Thursday, January 12, 2006

Chess for Zebras

I have been reading Jonathan Rowson's absolutely paradigm-shifting book Chess for Zebras, which I heartily recommend and therefore feel compelled to share. I should title this post "Chess for Zebras, Part I," because it is certainly a subject to which I'll return in the coming months, as this book is so profound that it will take at least that long to read, absorb, and reflect upon (and I don't intend to write much at the moment). The book will surely be receiving very positive and lengthy reviews from many sources in the weeks ahead, as initial reviews (from Fred Wilson at ChessFM, BCM and Geoff Chandler at Textualities) and a Jennifer Shahade interview in Chess Life suggest it will be well received. Blog entries by Druss and The Chess Mind were also positive. When everyone (including myself) finally has a chance to work their way through this very deep book and writers like John Watson weigh in, it should get the chess press rolling and everyone will acknowledge it as a classic of the first order...

...or, I hope that will be the case, anyway. It's possible that Rowson is just too smart for his readers and it may take decades, it's sad to think, before we are ready to absorb Chess for Zebras (whose odd title--which may put a lot of readers off, as Rowson himself acknowledges-- is intended to resonate with many things, including the recently re-issued classic Chess for Tigers). That's true of all great paradigm-challenging works, from Einstein to Kuhn. I'm also not certain that this book is for everyone. I may, in fact, be its ideal reader, as an academic who works with theories of education and has a 2000+ rating that has not changed in decades (and which he would sorely like to improve). For me, it is a masterpiece of the first order that relates to practically everything I think about intellectually, including the teaching of writing. But I also recognize that not all other chessplayers share those interests and may be put off by the heft of its ideas concerning a topic (chess) that they might take rather lightly. They might also not be willing to read a lot of prose that is not specifically geared toward annotating games or reviewing opening theory, and Rowson's writing may strike them as a bit dense. Personally, I find Rowson's style not only readable but intellectually entertaining, and his examples are extremely well chosen and connected to his topic. Others may find his writing a bit more academic and abstract than they prefer. Most chess books, after all, are written so that even children can understand them (since a large part of their audience is probably children). Rowson's work really is intended for adults with a college education (or at least a college-level reading ability). I assume that most chessplayers fall into that category (as obviously did his publishers), but I may be wrong.

Like Shahade's groundbreaking feminist chess history, Chess Bitch, Rowson's recent work (including his Seven Deadly Chess Sins) is part of a trend of applying what academicians term "Theory" (with a capital "T") to chess. Unlike 7DCS, however, it does make some concessions for a more general reader. For one thing, it has a tendency to try multiple modes of explanation (or "different ways of saying the same thing"). It also often frames a discussion of ideas with the story of a real chess lesson that Rowson has given to a developing player, thus presenting readers with a point of identification and entry into the text. This works very well, and also makes the book an especially useful read for chess instructors, especially those working with adult players of 1800-plus rating range, since the scene of instruction is never far off. It also makes readers feel that we are getting the same service for which he likely charges at least $50 per hour for the wonderful fixed rate of under $30. That's a bargain in my view, though again, like the quirky title, it is a surface detail that may keep Chess for Zebras from gaining as much popularity as it's entitled to have with the mass of chessplayers.

Well, I've written at much greater length than I had intended when I first sat down, yet I have said nothing specific about the book or its contents. I suppose that will have to wait for another time. For now, though, let me quote from a passage that I found helpful and which I will keep in mind tonight when I play in the 2006 Kenilworth Chess Club championship -- in part to help prepare for the upcoming U.S. Amateur Teams East:

"if you want to get better at chess you need to place much less emphasis on 'study' whereby you increase your knowledge of positions, and place more emphasis on 'training,' whereby you try to solve problems, play practice games, or perhaps try to beat a strong computer program from an advantageious position" (25).

Enough abstract study and discussion. Let me turn my sights back to practice and to reading this wonderful book.... I'll tell you more when I finish it.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thx for the nice review/preview. I am not a struggling 2000+ USCF player - but I hope to be one someday :)
Anyway, I am really enjoying this book too. I am trying to tackle a few other books at the same time, but really wish I could dedicate all my time to Rowson's book, because it is so much fun to read. Also, he looks at some interesting openings, and does not shy away from offering opinions on some lesser played openings (hippopotomus set up, for example). I share your enthusiasm for the book. It took me months to receive my copy from Amazon, but it was worth the wait. I wonder if it was released to U.S. readers early enough to have a change at book of the year. Other great books out this year include Learn from the Legends by Marin.

Fri Feb 03, 08:59:00 AM EST  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

mdog loves chess for zebras gave interview with GM Rowson, maybe your club invite Rowson to lecture

Thu Feb 09, 11:21:00 PM EST  

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