Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Chess for Zebras, Chapter One (Skill versus Knowledge)

Here is a summary of Chapter One of Rowson's Chess for Zebras, entitled 'What to do if you think there's a hole in your bucket.'

The main thesis of this chapter is that chess expertise is a skill or habit, not something you can acquire from reading chess books or listening to chess lectures. Rowson says, "Many players 'work' on their chess as if they were working on an academic subject, but improving your chess is much more like improving your driving, or improving your play on a musical instrument, than it is like preparing for an exam." Chess improvement is not a matter of filling your mental bucket with new facts.

Like learning to play the guitar, chess improvement is a gradual process of constructing skills and habits. It isn't at all like learning facts such as 'George Bush is the president.' Unlike fact-based learning, an instructor can only do so much to help you acquire new habits. You have to train on your own to improve to any significant degree.

The problem is that motivated adult players tend to be good at studying chess, but not so good at acquiring skills. They can spend hours going over an annotated game, coming to understand the strategic and tactical factors that shaped each move. However, this is of limited use, as they are developing a conceptual understanding of games that have already happened (hindsight). Such understanding does not usually give them the ability to anticipate and make such moves themselves in their own games (foresight). Rowson says, "such hindsight might give chess-players knowledge, but what we need is foresight."

OK, Rowson: give me foresight into how to develop chess foresight. Rowson has a few suggestions. One is somewhat mystical, the others form a nice tidy list.

First, the mystical. "Unlearn your chess, grasshopper."

We already have many habits and concepts that are likely holding us back. Hence, we should try to "unlearn" what we think we know about chess. If you "know" having the two bishops is an advantage, then you will be somewhat blinded to the idiosyncrasies of the position in front of you, you will have the habit of exchanging knights for bishops even if it isn't in your favor. Hence, Rowson suggests you look at each position "with fresh eyes, as free as possible from prejudices. Unlearning is really a way of constantly looking at the baggage you bring to chess positions and trying to work on the baggage that is most obviously problematic." Rowson suggests that you "surrender your dearly held notions of what chess is like and start to try to work things out at the board."

Aside from unlearning bad habits, Rowson realizes we need to develop good habits. You can never play free of habits, but you can steer the quality of your habits. Rowson says:
If you want to become a better player, you need better habits.

The best way to cultivate better habits is to try to work things out on the basis of your existing habits, and look closely at how you are falling short. You will find that most mistakes do not come from not knowing things, but from not seeing things, or not doing things.

You can work on this by
1) Playing and then analysing your games honestly
2) Solving complex chess problems
3) Trying to win won positions against strong analysis engines.
4) The intelligent use of blitz games--whereby you don't analyse the positions in depth, but compare your first impressions of positions with the way they actually developed.

With these approaches you are not taking in any new "knowledge" so you might feel that you are not growing as a player. However, if the arguments in this chapter make sense to you, and you can trust in that kind of training process, I believe you will find that your level of skill improves, and with it, your results.
While he didn't place much emphasis on improvement methods, it is useful to know which in the zillions of methods out there he believes meshes most with his 'habit not knowledge' slogan. [Note he didn't break them up into a numbered list, I added that to his plain text to highlight his suggestions].

Overall this is a fun and interesting chapter that touches on many themes we have been throwing around the blogosphere (Tempo and I have extensively discussed declarative versus procedural memory, know-how versus knowledge-that, habits and skills versus conscious concepts, etc). That is, the chapter was largely preaching to the choir, but it was nice to see a few suggestions about how to incorporate this into an improvement plan. Of course, the Circles are basically an attempt to build up better tactical skills.

I have some more critical comments about the chapter, but I will save them for another time (hint: this study).

I'll finish with some interesting quotes from the chapter:

For the Knights, Rowson gives a little mention of de la Maza's book:
I agree that until you are about 1800 "your first name is tactics, your middle name is tactics, and your last name is tactics." That said, if your aim is not just gaining rating points but deepening your appreciation of the game, then you shouldn't deprive yourself of aspects of the game that you enjoy more. For players rated below 1800 who desperately want to improve (and are willing to suffer for it!) I recommend Michael de la Maza's thoughtful and honest book, Rapid Chess Improvement.
And a quote that Rowson cites from Davies' wonderful article The how and the what:
I recently saw a newsgroup discussion about tournament preparation.

Everything under the sun was mentioned from openings to endings and strategy to tactics with everyone having their own idea about how it should be done. I just commented that “the how is more important than the what."

It really doesn’t matter what you study, the important thing is to use this as a training ground for thinking rather than trying to assimilate a mind-numbing amount of information. In these days of a zillion different chess products this message seems to be quite lost, and indeed most people seem to want books that tell them what to do. The reality is that you’ve got to move the pieces around the board and play with the position. Who does that? Amateurs don’t, GMs do.

Chess is not a game that can be learned from a book any more than tennis or golf. It may look rather academic and there are some scientific elements to it. But the truth is that wiles and playfulness count for far more than “knowing the book.” Interestingly my grandmaster colleagues tend to be quick witted, jovial and street wise rather than serious and lofty intellectuals. And most of us will recommend keeping a clear head both before and during a tournament rather than hitting the books.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Bad chess habits we all have so this mystic rule of dislearning what you have learned and think you know is actually true and good advise.

Over the 16 years of chess playing i have much to forget. Many bad habits to kick. But i will try and hope i survive.

9/25/2008 04:36:00 PM  
Blogger Blue Devil Knight said...

CT: good point. I think the usefulness of that advise is directly proportional to how long you've been playing.

9/25/2008 04:41:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I dont know if you can say it's proportional with the lenghtyness of the excistence of your chess life. Afterall if that is true then why dont all beginners be superb chess players and all players like me, who play 10+ years, not all bad players?

Isn't the first faulty thing that we learn a wrong thoughtproces? Afterall, we get to know the rules of the game and how the pieces move but after that we are all on our own, nobody who explains to us how our thoughts must work, how to evaluate a position, how ... .

This to say that one already starts with a bad habit namely not a correct thoughtproces just to prove to you that it isn't proportional with how long you've been playing.

9/26/2008 04:14:00 AM  
Blogger Blue Devil Knight said...

CT: Interesting point, but I still agree with my original claim that the 'unlearn' advice would not be useful for a beginner. Indeed, it would likely just be annoying.

When I began I was very careful in my thought process, as I had learned none of the rules of thumb, I would just see the crazy complexity, and had learned nothing yet to help me simplify. I worried every move that there was a tactic I was missing (and often there was). I was very much in that unprejudiced state, and it was awful as I also had no pattern recognition, absolutely nothing to help me simplify.

To help me, I went looking for rules and found things like 'Rooks worth 5 pawns, bishops worth 3', and 'Two bishops form a half-pawn advantage.' I think beginners actually need to learn these types of rules of thumb before Rowson's advice becomes useful. Things like 'rooks are worth more than bishops' are extremely important for the beginner to know, they help us tame the complexity. But then we need to realize that the complexity is so high that those rules are only true in certain cases, and we come back to the complexity again such as the exchange sacrifice.

That is why I said originally I think the usefulness of this 'unlearn' advice is proportional to how much experience you have with the game. It would be awful advice for a beginner!

Obviously looking at the board without prejudice is not a sufficient condition for chess expertise. There are always habits and biases, we just want to build better ones.

However, you are clearly right there are habits and biases even the beginner will bring to the game, or will develop extremely quickly their first few games. E.g., some will be sloppy thinkers, others will get an obsession with long pawn chains, some will prefer bishops over rooks. Some of these will be fixed by reading a beginner's guide to chess. Others will not be fixed, will become habits and prejudices.

It reminds me of a sales job I applied for when I was in college. They asked if I had any sales experience. Everyone that said yes was out the door (much like that movie Boiler Room). One reason they offered me the job was that I had no experience with sales so they could shape me. I said no, as it seemed like a cultish pyramid scheme, but you get the idea. :)

9/26/2008 11:07:00 AM  
Blogger Phaedrus said...

Great post BDK.

For me unlearning worked. I got rid of all the long planning I lost myself in during the period that I was stuck at an 1850-1950 level.

exchanging this for a good look at the board, looking for targets, motives and small plans, made it possible for me to jump to 2000. Sticking with my opening repertoire and not changing openings after every loss, did not hurt either.

9/26/2008 02:38:00 PM  
Blogger Blue Devil Knight said...

Phaedrus: very interesting! Reading over your posts, it sounds like you and Rowson have a lot in common.

9/26/2008 03:47:00 PM  
Blogger Polly said...

I like the idea of unlearning. I can recall games where I've thought to myself I don't want to give up my bishop pair. However in the position trading one of those bishops for a knight that was going to become very active would have been the right plan.

It's very easy to get caught up in what generalities that we've learned over the years. We need to be able to pull back and look at the given position without making assumptions based on our chess knowledge. Being able to look the position with a fresh perspective is important.

9/26/2008 04:13:00 PM  
Blogger Frank Sträter said...

As I am re-reading Chess for Zebras for the third time now, I will be following these posts with great interest.

9/27/2008 07:31:00 PM  
Blogger Blue Devil Knight said...

Polly--since you play so much, and teach (so you have to have even better grasp of the conceptual issues) I would expect your head is full of conflicting principles and ideas, so unlearning may be the only way to stay sane :)

Fierabras: you are alive! Thanks for stopping in.

9/27/2008 08:05:00 PM  
Blogger BlunderProne said...

Being a musician as well, the similarities of learning chess and either string instrument I play is very much true. I can "study scales" untill the cows come home but where the skill comes in is through practice. Very similar to learning tactics. But All this is futile if I never learn to appreciate listening to all styles of music. Without putting these scales in the context of entire songs, I am merely a mechanical isntrumentalist with no sense of direction on how to take the song to teh next level.

When I go to improvise or put my own "touch" on some study work I've been asked, my inner ear and creative process has to have heard some context of how a progression is played before I can augment a chordal arrangement with my bass.

In chess, that is why I am looking at master games in my series. I am self-schooling the concept of "chess appreciation" as I walk through the "fugues of the barrougue periods " of chess ( romanticism) The more classical and melodical positional styles seen in HAstings. I want to experience the modern jazz movement of the Hypermodern players before comeing to the birth of Rock and roll with Zurich 1953 and Heavy metal of Kasparov.

Chess appreciation through "playing" over these games I've come to enjoy. Its a form of studying but its a little more enjoyable. Espeicially since my time is limited. It also seems to give me a little more bang for my buck when I do get a chance to play OTB.

I learned and practice my scales ( tactics via circles) I still come back to them now and then as I have a more intuitive sense when my "chess dexterity" seems rough. "listening" to the classics in chess ( master games) is teaching me some great "chord progressions" in chess and when I can improvise with a minor scale versus a major one. Prior to that, I ahd no clue and I was attempting more of a chromatic scale in an effort to cover ALL the notes in the song.

That's my analogy. I've read the Zebra book a while back. I loved it and realized then that I needed to be more proactive in my practice. More knowledge is not the key. Recognizing and erradicating the bad lessons we teach ourselves, and practicing the knowledge already taught is key to building chess dexterity.

9/28/2008 02:03:00 PM  
Blogger Blue Devil Knight said...


Interesting comments.

Being a musician as well, the similarities of learning chess and either string instrument I play is very much true. I can "study scales" untill the cows come home but where the skill comes in is through practice. Very similar to learning tactics.

This seems right. I practiced chords but that didn't mean I could string them together or appreciate a melody or song.

I think this is one reason people shouldn't stop playing while they do the Circles. Or, if they do, it often takes some time for the Circles to help them (indeed, often they will play worse for a little while as they get back into the swing of playing).

This also holds for openings. When I first started, I would just memorize a bunch of lines, between four and sixteen ply deep, but not play through entire games. I still do that sometimes, but I find it much more helpful (when I am schooled in an opening line) to find a high-quality GM-level game or two in that opening and work through the whole thing. This gives a much better sense of the general plans, potential tactics even in the late middlegame, and the type of endgame position I'm likely to reach.

I've read the Zebra book a while back. I loved it and realized then that I needed to be more proactive in my practice. More knowledge is not the key. Recognizing and erradicating the bad lessons we teach ourselves, and practicing the knowledge already taught is key to building chess dexterity.

I'm seeing a lot of the lessons from that book as I play games. Inspired by the book, I've decided just to play and postmortem to improve (well, I guess I'm still reading/summarizing Rowson's book). I play one slow game a night, and then immediately analyze the game to find bad habits that held me back (narratives is a big one, which will come up in my next summary).

One position in the game I often "pick" as the key position to take a deep think. This is very helpful, and not only for the obvious reason (thinking through a position deeply is good thinking practice, and tends to make for better moves). One of the most helpful things I'm learning is my thought patterns, the fact that when I tell myself a story about the position during that deep think, it actually has too much of an influence on later moves. After the 'deep think' move I often spend very little time thinking on the following move, as I'm invested in the narrative I constructed in the previous move. This is a good intra-game example of letting my cognitive preconceptions (plans from the previous move) blind me to the position that is in front of me now. It only serves to strengthen the need to remember Fine's rule, revised.

9/28/2008 05:34:00 PM  
Blogger BlunderProne said...

One last point/ analogy I'll make in regards to memorizing openings.

When I first learned guitar... it was the opening riff to I am dating myself... Smoke on the water. We all knew it ... but that was all. A lot of us new guitarists could go to the guitar shop, pull the strat down off the wall, crank it into a Marshall ( on 11) and play those first few riffs...look around... thinking everyone was going to nod and go " whoa, listen to that guitar god... most definitely cool man..." Instead, we'd get " Not again... can you at least play the rest of the song?"

No, very few could play the whole song. Studying openings and only memorizing them is in very much the same way as memorizing an opening quitar riff like "Smoke on the water" or "Iron man" or "Stairway to heaven"... its a quick way to "sound good" even when you can't play.

9/28/2008 08:04:00 PM  

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