Chess for Zebras

by Jonathan Rowson


This book is in the same vein as The Seven Deadly Chess Sins. Like its predecessor, it is more readable than other chess books I have seen. It is amusing and offers many unorthodox ideas. The author is a grandmaster and one might think that is also the intended audience, given the difficulty of the illustrative games and the in-depth analysis of their strategic (not tactical) ideas. Being a mediocre player, I skipped over most of the technical points, but found the general ideas interesting and thought-provoking. Some of the ideas are too rarified to be useful to an amateur, eg the notion of "doing nothing", playing by myths and seeing potential vs initiative. Will it improve my chess? I think it may, mainly because of what he writes about falsification - see below.

Rowson is interested in the well-known problem that once an adult player reaches a plateau of skill it becomes very difficult for them to improve.

Improvement begins at the edge of your comfort zone. You will use what you already know about chess to make the chess material you are trying to assimilate meaningful to you. Since our current chess understanding has lots of in-built biases, hubris and painful memories, it will directly affect the quality of our thinking as we try to improve our game. This means that real learning is often a painful process, because you are not just collecting new ideas and stacking them up in some sort of expanding cognitive warehouse. Instead you have to unlearn so many of the things that made sense to you. The most important kind of learning for improvement is "unlearning". We need to correct some of our limiting assumptions. Unlearning means constantly looking at the baggage we bring to chess and working on the part that is most problematic.

This is extremely difficult because it is natural to want to make sense of things, and to impose order on chaos with rules and categories. Real thinking is uncomfortable. The idea of unlearning is to see your habits of mind as habits, and therefore to have more self-control and hence flexibility during play.

Rowson makes a key distinction, between knowledge and skill, saying that in order to improve we need not more knowledge but more skill. This is the difference between passive knowledge and the ability to work through a problem or decide how to play a position. Skill comes through painstaking training and practice, rather than by reading books or learning openings. Skill is a way of dealing with things, not a derivation from theory. Knowledge helps only when it descends into habits. Skill improves when our unconscious thought processes improve.

Suggested training is solving problems, playing practice games, and trying to win against strong software from a winning position. Simply put, you learn by doing, which in chess means thinking. We do not learn by "reading and nodding". The main skill needed in chess is in making decisions, so this is what we need to practise. Rowson also suggests setting the clock for 20 minutes to study a difficult chess position and to compare it with an expert analysis.

Rowson points out that junior players improve and learn much more quickly than adults. The problem seems to be that while junior players tend to put what they learn into practice without any real conscious intent, and thereby improve steadily, adult players strain in an effort to understand what they are learning, and this leads to all sorts of problems, as the skill gained is adulterated by the attempt to formalise it into knowledge. Younger players have more neural plasticity and fewer prejudices.

Whatever meaning we find in a position, it is not found by logic but by what Rowson calls psychologic, ie the actual way in which our minds operate during chess. In addition to logic itself, this includes habit, imagination, emotional factors and the workings of the unconscious. Although chess requires logical reasoning, this is only one component of the mental apparatus we use when we play the game. Logic cannot tell you which features of a position are most important, and therefore what you should be reasoning about. The idea comes before the logical argument. Luke McShane gained 100 rating points to reach the top 50 when he realised that there aren't really solutions in chess. You solve problems as you go, different problems then arise, and you have to solve these too. By contrast, it is always tempting to look for "solutions" - something sufficiently compelling that it removes the anguish of having to think from move to move.

Rowson used to think that strong grandmasters knew things, that they could look at a position and assess it accurately. Instead, he found that the stronger the player the less likely he is to make a clear judgement of a position, such as "white is winning". This is because they have developed respect for the complexities of chess, so that they make tentative claims about a position, only to be confirmed by careful analysis.

Novice chess players often convince themselves that bad moves will work out in their favour, because they focus on counter-moves that benefit their strategy, while ignoring those that contradict their initial assessment. By contrast, strong players tend to predict the outcome of a move correctly. This is because they are willing to look at moves that challenge or contradict their ideas about the position. So novices try to convince themselves that their approach is right, whereas the stronger players do the opposite, seeking ways to debunk their ideas. The stronger players use what might be termed a scientific approach. Yet this falsificationist approach is inherently difficult. It is hard because it means suspending judgement and avoiding easy conclusions. It means not holding onto our hard-won tactical insights and pet theories, but regarding them as hypotheses to be tested.

Rowson suggests that there is a basic difference between what happens in an amateur vs a master game. The difference is not in the quality of the game, but in the mind-set of the players. In the amateur game, both sides play optimistically, believing they have winning chances, each happily pursuing their own plan, according to the dictum that attacking is fun, whereas defending is not. This continues until one player blunders or succumbs to an attack that they under-estimated, at which point their ideas collapse like a house of cards. In the master game, both players regard the position as unclear, with chances for both sides. They proceed carefully, applying prophylaxis in a murky limbo of alternative scenarios. If the game is not drawn, then at some point an error causes the balance to tip to one side, and the weaker party resigns soon after. This may be an over-simplification, but it illustrates the distinction between the amateur's attachment to his view of the position vs the professional's falsificationist approach.

I think one could argue that the falsificationist approach goes counter to human nature. Many of us live in denial of certain unpleasant realities and employ wishful thinking, at least in some contexts. We tend to avoid looking at the dark side of life, whether it is corruption or abattoirs. We avert our gaze from what is unpleasant, painful or dangerous. Thus we can be blase about the risks of walking on glaciers, overtaking on the highway, a chest pain, or of investing in financial schemes that promise high returns. We can be unrealistic about what we can afford to spend, or how much we can fit into our list of things to do in a day, not to mention the self-deceptions of dieting. Postponement is a symptom of an unrealistic attitude. We put off something unpleasant for "later", hoping that later will not come. We may harbour illusions regarding our ability or skill in various areas, believing ourselves to be better than our past performance indicates. We tend to diminish or deprecate evidence that we have behaved foolishly or irresponsibly. We may be in denial regarding ageing and health problems, perhaps to the point of living in illusion. Young people especially, live in the illusion that they are immortal and that they will not get old. We bring a similar mixture of distorted perceptions, denial and wishful thinking to our chess.

My speculation is that the strong player suffers much less from this sort of bias while playing chess. They do not shirk from investigating attacking possibilities for the other side, including sacrifices. They try to face up to whatever weaknesses are to be found in their position. This is not due to excessive caution or pessimism, but simply because a realistic attitude to playing chess demands an approach suffused with prophylaxis. This is the opposite of the wood-pusher, who calculates a line that looks good and then makes the move, hoping for the best.

Many players get into trouble because they have definitive assessments of the position and vague ideas about how to proceed, whereas what you want are clear ideas and revisable assessments. Rowson cautions us to be suspicious of any plan that takes more than three moves to implement, this because your opponent will usually obstruct its execution. The only plan worth having is an adaptable plan, one that takes the opponent's ideas into account. One of the forms of self-deception in chess is spinning a narrative web around a few selected facts in order to feel good about the position, even if the truth of the matter is rather different. Rowson says that more important than having a plan is having a purpose, ie every move should have a purpose.

It is easy to forget that the defining characteristic of our beloved game is that it is ridiculously hard. From bitter experience, Rowson writes, "If you think your play is clever while you are playing, it almost always means that your are missing something, or at least that you are liable to miss something soon."

It's really crucial that you enjoy playing as well as winning. If you really love playing, winning is a part of that love and striving for it will be seamless and natural. But if you just want to win, the game itself and the difficult decisions it involves can seem like drudgery and you are less likely to care about them, so it will be much harder to win.

Flow might be described as the subjective experience of optimal concentration. Flow comes about when skill level and challenge are well matched. Rowson believes that a huge part of our motivation for playing chess is to experience flow. He believes that concentration is the key to playing well. If you are trying to concentrate then there is already a problem, as we concentrate best when there is no strain.

The exponential problem in chess is tamed by our use of concepts, such as material value, pawn structure and centre control. These allow us to carry on playing as if we knew what we were doing. While concepts act as a necessary filter, they are also victims of their own success. Most players cannot make sense of a position without invoking material, pawn structure, initiative etc. The difficulty is due to having to juggle so many different ideas at once. This causes cognitive load, which we try to deal with by using words. This in turn causes problems because words get in the way of the images we actually use to think about the position. Words give us the illusion of having understood. Our mental picture of the board while playing chess is non-verbal, and reducing it to words loses much in translation. Words act as the glue that makes the ideas stick together in our minds into a meaningful pattern.

Rowson argues that when we are immersed in a position we think in terms of images. These are not literal pictures and the stronger the player, the more abstract the image in their mind. "Abstract" does not mean obscure but free from irrelevant detail. Grandmasters perceive sets of shifting patterns and relationships based on remembered patterns. One of the big problems in chess is holding all the information in mind in one mental 'gulp' and then trying to think with any part of that, without dropping the vision of the whole. Master players are able to 'chunk' a position into a few elements (eg the castled king and pawns), rather than seeing all the pieces individually. Rowson states that he sees a position in terms of abstract images and relationships, without verbal concepts, whereas the weaker player grasps the position by consciously applying concepts in verbal form. The weaker player needs words to reduce cognitive load, whereas the grandmaster feels the load less because they see the position more abstractly, ie without irrelevant details. To reduce the use of words in your thinking during play, you need to practise thinking about positions with as few prejudices as possible and observe your thoughts closely to watch for pseudo-explanatory verbal solutions.

Examining how I think about chess, I'm not sure about Rowson's description of the amateur. I see a chess position in terms of threats, blocks, piece mobility, tactics and possible moves. I do not usually reduce it to verbal concepts. Perhaps this is because I am below the "amateur" level Rowson is talking about.

There are many other areas of life where adults reach a plateau of skill and find it hard to reach a higher level: bridge and other games, sports, playing the piano, painting in oils, photography, or even a work skill, such as programming. Some of Rowson's insights may apply in other fields, especially where tactics or problem-solving are needed.

Tad Boniecki
April 2014

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