The big conclusion

From decades of play and observation, there appears to be a slightly paradoxical combination of flavours to the state of mind for optimal play.

The first flavour is also observed in high level sport. At the Olympics, the peak destination for many athletes, they must not tighten up with nerves or expectation. They need to be relaxed and let thoughts of achievement fade into the background. They must not be frozen by the importance of the situation.

The excellent film about Magnus Carlson, and his rise to become World Champion illustrates this well. In the first few games, he was so uptight that in one game he knocked over two of his pieces. He scraped through with draws. His first win followed a relaxing time with family. He was calm and almost smiling over the board, his moves flowing, enabling insights that yielded moves that took his opponent out of his comfort zone and into defeat.

The calmness of mind enabled fluid, creative exploration. A truism for Go of course. Many players literally try to hard or too attached to outcomes to make for superior game outcomes.

In conjunction, and forming the paradox that I referred to was to sense when reading was needed and to dip into an analytical, thorough deep reading. The calmness of mind actually enables this, but the intense, procedural nature of reading does not then feed back to the resumption of whole board, creative play where sacrifices and the like are required.

So the yin is light and explorative, and the yang is deep and precise.

And what if you are an impulsive, emotional type as I am? Is there any hope that you can transcend your current playing ability?

I explored the notion that the calm, explorative frame of mind was still achievable in emotional types. I had evidence already to support this. On occasions I would find that when a fast player agreed to my request to slow down, they would become very slow. Not just taking time to play the first move they saw, but to delve deeper. To look at moves that they would never normally see.

When I tried myself to slow right down, I found that it would only be effective if I also calmed my emotions. I literally displaced the emotional urges that were trying to make me play 'obvious' moves with that explorative, whole board, creative mindset. The effect was transformative.

Many think that emotions are needed in Go. So I must clarify. The emotions I calm down are those that interfere with good play. Fear can constrain exploration, make you overly defensive, too cautious. Envy can make you rush. Protectionism of groups and moyos can make you rush.

Emotion that arises from calm, unreactive, thoughtful play is of the serene type. You no longer feel angry or imposed upon when the opponent plays a devastating move. You are not devoid of emotional concern for the board status, the power balance, the need to read. But it is a calm emotion that does not drive but steer.

It seemed to naturally supply the foundation for reading properly. And the deeper reading enabled more creative whole board strategising. Yin fed yang.

A further paradox manifested. The loss of emotional reaction to the status of a game made play effortless. No matter how complex a situation becomes, a calm mind seems to find exploration and reading much less tiring. So the stamina limitations that normally afflict myself and countless others were greatly reduced.

If you are unconvinced about the ability of kyu players to become calm and play stronger games without learning new techniques, then reflect on the following matter. Players watching a game between stronger players often see moves that they would often miss in the emotional heat of playing the game. Typically, it is said that you understand the game better by about three ranks when observing. The corollary to this is that the emotional ardour of playing the game is affecting your playing ability. Learning to stay as calm as an observer will prevent that.

There is a common, unspoken belief that player ranks are pretty accurate guides to not just their playing ability but also to their understanding the game. That a 5kyu is a 5kyu is a 5kyu. Countless times, I have played 5kyu players who typically play fast, and they have agreed to slow down. If they do so during a complex fight, they gradually read deeper and deeper and are no longer playing as 5kyu's. They are reading much as a shodan player would. They have matched the normal level of a stronger player. That they cannot sustain it means that over many games they average out to be 5kyu in rank. But clearly, their understanding permits a much stronger playing level.

I played fast, impulsive moves for the first 20+ years of my Go playing. It took concerted effort to slow down and start to undo the damage caused. It is not surprising that I should play fast since I am often emotional and impulsive by nature. It was certainly my nature when young, often blurting out the first thought that came to mind, embarasing myself and those around me. So it is very strange, I feel, that in my teens and early twenties, when chess was my game, I was glacially slow at playing moves. I would slowly and carefully read variations - sometimes 6-ply deep. I played for my school chess team.

What changed that solicited the urge to play moves fast - to concede to emotionally driven urges - when I was the opposite when young? I simply do not know.

But in my 60's I am now able to play most games where I measure up the whole board situation before playing most moves. And I am growing the reading muscle. But most of all, I stay calm and liberated from emotions and the urges and urgencies they love to lay upon me. Combining this with daily professional game video viewing is transforming my games. I was and should be in decline at my age - few players remain at the top of their game beyond their thirties or forties. The brain is very neuroplastic. It is an adaptive machine, responding to demands placed on it. So I do just that in coercing calm and deep reading. It rejuvenates my love for the game, even if truth be told, it never ever fades much anyway. It is just more vibrant now.

There is another consequence to calm, measured play. Games absorb so much attention, even if in a relatively effortless way (at least not in an emotionally draining way), that mental chatter that tends to bombard most of the time fades away entirely. Essentially, I enter a meditative state for the hour or so duration of each game. This is remarkably beneficial to health. It places the mind in a relaxed state liberated from obedience to that ongoing stream of mind thoughts. It is deeply therapeutic.