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John Watson Book Review (8)

Odds and Ends #1: Books for the Developing Player

The Chess Analyst; Jon Edwards; 154 pages; Thinker's Press, 1998

How to Beat Your Dad at Chess; Murray Chandler; 128 pages; Gambit Publications, 1998

The Mammoth Book of the World's Greatest Chess Games; Graham Burgess, John Nunn & John Emms; Robinson Publishing, 1998

The Chess Analyst; Jon Edwards; 154 pages; Thinker's Press, 1998

How to Beat Your Dad at Chess; Murray Chandler; 128 pages; Gambit Publications, 1998

The Mammoth Book of the World's Greatest Chess Games; Graham Burgess, John Nunn & John Emms; Robinson Publishing, 1998

In the next few installments, I'll tie up some loose ends and talk about a variety of new books in a fairly unstructured way. The theme of this review will be help for the improving player, a topic which I will expand upon in a moment.

  1. First, however, I want to mention an analytical contribution by a TWIC reader Kaarlo Kaarlonen of Finland, in response to my review (#7) of Colin Crouch's 5.Bf4! Queen's Gambit Declined I mentioned that in the line 11.h4 dxc4 12.Bxc4 a6 13.Ng5 b5 14.Nce4 g6, Crouch fails to give a continuation which is favorable to White. He emphasizes that 15.Bd6 is "the move that has to be looked at", which is what I did, without finding anything for White. But Mr. Kaarlonen notices that Hjartarson's suggestion 15.Bb3 Bb7 16.Nxf6+ Bxf6 17.Nxh7 Kxh7 18.h5, about which Crouch says "It is hard to believe that the piece sacrifice is well-timed", in fact wins for White! Once you look closely, it is easy to verify that Black's defences simply don't hold here. Thank you, Kaarlo! I think that this once again shows Crouch's objectivity; he clearly loves the 11.h4 line, but refuses to artificially bend his analysis to make White's case look better than it is, paying equal attention to both sides' chances. Most opening authors' misassessments, of course, are in favor of the side which they're advocating.

Most of the email I have received since I started these reviews has been of two types: one group of readers suggests what I should include in future reviews, usually a list of books to improve their play; and the other asks me to personally recommend (by email) a set of books for them to study. These readers are normally in a 1200-2000 range, and after answering a few of these emails, I've taken to saying that I will try to address this subject in a future review. So I guess I'll begin with this one, and use it as an excuse to work in comments about the three new books I have listed above.

Of course, what one needs to study varies widely from person to person, but I will try to make a few general comments. First, I want to emphasize that the most important thing for anyone under, say, 1700, is to enjoy studying and stick to it. Therefore, any book which captures the student's interest is superior to an 'objectively better' book which fails to do so. When you talk to masters about their favorite books, for example, they have a tendency to mention a few of the first books they ever read, simply because those books captivated them and opened up enormous new vistas. In my own case, three of the first four chess books I read I still look back upon as being just chock full of rich and wonderful chess. Those were Richard Reti's Modern Ideas in Chess, the 1924 New York International tournament book by Alekhine, and Irving Chernev's Golden Treasury of Chess. Looking back, of course, Chernev's is just a book of well-known games without notes, Alekhine's is full of errors and not terribly instructive in any clear or logical way, and Reti's book is an overly-romanticized presentation of chess personalities which probably mischaracterizes their play as often as not. But I tore these books apart, and in doing so, any 'faults' they may have had were swamped by the benefit I derived from reading and enjoying them. As a teacher, I would never make the claim that any of these books has better instructive value than hundreds of others, but it just doesn't matter. What counts is that you get enthralled by what you're reading.

With that in mind, I could make the case that various older and more 'popular' books can be just as worthwhile to the student as recently-written instructional books. I will proceed to talk about my own prejudices and a few books I think I can safely recommend; but these are just my opinions, and absolutely unimportant compared to your own reactions and preferences. Let's start with general works. Of those older 'popular' books, two which can be gotten on the cheap and I would recommend are: (a) The Art of the Middlegame, by Keres and Kotov. I've never met a player who didn't enjoy this book; (b) The Most Instructive Games of Chess Ever Played, by Chernev, a purely popular book which is just perfect for the 1200-1800 player. My recently-published copy cost $7.50! What are some modern equivalentsÿ Well, a collection of great games is about as useful a purchase as a developing player can make. The Mammoth Book of the World's Greatest Games (details above) is a recent compendium of well-annotated games which were chosen with quality, brilliance, instructive value and historical significance in mind. It is a 560-page, low-priced, mass-market book which reminds me of the old Dover and Tartan/McKay books I grew up with. There are 100 games covering 144 years of world-class chess; if by 'greatest' the authors had meant 'most brilliant', I would disagree with about 75% of their choices, but the added requirements of being instructive and historically important (e.g., played in a dramatic context) turns this into a wonderful book which can teach the developing player about the game and its history.

Game collections of particular players are highly recommended for the student, again because they put chess in the dramatic and fun context of real competition, and allow the reader to share the thoughts of other players. I highly recommended three recent games collections in my Review #1. And everyone has their favorite volume of annotated games by older masters; I can certainly recommend Botvinnik's 100 Selected Games, Alekhine's Best Games (all), and the recent reprint of The Life and Games of Mikhail Tal. But one can also get a lot out of games by somewhat lower players, if they have devoted themselves to explaining how they were thinking and what attracts them to the game. Part of the fun of being a reader of chess books is discovering the value of such 'lesser works'. Thinker's Press, for example, has republished various books by the Australian master Purdy (as reported in Review #3). Now the same company has put out The Chess Analyst, by Jon Edwards, which has the simple idea of recounting Edwards' adventures in correspondence play (he won a recent U.S. Correspondence Championship). As it turns out, the games are of high quality and contain a great variety of instructive positions and original opening ideas. But the thing which really makes the book worth reading is Edwards' obvious enthusiasm for the game and modest but thorough notes. This is a delightful book, and just the thing if you're looking for something out of the mainstream.

As one might expect, there are any number of modern books which aim to improve your tournament play. A modest, low-cost, and entertaining one for the developing player is Best Lessons of a Chess Coach, by Weeramantry and Eusebi. It seems to me that such a book is far more thoughtful and valuable for an improving player than the sort of stereotyped and lifeless instructional books which we normally find in the mass market outlets. I cannot recommend, for example, any of the Simon and Schuster books for the beginner or club player. For more advanced players (perhaps beyond the range of my email inquirers), Mark Dvoretsky's series of chess training and middlegame theory books are justifiably considered the best in the literature. In English (published by Batsford), there are five co-authored with Yusupov and two by Dvoretsky alone. These are definitely not aimed at the average club player; but as I stated above, if you find yourself addicted to such material, take it as a good sign and pursue it with all of your energy.

Combinations and tactics can be studied in context (by working with, say, openings books or games collections), or one can train with a specialized book. A famous and still highly-readable classic on tactics is Vukovic's The Art of Attack in Chess; and a modern book which is also organized by theme is Winning Chess Tactics by Seirawan and Silman. On a still less-advanced level, Murray Chandler's recent How to Beat Your Dad at Chess (details above) is a perfect introduction to tactics for the beginning and developing student, as it works from the simplest and most commonly-occurring patterns towards more complex ones built upon the earlier examples. As good as those books are, there are many students who will learn more efficiently and well by simply doing tactical exercises ... lots of them! I personally prefer this method, in which categorization and explanation are skipped, but the student learns to think combinationally on the board level. Naturally, books of combinations abound. Reinfeld's old books are still fine for this purpose (and cheap); one example is 1001 Winning Chess Sacrifices and Combinations at under $10. Today, there are many others: the Anthology of Chess Combinations (formerly, Encyclopedia of the Middlegame) is perhaps the most comprehensive collection; you will have no trouble finding others.

I hope to discuss recent endgame books in a future review. For now, I would just say that most people's favorite endgame book is the one that they actually bought and studied first. If you want some older names, Keres' Practical Chess Endings is a classic, and Smyslov and Levenfish's Rook Endings is a personal favorite of mine. But modern ending books also tend to be very well written. On a simple level, Mednis' books are clear and instructive; and on a more sophisticated level, Shereshevsky's books and Jon Speelman's efforts are particularly noteworthy. For an encyclopedic resource, I still like Batsford Chess Endings (BCE) the best. But there are hundreds of excellent books on this phase of the game; the reality is that it is quite easy to write about, at least on an elementary instructive level, so it's hard to go wrong.

I will talk about openings books a lot in these reviews, so I don't feel it necessary to say more here. One interesting area is the one-volume comprehensive openings encyclopedia, a subject I will be discussing soon, in the context of a new entrant in this field.

In conclusion, the main thing to remember is this: rather than hunt to find the perfect book, or the one which teaches you 'everything you need to know to become a master' or whatever, find and read books which you enjoy, and which keep you excited about chess. You will undoubtedly learn more if you have fun in the process of learning.

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