I like to read footnotes and endnotes; they can really contain golden nuggets. I had been reading Rowson's book,for Zebras (Gambit, 2005) for a few weeks (mainly during my lunch break) when I decided to look at the endnotes. I was surprised to find there his outright endorsement of Michael de la Maza. For Rowson, there's no question regarding the validity of de la Maza's approach. Rowson writes: “For players rated below 1800 who desperately want to improve (and are willing to suffer for it!) I recommend Michael de la Maza's thoughtful and honest book, Rapid Improvement (Everyman, 2002).” (p. 253, endnote 1)
Of course, de la Maza is not the only one to recommend the study of tactics. The first person I discovered that promoted tactics was Ken Smith, whom Rowson also mentions. Smith's advice to those under 1800 was “your first name is tactics, your middle name is tactics and your last name is tactics.” (This quote is from a larger article by Smith that was available from the now defunct website. If anybody has a link to that article, please send it to me.)
At first glance, Rowson's endorsement of de la Maza might not seem to fit into the overall thesis of Zebras. This can be found in footnote 3, which tells us that players work on their in the same way students work on academics. But improvement does not come in this way. Instead it comes as we practice finding good moves, and is similar to gaining skill in playing an instrument or driving a car: we learn by doing. Now, I am in whole hearted agreement with this. How hard is it to understand the academics of (i.e., the positional elements): open files, outposts, weak squares, and the like? The fact is (and I think we need to admit this): it's not difficult at all.
What is difficult, as Rowson is saying, and as my own tournament play has taught me, is applying what I know. And so, we need to set up a position on the board and practice figuring out the best moves and their consequents. But this seems more like the approach of Rashid Ziyatdinov's in GM-Ram (Thinker's Press, 2000), than de la Maza. So which is it Rowson, Ziyatdinov's or de la Maza?
Well, I don't think there's a contradiction. Solving tactics is setting up positions and finding the best move. However, when we focus on tactics we are taking a very small subset of possible board positions. The study (i.e., the practice of finding tactical combinations) of these relatively few positions will take us at least to 1800, and even higher. Much beyond that however, the player needs to study a broader range of positions and gain skill at applying the academics.