Chess Books - A Critique
by Dr. Jim Fox
Like many aspiring players, we often turn to books for some help. Perhaps we want to learn to play better. I have a Borders bookstore and a Barnes and Noble bookstore in my area. I also use Barnes and Nobles e-book reader “Nook” and Amazon.com’s e-book reader “Kindle” (comments about those can be found in my previous blog).
If you go to a store, or even the library, you will find the selection of books available on chess slim. Now I have never been to a huge library in a big city, they may have more, but most of us live were nice, but modest city and/or county libraries are available to us.
So we turn to the internet. Both Barnes and Noble and Amazon have previews of books. You can see the table of contents, sometimes even read the first chapter. It is a bit more like browsing in a brick and mortar bookstore - but nothing can really replace that.
Specialty stores that sell chess books do not even have that feature. You must buy the book via a simple description. I have been disappointed more than once.
I have bought several books that I was not sure a Grandmaster could understand. Two pages of an introduction and explanation and then 50 games listed in Algebraic Notation. From the games, on your own, you were supposed to learn the concept. No annotations, just a book filled with games to play through on your own board.
And opening books. They give you either the first 3 moves or continuations through move 30. Neither are helpful. The first 3 moves do nothing. and continuations depend on what your opponent is doing. Many do not even tell you if this is a opening that is good for black or white!
Now I have read some great books that have helped, even though I have found them wanting several times. They include:
Chess Openings for Dummies
Chess Openings for Complete Idiots
The Moment of Zuke
Exercise books are supposed to help train your mind. Some of them are great, and some are just awful. I have some exercise books that the print is so bad it is almost impossible to tell the black pieces from the white.
A couple of decent exercise books I have found include:
Find the Checkmate (by Gary Lane)
Chess Tactics for Champions (by Susan Polgar)
Practical Chess Exercises (by Ray Cheng)
Practical Chess Exercises has exercises with no goal listed - hopefully to “simulate” real game like situations. In a game no one says you have a mate in 2 coming - you must figure THAT out for yourself.
But my complaint comes from the plethora of other books written. You must know Algebraic Notation and know it from memory. Below is a quote from a book I will not name that expects you to read this and learn. It is a book on a specific defense:
“A mine clearer’s first mistake is his last. The chess analyst, however, remains alive, even if he [sic] finds a fatally strong resource for the opposition in his [sic] favorite position. But death still comes, variations, ideas, and setups that formerly seemed promising - all parish”
Now that is inspirational?? A caution at best that there is a counter to everything and anything. Next this is listed as a variation:
- a4 ♞f6 2. ♘c3 c5 3. g3 e6 4. ♘f3 b6 5.♗g2 ♟b7 6. 0-0 ♟e7 7. ♖e1 d6 8. e4 a6 9. d4 cxd4 10. ♘xd4 ♛c7 11. ♗e3 0-0 12. ♖c1 ♞bd. 13. f4 ♜fe8 14. g4 ♞c5 15. f2 g6
Now what should a reader learn from this? Well if you know the board and your blindfold chess-like skills are good, you could play these 15 moves in your head. A dedicated reader would get out a chess board (I recently bought a small “analysis” board to do this with) and play through the moves. But WHAT should you learn? No annotations, no principles, just the idea that you should learn from example.
Now if you took the time (lets say one hour a day) reading and playing through the examples in the book, yes you would probably know the defence well. The book is 500+ pages. I figured if I devoted my time to doing that I would learn a lot. I would say 60 to 100 hours invested and I would learn ONE defence well. As you may have surmised by now, I have not put that time into this one defense.
Why must chess books be written in such a way? Google books has invested some money in saving some classic books. They found old copies of books and volunteers photocopies the covers and table of contents. They have made the books available on some digital books services. I got my copy for free.
The book is: Analysis of the Game of Chess by François Philidor and Benjamin Franklin. It is an easy to read book. It gives rules and guidelines to follow. Franklin speaks of many rules on how to be a polite chess player and a polite spectator.
Back then, “professional” chess players made money by many of the main methods used today. They would give lectures to clubs, private lessons and demonstrations. But the big money was play in a top flight match. Often a board was setup, and spectators (often the host club members and their guests) sat in seats above the board to watch. They were charged a fee and the gate was split between the two players. That helped offset traveling costs.
But often the big money was made by wagering. Each player would wager and often a sponsor would put up some money. But mostly it was a wager. Winner take all.
No TV, xBox, Wii, etc to shorten attention spans. There were no time clocks (yet) so both the opponent and the audience had to sit in complete silence while a player contemplated a move. Rules were still evolving. For example en passant was not fully adopted until 1888.
My point is that books written even by the greats years ago where understandable. Today, many of the books you simply have to have a great knowledge to start from - even the “Dummies” and “Idiot” books are not real clear.
Some are better than others, but you have to buy them to find out as browsing is very difficult. I have purchased several books, and turned right around and sold them on Amazon.com or Alibris.com (Barnes and Noble has a similar program). Alibris.com specializes in used books. You can buy them cheaper and easily sell them if they are not for you.
As I mentioned in my previous blog, eBooks (Kindle and Nook) allow you to buy books cheaper and many are free. I wish I could find a great opening book that said the following type of things.
This is a great opening for black
The idea is to thwart white from doing such and such
Here are the principles that will help
Here are the moves to strive for and finally
Here are some variation principles or transformations that work well
I am not going to hold my breath!