Opening theory simplified for advanced players

It might be true to say that there has been a dumbing down in go teaching materials. The effect may well seem stronger in the West as, generally, digging began at the low-kyu end of the lode.

Yamabe Toshiro (<i>Nihon Ki-in</i>) The 1950s were a good time for the bigger nuggets in Japan, though. Post-war democratisation had simplified the language - grammar, characters and style - but the go public was still dominated by strong and seriously minded players. In addition, with fewer tournaments, quite a few pros were willing to give time to writing high-level articles.

We summarise one here by way of illustration. It also is an interesting example of professional thought in action in pre-database days.

It is by Yamabe Toshiro, right, then 7-dan. It is on the "Theory of the 1-3 Starpoint Fuseki". That may not sound familiar to you, but that's what was the name then for nirensei. The Shusaku fuseki was popularly called 1-3-5 (ichi-san-go), referring to moves 1, 3 and 5 in separate corners, and 1-3 Starpoint meant moves 1 and 3 on adjacent 4-4 points, as in the representative diagram below.

The reason for the article was that in the 1st Saikoi League - recently completed in 1956 and then the top event - Black had played this fuseki in 19 out of 36 games and had won 18. The other was a jigo. It is ironic that Yamabe had observed this as for a time he was notorious for living in a less than modern house in Omori. He had no telephone, and had to rely on neighbours to relay messages from the Nihon Ki-in or newspapers about game schedules.

Now, the Saikoi was an extension of the Oteai and so was played with no komi, so we would expect Black to do well in general - though not this well. And in the remaining games White actually scored close to 50%.

Yamabe's interest was piqued, even though he had never played this opening himself (nor was he a member of the league), and he gave some thought as to why Black had done so well. Statistically, the sample is of course very small, but that is counterbalanced by Yamabe's professional ability to judge whether Black was genuinely so dominant.

He began by suggesting three reasons why Black might dominate.

One is that White made blunders and oversights. Another is that the players taking Black were stronger than those taking White. The third is that the 1-3 Starpoint fuseki might have something to do with it.

We might scotch Reason 1 by arguing that blunders would even out on both sides. Yamabe also scotches it but, with professional pride, by claiming that there were no significant blunders. Reason 2 is hardly likely to apply as all the players there were among the very best, but in any case the Oteai rules applied and so the nominally stronger players had to take White.

So that leaves Reason 3. Before looking at why that might apply, Yamabe advised a brief look at previous fuseki styles.

The key point about the Shusaku fuseki (below) was domination of the corners by being the first to occupy them. It did not matter, in principle, whether the move was a komoku, mokuhazushi, takamoku, hoshi or san-san (4-3, 5-3, 5-4, 4-4 or 3-3), though in practice, said Yamabe, the difficulties with san-san exceeded its merits (defence of the corner). Komoku was best in terms of territory, having a flexibility san-san did not, and so was naturally the move of first choice.

Another important element in the Shusaku fuseki is the ability to develop naturally from the komoku. This leads to a balanced game, which in turn reinforces the value of first move.

The right extension from a corner is also important. Yamabe gives an example from Shusaku's own games. The arrangement below was often used by Shusaku.

A simple explanation of its value is that if White invades, as below at 2, Black 3 combines reinforcement of the thinness in the corner while leaving the triangled stone perfectly placed, not too near, not too far away.

Yamabe then elaborates a little on why komoku is so valuable compared to, say, mokuhazushi in the above diagram.

Black 1, on the left, is a more severe pincer than White 1 on the right. The reason is that komoku provides a base with some territory in the corner - as shown if he plays A in the rightmost diagram. White, when pincered on the left, does not have quite the same room for manoeuvre.

Next Yamabe reviews Shin Fuseki, attributed mainly to Go Seigen and Kitani Minoru. It is important not to be under the illusion, he says, that Shin Fuseki was an attempt to reject the priority of the corners. Rather it was an attempt to pose the question whether the sides and thickness could oppose the corners. He reckoned it could even be said that Shin Fuseki confirmed the priority of the corners, though as it was created by two people of such contrasting personalities, it was unlikely, in his view, that they agreed on everything. As an example of the extremes possible, he shows this 1933 game between Go (White - all influence) and Kosugi Tei (nearly all territory).

With that background, Yamabe then proceeds to list reasons why 1-3 Starpoint may be so good - he suggests the fact he has never played it makes him more objective.

The first factor to consider is whether the traditional view that (using the same bold emphasis as he does) as the game becomes narrower, the effect of first move becomes clearer is affirmed by the 1-3 Starpoint fuseki.

The term "narrow" is not so much used nowadays but once was a very important term. The usage was that to make the game narrow (semaku suru) meant restricting the strategic options. It was the main element in Black's play in pre-komi days. Conversely, White's main plan was to make the game "wide" - to increase the strategic options.

It can be said at once that because the first two moves are in corners, the priority of the corners is not infringed in the 1-3 Starpoint opening. Furthermore, there is no way White can stop Black playing in two corners.

Also, as each corner is finished with in one move, unlike komoku, White cannot stop Black taking two adjacent corners. This leads to a simplification of the game. The easiest way to see that is in the diagram below.

White 2 creates a spatial relationship with Black's komoku stone. But had he played A instead, the relationship would have been very different. And of course the diversity of relationships expands if White tries other moves such as mokuhazushi. This range of choices for White cannot happen in the 1-3 Starpoint fuseki. The best White can do is try a small number of combinations with moves in the other two corners.

This impetus towards simplification is the main advantage of the 1-3 Starpoint opening, according to Yamabe.

Another feature of this opening is that it is especially rich in development possibilities, that is mainly side extensions. Komoku and the resulting shimaris have an inherent directional bias which the starpoints lack.

Yamabe then goes on to consider this theory in the light of actual games.

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