Chess for Zebras

ISBN: 1901983854
ISBN 13: 9781901983852
By: Jonathan Rowson

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About this book

Jonathan Rowson, author of the highly acclaimed Seven Deadly Chess Sins, investigates three questions important to all chess-players:1) Why is it so difficult, especially for adult players, to improve?2) What kinds of mental attitudes are needed to find good moves in different phases of the game?3) Is White's alleged first-move advantage a myth, and does it make a difference whether you are playing Black or White?In a strikingly original work, Rowson makes use of his academic background in philosophy and psychology to answer these questions in an entertaining and instructive way. This book assists all players in their efforts to improve, and provides fresh insights into the opening and early middlegame.Rowson presents many new ideas on how Black should best combat White's early initiative, and make use of the extra information that he gains as a result of moving second. For instance, he shows that in some cases a situation he calls 'Zugzwang Lite' can arise, where White finds himself lacking any constructive moves. He also takes a close look at the theories of two players who, in differing styles, have specialized in championing Black's cause: Mihai Suba and Andras Adorjan. Readers are also equipped with a 'mental toolkit' that will enable them to handle many typical over-the-board situations with greater success, and avoid a variety of psychological pitfalls.Chess for Zebras offers fresh insights into human idiosyncrasies in all phases of the game. The depth and breadth of this book will therefore help players to appreciate chess at a more profound level, and make steps towards sustained and significant improvement.

Reader's Thoughts


Began reading 30 June 2009. After reading the first half of this I returned it to my friend. It's a great read because it frankly addresses the question Why is it that adults so seldom improve at chess, even with disciplined study?

Jack Hart

I know how chess pieces move, but haven't played the game since I was a kid and couldn't follow the annotated games that comprise about half the pages of this book. I nonetheless loved Chess for Zebras because of the way its author, a Grandmaster who has also worked and thought as a chess tutor, conceives the game. "Chess," he writes, " about using ideas to solve problems." So the problem of the book becomes: How does one go from knowing-that to knowing-how, that is, knowing about an idea to being able to use it to solve a more-or-less unique problem under some version of real time? It's a question applicable to all games of mental skill.The book takes a wandering tour through skill acquisition, and may itself be vulnerable to the charge that it's a knowing-that book as opposed to a knowing-how book. Its ideas concern the obstacles (especially for adults with their settled mentalities) to chess improvement. There are specific recommendations for training rather than studying, but I'd be surprised if the book's chess playing readers found the advice of much use or interest. Rowson is well versed in the literature of decision-making, however, and fully invested in life as a chess player. His prose is relaxed, quite, and illuminating.Here are three of the books many ideas that I found thought provoking. 1) The title comes from a Sufi saying: "If you hear hoofbeats, think of a zebra." The automatic association to hoof beats is of course a horse, so the saying captures something about the way in which competitive mental games reward the one who can resist the common association. In most games there is a basic strategy the knowledge of which defines a serious player. But in order to outwit the opponent, while resisting what Rowson calls "the genius complex" which causes you to want to make unconventional moves to bolster your chess ego, you have to be able to see a little further into the position at hand, which often means holding off your first assumption and waiting a little longer for your mind to explore the position...thus the title: Chess for Zebras.2) "Improvement happens at the edge of your comfort zone." This is a pretty standard maxim of skill acquisition, but Rowson brings it a lot of life and clarity. There's a pleasure in rehearsing stuff we're good at to retain it and get better at it--and certainly repetition is a part of retaining skills built to fine tolerances. But to get better you have to find the edge of your skill, the place where your ability goes to pieces, and stay with it there to figure out what happens and how it might not happen and what else could happen...and there's an inbuilt reluctance on our part to go to our edge--to see ourselves as the fallible, forked creatures that we are. 3) "'s not so much that we concentrate in order to play chess, but that we play chess in order to concentrate." People pour a lot of energy into sports and games, and I've always found that a bit mysterious. I, for example, spend a lot time handicapping basketball games. I know I could make more money doing something else, but using ideas to solve problems in this realm fascinates me. But why? What do I get out of it? Rowson's explanation of the internal good produced by playing chess against an opponent of one's own caliber resonated with me. I found my own motivational world illuminated.


A very intersting book on chess for advanced players giving an original perpective of the game. Encourages you to think with your head and not to learn uncritically.Recommended.

Allan Fisher

A clever philosophical approach to chess. Rowson deals with the human element in playing this game....

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