have been able to learn from many strong players during lockdown. I’ve been practicing with – and having teaching games – for instance with Andrew Simons, and at the London Open Go Congress I received a lot of valuable game reviews and advice from Dan players.
Q: Do you have any goals for your own Go future?
A: Yes; I would love to go to the World Amateur and various European tournaments.
Q: Before you played Go, were there other games that you liked?
A: I enjoyed indoor games like Checkers and Poker, and I enjoy cricket for the school. We have one team for our age-group. Sometimes the activities clash and I aim to keep a balance between the various games. It’s good that they keep me busy.