Whether it's his reviews in New In Chess, his theoretical work on the Grünfeld, or his two books centred on psychology in chess - Jonathan Rowson is, I think it's fair to say, a much-praised chess writer. His third book has even spawned a Zebra clan - a more promising collective noun than the Zoologically-correct herd, one supposes. And it's increasingly common to hear errors at the board retrospectively explained on his terms: "I was telling myself a Rowsonian narrative, but . . ." - that kind of thing.
However, chess playing and improvement is measured in rating increase, and not via interesting conversation. That point is bluntly made over at Rowson's chessgames.com homepage by the kibitzer 'pazzed paun': "Chess for zebras has been on the store shelves for a number of months now- Can anyone out there claim that their chess has improved by studying this particular book? Please do not write that you think the ideas are good or that it got great reviews or some other nonsense!! practical application only please!" A question not decisively answered once in the positive, since it was first asked in November last year, incidentally.
And indeed, I don't know anyone who can say: "I followed Rowson's advice, and gained this many grading points." In fact - barring some pragmatic points made in passing, and the suggestion to simulate over-the-board conditions at home to practice concentration - both Chess for Zebras and The Seven Deadly Chess Sins seem rather short on general, concrete advice, that can be applied instrumentally. And as far as I know, there's no exercises in the books with which to test one's self against Rowson's psychological ideas. Even more critically, Rowson's emphasis on psychology offers gratification for the reader in terms of self-recognition: but might that be a quality only in life, but not in chess? If so, the Bobby Fischer quote "I don't believe in psychology. I believe in good moves" - is doubly relevant.
But do I really think that . . . ? I should say, I don't claim to know Rowson's books well - although I have done more than glance over them - and I welcome any further critical or positive comments below. Anyhow, with these things bubbling along in my brain, I spectated Rowson's two games at the 4NCL this long weekend. The first saw him fight out a complex draw - against super-Grandmaster David Navara, no less. And in the second, he defeated International Master Simon Williams in 27 moves, thanks to a crisp tactic in the diagram position (Rowson, white, to move.) Impressive stuff from Rowson - and his moves doing the talking.