Where your brain wants to Go

By Charles Sutton on June 6, 2017

Years ago I attended a lecture from a famous master of the game of Go. He is revered not only for the many championships he has won, or even for his daring and distinctive style, but also for his insightful and even witty commentary on the games of other professionals. All of us who attended expected a once-in-a-lifetime treat.

And so it was, but not in the way we expected. Sadly, the translation was not of the same standard as the lecture. As best as I can recall, the translation included such wisdom as: “You should play on the points where you want to play”, “Sometimes you may not want to play where you play, but still it is important to play where you want to play”, and “It is important to review the game after it is finished”. All of us in the audience looked at each other blankly. None of us could understand how this could be the accumulated wisdom of a brilliant lecturer and champion.

Confused, I found a friend who understood the lecture in its original language. A pained look on his face, my friend explained that the flowery and poetic language of the lecture would have been difficult even for an professional translator, let alone a foreign Go enthusiast, however fluent, graciously donating his time to translate. My friend then explained the gist of the lecture, and indeed it contained great wisdom about how to learn the game.

Sometimes when you play Go, there’s a move on the board that you desperately wish to play. I’m not talking about moves that are obviously good, those that claim large territories or capture many stones. Everybody likes to do that. But sometimes, a point on the board calls out, like a tiny but brilliant beam of starlight is shining on one intersection of all the 361 on the board. But in your conscious mind, you cannot explain why that move. Hard as you may try, the move is too complex to read out, and you’re not sure what will happen. A player of your strength does not play only on gut feeling, without thinking. It seems too dangerous. You should play somewhere else.

And what the Go master said is: When a point on the board calls to you like this, you must play there. Not because the move is correct — it almost certainly is not — but because your intuition is telling you that the move is correct, so the only way to improve your intuition is to play the move, in the hope that by so doing, you may discover why it is wrong. Go is too complex for people to understand all consequences in advance, so at some point, no matter how far you look ahead, you have only your own intuition to trust. This is why you also must review your own games afterwards, when the result is more clear. The only way to train your intuition is follow it, understand the consequences, and correct where you were wrong.

Research is like this. There is a feeling that I have learned to recognize when an idea is waiting to form, but I cannot yet articulate it. Whenever I have this feeling, I shut up and wait, until the words come. Usually, after I do find the words and formulae to express my thought, it becomes clear that the idea is bad, has been already published, or — most commonly — both. But it is not important that the idea be often good, because in research the overall success of your career depends not on the worth of your typical idea, but of your best idea. When your unconscious mind is repeatedly telling you to go somewhere, sometimes that alone is reason to Go.