Books from My Past, Part 3

Jul 17, 2014, 3:31 PM |

I had started playing chess casually as a sailor while on deployments aboard a nuclear submarine in 1990-1991 but I didn't know about basic things such as pins or forks and so lost most of my games. But I vowed to one day be good enough to beat those other sailors. (And it only took me 20 years!) Then from 1994 to 1996 I played in my first few over-the-board (OTB) tournaments and read a small selection of books (read more about them here and here).

Between 1996 and 2009 I played infrequently, sometimes going 4-5 years between tournaments or even breaking out a chess set. It was considered by many scholars as the dark ages of my chess career, where little knowledge was gained and ignorance, and even the plague, were the norm.

Though my play was infrequent and inconsistent, there were a few bright lights during this period, all of them books. The first, Opening Systems for Competitive Chess Players, helped me build an organized repertoire around the Torre Attack as white and either the Caro-Kann or QGD Tartakower Variation as black. Best Lessons of a Chess Coach introduced me to positional chess ideas. And, Pandolfini's Endgame Course taught me about the opposition and other important techniques that improved my endgame chances.

Opening Systems for Competitive Chess Players

By John Hall (1992)

As was typical at the time, I picked up this book at the book store of one of the tournaments I was attending. Previous to reading this, my only exposure to opening theory was How to Play the Opening in Chess by Keene/Levy, which is a survey of many openings. In contrast, this is a repertoire book, whose purpose is to teach a cohesive series of variations with which to combat your opponent.

It does a good job of laying out a sensible set of variations, based on the Torre Attack as white, the Caro-Kann as black against 1.e4 and the GDB Tartakower as black against 1.d4 and some other systems. Now years later, having had the experience of studying some other repertoire books, I would say this is in the middle of the pack. The "Starting Out" and "Play the ...." series of repertoire books have mostly antiquated this and most older opening books, in my opinion, because of their focus on ideas and concepts first and variations second. But, one thing can be said, 18 years after reading this book, I am still playing these three openings. (Though, note to my future opponents, this will be changing in 2014-2015 as my chess coach is strongly encouraging me to expand my repertoire into some mainline openings as white.)

Best Lessons of a Chess Coach

By Sunil Weeramantry and Ed Eusebi (1993)

Without doubt, I have the fondest memories of reading this chess book while commuting to my college classes on the train. Though I was only about an 1100 level player at the time, my eyes were opened to the beauty and complexity of the game. I saw that there was so much more awaiting me and this became a lifelong incentive to improve and unlock those secrets.

The book itself is a collection of 10 annotated games that emphasize how to use both positional and tactical concepts together to build and maintain an attack. This book is where I first learned about things like knight outposts and weak color complexes, though frankly, the book was mostly over my head.

The book is characterized by the use of the Socratic Method. The authors frequently interject and ask the reader questions about the game and what moves they think are worth considering. But it is done in a way that feels like you are at the feet of a master, getting a personal lesson. This is what so endears many to this book.

Pandolfini's Endgame Course

By Bruce Pandolfini (1988)

Pandolfini is one of those chess authors, like Reinfield and Horowitz before him, who have cranked out so many books--some of dubious quality--that it is easy to develop an aversion to anything written by them. In fact my only other Pandolfini book is Weapons of Chess, which was indeed a disappointment. But, I also have a wonderful tactics book by Reinfield, Winning Chess.

However you feel about the author, Pandolfini's Endgame Course is a very good introduction to endgame play for beginning and intermediate players. In fact, if I hadn't subsequently read Silman's Complete Endgame Course over the past year, I would still recommend this one. Silman's book is simply a better instructional book, though it covers fewer concepts in total. My current thinking is that one should start with Silman and then use Pandolfini's Endgame Course as a set of exercises that will reinforce what one learned from Silman and also add a few other concepts, such as the bishop and knight mate, critical squares, and a few others.

I hope you enjoyed this look at the books of my chess dark ages. I plan to write one more blog post in this series, which will cover the books I read from 2006-2012 and will get us up to 2013, when I started serious chess study.