We play chess because it seduces our intellect, is an analogue to life itself, and represents the ever-elusive quest for mental and emotional elegance.
At least that’s why I play chess. You might just play it because you enjoy beating the hell out of some loser. In any case, we share the desire to improve our game.
The best way to learn something is to get battered by doing it wrong, then do it again with the wisdom of your bruises. (The second best way to learn something is to teach it, by the way. ) But the best way to learn is not necessarily the most efficient, and I personally don’t have enough time left on this earth to imbibe the complexities of chess by self-discovery. So I have opted for the most efficient way, which is a combination of study and over-the-board play. The first is science, and the second engineering.
I will preface this column by saying that I have read (or am in the process of reading, as noted) all of the books on this list. I will present them in the order that I wish I had read them, since some would have prepared me to understand others more effectively. So let’s get to the list, and I’ll explain the reasons for these choices as we go along.
1. “Bobby Fischer Teaches Chess” by, strangely enough, Bobby Fischer, the first and only official American World Chess Champion, co-authored by S. Margulies and D. Mosenfelder. This is a good beginners book and spends most of its time on the end game, rather than the opening or the middle game. This may seem odd, but many people advocate learning the end game first. BFTC will introduce you to the basic patterns of mating, and, as if by educational osmosis, it will also begin to instill a sense of tactics into your game. The book is a bit odd since it uses what is called ‘programmed instruction’, rather than a normal prose book. While programmed instruction is not found much these days, it remains a fine instructional format. Bantam Books, 1972. You can find it in all bookstores in the games section.
2. “Pandolfini’s Ultimate Guide to Chess” by Bruce Pandolfini, the personal trainer of Josh Waitzkin, the child chess prodigy and subject of the wonderful chess film “Searching for Bobby Fischer”, after the book by the same name. (Read that too, by the way, just for fun.) PUGtC is written as a hypothetical dialogue between a student and a chess instructor, and covers a single game, move by move with the omniscient teacher explaining a multitude of chess concepts to the beginning patzer. It includes some fun appendices. The one highly irritating thing about this book for me is the fact that they never conclude to an emotionally satisfying mate the game that covers 23 moves in over 300 pages! Fireside Books, 2003.
3. “Logical Chess: Move by Move” by Irving Chernev. Chernev is, in my oh-so-humble opinion, the best of the classic chess authors of the 20th century. There is a new edition of this text in algebraic notation. Make sure you get that edition so you don’t suffer the annoying English descriptive notation that I had to endure in the 1957 edition by Simon & Schuster. Chernev walks you through 33 complete actual master-level games and explains every single move in every single game. Ever feel baffled by some non-descript pawn move in a master game you’ve looked at? Chernev will clarify the mystery for you.
4. Now that you’ve had some exposure to basic ideas, you are ready to expand your chess knowledge. I recommend another book by B. Pandolfini called “Weapons of Chess”, which is organized alphabetically and will introduce you to important concepts like bad bishops, pawn structure, passed pawns, positional play, and so forth. Fireside, 1989.
5. With the previous book you will be in a good position to better understand the wondrous teachings of the best contemporary chess author (at least for beginners/novices) – Jeremy Silman. His clever book “The Amateur’s Mind” explores actual remarks from his own beginning students about a position and their choice of move, going on to explain where their errors are. Chances are, you will make similar errors, and Silman will sound as if he is speaking to you. You will get introduced to Silman’s important notion of imbalances, and the importance of understanding imbalances. 2nd edition, Siles Press, 1999.
6. Now you will be ready for some fun, by which I mean tactics! With tactics you will begin to appreciate the creativity of a good player, and with a basic knowledge of tactics you can understand when it is beneficial to sacrifice your pieces and come out ahead! There are lots of good texts on tactics, generally written by acknowledged chess masters. One such text is the classic “Winning Chess” by Chernev and Fred Reinfeld. I read an old, yellowing copy published in 1948 by Simon & Schuster, but you can still get it new at Amazon. Puzzle books are also mainly tactical in nature, and an old classic that you can still pick up in bookstores is “1001 Winning Chess Sacrifices and Combinations” by Fred Reinfeld (same guy as previous book). Sterling [my middle name] Publishing, 1955. I’m still in the process of going through these puzzles. Some are easy, and some are damned hard. However, as good as these books are, the BEST BOOK on tactics was NOT written by a master. I am referring to “Predator at the Chess Board: a Field Guide to Chess Tactics” by Ward Farnsworth, a law professor at Boston University. It is available in two volumes (http://www.lulu.com/content/632810) or you can access it online in HTML format at http://www.chesstactics.org/. It is very long, but there is a diagram for every page, and it is extraordinarily easy to read. I love this book. It should be on everyone’s list.
7. If you liked the Silman book recommended above (#5), you will swear by his other book “How to Reassess Your Chess”. This is a magnificent middle-game book and will go into much more depth on the topics introduced by book #4 with much insightful commentary. Silman goes into his ideas of imbalances in great detail here, but it is surprisingly easy to read. 3rd edition, Siles Press, 1993.
8. Next is a book I’m currently reading, but I wish I had discovered earlier. It is “How to Choose a Chess Move” by Andrew Soltis. Don’t look for an algorithm that you can follow, but do look for sound advice that will ring true to the concepts you’ve read about in Silman and others. Batsford, 2005.
9. If you’ve made it this far, then you are already a serious student of chess. I congratulate you and offer my condolences to your significant other. My next recommendation is the classic “My System” by Aron Nimzowitsch. Make sure you get the so-called “21st Century Edition”, which was actually published by Hays in the 20th century. Go figure. Since1925, this book has been the classic reference for positional play, a concept that revolutionized chess thinking over the past century or so. It is still easily accessible to the beginner/novice and will give you more depth on some topics covered by Silman, such as overprotection and isolated d-pawns.
10. And speaking of Silman (I just was), the next book is yet another of his. “The Complete Book of Chess Strategy”, Siles Press, 1998, is another text organized alphabetically within four organizing sections that cover the Opening, the Middle Game, the End Game and a final section on Practical Matters that discusses tournament play. The openings section covers no less than 45 different openings, albeit in abbreviated form. Don’t try to memorize these. You are smarter than that. Work your way through them, and try to internalize the concepts in the light of your previous studies. Then when you encounter them in your games, you’ll be equipped to reason your way through them, even if you don’t have them memorized.
11. By this point you have read 10 fine texts, and have laid the groundwork for more advanced study. But first, why not another classic by Irving Chernev? “The Most Instructive Games of Chess Ever Played” is another one of those books that I’m currently reading, and which explains every move of 62 highly instructive games. Why he chose 62 games and not 64 is one of the great, unsolved mysteries of chess literature. Published by Dover in 1965, but I think there’s a newer version in algebraic format that would be easier to read. If you search, you can find all 62 games on the web. Just download them and view in your favorite chess game engine as you read.
12. Once you are at this point in your chess studies, you are probably actually making it to the endgame, as opposed to getting mated in the middle game, or even (embarrassing though it may be) the opening. So you need to firm up your end game knowledge, and for this there are many good books. I recently saw a new endgame book by Silman, which I expect is quite good, but I have not read it. I am in the middle of studying “Pandolfini’s Endgame Course”, mainly during my lunch breaks since each little mini-lesson occupies just a single page and can be digested concurrently with my sandwich. You really do need to understand the diagonal of the pawn, the notion of kingly opposition and the Lucena position if you want to beat the other woodpushers at the club. Fireside Chess, 1988.
13. The book I recommend for the lucky 13th spot is no less than the highly-regarded reference “Modern Chess Openings”, 14th edition, commonly referred to as MCO-14 by Nick de Firmian. If you are old enough, you had better take a double shot of bourbon before opening it up at the local Borders bookstore because it is not for the faint of heart. It consists of over 700 pages densely packed with hundreds of tables of openings variations with almost no commentary. Just lists of moves. To be more precise, I have counted and/or estimated that MCO-14 contains no less than 265 tables, containing about 1,590 opening variations of perhaps a dozen moves each (for each side), or roughly 30,000 individual moves in total. And if that weren’t enough, each of the 265 tables contains a page or more of dense footnotes to the variations that list additional lines of play. As I said, make the bourbon a double before you crack this tome open. I once read a biography of Bobby Fischer, who remarked, in response to a question about what he would teach a student if he were ever to give chess lessons, that for the first lesson he would tell his student to study every variation of every opening in MCO, including footnotes. And for lesson two he would tell them to repeat the exercise. After the initial impulse to laugh, I could only admire him for that response, because I realized that, in all likelihood, he had done exactly that himself. MCO-14, McKay Chess Library, 1999.
14. After you finish learning MCO and are ready for some lighter fare, go track down a copy of “The Oxford Companion to Chess” by David Hooper and Kenneth Whyld, if you can find it. Published by Oxford University Press in 1984, this is a marvelous reference work, and includes brief biographies of all the great chess masters, summaries of openings, history of the game, descriptions of chess variants, origins of the moves, and all manner of esoterica, such as the estimate that there are more distinct 40-move games of chess (25 x 10^115) than there are electrons in the universe (10^79). Enjoy the book while relaxing with a bourbon. You earned it.
Addendum added on Dec 7, 2007: A good friend of mine (who's MUCH better than me, also mentioned that a very good series of books for beginners is the group of "Winning Chess" books written by Yasser Seirawan. I have not read them, but I have heard that they are very good from others, too. I see that I'm starting to get several people reading this blog, so please let me know if you have any requests for topics. I'm not an expert, but I do have a lot to say to beginners and novices. -KG