The Moves That Matter: A Chess Grandmaster on the Game of Life: Part One

The review will begin with the bottom line. The book is a lovingly written, magnificent masterpiece. Anyone reading it will be richly rewarded in ways they may not even understand at the time of reading. This is most definitely not a book one reads and forgets. It is a book to savor.

I met Grandmaster Jonathan Rowson at the World Open in 2002 while assisting Thad Rogers in the book room after turning certain victory into defeat in the first round and after losing the next two games Thad needed help and the book room looked inviting. There was a discussion concerning his book, The Seven Deadly Chess Sins,

which had been read the previous year. Later I read Jonathan’s Chess For Zebras,

which was very entertaining, and while working at the Atlanta Chess & Game Center I advocated any and everyone purchase his excellent books. All I recall now about our conversation is that other books were discussed and when asked to name my favorite novel I answered immediately, “The Glass Bead Game, by Hermann Hesse.”

“Really?!” he said before continuing with a question, “Why?”

Why, indeed. I no longer remember how I answered, but do recall being taken aback, because most people with whom I have mentioned the novel have not even been aware of the book. I also recall Jonathan displaying actions which led me to believe he was about ready to leave, so the answer was truncated. In addition I recall Jonathan saying, after I answered his question, “Fascinating!”

GM Rowson tied for first at the 2002 World Open. Because of the pleasant memories of the chance encounter I will admit it is difficult for me to be completely objective. In addition, upon learning of the forthcoming publication of the book about to be reviewed I contacted the publishing company, informing them of the blog and the encounter with Jonathan, while informing them I would like to review the book. I had hoped to finish reading the book long before publication in order to review it ASAP, but life intervened. Another factor is that the book required much more thought than I had imagined, which is a very good thing. A quote from the book comes to mind: “You cannot think about thinking without thinking about thinking about something.” – cognitive scientist Martin Minsky. Therefore reading the book required much more time than I had imagined.

The book is full of wonderful quotes, which is a positive thing. Decades ago there was a show on public television, Thinking Allowed, hosted by Dr. Jeffery Mishlove.

Jonathan Rowson would have made an excellent guest on the program. (Just put Thinking Allowed into the search engine and found: Oh happy day!)

After briefly perusing the book one long time National Master Chess player closed it before saying, “Where’s the meat?!” This meant GAMES. After explaining there were about two dozen games contained in the notes he exclaimed, “What kind of Chess book is that?!” This caused me to consider the question too long because he began talking before I could answer. I was never able to answer his question because, to his way of thinking, a Chess book with mostly words was most definitely NOT a Chess book. This has caused me to reflect upon what, exactly, is a Chess book. For example, consider Frank Brady’s book on Bobby Fischer, Endgame: Bobby Fischer’s Remarkable Rise and Fall – from America’s Brightest Prodigy to the Edge of Madness.

Would it be considered a Chess book? Maybe what constitutes a “Chess book” is what is in the eye of the beholder…

The Moves That Matter is is a book about oh so much more than Chess. It is a book written by a man who devoted most of his early years, and maybe half of his life, to the Royal game, so therefore it does contain much Chess put into words, but, strictly speaking, it is not about Chess. It is about so much more than a mere game. The book is about life, and thinking about life. Although the reader will be entertained, it is not about entertaining per se. It is a “deep” book which will cause the reader to do some seriously deep thinking. That is to be expected since Dr. Jonathan Rowson is an applied philosopher. “The Society for Applied Philosophy was founded in 1982 with the aim of promoting philosophical work that has a direct bearing on areas of practical concern.” (

In lieu of a review I have decided to write about the the ideas and questions contained in the book. Copious notes were taken while reading; twelve pages of college ruled note paper to be precise. What I will attempt to do is share some of the thoughts and questions in the book that caused me to question and think about those thoughts and questions.

The book contains eight chapters each broken down into another eight sub-headings. The format caused me to reflect upon one of my favorite books, The Eight,

by Katherine Neville.

Katherine Neville in 1985
A photograph of the author in San Francisco’s Marin Headlands, California, 1985.

In the first chapter, Thinking and Feeling, under sub-heading #5 Asking Pertinent Questions, one finds, “There are many different ways to frame the educational value of chess, but if I had to sum it up in one word, it would probably be: ‘questions’.

If I had three words it would be ‘questions about relationships’. As the writer Marinan Benjamin puts it, to ask a question is to invest in attentiveness, to declare a stake in the answer, and that is one of the many gifts of chess; you cease to be a passive recipient of information, and become an active learner – an intrinsically rewarding experience. Playing chess is about posing questions to the opponent, and answering the questions they pose you; the little questions are always nested inside bigger ones.”

We will move ahead to the last chapter, Life and Death, under sub-heading #64, Facing up to death. It is written, “The 2009 Acropolis Open in Greece was overshadowed by the death of a respected Greek player, Nikolaos Karapanos, who had a heart attack just before executing a winning move in his first-round game. His opponent, Israeli Grandmaster Dan Zoler, who happens to be a doctor, tried to revive him, but Karapanos stopped breathing before the ambulance arrived.
This story indicates just how stress-inducing chess can be, but the deeper point is that we never know when our time will come. All the major spiritual traditions speak about the importance of being ready for the unthinkable, and the importance of being ready for the unthinkable, and the importance of dying at peace, without undue regret.
It seems profane to point out that Zoler resigned the game, but he also withdrew from the event, stating that he no longer felt like playing chess in the circumstances. You can hardly blame him. Chess sometimes seems singularly charming and vitally important, but a brief reflection on our mortality has to lead to some searching questions. Is this it? Pushing these pieces around? Is this what I am supposed to be doing?”

Nikolaos Karapanos vs Dan Zoler
24th ICT Acropolis (2009), Chalkida, Greece, rd 1, Aug-10
Catalan Opening: General (E00)

1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.g3 Bb4+ 4.Bd2 c5 5.Bxb4 cxb4 6.Bg2 O-O
7.Nf3 d6 8.O-O a5 9.a3 Na6 10.Nbd2 Qc7 11.h3 Rd8 12.e4 e5
13.Qe2 b6 14.a4 Bb7 15.b3 Re8 16.Rad1 Rad8 17.Rfe1 exd4
18.Nxd4 Nc5 19.f3 Nh5 20.Nf1 d5 21.cxd5 Bxd5 22.exd5 Rxe2
23.Rxe2 g6 24.f4 Nf6 25.Nc6 Rd7 26.Ne5 Rd8 27.Nc6 Rd7 28.Ne5
Nxb3 29.Nxd7 Nxd7 30.d6 Qc5+ 31.Kh2 Kg7 32.Re7 Qc8 33.Ne3 Nf6
34.d7 Qd8 35.Ng4 Kf8 36.Ne5 Nc5 1-0

See the excellent article by Daaim Shabazz at The Chess Drum:

Playing Chess to Death

Aug 4th, 2019 by Daaim Shabazz

Playing Chess to Death

End part one

Hung Up

Gull 3 (3116) vs Hannibal 1.5×12 (2998)
TCEC Season 7 – Stage 2
Rd 5
D41 QGD: Semi-Tarrasch, Keres Counterattack

1. Nf3 d5 2. d4 Nf6 3. c4 e6 4. Nc3 c5 5. cxd5 cxd4 6. Qxd4 exd5 7. e4 Nc6 8. Bb5 dxe4 9. Qxd8+ Kxd8 10. Ng5 Be6 11. O-O Kc7 12. Ngxe4 Nxe4 13. Nxe4 Rd8 14. Bf4+ Kb6 15. Ba4 f5 16. Nc3 Bc4 17. Rfc1 h6 18. h4 Bb4 19. a3 Be7 20. b3 Bd3 21. Bxc6 bxc6 22. Re1 Bxh4 23. Na4+ Kb7 24. Nc5+ Kb6 25. Rac1 Rd5 26. Be3 f4 27. Bxf4 Bf6 28. Be3 Bf5 29. Ne4+ Kb7 30. Nxf6 gxf6 31. Rc4 Rh7 32. Rec1 Bd7 33. Bc5 a6 34. a4 h5 35. Rf4 h4 36. Kh2 Rd3 37. Rb4+ Kc7 38. Rb6 a5 39. Ra6 Rxb3 40. Rxa5 Rg7 41. Ra7+ Kb8 42. Rd1 Rb7 43. Ra5 Rb3 44. Rd6 Rf7 45. Be3 Rb4 46. Rd3 Rh7 47. Bc5 Rb1 48. Bd4 1-0

The game ended when “Black’s connection stalls.” Black got “hung up,” as we say in the South, as in, “Honey, I got hung up at work,” or, “Honey, I got hung up in traffic,” or my favorite, “Honey, I got hung up paying the bar tab.” That is when she says, “Honey, it is obvious our connection has stalled.” This actually happened to me back in the ’70’s. It went something like this:

Blues Brothers Tunnel Scene

It is not just chess playing machines that sometimes become “hung up.” A recent example would be GM John Nunn, called “Dr. Death” at the House of Pain, by a Master level player from England, David Fletcher. In an article, “John Nunn Behind the Board Again at World Seniors,” (, Peter Doggers writes, “He played his last official game of chess in August 2006, but now he’s back at the chess board: John Nunn. The English GM and acclaimed author is playing in the 50+ World Seniors in Katerini, Greece.”

Dr. Death had produced four wins and one draw before sitting down behind the Black soldiers in the sixth round to face GM Zurab Sturua from the country of Georgia.

GM Matthew Sadler left a comment on October 28, 2014, “However, this is not a dream story as of yet. Nunn’s first tournament in eight years is a tough one with no less than 11 rounds scheduled. Besides, yesterday he suffered a devastating loss”:

Sturua, Zurab (2523) vs. Nunn, John D M (2602)
World Senior 50+ 2014 | Katerini GRE | Round 6.1 | 29 Oct 2014 | ECO: E60 |

1. d4 Nf6 2. c4 g6 3. Nf3 Bg7 4. g3 c6 5. Bg2 d5 6. Qb3 O-O 7. O-O Qb6 8. Nc3 Na6 9. Qxb6 axb6 10. Na4 Nd7 11. cxd5 cxd5 12. Bd2 e6 13. Rfc1 b5 14. Nc3 b4 15. Nb5 Nb6 16. b3 Rd8 17. Ne5 Bf8 18. Nd3 Bd7 19. Nc7 Rac8 20. Bg5 1-0

The Chess Bomb ( showed this possible line leaving White up “only” 1.1 (20… Nb8 21. Nc5 Bc6 22. Bxd8 Rxd8 23. a4 bxa3 24. N7xe6 fxe6 25. Nxe6 Re8 26. Nxf8 Rxf8). In the modern chess world this game would have been played to checkmate, but Dr. Nunn comes from the chess world of last century. One of the kibitzers on the Bomb explained the decision to resign as ” self-disgust.” This is the kind of thing that happens to a 59 year old player who has not played in almost a decade. Fatigue takes a toll and the brain gets “hung-up.” A Senior begins playing moves that look good to him in his mind, but once played on the board he soon realizes his “connection has stalled.” This leads to what is popularly called a “brain cramp.” Nearing 60 a man realizes that out of a week of days he will have one or two when things just do not seem to compute. He is working just as hard at the board as the day before but realizes things are not quite right because his brain is “hung-up.” This is disconcerting to a Senior in the same way as when he calls on the Old Soldier to jump to “Ten Hut!” but it remains “at ease.” In addition, Dr. Nunn’s biorhythms ( ) show he was, and is, at his low ebb intellectually and will stay there for the duration of the tournament. This is mitigated somewhat by his being in a high phase physically, or it could be made worse because when one has much energy it is more difficult to understand why such poor moves are being produced.

Madonna – Hung Up (Official Music Video)