Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Chess for Zebras (Also, the Nature of the Universe)

"The great end of life is not Knowledge but Action."
T. H. Huxley

I saw the quote above in the book The Anthropic Cosmological Principal, which has nothing directly to do with chess, but is merely the greatest book I have ever read on the history and nature of the Universe, why intelligence exists, the meaning and purpose of life, etc. Y'know, the important stuff, besides chess...

Anyway, I hope everyone who reads this will order up a copy, but right now I want to talk briefly about a different book, J. Rowson's Chess for Zebras, which arrived in my mailbox at the same time as The Anthropic Cosmological Principle and which I recently completed "reading" (I haven't played through all the games yet).

The point is, Rowson says something almost exactly like Huxley in regard to chess improvement, something that almost every reader here has heard and discussed at some point; that many players have a good deal of knowledge about chess but considerably less skill (action) during games. There is a much else in his book worth talking about, but this seems to me the kernel of true importance in actually achieving better results as an adult. There is almost certainly some pseudo-knowledge that is probably hurting your, and my, performance during play, statements in our heads such as:

"Doubled pawns are weak"

"I'm an attacking player"

"I have a big advantage and should win (so I won't even look at lines that are equal)"

ad infinitum. These are the gaps in our thinking, the blind spots and the defects or whatever name you want to give them, that prevent us from seeing certain moves and ideas , that we actually have knowledge of somewhere in our chess learning history.

I believe that it may be possible to improve your results without learning anything new at all, just by becoming more aware, more open to different possibilities, more objective about the position. How to train for this is something Rowson begins to examine, and something I'm looking into for myself.

For more, here's a review and some links by the excellent Michael Goeller of The Kenilworthian.

This will probably be my last post before the big Western States Open beginning Friday. I'll try to post some results and games during the tournament, if time permits. But since I'm meeting up with chessloser and his idea of the right thing to do between games is "Party like rock stars!" I'm not sure about the in-tournament posts...

11 comments:

transformation said...

please give a big hug to chessLoser, aka as 'M' for me. :)

hope that the government doesnt find out you two are talking.

wang said...

Good luck Robert! I hope you have a good time and I hope you absolutely crush the competition. CL is as he would say, cooler than the other side of the pillow. You guys will have a blast. I'm scrimping and saving now for next year, then we will truly raise all kinds of hell in Reno :)

John Clifford said...

Hi Robert,
an interesting and timely article. I have noticed in myself recently that although I have studied more openings, games and positional play my overall skill level has gone down - i.e. my performance rating. I examined this closely and found that this is due to inconsistency in effort and concentration due to playing subjectively rather than objectively. What I noticed in the last 6 months since I started playing tournament chess again was that my performance rating against players rated higher than myself was about 300 points higher than what it was against players rated lower, if I were playing objectively my performance rating should be roughly the same over time against all rating groups. There is a similar pattern in your games. Your performance rating against those higher than you is significantly better than that against players lower than you. When I started back in April my rating was 1593 and when all 18 games go through the USCF magic number cruncher my rating will be 1591, therefore on average I am playing at my rating. Any rating gains I got against people rated higher than me I lost against people rated lower than me. Bottom line if you dont give every game all your effort and concentration and play the board rather than the player they will punish you, much of your rating gains, hard work, study etc will be in vain and you reach a plateau 1 or 2 hundred points below your standard of play when you give your best. Your rating reflects your average skill level and not your best skill level or potential. There is a lot of literature about openings, strategy, tactics etc which are very important but the overwhelming amount of this theory tends to overlook a key component of chess skill which is consistency in effort, concentration and objective play.

Derek Slater said...

Robert - great post. Very interesting.

Temposchlucker said...

Good luck!

Sciurus said...

Well said. I just finished going over a bunch of my latest games to find out what I am doing wrong and it is just along the lines of your post: I feel like a stronger player because I know more but during the game, I make just the same mistakes like a year ago - hanging pieces. Just like John Clifford comments I also agree that consistent application of the knowledge (which is skill, right?) is the way to go. But how to achieve this , I don't know.

Sciurus said...

Oh, and of course all the best for the tournament!

Temposchlucker said...

Action without knowledge leads to funny results btw.

Blue Devil Knight said...

A great topic that we adult players all need to keep in mind. It is easy to know more than a ten year old, but she'll still kick your butt over the board.

Blue Devil Knight said...

Incidentally, I haven't read much specific about that book. People say "Oh, man it rocks," say something about knowledge versus skill, and then I haven't seen much else. Is it more than just a cheerleading section for adults to go and actually play?

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