Friday, October 03, 2008

Chess for Zebras, Chapters 2-4 (The logic of storytelling)

Here is a summary of Chapters 2-4 of Rowson's Chess for Zebras. There is so much overlap among these chapters that things will be more tidy if I lump it all together.

Recall that in Chapter 1, Rowson argued that chess is more a game of skill than of conceptual understanding. In this chapter, he discusses how our "knowledge" can actually harm our chess skills.

Many people incorrectly believe that chess primarily requires skills in deductive formal logic. While a computer can succeed via purely logical variation-crunching, humans are fairly slow and error-prone using this Kotov-style of reasoning.

For example, since humans can't exhaustively search the game tree, we have to use something other than pure logic to determine which moves to begin analyzing. Rowson says, "[L]ogic by itself cannot tell you which features of the position are most important, and therefore what you should be reasoning about."

So if we aren't logic engines, what are we? Commonly, we act as storytellers that construct narratives about positions and games, and these narrative arcs give individual positions meaning and context. One typical idea might be, "He created pawn-structure weaknesses around his King on move three, so from that move onward the winner looked for ways to exploit that weakness and go in for the kill." This one theme can be highlighted while explaining multiple moves and make us feel that we really understand the core idea of the game.

Unfortunately, people's narratives often harm their performance over the board, and chess is a game of skill, not of understanding. People's preconceptions about chess, and themselves as chess players, engender narratives with detrimental consequences . In an excellent summary, the Brixton Chess Club blog says, "We tell ourselves a story about [the position] and we consider the board in the light of the narrative rather than the objective truth."

So, should we try to clear ourselves of the narrative urge, stop reasoning in terms of stories and plans about the position? No. We are story-telling creatures and this is part of what makes chess so much fun. What is needed are better narratives, not zero narratives.

Narrative Pollutants
Before discussing what a good narrative would look like, let's examine a few examples from Rowson's taxonomy of narrative pollution.

Opening narratives
Standard narratives often accompany a pet opening line. If your opening has a typical set of moves, those moves start to feel "right," to the point where you overlook better moves. If you typically castle queenside in an opening, for instance, you might overlook cases in which that would be a mistake.

Rowson has a funny story about this. After beating a cocky player, in the postmortem Rowson suggested his opponent should have castled. Rowson says, "My opponent looked at me like I was a complete idiot and said: "No black does not castle in this line." [H]e had become rather too attached to the idea of not castling and had rigidly associated that idea with the opening, thus limiting his legitimate options considerably."

Chess identities
Our stories during a game are also strongly shaped by our picture of who we are as chess players. There are several common mythological characters with whom people self-identify. One, the 'sacrificial attacking player' will often overlook strong quiet moves, or take unnecessary risks that severely weaken their position.

There is also the 'noble apprentice', who doesn't deign to get emotionally involved in games of chess. He dispassionately looks at each game as a learning experience, especially when playing against higher-rated players. Rowson says, "Be careful with the idea of learning from your defeats. If we become comfortable with the idea of learning, it can undermine our will to compete." Sure, learn from your losses, but get in there and fight to win! Don't protect yourself from the agony of defeat by sacrificing your competitive spirit.

There is also the 'thwarted genius', who places such a high value on their intellectual understanding of the game that they don't have particularly good skill at actually playing. They are often good at pointing out errors in people's games after the fact, and will often try to "outplay" their opponent, hoping for an impressive win rather than simply a win. Rowson says, "Don't try to 'outplay' your opponents; just try to beat them!"

Overall, identifying too strongly with such mythological characters screens us off from seeing objective features of the position that are important. Rowson says, "The primary effect, I think, is that when the myth imposes itself on us, we try to impose ourselves on the position."

Good Narratives
The common denominator with counterproductive narratives is that they are constructed without enough sensitivity to the complexities of a position. It is all too easy to take in one or two facts about the position and integrate them into an overarching grand narrative. We end up with vague narratives such as "His Kingside is weak, I'll attack!"

In contrast, one of the main properties a good narrative has is that it is specific. Instead of "His Kingside is weak", how about "The f7 square is unprotected." Instead of "I'll attack" why not "Perhaps it is time to attack. I might move my rooks to the semi-open f-file to put more pressure on his King." A helpful narrative often mentions specific squares or pieces.

On a related note, good narratives typically involve short-term plans, not grand long-term plans. Rowson says, "[I]t is wise to be extra suspicious of any plan that takes more than three moves to implement. It's not that you can't make long-term plans, but just that your opponent will usually obstruct them in some way, so anything that takes more than two or three moves at a time to complete requires an extra-careful look to see how the opponent will intercept your idea."

In addition, a good narrative should be flexible and open to revision. While playing a game, the outcome of the story is still not set. We should not get attached to any particular story we are telling ourselves (especially be wary of those that carry over from several moves ago). We also need to remember we have an opponent, another author contributing to this story, and he is trying to sabotage your work.

Perhaps most important, the position has a story to tell, so we need to spend time reading the story of the board rather than writing it. Rowson advises, "[Y]ou need to leave space for your opponent's version of events, and also think of the story the position is trying to tell you, before letting your own story dominate your thoughts. If you manage to do this, your assessments should become a little more tentative, and this usually helps you to make better decisions."

One of the main ways to find holes in the plot, i.e., defects in the story we are telling, is to work through concrete variations that will result when you play it out. As for how to analyze such variations, Rowson discusses the study I talked about in depth previously on my blog. The main result is that high-level players look for worst-case scenarios when they considering a move. They pick at the move like a nagging stepmother, trying to come up with their opponent's best response. This tends to yield a fairly objective evaluation of the move. More novice players, on the other hand, tend to consider responses that are weak, that confirm their prejudice that a particular move is a good move.

The better a player is, the less confident he tends to be in his initial evaluation of a position, saying things like, "White looks better here, but we'd have to analyze it." This humility in the face of chess complexity tends to make them more thoughtful in their analysis of a position. Rowson says, "It is much wiser to approach chess with an "I don't know; let's see" mindset, than an "It's like this; I'll prove it" mindset."


Blogger Polly said...

WOW. For a summary that was quite an eyeful. :-) Then I clicked on your link about the study, and got another eyeful. I think the narrative sequence is an interesting concept in terms of looking at a position. I remember trying to read Think Like a Grandmaster in college, giving up after awhile because it was just too damn hard. In using narratives it is so important to be specific. Often it's hard to develop a plan if you're thinking generalities instead of keying in on the squares or pieces that are important.

The chess identities idea is interesting. I can so relate to the 'noble apprentice' because it's so easy to fall into the trap of learning from our losses. I know there are times I get so wrapped up in what I'm learning while getting smacked around, that I forget to fight back.

I'm certainly not the 'thwarted genius'. LOL I make no pretensions of having intellectial understanding of the game. Sometimes I feel like I haven't a clue.

The way I'm reading your summaries of the chapters it seems like there's a lot of practical advice. Are there also games as examples?

10/03/2008 11:03:00 PM  
Blogger rockyrook said...

I just went back and read your other two CFZ entries and then this one. Great posts!

With regard to this comment ...
"The main result is that high-level players look for worst-case scenarios when they considering a move. They pick at the move like a nagging stepmother, trying to come up with their opponent's best response. This tends to yield a fairly objective evaluation of the move. More novice players, on the other hand, tend to consider responses that are weak, that confirm their prejudice that a particular move is a good move."

I love the "nagging stepmother" analogy! That is what I'm trying to work on ... especially in my correspondance games. I've been bitten in the butt so many times when I've overlooked an opponent's move. Therefore, when I get in the middle game, I toss in every move my opponant can make in response to my threats or I will try to find every check, capture and threat he can make on my pieces. From there, I work down the list and find my best response. Sometimes it takes a long time, but I think it is helping.

I'm looking forward to the rest of your review of the book!

10/04/2008 07:47:00 AM  
Blogger Blue Devil Knight said...

Polly: Thanks for the comment. His book has lots of examples, usually one game (or game fragment) in each section. I'm just summarizing his main ideas. The book really fleshes them out with examples.

Reading the bits on narratives I am not clear on what he takes to be the difference between plans and narratives.

I can related to all the identities. We could make up a lot more. E.g., the 'quiet positional player' who misses attacks because he is so focused on building up a good position and strategy.

Rocky: Interesting, I was just thinking yesterday how nice it would be to have the time to really think about every move that way. Uh-oh, I hope I'm not slipping into correspondence chess!

10/04/2008 10:55:00 AM  
Blogger Phaedrus said...

I have the book, read it, love it and can assure everybody that you summarize it very well.

Contrary to most reviewer I think this book is better than the 7 deadly chess sins. Do you agree?

10/05/2008 03:22:00 PM  
Blogger Blue Devil Knight said...

Phaedrus: Thanks for the note.

I haven't read the Seven Deadly Chess Sins, but as I did research for these reviews I noticed many people (including the Brixton blog) say that it is better than this one.

Something I didn't mention in the review is the refreshing honesty Rowson provides about his own thought processes. The moves he overlooked, the faulty thinking. It is wonderful and encouraging to see GMs making some of the same mistakes I make. It means they are human. :)

10/05/2008 03:37:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"You idiot, why didn't you see that move? It's so easy to see yet you overlooked it. Oke, calm down now. How can we prevent not falling in the black hole and prevent losing in a few moves. Shit, my brain is fryed, cant think anymore. ..."

I guess i am a "grabs himself by the nuts" player. My narratives are more about beating myself up when i played a lesser move or didn't see my opponents reply or is that the emotions talking?

10/06/2008 07:34:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Unrelated: I noticed you have a link to Interesting to choose to have that link there. Do you have any good stories?

10/06/2008 09:13:00 AM  
Blogger Blue Devil Knight said...

CT: the self flagellator is a good one :)

LEP: There are a few reasons I don't like them. The weird one is I bought a URL from them and they called my work number, someone else answered, and they asked the person 'We want to ask BDK what is the orientation [sic] of his site?' Great, thanks for bugging people at work and making them think I'm starting a gay porn site. And if you don't talk to them on the phone they will disable your URL. Nobody does that shit but them. Screw them.

Plus, no 1800 number you have to call Arizona to talk to someone, with long waits.

Best hosting/domain company I have ever used is Web Intellects. They cost a little more, but the service is amazing, no hassles, and generally all-around kick ass. (No I'm not getting paid by them).

10/06/2008 09:55:00 AM  
Blogger Temposchlucker said...

Ok, now the psychology how we prevent ourself from improving are clear. I'm curious what his advice will be once we have tidied up those blockades.

10/06/2008 01:42:00 PM  
Blogger Blue Devil Knight said...

Tempo: see section "Good narratives."

10/06/2008 02:05:00 PM  
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10/06/2008 05:09:00 PM  
Blogger Frank Sträter said...

Very nice summary. In the next chapter and onwards, Rowson will give more actual advice concerning chess improvement.

10/06/2008 06:09:00 PM  
Blogger Temposchlucker said...

It is all too easy to take in one or two facts about the position and integrate them into an overarching grand narrative. We end up with vague narratives such as "His Kingside is weak, I'll attack!"

Ok, so "my king must walk to where the action is" in stead of "I must activiate my king so let's walk to the center"?:P

10/06/2008 10:26:00 PM  
Blogger Blue Devil Knight said...

Tempo: bastard! :)

Fierabras: thanks, good to know!

Chessbumbus: thanks I'll check out your blog.

10/07/2008 04:08:00 AM  

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