The Seven Deadly Sins of Chess

Jonathan Rowson is a Grand Master and a three-time British champion. His "The Seven Deadly Chess Sins" is a book about how we think in chess. Although it is pitched at the level of expert players, even a wood-pusher like me found some valuable insights. Rowson writes engagingly and with considerable wit - this is not another dry-as-peeled-paint book about chess. It is a philosophical reflection on how chess is played at the highest levels and what we can all learn from this. The most fascinating part for me were Rowson's thoughts on objectivity.

He makes two radical claims about objectivity in chess:
(1) that it is impossible to be objective during a game
(2) that it is not even desirable.

Rowson, "When we make decisions from a 'subjective' viewpoint we tend to think that we are making some sort of mistake, and should strive instead to be 'objective'." Being 'objective' in chess means seeing the position as it actually is, uncontaminated by our own wishes and plans. Rowson believes this is largely a mirage: "...seeing things as they 'actually are' would be an enormous achievement which goes against the grain of human perception... humans by their very nature are enormously self-deceptive, will only see that which experience has shown them to be there, cannot help but want the position to be a certain way and will always see the position from a background of emotional memories and pre-established patterns... you cannot escape your subjective perspective during the game." Please note the word in bold - Rowson says it may be possible to annotate a game objectively after it has been finished.

"To maximize your chances of competitive success, it is essential to be aware of your opponent's likes and dislikes and all their human fallibilities. You must remember that you are a subject playing another subject. Consequently, to view the position objectively is to miss an enormous reservoir of insights into the ways in which the game is perceived during play. To be 'objective' is to treat as an object that which is primarily a battlefield between subjects." By trying to be objective "... you undermine your capacity to sense your opponent's subjective perspective, and miss opportunities to exploit this." Rowson believes that his own development as a chess player was hindered by his striving to be objective: "I began to view chess more as a series of intellectual problems than a fight, and thus behaved more like an academic than a warrior... the pursuit of beauty and truth is incidental to the battle between psyches over the board... In games against grandmasters I found that they were almost never asking 'is this move true?' but rather 'will this move work?'"

I think Rowson is saying that if you are playing a person, rather than a computer, then you are handicapping yourself if you do not take psychology into account.

Reading Rowson's book made me realise that it is crucial to see chess dynamically. It is wrong to evaluate a position without reference to the sequence of moves that reached this point, to momentum, to dynamics, to the trend of the game, and to the psychological flow in the minds of both players. Looking at a position in isolation from the flow of the game is like attempting to make sense of a movie by examining a single frame. Likewise, looking at the position from scratch on each move to find my "best move" in the current position is like designing a building one brick at a time. Each candidate move must be seen as part of a sequence of future moves designed to improve my situation. That sequence should embody a strategy or a tactic, and cannot just be made afresh on each move.

Rowson contrasts the static method of position evaluation with a dynamic approach. The former considers factors such as material balance, king safety, badly positioned pieces, central control, space advantage, pawn structure, and bishops vs knights. The dynamic approach looks at the momentum or dynamics of the game, rather than the position frozen in time. It focuses on trends and how they change. He points out that there can be an upward trend for the player who currently has the inferior position. This is a more subtle version of my idea of the tide turning.

There is much else of considerable interest in this fine book. He goes a long way towards giving the role of emotion in chess its due importance.

Rowson is arguing that we should apply a variety of ways of thinking about chess, avoid applying rules and heuristics, and jump out of our old thought habits. Instead we should make the most of each position while being alive to the trend that is current. In particular, to avoid the sin of egoism we need to adopt an "inter-subjective" perspective, ie remain fully aware of our opponent from a psychological point of view, as well as applying prophylaxis.

But what you really wanted to know about are the seven deadly sins. They are:
1) Thinking. Confusion, thinking in terms of limited patterns, lack of faith in intuition, bureaucratic thinking.
2) Blinking. Missing key moments, lack of sensitivity to trends in the game.
3) Wanting. Attachment to results, carelessness, expectation, chalking up a win prematurely.
4) Materialism. Misevaluating because material values are the axis of evaluation, lack of dynamism, oversights.
5) Egoism. Forgetting about the opponent, fear, impracticality.
6) Perfectionism. Time-trouble, moralising.
7) Looseness. Losing the plot, drifting.

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