Will The Seven Deadly Chess Sins – a book that doesn’t directly concern itself with tactics or strategy, opening variations or theoretical endings – make you a better chess player? My answer would be yes. It cannot help but give you a greater awareness of your own thinking when at the chessboard, and this must surely deepen and improve performance.
Reviewed by Paul Kane
The Seven Deadly Chess Sins
by Jonathan Rowson
January 2001, Paperback: 207 pages, ISBN: 1901983366
Jonathan Rowson’s The Seven Deadly Chess Sins is a fascinating and thought-provoking book that will be of interest to all serious, competitive chess players. Strong club players, competing in league matches and at weekend congresses, and seasoned grandmasters alike are likely to find much of interest in it. The title is a little contrived. What are these “sins”? And are there only seven of them? Essentially, what Rowson’s book offers is a metacognitive approach to improving chess thinking and performance. He outlines certain attitudes or orientations towards chess that lead to biases in reasoning, faulty decision-making, errors during play and, ultimately, defeat. He aims to make the reader aware of these orientations (or “sins”, if you will) and also gives some remedies with which to combat them, thereby helping him or her to become a better chess player and (who knows?) perhaps a better person too.
In the Oxford Dictionary of Psychology (Second Edition, 2006), Andrew M. Colman defines metacognition as one’s “knowledge and beliefs about one’s own cognitive processes”, and he goes on to say that “the term is also … applied to regulation of cognitive functions, including planning, checking, or monitoring, as when one plans one’s cognitive strategy for memorizing something, checks one’s accuracy while performing mental arithmetic, or monitors one’s comprehension while reading, and these forms of metacognition are called metacognitive regulation.” The Seven Deadly Chess Sins, then, is concerned with metacognition (and to be precise, metacognitive regulation) as applied to a particular competitive situation: a game of chess wherein one is confronted with a critical opponent, has limited time in which to think, and where one must somehow engineer a victory.
The seven “sins” that Rowson outlines and discusses include Perfectionism (the need to always find the best move, rather than settling for one that’s “good enough”), Materialism (which can skewer objectivity by leading to an under-appreciation of non-material factors such as initiative and position) and Egoism (with one consequence of this being that one may miss one’s opponents threats and plans). Rowson has interesting things to say about each of these “sins”, as well as his four others. Perfectionism can often lead to time trouble, so he gives 18 causes of time-trouble and a number of remedies to it; one of his suggestions with regard to Materialism is that one should view the pieces as “units of energy”, rather than assigning fixed numerical values to them; and to combat Egoism he recommends that one should adopt an “inter-subjective view” and allow the opponent his right as a partner in the game. This latter discussion would have benefited from a consideration of Emmanuel Levinas’ ethical philosophy and his root belief that, in the words of Vaclav Havel, “the sense of responsibility for the world is born in us with a look into the face of a fellow being”, but perhaps this would have been going a mite too far in a chess book. (On the other hand, Rowson finds space for Sartre and his notion of “bad faith”, so why not Levinas too?)
Naturally, there are many games, positions and annotations – and amongst his own games, Rowson includes his losses as well as his wins – and these are instructive and have the feel of being “dispatches from the wars”: it’s good to know that the author has suffered too! Overall, the book is written in an engaging, conversational, highly readable and occasionally digressive prose style that is very appealing; Rowson is a chess writer who can actually write. He shares the insights that he has gleaned from his conversations with grandmasters and other chess players (e.g. he has spoken with blind players about how they visualize and analyze a chess position) and he gives recognizable and what seem like realistic accounts of his own thinking processes.
Some of Rowson’s suggestions might, it has to be said, seem more helpful than others. So, for example, he suggests at one point that one should “talk to the pieces” in order to develop intuition. Some might find this extravagant or just plain silly; I found it interesting and worth trying: a useful way of trying to access the unconsciousness during play. Interestingly, some of the nous, insights and professional tips and tricks that have grandmasters as their source contradiction each other; which just goes to show that, at an high level, chess is a sphere of individual creativity. This recalls a Blake line that Rowson doesn’t use as an epigram (epigrams head each section in the book): “The eagle never lost so much time as when he submitted to learn of the crow.”
Will The Seven Deadly Chess Sins – a book that doesn’t directly concern itself with tactics or strategy, opening variations or theoretical endings – make you a better chess player? My answer would be yes. It cannot help but give you a greater awareness of your own thinking when at the chessboard, and this must surely deepen and improve performance. Moreover, this is a book that will compel you to reflect on your own chess practice, and on why you actually play this difficult and beautiful game.
About the reviewer: Paul Kane lives and works in Manchester, England. He welcomes responses to his reviews and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org