The Brown M&M Clause

by Janice Kim on May 9, 2012

While we are talking about the long, long ago time of the Eighties, you may remember VanHalen, the band with the brothers Van Halen, who were somewhat overshadowed by the larger-than-life David Lee Roth, who if I recall correctly took over from Sammy Hagar as the vocal lead, and propelled them into such mega-stardom that I would meticulously draw the VH logo during 7th grade science and garner a crowd of admirants, luckily as it turned out, as this was the same class in which it was offered that a blue-eyed child cannot be born of a non-blue-eyed parent. Note picture of my daughter. If you had been paying attention in my 7th grade science class, you would know my daughter is impossible.





Van Halen put on some mega shows, and they were perhaps the first rock stars to have a diva clause in their contract: In the backstage dressing area, there must be M&Ms, but absolutely no brown ones. The penalty was cancellation of the show with full payment due. This is awesome enough in and of itself, but David Lee Roth revealed the genius behind this clause in a recent interview. He says that they had a 53-page book of specifications in order to get 9 eighteen-wheelers into a venue and get the cutting-edge show set up in a few hours’ time. It was imperative, at the very least for safety’s sake, that the specifications were followed exactly. So they put the brown M&M clause randomly somewhere in the middle. If he walked backstage and saw brown M&Ms in the M&M bowl, he would know they had to sweat a complete check of all systems to make sure the stage wouldn’t collapse or the wiring short out. If there were no brown M&Ms, he knew that every detail had been attended to. Done. Genius.

We can learn a lesson from David Lee Roth, who by this example is clearly the Schopenhauer of our day (note also that Mr. Roth was arrested for buying marijuana in Washington Square Park, surely a singular legal difficulty I had never seen in my years observing these transactions daily at NYU).

Lesson #1:  When evaluating the opening, rather than go through an exhausting list of specifications, it may be enough to consider: Are there any brown M&Ms? That is, a stone on the third line, when you have a stone on the third line on that side already, is a brown M&M.

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Why is that? A brown M&M means that structurally, less territory has been sketched out than one could have by a more efficient stone placement, so you will be fighting from behind on the territory front. You can check if you are behind by positional analysis, but it’s easier to check for the brown M&M.

A couple of caveats: if you are defending stone(s) that need to make a base, you don’t need to worry too much about brown M&Ms — if you need to make a defensive move, the move’s value isn’t so much how much territory it makes, but if it makes a stable base. Also, if a stone on the third line has been “raised”, playing another third line stone as an approach/far extension on that side doesn’t have the same problem as the brown M&M.

Examples of Brown M&Ms:

1.  Black has played this common corner sequence, and ends with the marked stone on the third line. The marked stone is territory-oriented, and makes the right side difficult to expand. An approach at 9, playing on the side where expansion has been hampered by the marked stone, is a brown M&M. Black wants to approach from the other side of the star point, at A.

Continuing, if Black’s stone on the third line has been raised, say for example by the next marked stone, now the approach at 9 isn’t a brown M&M.

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2.  In this opening, White has made a splitting play at 6. When Black approaches at 7, it’s a good idea for White to make a base, for example at 8. A move that makes a base like this isn’t a brown M&M; White is putting on a defense hat and stabilizing herself in Black’s area, not trying to sketch out territory.

In the variation opening, Black 7 is a brown M&M. Playing on the third line here isn’t sketching out a big enough territory to justify playing this side now, but when White has the marked stone, playing on the fourth line at A leaves the unfortunately monikered “open skirt”, so there isn’t a good way for Black to develop this side.

If you back up the logic, this is why most professionals would not play the Chinese Opening when the marked stone is here, because the Chinese Opening is not as effective when one side’s development is hindered.  Black prefers to play at B rather than at 5.

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Back to the Portland Hunger Games…

In the last episode, we had gotten as far as move 3 (sigh). Because White has played an adjacent corner, Black has a choice of corners to play in next. Black can play in the diagonal corner, forming a cross opening. Or Black can play in an adjacent corner, forming a parallel opening.

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Black played a parallel opening. Today pros will almost always play a parallel opening over a cross opening, because the advantage of playing first is increased when the stones are also working together in concert. In other words, you can sketch out more area with two stones on the same side than two stones on opposite sides, because they work together. Since Black has the lead in sketching out territory by playing first, and can increase the lead by having those stones work together, this is the most efficient way of maintaining Black’s lead in potential territory.

Is a cross opening playable? Sure, but you are trading an advantage in area that you can calculate for an advantage in fighting with unknown value. If White doesn’t want a cross opening, it’s easily prevented by playing in the corner diagonal to Black’s first move. If White offers it, presumably White is okay with it – as Black, you may want to consider why White is offering it to you.

Let’s jump ahead to the end of the beginning for now (I’ve put some off-topic notes in the game record itself for those who care to take a side excursion). If you don’t have all the joseki (standard sequences) and openings memorized, it’s easy to make a mistake, and for these errors to be the main focus in a review. But as the wise man said, of books there is no end – you can always just look it up. What you really need to know is what to do for the 99.99% percent of the time that you are off-book. That’s where the brown M&Ms come in.

Black already has a stone on the third line on this side, so Black 13 is a brown M&M. There might be an argument that you are defending, but really? White 12 doesn’t feel like much of an attack, it’s more like making a cramped base for White’s stones, and Black has a stone on the star point in the adjacent corner, so Black doesn’t feel very weak here and in need of defense. Black can choose the I-can’t-believe-it’s-raining-hundred-dollar-bills-and-I’m-the-only-one-here approach at A instead.

Black 19 is one of those M&Ms that looks maybe dark red at first, but inspection reveals it is actually brown. The stone on the third line is raised, so playing on this side should be okay, but if Black is going to play on this side, it needs to be on a bigger scale, at say A here.

If you estimate the score after Black 29, (we will get to this, patience, grasshopper) you may find that White has cruised ahead. How is this possible? Usually, the big territory imbalances in the opening come from brown M&Ms, the innocuous-looking moves at 13 and 19, not the moves that look bizarre or wrong. The brown M&Ms are the killers, not whether or not you know some sequence, or if you come out badly in a fight someone shouldn’t have been in. I have started to read joseki books over 1000 times and have never gotten to the Tootsie Roll Center without skipping, so I take it that if I am not living proof that one does not have to memorize a lot to play the opening well, I am at least living proof that while one cannot be idle while studying Go, one can study Go while being idle.

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