The following book review first appeared in the British Chess Magazine and my thanks to John Saunders, the BCM editor, for his permission to allow it to appear on this website:
Physics, psychology and blunders: A Review of Jonathan Rowson’s ‘The Seven Deadly Chess Sins’
Adapting a comment attributed to W. Somerset Maugham (originally about novels rather than chess books): ‘There are three rules for writing a good chess book. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are’.
Well, whatever those three rules might be, in writing ‘The Seven Deadly Chess Sins’, (Gambit, ISBN 1 901983 366, £16.99) the young Scottish Grandmaster, Jonathan Rowson, has somehow managed to follow them - and he has written from the heart and thrown in a little inspiration for good measure.
I have no idea how many rules there are for writing a good review, but I’ll have a shot at it anyhow.
Let me start by stating that this is one of the few chess books I’ve read in recent years that stands out as something a little bit special - special enough that I actually read it carefully, in its 205-page entirety, before writing this review.
Truman Capote allegedly once remarked (about a book by Jack Kerouac) ‘That’s not writing – that’s typing’ and, sad to say, this remark could be levelled at the vast majority of chess books produced. For that matter, the remark ‘that’s not typing, that’s chessbase print-out’ could be levelled at a fair number of the others. Not so with Jonathan Rowson. The lad can really write. He uses genuinely meaningful and colourful English, with humour and imagination and this is one chess book it is actually a pleasure to read. Perhaps Rowson will end up being a writer who is also a Grandmaster, rather than a Grandmaster who can also write. At any rate the book scores 10/10 on style and presentation. I’m coming to content…
While on the subject of style, presentation and typing, and before giving this book an unreserved 10/10 I should make one criticism, which is that there are quite a few typos for a book of this quality. It deserved slightly more careful editing. The typos do not occur in the chess analysis (which is actually very accurate) but I mean things like ‘If you this is not immediately clear to you’ (top of page 28, right hand side). There is a missing ‘if’ later in the same paragraph. All very trivial, but if the one thing you can say about typing is that it is character-forming then you can equally say that proof-reading is character-testing.
Let us now consider the main themes of the content of the book. The central, eponymous theme involves Rowson’s seven sins:
If you detect a spiritual, ‘Eastern’ or almost Buddhist tone to some of these categories, you might well be right. The splendidly eclectic bibliography boasts titles such as Capra’s ‘The Tao of Physics’ and Rowson has been known to meditate. You can rest assured however that the text is free of any mantras and especially free of any dogma. Indeed, Rowson seems to be on a mission to route out and eliminate dogmatic or stereotypical thinking patterns. It reminds me of an old t-shirt caption ‘My karma ran over my dogma’. Another good t-shirt I came across recently had ‘My venture capitalist gave me $10,000,000 and all I’ve got left is this lousy t-shirt’, which I suppose is another case of the perils of materialism.
So why is thinking a sin? Isn’t chess a thinking game or ‘denksport’ as the Germans would have it? Rowson quotes the well known English chess teacher and enthusiast, Richard James: ‘Every time I see a kid making a mistake and ask him why he played that move his reply starts with the words ‘Well I thought’. ‘Don’t think’, I reply, ‘look’’.
As a teacher myself I understand only too well what is meant here. Children, adults, you, me and the rest of the human race are all guilty of thinking in the wrong way sometimes. You apply some rule or method and it is just not appropriate. Sometimes it is necessary to break free of the rigidity of one’s ‘thinking’ and perceive more, or if you have enough experience, feel more. Not letting intuition do its proper job by ‘thinking’ too much can be a source of error in chess and it is this that compels Rowson to label ‘thinking’ a sin. ‘Thinking’ is of course a term that refers to many things that go on in the human head and Rowson has a lot to say about the nature of chess thinking in general. More of that later - first let us enjoy the other six deadly sins…
His second sin, blinking, refers to missing key moments when the ‘trend’ of the game (the direction it is moving in) is about to change. ‘Trend’ analysis is not Rowson’s idea, but he takes it further than I’ve seen before in the chapter about this sin.
The direction the game is moving in (the trend) certainly has many psychological implications. For example, if things are on the up you become more optimistic, and can lose your sense of danger. Your opponent is struggling…you can win a pawn…you assume everything is hunky dory, take the pawn and suddenly find he has all sorts of ‘undeserved’ compensation. Sound familiar? It’s certainly happened to me. The interesting point being that you would not have taken the pawn but for the recent passage of play – since you would have been much more worried about the compensation. Generally, thinking about ‘trends’ can be a useful tool (one of many) that can guide the thinking process.
Can there exist positions that you assess as better for one side but where the next few moves will see a negative trend for that same side? Can you have a won position which necessarily must get worse for you over the next few moves? Sometimes players certainly get the feeling that strange things like this are going on over the board. Rowson enjoys teasing the reader with these possibilities, but ultimately I think one just has to be very careful with the initial assessment to avoid such contradictions. If you take all the dynamic considerations very much into account, in other words include the ‘trend’ in the original assessment, everything appears rational and normal again.
The sin of ‘wanting’ strikes you down when you let your desire for a certain result adversely influence your play. It certainly happens. The fourth sin, ‘materialism’, is very much what you might expect it to be, but Rowson uses a surprising analogy to drive home his thoughts. Einstein’s E=MC² is wheeled in to demonstrate that energy, or dynamic potential, can be worth a lot of matter (material). As a means of communicating an idea, it is actually quite neat but Rowson probably tries to extract a little too much mileage out of it.
Later in the same chapter we come across ‘The Four Dimensions of Chess’. Now this really is an interesting little theory. Rowson gives a lengthy quote from Kasparov where the great man describes chess in terms of three dimensions: material, time and ‘quality’. These are the ‘dimensions’ to consider in making a decision. Rowson adds ‘ticking’ (the clock). There is enough in this theory for a whole new book, but Rowson, knowing he is already ‘off-topic’ with regards to deadly sinning, just mentions it in passing and does not take it any further.
While Rowson draws on physics and more heavily on psychology in the course of his book, his general style is hardly that of a ‘hard man of science’. He is more the soft and cuddly humanist, with a warm and reassuring tone as he gently persuades the reader (who I think he sees as a motivated and strong club player) to his point of view.
Actually there are several places in the text where Rowson goes some distance from his central theme, and these diversions constitute some of the best material in the book! For example, he has a lot to say on the role of emotion in chess and rightly points out that this has been largely ignored in the existing literature on chess psychology. He tends to take the view that ‘emotion is good’ and is to be embraced as part of the thinking process. It’s a matter of balance of course, but I suspect Rowson and I would be on opposite sides of the balance point.
It’s an interesting debating subject. Should you trust your emotions or should you try to be ice cool and rational? Maybe it is not an either or situation. Rational thought can make up for misplaced emotional responses and emotion can make up for misplaced attempts at rational thought. An emotional response (possibly unarticulated) like ‘yuck…that looks disgusting, I’m not looking at that any further’ can guide the rational mind down other channels.
I suppose I’ve always tried to let rationality dominate my thinking in a controlled way. I am influenced by the Botvinnik quote ‘I can only think when I am calm’ and often attempt to ‘overcome’ emotion with rationality. Maybe that’s where I’ve been going wrong all these years…At any rate, Rowson has some very interesting ideas on this subject, including at one point the thought that it might be wrong even to attempt to be objective.
It seems I’ve allowed myself to be distracted from the central theme as well. Back to sin number five: Egoism. From the behaviour of many of the leading lights of the chess world, you might be tempted into thinking that this is a fairly necessary evil if you want to reach the top in chess, but I couldn’t possibly comment. For Rowson, egoism can manifest itself as not paying enough attention to the opponent and this can be solved positionally by playing with more prophylaxis. Safe chess. He also advocates (at some length) regarding yourself as a subject and taking full responsibility for your decisions. Clearly this will not do at all since we would then have nothing on which to blame our defeats…
Sin number six is ‘perfectionism’. Rowson describes his loss to Alexander Morozevic in an amusing light. There he is trying to ‘punish’ his opponent for some tiny inaccuracy when all of a sudden he is put through the shredder in 26 moves. At least he demonstrates he has a good sense of self-parody, again not a trait shared by all grandmasters. Perfectionists suffer mainly through time-trouble and Rowson gives a very systematic analysis of the causes of time-trouble, detailing no less than eighteen of them. This should be compulsory reading for any time-trouble addicts…they might not like what they read but it will be good for them. Another symptom of perfectionism is trying to get too much out of the position (‘jam lust’ as Rowson coins it).
‘Looseness’ is the final sin, whereby players lose the plot due to insufficient concentration. Now where was I? Do remind me which book I’m reviewing…Rowson has some interesting thoughts in this final chapter on how emotional states from earlier in the game (‘echoes’) can make you pick the wrong course later on.
I think by now you should have a fair idea of the content of this book. It could perhaps have been a little tighter in places (to be harsh I guess that is ‘egoism’, ‘looseness’ and a slight lack of ‘perfectionism’ in Rowson’s own terms) but, all in all, Rowson has come up with a lot of interesting ideas and fresh thinking on various aspects of the game.
Although the central theory, with its seven elements, will prove difficult to remember (theories with two, three or sometimes four elements are easier on the brain), some of the terms are succinct and may well catch on. Are they the ‘right’ terms? It depends what you mean by ‘right’ but they are certainly well thought out. Generally I was just as impressed by bits and pieces around the edges of the central theory as I was by the seven sins themselves, which is fine since a book should not be limited by its title. Rowson also manages to coin a number of other useful expressions, as a quick glance at the table of contents will reveal.
Throughout the book Rowson makes good use of a variety of examples. Some are from his own games, some from classical games of yesteryear, some from modern Grandmaster practice (he starts with an inspiring piece of play by Rozentalis) and he even draws on some games by lesser-known players. The chess content is to a high standard, with careful analysis (possibly too much in places) and I could find only one analytical improvement in the whole book (p.28 left hand side, note to 32…Bxd8: 35.Ng6 would be mate).
There is humour too. I rather liked (p.69) ‘Bogdan offered a draw here, but Bogdan offers so many draws that I tend to reject them on principle, often at the cost of half a point; a small price to pay for the pleasure that it gives me.’
Will this book improve your game? This is a very different question to ‘is this a good book?’ but nonetheless relevant to many potential readers. It is true that analysing ways people go wrong is not as helpful as analysing ways people go right (there are a million negatives to avoid in narrowing in on the right path and fewer right things to do) but this book does a lot more than just look at errors. It should freshen up your thinking and give you a few new ways to look at positions, a few new implements to add to the old tool-box.
Rowson probably set out to write a great chess book and to some extent he has certainly succeeded. Even with its imperfections, for its zest and creative content, its style and energy, I do hope it wins the British Chess Federation book of the year prize.
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