Is chess a logical game?

Is chess a logical game?

Jun 17, 2011, 7:15 PM |

Jonathan Rowson is a GM and a three-time British champion. His "The Seven Deadly Chess Sins" is a book about how we think in chess. Although it is pitched at the level of expert players, even a wood-pusher like me found some valuable insights. Rowson writes engagingly and with considerable wit - this is not another dry-as-peeled-paint book about chess. It is a philosophical reflection on how chess is played at the highest levels and what we can all learn from this. The most fascinating part for me were Rowson's thoughts on objectivity.

He makes two radical claims about objectivity in chess:
    (1) that it is impossible to be objective during a game
    (2) that it is not even desirable.

Rowson, "When we make decisions from a 'subjective' viewpoint we tend to think that we are making some sort of mistake, and should strive instead to be 'objective'."

Being 'objective' in chess means seeing the position as it actually is, uncontaminated by our own wishes and plans. Rowson believes this is largely a mirage: "...seeing things as they 'actually are' would be an enormous achievement which goes against the grain of human perception... humans by their very nature are enormously self-deceptive, will only see that which experience has shown them to be there, cannot help but want the position to be a certain way and will always see the position from a background of emotional memories and pre-established patterns... you cannot escape your subjective perspective during the game." Please note the word in bold - Rowson says it may be possible to annotate a game objectively after it has been finished.

"To maximize your chances of competitive success, it is essential to be aware of your opponent's likes and dislikes and all their human fallibilities. You must remember that you are a subject playing another subject. Consequently, to view the position objectively is to miss an enormous reservoir of insights into the ways in which the game is perceived during play.

"To be 'objective' is to treat as an object that which is primarily a battlefield between subjects." By trying to be objective "... you undermine your capacity to sense your opponent's subjective perspective, and miss opportunities to exploit this."

Rowson believes that his own development as a chess player was hindered by his striving to be objective: "I began to view chess more as a series of intellectual problems than a fight, and thus behaved more like an academic than a warrior... the pursuit of beauty and truth is incidental to the battle between psyches over the board... In games against grandmasters I found that they were almost never asking 'is this move true?' but rather 'will this move work?'"

I think Rowson is saying that if you are playing a person, rather than a computer, then you are handicapping yourself if you do not take psychology into account.