Book Review: Mastering The Chess Openings

Book Review: Mastering The Chess Openings

11 | For Beginners

Mastering The Chess Openings: Unlocking The Mysteries Of The Modern Chess Openings is a two volume set authored by John Watson.  The first volume includes sections on opening principles, but otherwise is dedicated to King's Pawn openings, and the second volume is a trip through the Queen's Pawn openings.

Coming on the heels of my last article, it would be fair and understandable to ask why I'm reading a book about opening theory.  Well, I have a few things to say about that.  First, I started reading Mastering The Chess Openings before I found Dan Heisman's Novice Nook column where he states that beginners should not waste their time studying openings.  Second, even Heisman contradicts himself at times.  Witness his Break Moves article where he states that students should study the French Defense and learn the break moves appropriate for that opening.  Third, it is often written that beginners should study openings to learn the tactics used therein.  Fourth, and last, there is no doubt that beginners should study opening principles, if not actually memorizing openings.

Having said all that, there are many books on chess openings that are absolutely not for the novice's consumption, but this book is not one of them.

Learning opening principles is probably the most important take-away for the beginner.  If you've learned anything at all about openings, no doubt you have learned things like the following: play for the center, develop your pieces as quickly as possible, take towards the center, and so on.  Mastering The Chess Openings (Volume 1) covers the rookie principles, but in more depth than do most beginner books.  If you have read much about positional play before, you will find many of those same issues covered in this book as well.  The benefit of reading about the same topics in Mastering The Chess Openings is that the discussion connects the dots between positional play and opening principles in a way that I have not read before.  Quite enlightening.

Opening principles are covered through the first 86 pages.  After that, Watson takes the reader on a tour of most of the important King's Pawn openings in the first volume of this set, and the major Queen's Pawn openings are covered in the second volume.  Unlike some opening books, Mastering The Chess Openings gives copious and excellent annotations for both theory and example games.  In fact, the examples are particularly good.  Not only are the annotations very good, but the examples are spot-on.  Also unlike in some books, which shall remain nameless for the moment, the examples in Mastering The Chess Openings are enlightening and to-the-point; they don't stray from the topic at hand.

I should point out that these two books are not, and do not pretend to be, the ultimate catalog of chess openings.  This a boon to us beginners, not a hindrance.  As I was nattering about in my last column, the goal for the beginner is efficient study, and that is exactly what Mastering The Chess Openings is all about.  Learn the most important information for your level of play rather than memorize a bunch of squirrely variations of an opening that you may only ever come across once or twice in your entire chess career.

There is some discussion of tactics, but strategic play is the real topic.  While you can certainly find tactics within the pages of Mastering The Chess Openings, you will usually need to spot them yourself and figure out how they all fit into the big picture most of the time.

So, it comes down to the ever looming question: should you read this book?  Hell, yes!  You may have read about opening principles and positional play before, but if I were a betting man I'd wager that you have never read a treatment of them quite like this before and you'll be glad you cracked the pages of these volumes.  Should you buy these books?  The immediate payoff is in the first 86 pages of volume one, and with that in mind I'd be hard pressed to recommend shelling out hard cash for these books.  On the other hand, if you buy these two volumes with the intent that you will keep coming back to them as your chess growth continues, I think Mastering The Chess Openings is a great addition to a beginner's library.  I certainly don't regret my purchase.

As always, I'm Stick, and I'll see y'all out there on the gridiron!

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