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John Watson Book Review (33)

Some Products and Two First-Rate Books

The Seven Deadly Chess Sins; Jonathan Rowson; 208 pages; Gambit 2000

Understanding Chess Moves; John Nunn; 240 pages; Gambit 2001

The Seven Deadly Chess Sins; Jonathan Rowson; 208 pages; Gambit 2000

Understanding Chess Moves; John Nunn; 240 pages; Gambit 2001

Before moving on, I’d like to remind readers about a couple of the Internet services with which I am particularly impressed. I have previously reviewed, a site devoted to opening theory, with each set of openings delegated to GM or IM experts in that area. ChessPublishing is offering some new features shortly, and I hope to comment upon them at that time. The other product, described recently in this column, is Alex Baburin’s daily chess newsletter ‘Chess Today’, emailed every day to the subscriber. It contains 3-4 PDF pages of the chess news for that day, well annotated games, and features such problems or interviews. Both of these products are subscription services, and thus may not appeal to the bankrupt among us. But most players and fans who are interested in these sites’ subject areas (openings and news, respectively) should find them well worth the price. For a free sample of what you’re getting and for the details of these services, go to and

A more traditional electronic product (delivered on CDs) is ChessBase Magazine (CBM), which I review from time to time in this column (Column #29, for example). I just received CBM#80 and I am more impressed all the time. This issue has entertaining multimedia video clips from the Chess Olympiad with a live interview with Women’s World Champion Xie Jun. It also contains the usual magazine features, e.g., theoretical opening articles and surveys, tournament reports, games annotated by top-class players, a database of 1200+ new unannotated games, an endgame column, correspondence and computer chess areas, etc. I particularly like Peter Well’s strategical lectures column—this month, he takes another deep look at a fascinating topic, this time doubled pawns and their surprising characteristics. CBM is expensive, but it could well serve as the main or only chess magazine to which you subscribe. For details and price, go to

Looking back over it, this has been a tremendous past year or so for quality chess books. The leading publishers for the kind of books that I review are still Everyman Publishers and Gambit Publications, both out of England. They continue to put out the most important books, in my opinion, whether dealing with great games, strategy, or opening theory (both companies also put out a number of fine instructional works, but I haven’t tried to assess them). Everyman has increased their output and can boast of a series of exceptional books since 2000, beginning with Crouch’s superb ‘How to Defend in Chess’ (reviewed, belatedly, in my last column). There followed the high-quality biographies/games collections of Kramnik (by Kramnik and Damsky) and Khalifman (by Nesis), and books like Gallagher’s ‘The Magic of Mikhail Tal’. They also produced a long series of practical opening books, of which Speelman and McDonald’s ‘Modern Defence’ book really stands out for me, and Sadler’s Queen’s Gambit Declined’ won the BCF of the year.

Gambit began last year with important and exceptionally original books like Yermolinsky’s ‘Road to Chess Improvement’ and Christiansen’s ‘Storming the Barricades’, and then put out several of the most creative opening books, notably Pedersen’s 2-volume Semi-Slav series and Emm’s ‘Play the Open Games as Black’. I recently reviewed Burgess’ excellent Taimanov Sicilian’, and now Gambit has produced two original, creative efforts that will attract attention (and readers) for a long time.

The first is Jonathan Rowson’s ‘The Seven Deadly Chess Sins’, an extraordinarily original book that tackles the broad issue of practical chess psychology. This is clearly a labour of love, sometimes disorganized but remarkably comprehensive in its look at the psychological reasons for failure at chess. I have never gotten much out of the attempts to describe chess in psychological terms, and in particular to identify the many ways in which our attitudes and feelings can get in the way of our play. The works by Fine and Hartston, for example, are never serious or coherent enough to assist one; and Krogius’ ‘Psychology in Chess’, the best effort that I have seen, is nevertheless a hodgepodge of insights which are in themselves valuable, but somehow too disparate to get down to the essence of what we are doing wrong.

With the proviso that I haven’t read quite everything in Rowson’s book yet, it seems to me that he has clearly, explicitly, and in context laid out most if not all of the most common thought processes that lead us to error (in the broader sense of that term, including blunders, blindness, misassessment, time trouble and the like). I should make clear that this applies to errors for which the cause is psychological in origin. One can always claim, of course, that all chess errors are such, but to have the relevant terms retain their meaning, I think that we need to acknowledge experience, ‘chess-related’ intelligence, early disposition, and the like as vitally important and effectively separate considerations. In other words, the mastery of all factors in Rowson’s domain would still not make you a Karpov or Kasparov.

That said, Rowson’s is a remarkable accomplishment, because the psychological causes are so numerous, varied, and subtle. This is the problem with so much advice in chess, by grandmasters or others. It sounds so wise and fine (and simple), but is really too one-dimensional or inapplicable to our multitudinous problems that at best, it temporarily inspires us and then fails to make a difference. Rowson’s thoughtful and multidimensional analysis avoids this ‘easy fix’ trap. Moreover, the advice in this book is primarily practical, even when the author is just telling you to loosen up or retain your sense of humour.

As to actual content, an incomplete list of key areas discussed would include overthinking, mistrusting your intuition, being insensitive to the trends of a game, worrying about the result instead of the game before you, thinking of material as a static numerical value, loss of perspective (in many senses), perfectionism, the value of emotion as well as logic, and avoiding what the author calls ‘looseness’ in favour of what might be described as a generalized flexibility. Those themes and others are treated intelligently and in considerable detail. Beyond that, the book is sprinkled with interesting observations about the specifics of chess thought which are not particularly related to broader themes, but which I find valuable and insightful. In general, the book stands out for its extraordinary originality and for it’s dedicated attempt to be both specific and practical.

In order that you are not instantly turned off when you start to read Rowson’s book and say to yourself ‘What is wrong with Watson (again)ÿ’, I should draw attention to several possibly offputting features. The cute title and related formal organization are limiting and even slightly misleading—some work is required to keep the advice, which doesn’t always fit the chapter themes closely, clearly in mind and transcendent of categories. I also think that the book could have been considerably shorter. Although some may like the approach, I think there is too much only marginally relevant philosophizing, far too many quotes (a bad tendency in books these days), and a kind of general pop psychology that doesn’t remotely approach the quality and depth of Rowson’s insights when it comes to chess itself. Perhaps it’s inevitable that such enthusiasm and originality combine with flights of fancy, and I hope I can say without condescension that while Rowson seems wise beyond his years (or most anyone’s years) when it comes to his subject, his speculations in areas outside of it can be a bit embarrassing. But that is just my opinion, and in any case it would be a great shame to let any of the above deter you from reading this book to the very end.

The bottom line is simple: Despite some minor flaws, I feel that this is easily the leading book on chess psychology, by far the most useful one, a very possibly a classic that will be avidly read by players for many years to come. If ever a book could lead directly to improvement without study of moves, strategies, techniques and the like, I honestly think that this would be it. Finally, let me just quote one brilliant paragraph which summarizes much of the essence of this book: ‘The Seven Deadly Chess Sins reveal that we need to reconsider much that has become habitual. The game of chess, as outlined here, rewards those who are able to feel as well as think, love the contest as well as the result, view the game from a pluralistic perspective, harness their ego and acknowledge their opponent, be confident and willing to make a mistake, while concentrating intelligently at all times.’ Terrific stuff. Read it.

I regret that I haven’t the time to do a lengthy review of John Nunn’s ‘Understanding Chess Move by Move’, which is another great book. Nunn has been devoting his writing to some specialized areas recently (puzzles, fundamental rook endings, a beginner’s book), ones in which I have no competence. Now he is back with an annotated games collection consisting of 30 modern contests (90% of them after 1990) between leading but not necessarily world-class grandmasters. The ‘move-by-move’ format, reminiscent of Chernev’s famous elementary book, makes this accessible to players of almost any strength, and the excellent game introductions reinforce the book’s usefulness for players from a low intermediate level (maybe 1200ÿ) and up to, say, 2200 (not that even Grandmasters wouldn’t eat up some of the advanced analysis, but most of the material is on a more elementary level). In my opinion, this is first and foremost a teaching book, as indicated by Nunn’s willingness to take half of a large-sized page on numerous occasions just to explain exactly what’s going on, without variations. Nunn describes the point of each move from the opening on, but doesn’t talk down to the reader; and I am so taken by the clarity, simplicity, and pure instructiveness of this book (organized by themes, incidentally) that my first instinct would be to give it to every student I know!

I noticed that Randy Bauer (one of the best chess book reviewers: visit him at gave this book a ‘10’, his top rating and one of the few he has ever given. I can understand why. To me, the games (all high quality) are particularly well chosen for their purpose. Apart from the fact that we see a variety of styles and openings, Nunn has given us games that are evenly matched in nature (a pleasant change) and that clearly demonstrate the intended themes. Nunn’s prose is lively and lucid—I think that it is his very best effort in that regard. One aspect of the book that strikes me as slightly overambitious concerns the very long and dense analyses Nunn includes in some games (usually towards the end). He does say that sometimes the truth of what is going on can only be told by variations, which is absolutely true; but the average player doesn’t really need to know the ultimate ‘truth’ in that sense, and I think that stretching the book’s reading level all the way from post-beginner to IM or GM is a bit much. Knowing Nunn’s penchant for lengthy, detailed analysis, I suspect that he just couldn’t quite resist!

So let’s see what we have here. An author who I consider to be the world’s best, with an extremely instructive style, annotating a delicious collection of tightly-contested struggles between some of the best players of our time. Not bad, and then an added bonus is the price: $19.95 for 240 large-size pages (compared to $24.95 for 208 such pages for the Rowson work, more in the normal Gambit range). As I say, we’re in a great period for chess books!

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