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TeachingZebras

Jennifer Shahade is a Women's Grandmaster who is also one of my favorite chess columnists. Her semi-autobiographical semi-analytic Chess Bitch: Women in the Ultimate Intellectual Sport (2005) is part of my too-tall bedside stack of shame, a tower of to-be-read tomes constantly in danger of toppling. In a recent issue of Chess Life magazine Jen interviews Jonathan Rowson, Scottish grandmaster and British Champion. Like Shahade, Rowson is an unconventional thinker; among other things he's the author of Chess for Zebras. Some the most striking of his remarks are:

Is fearlessness in chess and writing equally important?
Yes, and I probably don't have enough of it in chess! But I actually don't think fearlessness is exactly the right word — I like the word courage and the famous definition that courage is not the absence of fear but the knowledge that there is something more important than fear. I think Luke McShane is a great example of courage. In almost any position, he wants to keep playing. When the position is tense, and you're in control, and you know that in order to try to win you have to lose control — this is a real test of chess courage.
What's your philosophy of chess improvement?
I think improvement begins at the edge of your comfort zone, where you encounter the limitations of your own shape and in order to improve you need to change this shape, and often unlearn bad habits and ideas. That's why I think the chess book market focuses wrongly on gaining knowledge. If you go to a chess teacher (or a chess book) wanting to be spoon-fed — fill my bucket, give me knowledge to be a better chess player — you'll see no or marginal improvement.
How often do you teach and what's your approach?
It varies, generally a few hours a week — it matters to me that my work is ethical and I want there to be a clear understanding of what my students are getting in return. One student told me, "I'll never be able to speak as fluently as a grandmaster, but I want to understand their conversation." Immediately I wanted to teach this person, someone who realizes their limitations but doesn't feel diminished by them.

...

How important is chess in your life?
Chess is a huge amount of fun and I love it deeply — it's magical, it's a gift — it suits our proclivities very well. It's also a little absurd and crazy to invest so much energy into something which is at bottom pointless. I see chess as an example of how bizarre humanity is — sometimes I'll be in the tournament hall, deep in thought, and suddenly wonder, "What on earth am I doing here?" I think I bring this attitude to my books and that's why I don't think I could ever write a very earnest chess book. If you can't be playful with chess, it will devour you. As Jonathan Speelman famously said: "Chess is a wonderful mistress, but a terrible wife."

(punctuation lightly edited for consistency from the version published in the December 2005 Chess Life, "Climbing Mountains and Teaching Zebras" by Jennifer Shahade; cf. CaissicMetaphors (8 Jan 2000), ChessChow (26 Sep 2001), HaikuChess (4 Jan 2002), WorldSeriesLines (22 Jun 2002), NunnSoEver (20 Jun 2003), WithoutLimits (12 Feb 2005), MauriceAshley (10 Apr 2005), ...)


TopicProfiles - TopicLiterature - TopicRecreation - Datetag20051228


(correlates: AnnotationPunctuation, ChessBitch, DisBelief, ...)