Seven Deadly Chess Sins

By Jonathan Rowson

Seven Deadly Chess Sins
Seven Deadly Chess Sins
Gambit (2000)
208 pages
Reviewed by Jeremy Silman
In a way, this review is about several things: ego, creativity, energy, passion, self-preservation, and whatever else I can drag up from the subject matter at hand. Let’s start with my first salvo. The subject: chessbooks/chesswriters in general.

There are quite a few solid chess writers nowadays. Most of them start out with high ideals, realize that they are getting paid peanuts, and begin to crank out 5 or 6 “packets of blither” a year, rightfully hoping that more books means more cash. Some of these grandmasters miraculously manage to keep a fairly high level of material coming, though originality and thoughtfulness is certainly going to be sacrificed on the alter of financial practicality. I find it odd, then, that chess reviewers have somehow been sold on the idea that a good book is one that doesn’t ruffle anyone’s feathers. In fact, to many reviewers a book that presents things in a clear but dull manner is now the standard by which all things are judged (“boring” being much preferable to “entertaining but cryptic”).

Now we come to a young grandmaster named Jonathan Rowson. His first book, UNDERSTANDING THE GRUNFELD, was informative, energetic, humorous, and most amazingly, fun! He did things I’d never seen in an opening book before, and I was instantly a fan.

His second book, THE SEVEN DEADLY CHESS SINS, covers a subject that hasn’t been explored nearly enough: chess psychology. One of the first books on that subject is by Reuben Fine, and its pompous, insane tone and message left me laughing for hours when I first read it as a lad. When an author keeps telling you that a love of chess means that you want to have sex with your mother and you have an uncontrollable desire to murder your father, you just have to melt into a state of jovial hysteria (on the other hand, some readers of that book must have asked, “How could he have known?”).

Other books eventually followed: CHESS PSYCHOLOGY by Krogius (I felt like I was reading the words of an emotionless robot), THE PSYCHOLOGY OF CHESS SKILL by Dennis Holding (It should be renamed: The Psychology of Dull Writing), and finally, THE PSYCHOLOGY OF CHESS by Hartston and Wason, CHESS THE MECHANICS OF THE MIND by Pfleger and Treppner (these last two are quite interesting, but neither gets the blood boiling), and WINNING WITH CHESS PSYCHOLOGY by Benko and Hochberg (less serious but more fun than the others).

What Rowson dared to do in his chess psychology book was to let it all hang out. He raved, he brought up a host of subjects that, at times, had nothing to do with one another, he shared his interests, shared his personality, shared his youthful innocence, and shared his obvious desire to learn and understand. At the same time, often hidden in strange byways, main text, and sidebars, he forced his readers to think, to laugh, to scratch their heads, and to understand their own neurological meanderings.

Rowson, in comparison with the hundreds of generic, smooth, antiseptic wastes of paper that so many people (including myself – after all, there ARE good wastes of paper and bad wastes of paper!) praise, DARED to inject heart, IDEAS, originality, introspection, thought, and (this is a shock) EFFORT into his writing. Could he have tightened things up? No doubt about it. Could he have edited out many pages of material that served more to confuse than to teach? Quite likely. But, in my insane Silman-mind, none of this matters. Rowson did what other knowledgeable players are not willing to do: he worked his ass off and risked climbing onto a limb.

In my opinion, Rowson is a young, incredibly talented chess writer. This man has the ability to change the face of chess writing IF he can somehow slightly (only slightly!) curb his exuberance, while simultaneously retaining his passion for the subjects he dares to explore. Yes, his early works will be flawed. It’s to be expected. But his biggest hurdle is to not be beaten down by small-minded fools or by those that simply have missed the point.

Let’s look at one of the attacks hurled at Mr. Rowson: Taylor Kingston: “Like its subject, this is a very problematic book; I can’t quite settle on a definite assessment. At worst it is a pretentious, barely mitigated disaster.”

This was some of the nicer stuff Kingston said about THE SEVEN DEADLY CHESS SINS. I’ve never hidden the fact that I enjoy Taylor Kingston’s reviews, and I especially love it when he goes berserk and assassinates a writer who deserves a well-earned, brutal beating. In this case, though, he is missing the forest for the shrubs. Here Kingston puts blinders on and sees nothing but the flaws, while blithely overlooking the soul of the message, and the innocence of the delivery.

Looking through the web, I noticed a huge chorus of Rowson critics and an equally vocal group of Rowson fans. This in itself told me the book was important due to an old rule that I believe strongly in: Whenever two large groups argue over a subject so intensely, that subject MUST be interesting and thought provoking.

So, what is all this fuss about? What in the world is Rowson saying? Let’s take a quick look at his Seven Chess Sins:

Chapter 1 (THINKING – 35 pages) forces us to reconsider what “thinking” in chess is all about. His comment, “When you realize that ‘thinking’ means so many different things, your ability to understand your own thoughts is significantly enhanced.” is very profound, if you think about it.

Chapter 2 (BLINKING – 25 pages) explores the importance of critical positions. It also subliminally tells other authors to seriously consider rhyming the titles of their first two chapters.

Chapter 3 (WANTING – 18 pages) asks the important question, “What are you playing for?” It’s a question I ask every student I have, and I was happy to see Rowson posing it.

Chapter 4 (MATERIALISM – 29 pages) “…we cry out for something tangible, a single weapon to cut down the thickets of confusion that swarm all around us. But we choose a knife with an uncertain blade. This uncertain blade is material; something we can see, weigh and count.” This is great stuff!

Chapter 5 (EGOISM – 19 pages) “Chess is about my ‘I’ against your ‘I’; it’s ‘me’ against ‘you.’ It’s one ego against another. We all have egos, and chess without ego is unimaginable.” With deep looks at Inter-subjectivity and Responsibility, what’s not to like?

Chapter 6 (PERFECTIONISM – 15 pages) quotes Winston Churchill: “Perfection is spelled p-a-r-a-l-y-s-i-s.” I found this single quote to hold unimaginable depths of chess erudition, and Rowson’s later, “This ‘desire to punish’ is very corrosive, and leads you to see all sorts of problems and solutions that aren’t there.” sets the tone for an extremely instructive chapter.

Chapter 7 (LOOSENESS – 20 pages) gives us another fine opening quote (this time by Yun-Men) that speaks volumes, if you are able to take it all in: “In walking, just walk. In sitting, just sit. Above all, don’t wobble.” I don’t have a student that doesn’t wobble. Quit that incessant wobbling!

THE SEVEN DEADLY CHESS SINS is a fascinating, original, insightful work by the most promising young chess writer out there. It’s well worth owning (in fact, I consider it a MUST own!), and contains a bounty of knowledge that will improve your game at the cellular level if the Zen gene is a dominant one in you.