November 10, 2011

What is joseki?

It’s a handy word, and used frequently in Japan.

A remark overheard one clear morning: ‘I’m going to follow my joseki and take the dog out for a walk.’ …

These days the word ‘joseki’ has come into general use to describe any fixed form of behavior…

it is defined as ‘stones played in accordance with a fixed formula in the game of go.’


This is from Toshiro Kageyama, a professional go player and author of the wonderful Lessons in the Fundamentals of Go. A good friend (and excellent go player) gave me this book in 2004, and I’ve been reading it again recently. Imagine my delight at starting a chapter (ignored earlier) called “How to Study Joseki.” Kageyama has nothing but impatience for players who go through the motions, imitating deep moves without understanding them.

‘Why bother? The move is the same whether you know what it means or not.’ Yes, but that is why you don’t improve. Try playing moves you understand, for a change. For one thing, it will make the game twice as interesting.

And later,

“The Proper Way to Study Josekis:
1. Don’t think that all you have to do is learn the moves.
That is not studying the joseki.”

There are more rules, but he sums them up in one condensed phrase:

“Josekis are not to be learned, but created.”

Compare that to our favorite quote by Halmos:

“Don’t just read it; fight it! Ask your own questions, look for your own examples, discover your own proofs.”

Every field has its josekis. Music has its scales, its standard chord progressions; carpentry has its strong shapes, its measurement techniques; math has its algorithms, its formulas, and its theorems. These are expressions of fundamentals of the field, crystallized wisdom from earlier minds throwing themselves into difficult problem. The joseki is the demonstration of what is right, what is beautiful, what works.

But when you study the joseki, the goal is not just to know what works; the point is to understand why it works. If you don’t know the proper way to study joseki, you end up with Kageyama’s paradoxical equations:

Joseki scholarship = weakness.
Total self-reliance = strength.

This is not to say, in math or go, that you should ignore old wisdom. Kagayama: “Personally I consider studying joseki to be one of the first steps in getting stronger.” I agree. I want my students to know the Pythagorean Theorem, for example, and to know how to multiply multi-digit numbers. However, I don’t consider being able to say “a squared plus b squared equals c squared” to be much in the way of knowledge. Try playing moves you understand for a change. For one thing, it will make the game twice as interesting.

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