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Reading Ability Vs. Intuition

Reading ability is often emphasized more than intuition, but intuition is at least as important as reading ability, if not more.

One reason this happens is that it’s not obvious what intuition even is. When I say intuition I mean having a sense of which moves are potentially good and therefore worth reading out, and which moves are probably not good and therefore can be ignored. When I say reading ability I mean how many moves ahead you can visualize. In this sense intuition is often conflated with the concept of reading ability, but they are really separate skill sets. It’s possible to be strong in one but weak in the other, and the methods of developing these two skill are not the same.

The obvious way to develop your reading ability is to do tsumego which are almost always strongly recommended to be a core part of your go studies. Actually tsumego will also develop your intuition but the problem is that tsumego is usually limited to certain kinds of positions related to either life and death or tesuji.

One interesting thing about tsumego is that they can be approached in two different ways which emphasize either reading ability or intuition. The first way is to never look at the answers and try to read the problem out as thoroughly as possible. The second way is to look at the problem for a few minutes and if you can’t solve it you just look at the answer. I think some people consider this second way to be “cheating” but this is due to the misunderstanding of the role of intuition and an overemphasis on reading ability.

This leads us to the topic of the methods of developing intuition. The way to build intuition is just by seeing the “right” move over and over in many different situations and developing pattern recognition. For this A.I. has been a massive benefit because for any given we position it can show us the “right” move. Repeatedly seeing the right move is how A.I. itself develops its intuition, and most likely it is very close to the way humans do it too.

This kind of intuition building can be seen in many different kinds of skills. For example an art expert that is able to detect forgeries. Every time they observe a forgery or a genuine article they notice some detail that tends to be in the forgery but not in the genuine article and vice versa. Over time they build up a catalog of such details in their mind and after observing a combination of such details they can calculate a probability that the piece is or isn’t a forgery. But this is largely a subconscious process. The key is observing many, many art pieces and noticing the small details that distinguish what makes a piece real or fake and then your brain will do the rest.

We can develop our go intuition in similar way, and more conveniently than ever before with the use of A.I. My method has been to collect positions where I was unsure how to play and then explore the variations using A.I. I try to notice patterns that distinguish the right moves from the wrong moves. Then I revisit the positions periodically.

Initially this approach may seem infeasible because the number of variations is so vast. When you learn one position and move just one stone it may completely change the situation. But there is a difference between memorizing variations and learning patterns. The number of patterns is much smaller than the number of variations.

You might still object that even the number of patterns will seem very large, and it's true. But at some point there’s just no other way. Many skills are like this. For example let’s say you want to be a bird expert, and your goal is to be able to identify every kind of bird. This might feel impossible because there are so many different kinds of birds. Actually it’s estimated that there are about 10,000 different species of birds. This number is high but it isn’t impossible. It may take years, maybe a decade or more, but it’s doable.

Similarly you could learn 10,000 kinds of variations. Or less if that’s too much of a commitment. But I know that many players want to improve but don’t know how they can do it. I think building your intuition is one of the best ways to get better but one that hasn’t been explicitly talked about much.