Monday, May 07, 2007

The Rowson Method?

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 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.


Anonymous said...

Interesting post Tom.

I suspect that there are few chess books that many people could point to and say definitively 'this has increased my rating'. Perhaps Rowson's books are 'more so' though.

I really not sure that many chess books are read (or written), still less bought, for the purposes of improving the readers/purchasers play.

Anonymous said...

I don't think any book could definately claim to increase someone's rating, with the possible exception of an opening book, where you won a game because of the opening (so maybe I could change that to not increasing one's strength). I think Rowson is an excellent author- I would place him in my top 3 with John Nunn and John Watson- with all 3 I like their wordy explanations, backed up in the main by detailed analysis. All 3 I feel have a genuine integrity in their work, which is sadly lacking in the conveyor belt line approach of many authors today. I hate books that are heavy on analysis with few explanations and as such do not care much for such classics as Fischers M60 MG, Shirov's Fire on Board, Anand's best ganes etc.
Back to Rowson, I bought his book on the Grunfeld, although I had no intention of playing it just because he wrote it. I thought 7DCS was excellent although I was a little disappointed with Zebras. He told me after 7DCS he was going to expand on some of his theories- I particularly like the theory viewing pieces as bundles of energy (I asked him how this theory could be applied to bughouse!), somewhat along Einstein lines. I don't think Zebras expanded much on these though and that there is plenty more for him (or others)to develop in later works. I wasn't entirely convinced by his stuff about being black and how to think differently about it either. I do also think he is somewhat guilty of being showing he is clever for its own sake- there again I and many others would be guilty of this "deadly sin" if indeed we were clever!

Tom Chivers said...

Thanks Jonathan. Begs the questions: what are the pure and impure reasons for buying chess books?

Thanks Andrew. I don't really disagree with much you said, and actually I don't really know that Rowson is actually trying to improve people's standards per se. Perhaps he's a bit too zen and luvvin' it for that.

Re, "I do also think he is somewhat guilty of being showing he is clever for its own sake." I am not sure. He does like to indulge in talking things over, but I think it's more to do with his (emerging) self-identity as an academically-informed GM - rather than deliberate showing off?

Btw, if you could recommend a book for me to read in terms of improvement at chess, which would it be? (Bear in mind - I almost never read chess books.)

Tom Chivers said...

Btw, I wonder if the Rowson books would benefit from an accompanying "work book" to go with them - diagnostic tools, over the board simulator positions, maybe even psychological profiling questionnaires, that kind of thing.

dfan said...

It's funny, I don't see Rowson's books as telling you how to improve as much as they tell you that improving is really hard and you'll have to put a lot of work into it. In fact they kind of inspired me to be more happy with my current level of play and not be upset that I wasn't magically improving, since I have a limited amount of time to put into studying the game.

Anonymous said...

Tom, I think any book that gets you to work at chess rather than "sit and nod" is useful. Of course some are more useful than others to do this- puzzle books are the easiest for this. However you can work at any book- eg cover up the book and work out the next move for yourself or play out critical positions against the computer for better understanding. My favourite 2 books would be John Watson's Secrets of Modern Chess Strategy and Chess Strategy in Action, really great source of new modern ideas, and helping you to think more flexibly about chess. However you will need you make sure you do some work on it, rather than just play through the games, or even just read the book. John Nunn's Understanding Chess is also very good as of course are Rowson's. Maybe I will do a top books list at some point- I do have quite a big library.

Tom Chivers said...

Good answer Andrew. Perhaps you should review chess books. For a blog, say?

Anonymous said...

Sure I will add it to my list of articles to write!

Tom Chivers said...

Sitting and nodding about the blogging, eh!

Btw, I think you're right about the 'sit and nod' thing, and that most adults do no work to improve, despite saying they want to. (I say this as a coach for the weaker players on - it's like they want to absorb improvements from a few nice sentences and losing to me.) Rowson's books to an extent can fall victim to this tendency he identifies. And I think some people take consolation or find curiousity in explaining their problems at chess psychologically - because they like to navel-gaze at their own personality. I haven't lost for about 7 games now but the last time I did the reason wasn't psychology: I was outplayed. But few people wish to say that.

Anyhow, the reason I asked my question was, I wondered if you as a stronger player might sense particularly weaknesses in my play, or not. I guess not?

The Closet Grandmaster said...

I made a post about Rowson last year following on from Michael Goeller. You can read mine here then just follow the links to The Kenilworthian.


Tom Chivers said...

Thanks Amiel. Interesting piece. Yes, I think there are many people who naturally think about chess in a direct, unfussy, uncluttered way - and Rowson is not for them.

The rest of us can take comfort in saying to ourselves: once I sort myself out psychologically, then I'll only have the moves to worry about!

Ryan said...

I'm currently half way through Chess For Zebras and I'm enjoying it a great deal, but I don't expect it to increase my chess ability.

I'm still trying to stop missing simple tactics and to develop a sound thought process. Until I can play 'Real Chess' as Dan Heisman calls it, it's clear that Rowson's book isn't going to have any significant impact on my play.

I'm reading Zebras primarily for enjoyment. Rowson is a fluent and entertaining author and if you can manage to follow his lines of thought, it's a very interesting book.

ejh said...

Is "spectate" a transitive verb?

Tom Chivers said...

No idea. I've never learnt any grammar I'm afraid. Might I have made an error?

ejh said...

Peter Wells also writes good books on a regular basis.

Anonymous said...

Yes I should add Peter Wells to the list of chess writers who have high levels of integrity, that they could not bring themselves to write stuff insufficently analysed or superficial to bring in $$$. He explains things very well and is very innovative in his topics he writes about. I don't get ChessBase Magazine any more so hope a book of his writings is issued sometime.

Anonymous said...

I for example didn't like Watson's "Modern Chess Strategy". It's a well written book, but I already knew, from my own play and work, most of the things he had to share.

I am more interested in Rowson's and Yermo's, both being strong GMs, thoughts about chess and experience during the games. Their sincerity and open mind is really refreshing. They were not shy to admit mistakes and criticize themselves. It helps reader to identify with a GM, understanding that one doesn't have to be super-human or Einstein to play good chess. I have to admit, for quite some time I thought my chess is stuck at 2200 forever, without any prospect of advancing. Rowson and Yermo have encouraged me to a great extent, although I don't have too much time for chess atm.

Taking Rowson's prose for granted is a mistake, of course. "I was telling myself a Rowsonian narrative, but..." is already contrary to his ideas, no? :) It is something to think about, upgrade it, shape it to our own preferences, if possible.

"I followed Rowson's advice, and gained this many grading points." - I mentioned Rowson's method on Chess Strategy blog, but only because I've seen it in his book for the first time. It is hardly exclusive, I guess Russians, at least, would be knowing about "this secret" for a long time already :)

Still, we all have our preferences and favorite authors. I have lifetime supply of puzzles and working material, I just have to look through it :)

Blue Devil Knight said...

The whole 'constructing internal narratives' may help one remember similar positions better in the future. Constructing 'self explanations' of positions helped beginners suceed in simple mating problems when they saw them in the future (study is here).

It seems what these researchers did was essentially have subjects construct narratives about the position, and it indeed helped them learn more quickly. The hard part is finding helpful and accurate narratives for a more complex position, but I think this is one of the points of his book (note I say this not having read it, but only secondary sources).

Leigh said...

I'm not a chess player, just a fellow blogger with a similar problem.

Did you know your blog content was being stolen? This post at least is also here -

They've stolen a bunch of my posts too.