A summary of Chapter 6 of Rowson's Chess for Zebras
. This is the first chapter in Part II which he calls 'A mental toolkit for the exponential jungle.'Introduction
Chess is hard. We all know this. The number of possible legal moves increases exponentially as we look ahead in the game tree. It is surprising that we feel we have any understanding of the game at all.
One way that people tame the exponential jungle is via heuristics that quickly trim down the game tree in our minds, focusing our attention on a small proportion of the total number of lines. One of the most useful concepts we use is that of material value: we don't bother exploring lines that would give away a Queen for free. There are also strategic ideas such as piece activity that filter out certain moves as not deserving consideration.
Such concepts we use to trim Kotov's
tree can be useful, but in this chapter Rowson
focuses on how they can be harmful.Thinking in words versus thinking in chess
While it is often useful when a chess book explains a position in words, in practice much of our thinking during a game is not formatted as words, but as images. Words can be helpful in sizing up a position, serving to simplify the immense complexity in front of us, but they can also distract us from visualizing the concrete position, and blind us to the complexities that are actually crucial to see. Rowson
says that GMs
don't usually think in words nearly as much as amateurs.
Why are amateurs so attached to their word and rule-based thoughts? It is partly because amateurs have learned many fewer patterns than the great players, so the complexity of the position is overwhelming. To tame the complexity they use the only concepts they have at their disposal.GMs
, on the other hand, have learned many patterns and this eases the cognitive load on the visualization process. Their imagery is more abstract than the amateurs: they don't visualize individual pieces and where they are, but configurations of pieces and how these configurations relate to one another (e.g., most of us probably have such a chunk for the configuration of a castled King: Rf1, Kg1, f2, g2, h2). They don't imagine the pieces as colored, as having a certain shape, there is nothing inessential in their imagination. Recall my discussion
study of imagery in chess masters: I wrote that specifically to supplement this summary.Rowson
urges amateurs to think less in terms of words, more in terms of images. This will be a daunting task. How can you work on this skill? With a variant of Rowsonalysis
of course! Rowson
To reduce the role of words in your thinking during play, you need to practice thinking about positions with as few prejudices as possible and observe your thoughts closely to watch for the pseudo-explanatory verbal 'solutions.' This can be quite a scary experience. Glimpsing 'the abysmal depths of chess' is highly worthwhile when done in moderation. If you can manage it, and if it doesn't put you off chess completely, it should help you to start building resistance against one of the main habits of mind that prevents you from improving.
This experience of staring into the abysmal depths of chess, free of our beloved rules and narratives, can be quite disconcerting, but it can also enhance your creativity and candidate move generation process ('What if I take his Bishop with my Queen and let him recapture?' is a thought you will be unlikely to have when thinking abstractly of 'material', but it could be just the right move in the position).Rowson's take on Aagaard versus Watson
Recently Watson and Aagaard
fought intensely about the importance, or lack thereof, of rules in chess. Watson says that great players play in a rule-independent fashion, while Aagaard
has fought this idea vehemently. Rowson
, to adjudicate the dispute, says that there are two senses of 'independent' that need to be differentiated. First, you can play independently of the rules if you are simply ignorant
of the rules. A case in point is the beginner who doesn't know that Knights are poorly placed when on the rim. The second sense of independence is what Rowson
. Those that have transcended the rules have studied them well and fully absorbed them. However, they are good enough that they never accept a rule mindlessly and always consider the concrete position on the board.Planning in pencil, playing in pen
Given that words and narratives are sometimes counterproductive during a chess game, what about planning? Plans typically involve concepts such as material, pawn structure, piece activity, etc.. Does Rowson
think such heuristics we use to trim Kotov's
tree are useless, that they should be totally abandoned? Should we live in the abyss of concrete chess, sitting there imagining variation after variation? No. Without plans we would get lost in the abyss. The point of the previous section is that we need to be careful of getting too locked into narratives that can blind us to important variations we do
need to visualize.
thinks planning is fine, and necessary, for good chess. He stresses that plans (which often use narratives) should be flexible and adapt to the particulars of the position. You should be ready to exchange the Knight you have on the great outpost if it will yield even larger advantages. An exchange that was a bad idea on a previous move might now be perfect given the change in the position. Plans are just ideas, so don't be afraid to change them or reject them outright. Moves, on the other hand, are permanent.
There is a Greek God Proteus who can change his shape at will. Rowson
says that good chess players are protean
, or flexible, in their thinking. Many chess authors say you should play 'consistently', or stick with your plans. Rowson
tells us that consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, that we need to constantly adapt our battle plans to the circumstances on the battlefield.