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Chess for Zebras [Kindle Edition]

Jonathan Rowson
4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)

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Book Description

An insight into human idiosyncrasies, in all phases of the game of chess. The reader will begin to appreciate chess at a more profound level, whilst enjoying a book overflowing with common sense, instruction and humour.

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Product Description

From the Publisher

Gambit Publications specialises in chess and has an unrivalled reputation for originality and editorial excellence. The company is owned and staffed entirely by leading chess masters and grandmasters.

About the Author

Jonathan Rowson is an accomplished Grandmaster and Scotland's strongest ever player. In 2002 he shared first at the World Open, in 2004 he won the Hastings Premier and the British Championship, and in 2005 he successfully defended his British title. He is also a prolific and successful chess writer and book reviewer for one of the world's foremost chess magazines, New in Chess. His previous books for Gambit, Understanding the Grünfeld and The Seven Deadly Chess Sins, have been widely praised in the chess press.

Product details

  • Format: Kindle Edition
  • File Size: 2726 KB
  • Print Length: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Gambit Publications (3 Jan. 2014)
  • Sold by: Amazon Media EU S.à r.l.
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B007I6M9L2
  • Text-to-Speech: Enabled
  • X-Ray:
  • Word Wise: Not Enabled
  • Enhanced Typesetting: Not Enabled
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #232,510 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
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Customer Reviews

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Thinking for humans 19 April 2009
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
You love chess and you want to improve your skills. You see an interesting chess book. You buy it. Nothing really happens with your game..

Sound familiar?
So is this yet another promosing-but-will-languish-at-your-bookshelf-chess-book? Not at all!

The best books make you think and this certainly makes you think a lot (and not only about chess). It will not improve your game as per see, but it will make you think about improving your game in new ways. Buying this book means you can take a few years pause before even considering buying another chess book - the material covered is vast in scope and rich in ideas even though its "only" about 250 pages. The ideas-to-pages ratio must be the highest I have ever seen in a chess book!

The only thing you should be aware of though is that I would not recommend this book to chess beginners - it is too complex and abstract if you have just played chess for a year or two (or less) I think.

Frankly, I do not see how a chess player can be disappointed by this book. Highly highly recommended - though I reckon adult players will gain the most from the book.
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16 of 18 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Weird title but great book! 17 Oct. 2006
Some authors are better at writing than others and Jonathan Rowson is up there among the very best. This book is a genuine pearl and should have a place in your chess book treasury. I speedily read through "The 7 Deadly Chess Sins" and have not paced down with this "Chess For Zebras". What you get here is really a continuing investigation in the why-do-we-act/play-the-way-we-do? that was begun with "7 deadly chess sins". And again Rowson is showing us by way of example how chess players make blunders, pursue wrong strategies or simply fail to live up to the tension at the appropriate moments. The examples are discussed in lenght - from the critical (or interesting) position the moves are usually explained in great lenght which is really beneficial for understanding many middle game strategy concepts. From these examples alone you are bound to learn a lot. But the real beauty of Rowson - from my point of view - is that he combines the chess part with an insight into human behaviour and human thought processes. And as he did in "7 deadly chess sins" here too he offers many advices and intriguing information that I personally found profoundly interesting. I cannot help compare him to Yermolinsky (whose book "The Road to Chess Improvement" comes highly recommended) - Yermolinsky is the practician and Rowson the academic. Both are really good at choosing examples that are realistic chess battles and therefore highly rewarding to study.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars great book for chess lovers 12 April 2014
By moanne
Very much appreciated by my chess mad hubby! He saw the book in a library and requested it for his birthday
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1 of 3 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Good material, but poorly presented 3 Jun. 2011
By Nikos
This book talks about chess players. How they think, how they react, what are their feelings that ultimately affect the way they play chess. The author shares his experience regarding these matters with the ultimate goal to help the player be cooler while playing chess. Lot's of games of famous Grandmasters are analysed in which the author tries to illustrate his ideas. This "emotional" perspective of chess play which is being analysed is very humorous at times, especially when the cooler-minded approach of Grandmasters is contrasted to the greatly emotional approach of most amateurs. The book in general tries to help the player by informing him about the emotional pitfalls of the game so that he can remain cool from start to finish of a chess game. What seems strange nevertheless, is that although the purpose of the book is to teach calmness it is written in a very enthusiastic - novel like way with expressions like "Wow!" being common. This is a very poor choice by the author since this works towards the opposite direction of the book's purpose. This choice, in combination with the humourous nature of some of the author's observations on chess players, makes the whole work have more of an entertaining than an instructive value. Overall, I'd say that the book contains good material but this material is poorly presented.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 4.4 out of 5 stars  14 reviews
135 of 143 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Food for thought 15 April 2006
By David Small - Published on
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Rowson's "Chess for Zebras" is food for thought.

There are not enough books on the vital subject of the psychology of chess learning. This book tackles an important subject. Why is it that adult players find it so hard to improve? This is a subject dear to my heart. At the ripe old age of 50, most of my chess playing compatriots believe that I am already over the hill. Why was it so easy to improve when I was a junior and why is it so hard to increase my rating now? This is a very important theme. Some chess players spend half a fortune on chess books designed to tell them how to improve their chess? But how many of these books really make a difference?

Of course there are classic books which will stand the test of time and which should be read by all aspiring players. Nimzovitch's "My System" and "Praxis", Hans Kmoch's "Pawn Power in Chess", Reuben Fine's "The Middle Game in Chess", Botvinnik's 100 games etc. Everyone can learn from these.

The problem is that these books teach basic principles of chess, but do not always help players improve their over the board play. Why not? Well, it has something to do with the way we apply our chess knowledge to our games. Somehow strong players seem to be able to use their knowledge better. They think more clearly, or perhaps they visualize the board more clearly, or maybe they can see further ahead than you or I can (I am rated about 2050 FIDE, about 2200 USCF). So, maybe what separates the grandmaster from the master is the process of thinking itself. This concept has spawned a lot of books, starting with Kotov's famous "Think Like a Grandmaster". Then, there is the "Inner Game of Chess" by Soltis and Tisdall's interesting "Improve Your Chess Now". All of these books have a common theme, which is that the best way to improve your chess is to improve your analytic ability and the best way to do that is to practice your analysis and to improve your ability to visualize.

Yes, yes, yes. But what do we mean by visualize? And this is where the problem lies. Most authors of chess books do not have a clear idea of what chess visualization is. And why is it so hard for adult players to improve in this area? I have watched a lot of junior players over the years. You can spot the ones who are going to improve dramatically. They have already mastered the art of chess visualization. Often, they have little theoretical knowledge, but they are already strong players.

So how do we improve? Well for juniors it is simple. Play, study, play and study. You will improve. But if you are an adult, you may already be over the hill. So what can you do to improve. Here is where Chess for Zebras enters the equation. Rowson contends that adult players have too much chess baggage and that what they have to do is unlearn much of what they have learnt. He advocates looking at positions freshly without prejudice with a view to rethinking your attitudes to different positions. He also advocates that training should be emphasized over knowledge. You can have all the facts you need, but if you can't apply them, they are useless.

I agree. But, is it that simple? Well, no and Rowson does not pretend that it is? But I wonder if his ideas hit upon the key elements of the problem. First of all, we have to remove a specific bias. We have to recognize that the brain is not a bucket that needs to be filled. The key distinguishing feature that separates a strong player from a weak player is pattern recognition. A strong player comes armed with a very much larger number of patterns that a weak player. But a pattern can be a whole lot of different things. A pattern can be the recognition that a bishop moves in a certain way and that the B on c1 will never be manoevered to reach the square f7. A pattern can be recognition of the castled king position with a knight at f3 as strong. A pattern can also be the recognition that a bishop can be sacrificed on h7 safely in the manner of the Greek gift sacrifice. These are all patterns. They all have to be learned. Patterns are used to visualize moves. Perhaps we need to learn 50,000 patterns to master chess, but I suspect that the correct number is a lot higher. We "see" the potential moves in a positions based on the patterns that we see on the board. And here is the point, the strong player sees more patterns and therefore excludes more moves from consideration. A strong player does not necessarily seem more deeply. A strong player prunes the "tree of analysis" much more effectively by excluding weak moves. Of course, patterns help to show a strong player what moves to play as well. A strong player finishes an analysis and "sees" patterns in the final position that tell him that his position is threatening, dangerous or just plain bad. Little of this is "knowledge" (Rowson is right). Much of this is being able to appreciate the potential moves available in that final position. ("Gee, in the final position of my analysis, my position is good, because I can play my knight to d6, or my bishop has good squares to attack etc"). As Reti put it in his book "New Ideas in Chess". It is not possible to analyse everything. What distinguishes the strong player from the weak player is the ability to see the potential of a position and that comes from familiarity with the patterns that exist within a position. Such ideas are confirmed by modern brain imaging studies which demonstrate that grandmasters utilize memory for patterns far more than weaker players, but do not necessarily analyse more deeply than weaker players.

It is interesting that some authors seem not to emphasise this last point. Jacob Aagaard in his book "Excelling at Chess Calculation" points out that weaker players do not analyse as consistently as stronger players, because they often repeat moves and retrace their steps in the tree of analysis. He misses the point that pattern recognition is the key to visualization as well as understanding. The greater the pattern recognition, the easier it is to retain a position in mind and to not have to retrace steps in analysis.

So how do we learn patterns and why is it so hard to learn new patterns as adults. Rowson is right. Some chess needs to be unlearned. However, based on my years as a researcher in the field of brain science, I suspect that there are more important problems to overcome.

First and foremost is that the brain is not an empty vessel (tabula rasa) that simply needs filling. We know that there are certain phases of brain development when learning is easier. An example of this is language. How many people have tried to learn a foreign language as adults? It is much harder to learn a foreign language when you are older. This has nothing to do with the fact that you speak a native language. The truth is that ALL language is harder to learn later on. If you miss the window of brain development you cannot learn a language easily, even if it is your first language. So, it is not a question of unlearning a language to learn a new one. The brain has a greater capacity for plasticity in the early years. Some of this has to do with a process known as myelination, which continues from birth until early adulthood and which greatly improves the ability of certain regions of the brain to demonstrate plasticity.

Second, processing power seems to decrease with age. To learn something new, information is stored in "short term memory" and retained in this location for several minutes. After this, new information can either be lost, or transferred into "long-term memory" ie it can be learned and retained. The capacity to make this transition, which is a function of region of the brain known as the hippocampus, is decreased as you age. In Alzheimer's disease, the hippocampus is severely affected.

Third, we have to understand what real "unlearning" would entail. This is not the same thing as seeing positions in a new light. Memories are stored in the brain in a diffuse manner, and they are stored using the same regions of the brain that the old memories are stored, in a mechanism known as a neural network. To improve the capacity to learn new patterns, we would have to unlearn the existing patterns, which means more than just rejecting old ideas, we have to dismantle the existing networks of communication. I am just not sure that this is possible.

So, in conclusion, Rowson present some fascinating ideas and I must confess to enjoying his book very much. It is thoughtfully and intelligently written. But the key question is, are the ideas in the book going to make you a better chess player. Rowson is not so sure they are, and neither am I. So, by all means buy the book for its presentation of new ideas about the way we think about chess. Rowson will make you think twice before you buy another chess book.

Is there any hope for adult players who have been playing regularly all their lives to improve? (I am not including players who may take up the game as adults in this group - these players may have a selective advantage). Well, yes of course. You see, despite the fact that it is harder to improve as you grow older, it is possible to learn a new language in your later years. You just have to work harder at it. But of course, "there's the rub". In our adult years, we have less time.

I have two hyperactive children and a demanding career. I don't have time to do more that whittle away at the problem. Maybe you do though!

Of course there are other ideas. But I have run out of space! Four stars. Fascinating, yes. The book is reasonably well organised and lucid, diagrams clear. If it gets me to write such a long review, it must be pretty good!!
124 of 134 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars How to improve when you have hit a plateau for years! 12 Sept. 2006
A Kid's Review - Published on
If you have been playing chess for years and seem to have stopped improving for awhile then "Chess for Zebras" may be for you. Sometimes you have a set way of thinking and even with good books on games with analysis, tactics, chess traps and more you don't improve. Well, these may be great books (certainly I recommend all of them), but you may need to add to your collection a book that gives a a "different point of view". That is "Chess for Zebras". Okay, some of the ideas may be a little questionable, but you need to do what works for you! And, as with any book, you don't need to take everything as gospil. Use your own mind, and decide for yourself!
46 of 48 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An Important Book That Can Make A Difference 2 Jun. 2006
By Robert J. Newell - Published on
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
I love chess books and have a large and growing collection, even though I'm a very lowly class player. Most "general" books are filled with conventional advice, repeated over and over; then there are the "specialist" books that concentrate on specific opening lines, endgames, etc.

There are two problems here for the class player. One is that the specialist books are, well, specialized, and especially for the books on opening theory, hard to apply by lowly class players (like me). The second problem is with the general books; they tend to say the same things over and over, and while the reinforcement is a good enough thing, there is again often a problem with specific application. When playing over the board, it's often hard for us "lower class" to see where the glittering generalities apply.

Rowson takes a completely different approach in this book. Like his previous book, Seven Deadly Chess Sins, he looks into why we do things. In the present book, he starts out by considering why chess is "hard" and "hard to learn" and most importantly, why beyond a certain point we have trouble improving. He draws on his background in psychology (most aptly) and philosophy (most entertainingly) to make his points.

And those points are well worth noting. I found an important insight into my own lack of progress in the first half hour of reading, one of those obvious but hard to realize things: I study too much! Rowson's discussion of how learning is applied, or more often not applied, is bound to help nearly anyone achieve a balance of study, and what I will call, based on the book, "applied play." Now, stop and reflect for just a moment how important this is, namely, learning how to balance study (and what you study) with actual play, so that your study can truly apply to your play. I have not seen such a good and useful treatment of this issue in any other book.

His further discussion of moods, approaches, and attitudes is equally revealing, especially his treatment of the "noble apprentice" syndrome --- the idea that it's fine to lose as long as you learn something. I have always believed this, and still do, but Rowson points out how this can fatally sap your will to win. This is but one of the many gems in the first half of the book.

The second half of the book looks at things like hard positions, and how you mentally approach them; there are then interesting chapters about white's advantages and black's advantages, expressed again in terms of how we approach them. The actual chess examples interspersed throughout are well annotated and apt, and contain discussion of thought process, approach, and attitude which reinforce the points made in the text.

This book is really different and really stands out. If you are a class player, lowly or not; or even a higher species of chess player, this book will matter and make a difference. Delay for a bit your purchase of "10,000 Terrific Tactical Tactics" or "Secrets of 20... Qa3 In The Przybylski Declined" and read this book first.... but only if you want to really see a difference in your play.
16 of 16 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Help for the improving adult 21 Dec. 2007
By Gambits - Published on
I have been a near master for the last 4-5 years. With a full time job, kids, etc. I have all the built in excuses necessary. Chess for Zebras, by Rowson, is one of the best books I have laid my hands on, and I have plenty. My issues are not in the strength of my play, my opening prepation, my physical preparation, or my lack of tactical ability. My shortcomings, and I venture to guess some of yours as well, come from my study methods. I work hard, know enough opening theory, but I do not play enough games. Consequently I am not in enough "real-life" situations to help me improve on my ability to concentrate. This book is helpful in that it opens up your mind to new possibilities, knew ideas on how you can make yourself concentrate better, enjoy the game, and just play Chess. Rowson's style is very captivating, and he has created a work that sheds a different light on the subject of Chess. I am determined to make master, (even in my mid to late 40's)and after reading this book and his other great work, The Seven Deadly Chess Sins, I have gained 36 points in my last two tournaments, with my only loss coming to a GM. With a 50 percent score against NM and FM's I have to believe that I am playing better. If I am playing stronger due to an illusion Rowson has helped me create, then I can summize that his book has had the intended result. I strongly urge anyone to pick up the book, but I would suggest that the target audience is more for players that have "hit the wall." Players with ratings north of 1800 will benefit the most from this original work.
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Extraordinary 27 Jan. 2009
By C. Amari - Published on
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Most agree that Rowson's book is entertaining but some disagree about whether it will improve your chess. I'm mystified by the critiques. This book, while less of an enthusiastic romp than Deadly Sins, is far more thoughtful while remaining a very enjoyable read. The reason Zebras should improve your chess is because it should fundamentally change the approach most players have to improvement (including, incidentally, the continued accumulation of most types of chess books). Another notable aspect of the book is that, while it may well be that many of the topics Rowson introduces are nebulous, he manages to make them as concrete as possible through his game annotations. I cannot readily recall a more enlightening and entertaining style of annotation - Sahovski Informator in Technicolor!

Largely, I suppose, due to his non-chess academic interests, Rowson brings a unique dimension to his chess writing. He is not the first chess writer to try to gain a perspective on meta-cognition in chess and then to try also to turn whatever understanding we may obtain of that realm to some practical use in real play, but he is certainly among the best. Rowson's approach to this difficult subject area is to creatively twist and turn the problems this way and that while offering observations that are fascinating and merit much further consideration. He does this with such facility - and with such humility - that it all seems quite casual. Rowson clearly brings something special to chess pedagogy, and I hope he continues to write.
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