Monday, July 28, 2008

Improve Your Chess IV: Read Rowson

In May last year, I wrote here:
I don't know anyone who can say: "I followed Rowson's advice, and gained this many grading points."
Well, I do now. It's me, because in the season just gone I gained 23 ECF points - approximately 115 FIDE Elo points according to the usual conversion, although Richard commented previously that 180 Elo points is the traditional figure! Anyway, although there were several things I tried to improve my chess, the simple advice of Rowson's I followed was to simulate over-the-board (otb) chess at home. Indeed, aside from "practice concentration" that's more or less the only piece of direct advice Rowson offers in his two books about psychology and chess improvement. And despite that, and despite all my misgivings about advice (here) - today, I'm advising you not just to base your attempts at chess improvement around otb simulation - but also to read Jonathan Rowson's two books about chess improvement. That is, my advice today if you are an adult player wishing to improve who has hit an impasse is just to read The Seven Deadly Chess Sins and Chess for Zebras and in that order.

And, that's it for today, that's all. The next in this series is on Monday next week. For now, all that's left to say is:


Still here?

Not entering your credit card details at Amazon, and simulating otb chess while you wait for the postman? You mean you've dared not to follow my advice? I knew it. I suppose I had better justify my opinion instead then. I'll focus on The Seven Deadly Chess Sins, henceforth Sins, adding a brief word about Chess for Zebras, henceforth Zebras, toward the end.

There are two reasons why you should read Sins, and the second is somewhat paradoxical and requires substantial justification. The first reason is simple, and it is that some of the content of the book - about psychological causes of error in chess with a number of well-annotated examples - will almost certainly be pertinent to your play, training, and thinking. However, there are lots of books that are pertinent to every chess player's play, in this kind of way or in other ways. Why I am recommending this one in particular? Indeed, over and above its practically-orientated competitors? Now I come to the second, paradoxical reason: the second reason you should read this book is for the style in which Sins is written, which is as follows. Sins is very badly written but in very useful ways which oblige you to really think differently about chess and yourself. The rest of this article are a justification of that statement, whereby I describe the main ways Sins is badly written and how this links to reader's learning. I am using here a slightly stretched meaning of "style" which includes Rowson's use of not-chess to write about chess. Anyway I've given each way a subheading.

Humpty Dumpty
Firstly, although there is an overarching structure at work in Sins - the book is organized by the seven different sins - for the most part the writing is disorganized, rambling, and stuffed full of digressions. This manifests itself less in the annotations than in the long stretches of unbroken prose, but even here there are plenty examples. Take the position to the right, for example, from Tal-Botvinnik, World Championship 1960 game 17 - on page 151 in the book in Chapter 5. Tal has just played 24.Qe3, and Rowson has just quoted Tal's explanation of why white is objectively worse, but why this isn't the end of the story: there are subjective factors at work here, because the position is complicated and the decisive complications look likely to crop up during time-trouble. Indeed this is what happened, and Botvinnik eventually blundered the whole game away on move 39.

Now, to Tal's description of the position and events, Rowson adds this digression:
This reminds me of something GM Peter Wells told me of a post-mortem with GM Stuart Conquest in which Peter asked 'Did you think you were better here?', to which Stuart replied: 'I don't have such thoughts during the game. I just look for ideas.' This is a little at odds with my suggestion in Chapter 2 about having some feel for whether your position is getting better or worse, but it is a valuable insight all the same. Certainly in games which are exceptionally tense, like last-round games for example, you might do more harm than good by trying to keep track of the 'objective' assessment because the errors which decide the outcome will be more closely related to the tension than to the assessment.
This anecdote demonstrates the disorganization in the book because it is more pertinent to the content of chapter two than the diagram position, and it is a digression because the diagram position and game itself have already been more than adequately explained up to this point. So all this is a distraction from Tal's explanations and Rowson's additional analysis. And this is one reason why the book is so useful. At this point, the reader who is willing to be fully engaged with the book is thrown back to thoughts of a previous chapter and further distracted from what's going on in the game for himself. In other words, s/he is forced to mentally arrange the book, the chess content and the psychologizing for him/herself, if s/he is going to keep up; in fact I might go so far as to say s/he has to deal with something of the messiness of thinking that occurs in our actual games. To stretch this even further, I might say that we are forced to try to put Humpty Dumpty back together again: But that because this impossible, the working trying to do so means that the book fully commands our mentally faculties, and in doing so even reminds of us of the infinite difficulty of chess.

In other words, all this enables us to learn by making us think for ourselves, and helps teach us some broad lessons about our thinking and chess in general.

Memories are made of this
Rowson's book is stuffed full of phrases, aphorisms and quotes, and I mean both stuffed and full. For instance, by page 25 we have had quotes from St Teresa of Avila, Gerald Abrahams, Tarrasch, Samuel Beckett, J. Krishnamurti, Sartre, Rumi, Octavio Paz, Kierkegaard, The Lutterworth Dictionary of the Bible, Simon and Garfunkel, and Bruce Lee. Then on page 25, we get one of the first direct pieces of chess advice Rowson offers: to talk with your pieces. Later on, amidst the analogies with quantum physics, relativity, philosophy, pop songs, Picasso and Churchill quotes, and a whole smörgåsbord more, we find other little snippets of chess advice too, such as remembering to ask yourself if you really believe something (for instance a speculative sacrifice.) If chess imitates life, then Rowson is clearly imitating DJs like DJ Yoda who have a real "mash up" style.

So what? Well, compare this to John Nunn's Secrets of Practical Chess, which contains nothing comparable of the sort. There are a few snippets of aphoristic advice in Nunn's book regarding things one should remember to remind oneself at the board such as "LPDO" ("Loose Pieces Drop Off") and DAUT ("Don't Analyze Unnecessary Tactics") amongst several worthy examples and mini-essays about other practical matters. The struggle with Nunn is making his acronyms memorable at the board, and the lack of alternative phrases if these don't really stick or make much sense to you. Indeed, if you are a strategical player with a taste for closed positions, remembering Nunn's LPDO and DAUT advice is more likely to do more harm than good, since you are probably not analyzing enough tactics and not allowing your pieces to venture out from behind your pawns enough.

With Rowson, there is no such problem. Something is bound to stick, because there is so much random stuff- and for the same reason, something is bound to be relevant. In my case for instance, I find, talking to my pieces ludicrous and a somewhat demeaning experience at the board. However, asking myself if I really believe something has really influenced my play in the season just gone, by cutting out unnecessary worrying. Who knows what will stick for you? Maybe, "jam lust", maybe "moment sensitivity", maybe "talking to your pieces", maybe one of the many others. Who knows? There is only one way to find out.

From The High Street to the Garden
The above section is about how Rowson's writing is great for allowing us via memorable phrases to package broad advice into a small mnemonic. However, the opposite is true too: Rowson's style of writing is great at "opening up" our thinking as well. This is partly because Rowson makes reference to a great many things, but also because he allows himself to "think out loud", unashamedly mentioning passing thoughts in, well, passing. For instance, for no real reason on page 35 Rowson talks about how the stronger the player, the more abstract their visual image is of the chess board. This had an interesting point of contact for me personally, because I have studied the psychology behind mathematical learning (I am a Mathematics graduate) where there is an interesting division between visual learners of mathematics and those who learn in other ways. For now I won't go any further, although sharp readers may wonder what the connection is to my advice here. Instead my point is there are many improbable points of contact that reading Sins allows different readers to make. Perhaps for instance you understand yourself via Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance? Well, that's here. So too Taoism. So too existentialism. And there's a mention of Star Trek. Or maybe you have a lot of knowledge about quantum mechanics? That's there too, and perhaps reading Rowson's thoughts about it will help you open up and change your own thinking about chess. After all, if you're an adult player who has hit an impasse, that is probably one thing you need to do.

If you're still unconvinced, let me suggest two analogies. One, imagine someone who lives a life of routine based around an average UK high-street, with its supermarkets of microwave meals, its clothing shops of slave-labour jeans - then imagine them visiting Camden Market, at least for an afternoon. They may not buy very much there or even like it, but the effect on their concept of food and clothing will be enormous, opening up new possibilities, although they may only find useful one or two for themselves. I said above that Rowson is a bit like a DJ with a "cut up" style; he's a bit like Camden Market, too.

Or, secondly, think about it this way. Each human mind is like a garden with unknown soil: we know things can grow there, but we don't know what will take root, what will perish. Rowson's writing style corresponds to the scattering of many seeds, whilst the chess content of Sins is about psychological causes of error in chess - so in this paragraph's analogy, it's a weed-killer. In my opinion it's important to remember that, however uncomfortable it may sound, learning is like this: we don't know what will work in advance, as my experience of chess coaching also taught me. Although Rowson's content could be interpreted at a stretch as somewhat prescriptive, his writing style works counter to this, and all the more usefully as a result.

Remember to Forget
I mentioned above that Sins includes enough phrases, quotes and aphorisms that something is bound to be memorable. However, the book's style means that it is so chockablock with bric-a-brac, that reading it inevitably means a great deal of if will be forgotten too. This then helps us discover anew at least some of its lessons, because as I argue above reading Sins involves the planting of many seeds.

In my own case, I actually managed to forget the book's main message entirely. A little while back I was thinking over chess, and the difficulty of trying to align our thought processes to the enormous actual difficulty of the game itself. Of course we can't do this perfectly, as computers show, but in understanding our limitations we can do our best to work both with and around the ultimately-unknowable reality of the game. Failure to do so often involves some misapprehension of the game itself - supposing it is more positional than it really is, for instance. I was thinking of writing a blog post about all this, when I suddenly thought it sounded like something Rowson might have said something about. In fact, it's very close to the overall main message of Sins, which I had more or less managed to entirely forget. There is, though, no way I would have thought anything along these lines had I not read Sins, both for the stimulation of its content and the high level of forgetability that comes from the (apparent) flaws of Rowson's writing style.

So, in conclusion, the content of Sins is likely to be pertinent to your play, if you are an adult player who has hit an impasse. However, it is the literary weaknesses of the style in which the book is written that provides unique opportunities to learn, because in various ways these oblige the committed reader to come to chess anew.

The same, in my opinion, holds for Zebras, although there are some differences. Zebras has a less clear overall structure than Sins, although internal chapters and passages themselves tend to command more clarity. The reason for this moderate tidying in writing style is probably that Rowson was slightly "dumbing down" in response to certain negative reviews, although this is a shame in my opinion. Btw, I should mention in passing two negative reviews that were useful in the writing of this piece: Taylor Kingston's at ChessCafe, and JimmyBob's at I agree with some of what they say, but my overall conclusion is entirely different.

Anyway, I believe Sins is a better book than Zebras but that you should read both, with Sins first. Of course, by read I mean not just the words - but that you also get out an actual chess set and actual pieces, play through all the examples and games as they come along, and whenever you can put the books to the side to analyze or play back through the particularly memorable sequences. And if you don't believe that, all I can do is recommend you read Rowson's writing in order to convince yourself. And who knows what else might happen if you do?


ejh said...

I actually prefer Zebras, partly because I think it's better thought-out and because it cut down on the habit of providing too many quotations of doubtful relevance (a habit I associate with people like Jon Savage).

I'm particularly interested in the books, not just because they're fine and original and readable, but because it's my contention that for the good club player, the key to improving one results - technical matters like endgame and opening knowledge aside - is acquiring a sense of objectivity. At our level far more games are lost than are won, because people lack that objectivity. Rowson, I think, investigates a number of ways in which we manage to lose a sense of objectivity, and I'd think immediately of his thoughts about "narrative" and punishing".

It's amazing, in a post-mortem, how often club players think they were better long beyond the point that they actually were, if indeed it ever existed - and below average strength, you can often find people stubbornly insisting that they were fine quite some way beyond the point where their position was approaching the resignable.

I ended up formulating a thesis that the point at which we are first significantly worse is usually the point at which we think we are significantly better, and I don't think that's purely my sense of humour operating there.

Of course it's far easier to say this stuff than to put it into practice, and in actual, real games, we very often underestimate our opponent's moves, position and resources, even though we're determined not to. One reason for this is that our opponents do, in fact, play a lot of moves that would suit a narrative of "they are not a very good player" and a desire to punish their mistakes. The thing is, of course, that our moves may also have been less than perfect - and our opponent's moves, though imperfect, may not have been all that bad. Personally I wonder whether a useful phrase to remember might be "my position is never better until the tactics prove it so". Until then, it is wiser, perhaps just to assume that you're equal and, like Conquest, find ideas. But of course those ideas must be about what your opponent is doing as well as about what you would like to do.

I think this also has relevance when one asks the question "now my rating has gone up, how do I keep it there?" Perhaps the most dangerous of all narratives, and one that costs me several points a season even though I'm aware of it, is the one that begins "I am better than the other player and therefore...". I am in fact only better than the other player if at the end of the game, I have acquired the full point. But the more one's rating goes up - and especially if it has gone up a lot, and recently - the easier it is to fall into that trap. Beware.

Jonathan B said...

imitating DJs like DJ Yoda who have a real "mash up" style.

You're so down with the kids T.C.

Tom Chivers said...

DJ Yoda's my age - I went to uni with him!

Glenn Wilson said...

You had me at "Bye, bye". Seriously, I ordered the books. I still have not read the whole post.

Tom Chivers said...

Goodness - I hope that they prove useful then! Let us know what you think either way!

Jonathan B said...

DJ Yoda's my age - I went to uni with him!

It was more the use of the term 'mash up' I was thinking of.

Tell me ... are Kajagoogoo still considered hip?

Dean said...

Thanks for the great series of articles Tom, some very useful ideas!