Review and Interview: Spindrift (2019) and Planet (2021) by Chen Hsi (Leon) 4P and Xiaocheng (Stephen) Hu

In Spindrift (2019) and its follow-up Planet (2021), Chen Hsi (Leon) 4P and Xiaocheng (Stephen) Hu have created astounding portraits of global life and culture through a unique synthesis of the worlds of Go and narrative. These tsumego collections—in which problems are eclectically paired with microfiction—are not to be missed. In the sometimes bleak landscape of post-AI Go, these works of art will reinvigorate your love of the game. They can previewed here and here on the Online Go Server (OGS), or ordered in full here. I was thrilled when Stephen asked me to review them, and could not think of a better way to communicate my overwhelmingly positive impressions than by writing some poems:

Spindrift

Walk the coast of liminality
With this treasure of philosophy.
Problems solved to sift and cycle
The old tide’s new elixirs.

Planet

Read the stardust line by line,
Pour a glass of the finest wine:
Dark shades, jubilant sparkles. 
Absolutely intercontinental. 


I also had the opportunity to interview Stephen about the collections. The depth and sincerity of his responses reflect, I think, the high quality of these galactic creations.

River: How would you describe these tsumego collections’ contribution to the Go world?

Stephen: Planet is our second original tsumego collection, which follows Spindrift (published in December 2019). We hope to continue developing this series and leave our unique legacy; there haven’t been many original tsumego books in the contemporary era that come with a title and a story for each puzzle, but maybe we’ll qualify for that list! 

I’ve always wanted to make a positive contribution to our wonderful Go community, just like all the great tsumego creators and the timeless masterpieces they have produced. Even though it’s hard to imagine that we will ever match the height of these giants in the Go world, I’m sure that we will reminisce fondly about these collections as souvenirs of our youth.

R: How did your collaboration with Chen Hsi (Leon) 4p come about? What was that collaboration like?

I first got to know Chen Hsi 4p as one of the top professional Go players in Taiwan. In November 2019, I accidentally came across one of his Facebook posts, in which he mentioned a desire to compile his original tsumego problems and perhaps publish them as a book. Having always wanted to do something similar, I reached out to him and asked if we could work together and write something to accompany a selection of his favorite puzzles.

That collaboration worked out fantastically, and since then we’ve been able to roll out Spindrift and Planet (the original plan was to release Planet in 2020, but the COVID-19 pandemic and the e-Go Congress made me delay my plans a little bit). I’ve really enjoyed working with Chen Hsi 4p, and I am quite happy to see that he’s also entertained by my stories. Very rarely does someone possess such a special talent to create so many tsumego problems of varying size and difficulty; in addition to that, his passion for the game really stands out among all the players I’ve got to know, and I feel very enriched by the hour-long conversations between us. I look forward to producing new collections with him in the future, and I really hope that more people will know and appreciate Chen Hsi 4p’s tsumego works!

R: What inspired these collections of tsumego/story pairs? Where do the stories come from?

S: My first inspiration came from Xuanxuan Qijing and The Book of Pure Pleasures and Forgotten Worries (Wangyou Qingle Ji), two of the best Go publications in ancient China. The tsumego content was obviously amazing, but I was in fact more impressed by the names beside every puzzle, which often reference a story in ancient folklore or compare the shape to a person, an animal, or a mythical object. In more recent times, the late greats Maeda Nobuaki and Hashimoto Utaro also made a name for themselves by publishing copious volumes of original tsumego, and it’s amazing to observe their meticulous attention to small details, as if they were trying to “carve” each tsumego into a worthy sculpture.

Even though all of the aforementioned authors have sadly passed away, their admirable craftsmanship still lives on in my heart. In Spindrift and Planet, I try to create a similar experience with the title and story text. The name of each puzzle can come from their original shape or the correct solution – of course, they won’t overtly point out the correct answer to the problem, but rather serve as a subtle hint. The stories themselves might be inspired by literary works, songs or movies, or personal experiences retold by me or Chen Hsi 4p with varying degrees of fictionality.

R: How would you describe the relationship between Go and narrative? Do we need storytelling to play Go?

I wrote the stories in Spindrift and Planet mostly for enjoyment, with the hope that they would perhaps paint a lively picture of each puzzle. A compelling narrative brings vigor to a stationary Go position, and enables the reader to unleash their imagination beyond black and white stones on a two-dimensional array of gridlines. It also allows the puzzle to stay longer in the reader’s memory; for instance, I can still recall the shape of all 272 puzzles (so far) in this series, and just thinking about some of the names might ring a bell about a particular shape on the goban, or a precious moment off the goban. It will be very interesting if I run into someone at a post-COVID Go congress, and they suddenly remind me of a particular puzzle and its narrative; that will most definitely make my day!

I would say that people learn to play Go in many different ways, just like they do in any trade. Some learn by intense reading and calculating, some learn by listening to a strong player’s commentary, and some can do just fine by simply imitating the moves that they observe. It’s not just about tsumego – even when you learn a new joseki or mid-game technique, you can still uncover a riveting plot of what’s actually going on. Maybe someone is trying to pull off an attack to psychologically intimidate their opponent, and the next response also tries to put up a resilient fight after weighing the pros and cons of different strategies… If you can achieve a deep comprehension of the story in an actual game, that might work out much better than any sort of pure, reasonless memorization.

R: How would you describe the role of narrative in your personal Go development?

S: Although I grew up in Beijing and lived close to a few of the Go academies, I’ve never really intended to attend full-time training in those places. However, I’m very lucky to have read and heard many brilliant narratives from stronger players; as a result, I have managed to improve over the years and climb to a 6.7 AGA rating, which I feel decent about for a modest amateur level. In my occasional teaching with fellow Go players, I’ve also tried to emphasize the importance of storytelling and creative imagining to them. To me, it’s just amazing how an ostensibly simple position can generate so many intriguing variations; that kind of mindfulness has helped me keep my enthusiasm in Go and carried me through the highs and lows of my career.

For Chen Hsi 4p, the perspective of a tsumego creator is far more unique than mine; I can think of very few people in the entire community who can grow a five-figure collection and work out more than a dozen new positions on a 30-minute train ride! Ever since his first original tsumego in 2017 (a.k.a. The title puzzle A-1 of Spindrift), he’s embarked on many new adventures and created all kinds of novel shapes. Sharing that kind of joy with fellow professional players and students is very special, as you get to participate in conversations that are just pricelessly enlightening. Of course winning competitive tournament games and taking cash prizes is also nice, but curating something for the benefit of the Go community will produce a longer-lasting moyo!

R: What is your favorite story/problem pair from the series, and how does it illustrate the relationship between Go and narrative? 

S: This is going to be a very difficult pick! In the interest of promoting the newer collection, I suppose that I should choose something from Planet. We typically select a couple of puzzles from each section (5-7 in total) and release them for free in the OGS preview, but I thought I could offer an exclusive sneak peek at one of the puzzles not in the preview. The story is based on an ancient Chinese parable, and those who speak the language might recognize it:

“There was an old man who lived in a small border town and unexpectedly lost his horse. When his neighbors came to console him, he replied, ‘this might not be a bad omen, but in fact a blessing in disguise!’ A few days later, the lost horse returned home safely and brought back a new, quicker horse.

Whether on or off the goban, we can always expect some unexpected gains or losses, but the old man’s wisdom has taught us to not gloat when capturing the opponent’s stones, and to not despair when getting captured by the opponent.

It’s nice that Go is a perfect information game, which allows one to precisely evaluate the worth of every trade. Please try to predict Black’s fate in this position.”

This puzzle is called “Blessing in Disguise” (Planet, D-19), which should be quite manageable for dan players. I’ve chosen it over some of the more difficult puzzles, because it’s nice to see everyone enjoy an achievement of solving a tsumego problem. The story will speak for itself – I won’t spoil the solution for you, but do note that there will be some gains and losses in every variation. As long as you’ve gained more than you’ve lost, things will turn out just fine!

R: You mentioned that elements of many of the stories resemble certain shapes appearing in the problems or their solutions. Is this the only way that the stories interact with the problems? 

Some of the stories do come from shapes in the original problems or their solution sequences, so it’s possible that the interaction becomes clearer after you solve a problem. The connection might not seem super obvious at first, but a deeper understanding of the variations will reveal the subtlety of the story text. At times, the story can be also related to the “manner” in which the puzzle is solved: sometimes a violent combination of tesuji moves will be required, but in other circumstances the calm move might be the only viable option. It’s like examining different techniques in the field of martial arts, which are also referenced in a considerable number of stories. Of course, if the reader is curious to know more about the origins of each tsumego/story pair, I am very happy to take questions about any of them!

R: What do you want readers and solvers of these collections to learn about Go? About stories?

I am not knowledgeable enough to impart wisdom on the readers and solvers of this collection, but I do hope that they will get the most out of this book by taking time with every tsumego problem; in fact, it will be nice to do the same for any Go position, not just the ones included in this series. When a puzzle has many interesting branches apart from the solution, it really multiplies and evolves into many similar puzzles with what can be completely opposite outcomes. Therefore, I believe that one should not skim through a puzzle too quickly, even if they manage to solve it from a quick glance; rather, they should treat every position with thorough care and reserve some extra time for self-reflection. 

A well-constructed tsumego will have a unique optimal solution, and every other method with different placement or order of moves will be countered by the opponent and led to a slightly worse result (e.g. unconditional vs conditional kill, and direct-step ko vs multistep ko). Knowing the tiny differences between success and failure will prepare you well for victory in a real game, or save you a few seconds of thinking time when the opponent strikes with an off-path response in byoyomi. In this spirit, a tsumego might not only help you improve your reading skills, but also become an intellectual dessert of life.  

I am constantly reminded of the fact that English is my second language when translating the stories, so my only hope is that people will still be amused or enthralled by them. Maybe it will be cool to see this series translated into more languages in the future!

R: How should we tell the story of AI’s ascendance in the Go world to young and beginning players?

I think that we should be optimistic about the future of AI’s influence in the Go world. It’s certainly a bittersweet moment for our generation, as we did enjoy all the great battles and teachings offered by our predecessors. Certainly, things like opening theory and mid-game strategies will be inevitably changed by AI recommendations, and the current generation of young players will enjoy the benefits of learning from a program of superhuman strength from the very beginning, without having to go through a “mental reset” like us in 2016! It will be very interesting to see how future talents from around the world will surpass us and write their unique narratives in the upcoming decades. 

Lucky for us, our tsumego solutions seem to have survived so far, but maybe we will get to see newer interpretations of them, just like the way Xuanxuan Qijing, Gokyo Shumyo and Igo Hatsuyoron have evolved. It’ll be an honor if they still remember our names by then!

Xiaocheng (Stephen) Hu is an AGA amateur 6 dan player who won the 2017 San Francisco Jujo Ing Cup and North American Collegiate Go League as captain of the UC Santa Barbara team. Aside from competition, he is also an executive producer at the AGA E-Journal broadcasting team and a regular organizer of the U.S. Go Congress. He is currently based in Beijing, China as a full-time Go content producer.

Chen Hsi is a Taiwanese professional 4 dan player, who took 3rd place in the Korean Prime Minister Cup at the age of 11. A regular quarterfinalist in multiple tournaments, he is frequently ranked among the top 10 Taiwanese professionals with the highest annual match winrate. He is a graduate of the NTU College of Law, and now runs a successful Go academy and a YouTube channel with his brother Chen Feng 5p. He is also a regular Go coach at multiple schools in Taipei.

Poems of Life and Death – 1

This month I started a new job. I have less time for Go, but I have been inspired by how my boss, who happens to be a Go player, makes great use of his time.

I have decided to emulate his efficiency and find new nooks and crannies in the week to nurture my love of Go. That translates to earlier mornings, during which I’ve blocked out an hour of time to create a new series I am calling “Poems of Life and Death.” The goal is simple: use the hour to solve a few life and death problems and write a poem. My hope is that this activity will bring focus and intention to the rest of my day while exercising both the logical and aesthetic thinking required to play Go.

I’ll start by working through the intermediate level of Cho Chikun’s Encyclopedia of Life and Death, which is available for free online. I’m fond of these problems because they do not have solutions and require extreme thoroughness to determine their status.

The poems may or may not be related to the problems. The time constraints, I hope, will allow me to be more generative.

And now: today’s problems and a poem. I hope you enjoy.

Pressure

The coffee brews and hisses.
The cat sleuths around the room.
All my undone lists
Call old foes through my phone.
There was warning of an avalanche,
But nothing seems amiss—
The ravens still regard us fools
And pick the rainy streets.