Chess For Zebras

By Jonathan Rowson

Chess For Zebras
Chess For Zebras
Gambit Publications (2005)
255 pages
Reviewed by Jeremy Silman
It’s amazing. After the late Simon Webb’s classic CHESS FOR TIGERS was reprinted, and after my company published a historic look at chess and dogs, Rowson continues the animal planet pace with a book about chess and zebras. Can CHESS FOR DONKEYS be far away?

Naturally, the author of the wonderful SEVEN DEADLY CHESS SINS anticipated the confusion and explained it in his Preface: “Why Zebras?” The first sentence didn’t do much to clarify matters: “If you are reading this book, you are very unlikely to be a zebra, if only because zebras can’t read.” However, he soon opened up and gave more reasons than one might have thought possible (for example, the Sufi saying, “When you hear hoof beats, think of a zebra.” was my first guess, and sure enough, he mentioned it himself.), but the simplest is oh-so-obvious: zebras have black and white stripes … black and white pieces/black and white stripes. Okay, the title also calls for us to avoid assumptions, accept alternative modes of thinking, and look at the usual views about the advantages of having the first move in a very different light.

For those that don’t like the title (Did I dream it, or did Amazon have a reader review that asked, “Why oh why does Rowson hate zebras so?”), you should keep in mind a few facts about the author:

1) Rowson tends to tackle chess thought in a scholarly, fresh way.
2) Every Rowson book thus far has been simply fantastic.
3) Rowson is, in my view, one of the best chess writers out there and any books he might write in the future would be very well received.

So, unlike most Amazon “reviews,” I made a point of actually reading the book (something Amazon reviewers rarely ever do) and will begin with this simplistic but heartfelt fact: Jonathan Rowson has done it again, treating us all to a fascinating book filled with seriously important instructive ideas, his own brand of mystical/philosophic/practical musings, and sheer page-turning fun.

I first met Rowson decades ago in Bratislava, Slovakia. Since he was a captive audience, I prattled on about the wonders of ice cream and reincarnation (somehow coming up with a theory that unified the two). He managed to escape my clutches rather quickly, but one thing I’ve learned about the young Grandmaster is his enormous desire to teach and share his understanding and love of chess with his students and with anyone who reads his books.

His UNDERSTANDING THE GRUNFELD and SEVEN DEADLY CHESS SINS both show this burning desire to really explain his ideas with the reader, and CHESS FOR ZEBRAS is, if possible, even more pointed. Here he discusses “real learning” and how to go about getting it. This section is headed by a quote (one that I am fond of and consider to be very important) from Carlos Castaneda (The mere fact that Rowson is quoting Castaneda alerts us that some serious upside down/original thought is ahead!), but the moment that really knocks your block off is when we read, “I have come to believe that the kind of learning that is most useful for chess improvement is actually ‘unlearning’.”

Okay, I hear snickering from a few traditionalists. However, be honest. How many people have studied the usual “look at this position, improve your tactics, and memorize these rules” mentality and really gained a far greater insight into chess? Very few, I would suppose. Thus, isn’t it worth listening to a grandmaster that really cares about you? If old ideas haven’t given you the rating spurt of your dreams, why not put aside your preconceived ideas and listen to somebody who speaks from a position of authority?

Once Rowson tells us (in quite an entertaining and eloquent manner, I should add) that we have to avoid falling victim to our various unfortunate mental habits, he gives some of his own games that illustrate his shortcomings (no shame or ego – you have to love this guy!) and how these losses helped him reach new levels of chess strength.

As usual, his chapter titles are a gas: We start with “What to Do When You Think There is a Hole in Your Bucket,” then we move on to “Psycho-Logics” (which continues his study into mental flexibility), and we get a couple more chapters of looks into a form of chessic self-determination before things really heat up with one of those AMATEUR’S MIND moments: Chapter Five (“Concentrate! Concentrate? Concentrate”). Here I must admit to being stunned due to an old experience: Many years ago I was in Florida visiting a couple and was happily chatting with the female part of the equation when her husband – apparently upset that she didn’t hear some inane bit of nonsense coming from his lips – said, “Kathy, pay attention! Pay attention! Concentrate! Concentrate! Concentrate.”

I wasn’t sure if I should slap hubby or laugh in his face, but Rowson’s use of this word left me a tad shocked. However, when he leapt into an AMATEUR’S MIND back and forth explanation of his student’s thoughts, I realized that I’d fallen into the rabbit hole and couldn’t get up. Here Rowson tosses some serious instruction our way, and fans of my AMATEUR’S MIND will go bonkers over this.

Ah, I could go on and on. How can you not be sold on a title named, “Why Is Chess So Difficult?” And his “Something That Works for Me,” gives us hopes of secrets unveiled. “Glorious Grinding?” Well, I’ll let you ponder that one.

After reading CHESS FOR ZEBRAS, my first impression is to do what I always want to do after looking over a Rowson book – give him an instant Book of the Year Award. But other thoughts (no doubt created by my bad mental habits) also presented themselves:

1) This guy seems like an amazing teacher. If you can convince him to give you Internet lessons, sign him up right away!

2) Many of his ideas are still in a state of flux. At times you’ll read some train of thought he presents, scratch your head, and admit that you’re a bit confused. Most likely, he is too (this doesn’t make it any less fascinating or profound). Remember that he’s young, and anything worth pondering needs time to become tender enough to assimilate.

3) Keep in mind that original ideas, as soon as they are uttered, always manifest a hoard of critics. For that reason, most are afraid of stepping off the accepted path. Rowson’s concepts not only showcase his creativity and intelligence, he also proves that he has quite a bit of courage.

4) Rowson’s material keeps you hopping, but most of it is so good that I would prefer to see him stick with one thing. This would allow the thoughtful reader to immerse him/her self in Rowson’s very interesting and worthwhile points.

To sum up in nutshell fashion: More magnificent material from Jonathan Rowson. Don’t be foolish and miss the boat by failing to buy this book!