In a recent chess discussion thread, the topic recently turned to improvement plans--yes, that perennial conversational abyss of club players--and someone mentioned that, "many roads lead to Rome." Whereupon someone else stated that the phrase may be actually, "all roads lead to Rome." As far as chess improvement goes, I know that all roads certainly do not lead to Rome. But many do.
Rome for me is to become a USCF Expert by the time I reach 50--about five years from now. It has been a long road already and a memorable part of that journey has been the chess books I have read, studied, and enjoyed since taking my first steps in 1994. (Yes, 2014 is my 20 year chess anniversary.) In a previous post, Books from My Past, Part 1, I reviewed the first three books I read, when I was just starting out in tournament play and knew nothing except how to move the pieces and how to set them up on a board.
After those first three books introduced me to the opening, middlegame, tactics, and some simple mates, I soundly had my pride handed to me. As a 25 year old beginner, I had the horror of being beaten by a 5 year old in an early tournament.
This painful and embarrassing loss spurred me on and convinced me that My System was not quite at my level, or should I say that I was not quite at My System's level. Though my chess was no good, I was learning how much I didn't know and that I truly needed to start at the beginning. To do this, I chose to pick up and study the following books in order to me get up and over the 1000 USCF hurdle.
Comprehensive Chess Course, Volume 2
by Roman Pelts, Lev Alburt (1996)
I picked up this book at the book shop at the 1994 U.S. Open in Chicago, where I was playing in the beginner's side events. "From beginner to tournament player in 12 lessons" was exactly what I felt I needed. And, in general, it fit the bill.
The book is structure as part textbook and part workbook, which is a welcome format for a beginner. Chess knowledge, especially in the early stages, is best acquired (ast least by me) in small chunks that are heavily reinforced with exercises where one has to think and try to use the newly acquired knowledge.
The table of contents is similar to Chess Fundamentals, which I was also working my way through at the time, but the material in Comprehensive Chess Course is much more appropriate for the rank beginner--someone who only knows how to move the pieces.
The topics covered include: The Rules of Play; Attack and Defense, Trades; How to Start a Game, Mating with a Queen and Rook in the Endgame; Mistakes in the Opening; Opening Traps; The Concept of Planning; Tactics, Double Attack, Pawn Endgames; Pinning, Endgames with King and two pawns versus King; The Skewer; Typical Mating Combinations; and, Tests.
This book is a good choice if one has a rating less than 1000-1200 and wants a single book that can give them a broad, though necessarily shallow, survey of beginner chess knowledge with lots of integrated exercises.
Alternatively, especially for players already near or above the 1000 rating level who aspire to move up the club ranks, I believe one would be better off by picking up a good introductory tactics book, such as Chess Tactics for Champions, Winning Chess Strategy for Kids, and Dan Heisman's excellent A Guide to Chess Improvement. Those three books alone, studied repeatedly along with lots of tactics practice and slow games, should be enough to get a player to a 1400+ level.
Weapons of Chess
by Bruce Pandolfini (1989)
When I purchased this book at a Borders book store in 1996 I had already completed several chess books and had played in a small handful of tournaments over the previous two years. But my rating was not going anywhere quickly--I had worked my way up to only a 1050 rating.
At this point, I thought I understood tactical motifs and that I needed to bone up on strategy and the finer points of play. Unbeknownst to me, I still had very weak tactical abilities and flawed counting skills. I was playing Hope Chess, making a move and hoping my opponent didn't have a good reply. I was losing most games by giving away material. I didn't have any business reading a book on strategy.
But, even if I was ready for the material, this would have still been the wrong book. This book's format is like a glossary to chess concepts, presented in alphabetical order. So, if you want to know about Isolated D Pawns, you can look it up and read the 55 pages on the topic. Or, if you want to find out about Breakthrough Combinations, you can read three pages on that. Etc, etc.
The format is fine, really, and the explanations are clear. But for a 1000 or even 1200 player, what is needed is to be exposed to strategic ideas in small chunks in the correct order. A good author or coach does that by choosing what and when a topic is broached, based on the intended audience. This book fails in that regard.
Instead of Weapons of Chess, I highly recommend Winning Chess Strategy for Kids for a well-thought-out presentation of positional chess knowledge with some endgames, and tactical motifs thrown in. It isn't just for kids, though one does feel a bit silly reading it in public.
I invite you to read the next blog post in this series, Books from My Past, Part 3.