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!!