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.

Game 7 – Meeting the Czech Go Baron

I met Lukas Podpera, the Czech Go Baron, at the Västerås Go Tournament in Sweden, where he was the top-ranked player. As I was gathering a few wins and losses against opponents around my level, Lukas was busy smashing everyone away from the top board, which was kept in a separate room apart from the main playing areas. Because of this I did not see Lukas very often, so he seemed especially mysterious and powerful. At the end of the three-day tournament, I noticed him helping one of his opponents create a record of their game, so I decided that he could not be the Go monster I had been imagining sitting behind the top board. I worked up the courage to introduce myself and, before I even knew what I was doing, asked if he would be willing to teach me.

It turned out to be a good plan. Relative to Lukas, I am a beginner, and each lesson feels like a personalized masterclass. The fluidity and creativity of his play is astounding, and so is the way he reviews each game, anticipating all of my questions and problem areas with kindness and humility.

Below is our most recent game, commented by me with a few of Lukas’ suggestions, followed by an interview with him. In the game, I felt I did well given the difference in strength, but made a terrible blunder at the end because my brain was exhausted trying to keep up with Lukas.


And now, the interview.

River: How would you describe your teaching philosophy?

Lukas: I try to help my students understand that Go is not a fight, but rather a game about building. So, they should always prefer to build territory, and be aggressive only if necessary. Also, I teach my students that they should always understand what they are doing and, when they play moves, that they always have some plan behind them. My important task is also to prevent students from making errors in basic principles.

R: How would you describe your style of play?

L: I’m a calm player, focusing on having strong shapes and a lot of solid territory. I use brute force only if necessary—for example, to punish an opponent’s mistake. So, when someone is watching my game, one might have the feeling that I’m doing nothing. Mostly, I’m focusing on doing things right by myself and waiting for my opponent’s mistake. This strategy needs a lot of patience and often leads to close games. I had to study a lot of endgame to make it sharp. My half-year stay in China six years ago helped me with that a lot.

R: What was your experience in China like?

L: I spent half a year in Beijing in one of the most famous Chinese Go schools led by Mr. Ge Yuhong. I studied there with five other strong European players and something like a hundred Chinese youth. Training in the Asian professional development context was a really exhausting but unforgettable experience. From Monday to Friday, we studied Go for 12 hours per day. During the weekends we either had some friendship matches with Chinese players or we participated in a tournament. Occasionally we did some sightseeing, such as going to the Great Wall of China.

R: What do you enjoy most about Go?

L: This question I usually answer simply: the endless possibilities and variations for trying to win. Before each game I can always design a strategy about how I will try to get the victory. Thanks to that, I’m sure I will never get bored of playing. Also, Go has helped me to get to know a bit more about myself.           

R: What has Go helped you learn about yourself?

L: I believe that Go shows a lot about my personality, but that’s not the case for everyone. Go helped me learn to be patient and more decisive. Making the right decision in life has been always difficult for me, and I was always doubting myself. That doesn’t happen so often anymore. Go also taught me to tell the entire truth in any kind of situation, and to never lie to myself or anyone else.

R: How has your Go world changed since the rise of AI? What do you think the future holds?

L: At first, I was conservative and felt very suspicious about the new ways of playing that AI created. Eventually, I had to adopt a lot of new methods into my play, and in the end, it proved to be a positive decision. This gave me new opportunities to explore the game even more. Also, I realized that many moves that I would never think about before are now easily playable. However, I’m still careful about studying a lot with AI, because although it’s nice to learn some new moves or sequences, AI will not tell us the meaning. Therefore, I usually adopt a new method in my play only when it is explained to me by an Asian professional. Since I believe that the sure-win strategy will never be discovered, the arrival of AI should be judged positively. On the other hand, there is a negative aspect: I’m worried that, because AI applications are available to anyone in these days, it will kill online tournaments in the near future.

R: What is your most memorable game?

L: Immediately I think of my two most successful results: bronze medals in the European Championships in 2016 and 2019. I would probably pick my quarterfinal game from 2019 against European pro Ali Jabarin, which was one of my best performances ever.

https://www.eurogofed.org/newick/file.php?id=1897

R: Who are your Go heroes and why?

L: I would like to mention two. The first is Vladimir Danek 6-dan, a Czech player who was my teacher when I was a middle-dan player. He was a National Champion like 12 times, has been playing Go since 1970’s and basically built the Czech Go community from nearly zero. Even though he holds a PhD in mathematics and physics, he has spent his life with Go. He even had a big Go-shop of his own.

The second is Lee Changho – a famous Korean player who was world no. 1 15-20 years ago. I admire him for his calm and peaceful style, which was enough to beat the rest of the world. At that time, he had a winning rate similar to what Shin Jinseo has now. I was so lucky to meet Lee Changho three times in person.

R: What was it like organizing the Corona Cup?

L: Originally, I planned the first edition of the Corona Cup (Spring 2020) to be only a Central European event. However, the announcement about the tournament started to spread faster than the COVID-19 virus itself. In the end it became a huge event, which I was not really prepared for. It became a really big responsibility to make it run smoothly. Fortunately, I had prior experience organizing and refereeing tournaments. Anyway, those were a really exhausting 6 weeks for me, but despite that I enjoyed it and I think the participants did as well.

I made a second edition that autumn, but this time I had help from a team of organizers, so not everything was on my shoulders. It went even better than before, and the number of players reached 400. Because the pandemic situation is not getting much better, there is a good chance I will be making a third edition in the next few months.

R: Are there any upcoming Go-related events that you’re particularly excited about?

L: 2021 is a year when the European Pro Qualification will be held again. Of course, we need to wait for the moment when it’s possible to hold live tournaments and to be able to travel. I have already reached the final twice, so I hope that, should I reach a third one, that I will finally be successful. That is my main goal for this year. Otherwise, as usual I’m looking forward to the European Championship and the European Grand Slam. Hopefully, they will be allowed to be held live as well.

Hello World

Hey there, River here. The purpose of this journal is to reflect on my Go journey with the hope that doing so leads to personal growth beyond my ranking (which should take care of itself). I also hope that readers of this journal will learn with me regardless of their level and, indeed, of whether or not they play Go. I believe that studying Go is studying life, and one need not play the game to understand what I write, though I think that learning the basics would enhance one’s experience of this journal.

I begin with one of my recent games on IGS-Pandanet, which I reviewed with one of my teachers, Lukas Podpera. In fact, my decision to create this journal is a direct result of reviewing this particular game. More accurately, I realized while finding recent games to review with Lukas that I wasn’t satisfied with any of them – and then not even with the games I won!

I was stunned. How could I have played dozens of online games in recent months but feel no sense of satisfaction in them? Until recently Go has brought me great joy, but my ranking plateau has confronted me with the reality that the road forward is much more difficult than what came before. Instead of progressing, I have found myself invested less in the learning process and more in the result, creating a situation where I am simply passing the time under the shadow of old habits.

So, how to progress? More importantly, how to regain joy? I noticed that I feel happiest playing Go during teaching games with Lukas and in In-seong Hwang’s Yunguseng Dojang, both of which offer serious, respectful, and competitive learning environments. This feeling has been absent for me in casual online play. So I have now resolved to create a feeling of intensity for every game I play, no matter the occasion. The first step was to create this journal, where I will be sharing short reflections on my games alongside events outside the board in the hopes of making connections between Go and everyday life. Should I be lucky enough to develop a modest readership, I hope I can deepen their love and understanding not only of this game, but also of life.

So, let’s look at the game. My nickname is “tennisbabe,” I played black. My opponent, haemita614, won by +5.5 points.

tennisbabe-haemita614.sgf

My play in this game is like a young man who has never left his tiny village, and is just discovering that there are many obligations to the outside world. He is naive and obstinate, shuffling down the old street telling everyone how great he looks in his new hat while, somehow, he can barely keep track of his five chickens. When they get eaten by a fox, he blames an old woman. And if Go is a constant negotiation between the local and the global, this man looks over the horizon toward greener pastures of hard work only infrequently, and still thinks his every journey to the town square is a pilgrimage. He dreams up palaces instead of fixing the holes in his roof. He tries and fails to sell encyclopedias missing an entire letter of the alphabet.

Games of Go usually have a beginning, a middle, and an end. It is undesirable in Go for a game to be decided before, say, the 20th move, long before the more exciting middle stage has begun. But the young man of this game simply had too many beginnings, over and over, so that the whole game was just a beginning. He experienced one hasty, angry moment of intention – but much too late, long after the last bus left town. When he died, he was still thinking of his five chickens – maybe five and a half – and the old woman that he believed had eaten them.

I included some memorable suggestions from Lukas in the .sgf file, though I should say his reviews are much more thorough than is indicated by my comments.

Thanks for reading. Until next time.