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Ten Essential Chess Books

For the Novice Player


by Joe Iannandrea



Whether you've found chess is starting to grow from an occasional pastime into something more serious or chosen to take it up for the many many benefits chess offers, it usually isn't long before you start looking for more ways to get better at the game. An outside source of chess knowledge can magnify the experience you get from playing a lot of games. And while there are many places you can turn for this, chess books are one resource few can ignore. Books are a simple accessible way to learn about the game that are ready whenever you are can be taken nearly anywhere you go. So many books have been written about chess that it's almost certain there's one out there on whatever aspect of the game you need to learn. However, if you've been searching through the chess titles that are available for one that sounds right for you, you may start to think this is too much of a good thing. Trying to find the one book best suited to your learning needs now out of the thousands that are out there can be as challenging as playing the game itself. This is especially true for the novice, as learning what you need to learn in chess is one of the things that comes with experience.


When it comes to the problem of finding the right chess book to read, many approach the problem backwards, looking for a good chess book then asking if it seems likely to benefit them. There are plenty of chess books that come highly recommended, and nearly any of them will meet some need. If you haven't given any thought to prioritizing your particular learning needs it is easy to skip haphazardly from book to book, neither learning what you really need to at the time nor getting the full benefit the books you do read could potentially offer if you waited until the right time to read them. One very common mistake newer players make is allow themselves to be swayed by glowing reviews of books more advanced players say has helped them. For the novice especially, reading a book that even more advanced players found helpful can seem like a way to leapfrog their chess to a whole new level. As a result players often end up putting books that are too advanced for them on their must have list while neglecting more essential learning.


This is not really the fault of these players. As I said, learning what to learn is something that you figure out as you go along. As a result many players, once they do get a reasonable amount of experience under their belt, are able to look back and see what they wish they'd learned when they were starting out. Rather than waiting until it's too late to find out what you should be reading now, what follows is a list 10 essential books you should be turning to as a newer player in the order in which they should be read. I want to stress this is not a "top 10" list. While we have attempted to recommend the best book in every category, this is not a run down of the 10 best books. It is instead a reading sequence that will get you from square one even if you know next to nothing about chess through to becoming a player who is ready to tackle some pretty serious chess. It is, in fact, less important that you select the particular books recommended here than it is to choose, at each step, a good book that targets the same learning goals.


As the list is intended for those starting with almost no knowledge of chess, you may want to skip to an appropriate step for you if you're someone who's been playing for a while. Even if you're reasonably advanced, you may want to go through the list to see if your own learning to this point may have a few holes you might want to cover. However, don't skip the first book unless you are sure your foundation knowledge in chess is completely solid. This means you should be able to explain even the special rules of play like en passant, know all the ways a game can end in a draw (there are 5 not including adjudication), be able to write out your games in algebraic notation and know the most basic principles of strong play (for example, why 1. e4 is considered a stronger first move than 1.a3).


The general outline behind these recommendations is as follows. You can use it as a guide if you prefer to put together a reading plan of your own or if you want to substitute one of the recommended books with a selection of your own.


1. an introductory text

2. an introduction to general chess thinking

3. an introduction to tactics

4. a basic tactical exercise

5. an introduction to endgames

6. an introduction to chess strategy

7. a book of chess opening ideas

8. a book of general chess wisdom

9. a games collection

10. more advanced puzzles


Clicking the cover photo or title of each book brings up a link to allow you to purchase the title right away.



1st: Chess for Dummies 2nd Edition - James Eade

The first book on our list bears the familiar yellow and black cover of the "Dummies" series. It's another reminder of why you find these books just about everywhere. It's placed first on this list because it's the recommended starting point for complete newcomers to chess. Even if you don't know a pawn from a wooden drawer pull this book will literally take you from square one and painlessly guide you to a point where you will be able to confidently conduct yourself through a game of chess equipped with the essential tools of attack and defense.

Though I recommend this as a first book for those who are completely new to chess, don't give it a pass just because you already know a thing or two. It was the 1st edition of this book that served as my own "re"introduction to chess when I took it back up as an adult. At that point time it had been a good couple of decades since I played chess with any regularity Chess for Dummies was the perfect tonic for me at the time. Though I knew the rules I found even the introductory chapters that covered topics I already knew (for the most part) too good to skip. In the end I was in the best spot any introductory book on chess could leave you, confident I had a solid foundation that I could continue to build on. Looking back that confidence has proven to have been well placed. Since that time the 2nd edition has been brought up to date with the latest information on chess software and internet play. As an introductory guide to chess this book has become a well deserved classic.



2nd: Logical Chess: Move By Move- Irving Chernev

We continue with a classic of elementary instruction. First published in 1957, Logical Chess: Move by Move is the singularly most popular title by prolific chess writer Irving Chernev. In it the author leads us step by step through 33 games, literally giving an instructive explanation of every move. Though many of these games were played by chess giants like Alexander Alekhine and Jose Raul Capablanca who's games showed incredible depth of thought, Chernev explains them in a way that is entirely accessible to beginners. The result is an illuminating first look at many of the concepts, principles and little bits of chess wisdom used to select moves, and an instructive illustration of their results in action. This new edition has been brought up to date with modern algebraic notation such as you will already have learned reading "Chess for Dummies"



3rd: Winning Chess Tactics- Yasser Seirawan

While chess is known as a game of strategy, the real truth is that tactics will be the bread and butter skill that will win you games. Tactics are the essential maneuvers of chess that get things done- checkmating the opponent or capturing their pieces. Therefore, gaining an understanding of tactics should be your first goal once you have have a solid understanding of how to play chess. For this it would be hard to do better than Winning Chess Tactics by Yasser Seirawan. Seirawan takes any player with an understanding of the basics of the game on a simple logical path to an understanding of all the important tactical motifs. Motifs are the ideas behind any tactic, so while there are countless possible tactical maneuvers, each of them is just a variation on a tactical motif (or perhaps a combination of motifs). Knowing these motifs gives you the tools to understand the ideas behind virtually any tactical situation. While your strength as a chess player will have a lot to do with your ability to recognize these tactical opportunities (and threats) during your games, just learning these motifs is no guarantee you'll be able to do this. This is a hard won skill that comes with practice and experience. However, this experience will count for much more if, rather than viewing the tactics you encounter as isolated situations you learn to see each one as one more example of a motif you have seen before and are getting better at recognizing all the time.



4th: Winning Chess Tactics for Juniors: Lou Hays

What, another tactics book? Despite the similarity of their titles this is a different sort of tactics book from the 3rd recommendation. And while the title says it's "for Juniors" it's really for any firmly established chess beginner, even if they happen to be a senior. While Seirawan's book introduces tactical motifs in an easy conversational manner, supported with a few exercises to get you going, this book is strictly business. As I said above, the ability to actually recognize tactics during your game is the real source of your practical playing strength and this is the point of this recommendations. This is intended as a first tactical study workbook. Hays teaches you how to study tactics using exercises then gives you those exercises.

In order to truly build tactical strength, it's not enough to simply solve all the exercises once and then move on. It's far better to do simpler problems again and again until you recognize them cold. The point, after all, is to be able to recognize the same motifs when they occur during play. Though it's highly unlikely you'll ever encounter the exact situation in an exercise they'll teach you to recognize patterns that occur again and again. Therefore, this is not a book to read through once before moving on to the next, keep going back through the exercises until you know the solutions within seconds without having to check the answers to know you're right. Why should you know them this well? The simple answer is that, unlike tactical exercises where there is always a tactical opportunity there, during the game you won't know when to look for them. On most moves there will not be any tactical opportunities to be found, so honing your abilities to spot them, or more precisely the patterns that lead to them, will make it less likely you'll allow these opportunities to pass you by. To get the most from this book therefore, make it your companion. Spend a little time with it each day, even while you read other books, until you know it like an old friend.



5th: Pandolfini's Endgame Course - Bruce Pandolfini

Yes, there is more to chess than tactics. With the fifth book in our progression our attention turns to endgames. It may seem strange to look at the end of the game before we've really had a look at the opening. The endgame is the phase at which games are won and lost however. And unlike studying a particular opening you may later abandon, endgame skills are fundamental to the game of chess. What you learn from the study of endgames will serve you throughout your chess career.

Choosing an endgame book can be a bit tricky. Players of all levels benefit from studying endgames, so while there are many top notch books on the subject out there, not all are suitable for those relatively new to chess. One excellent title that is is Pandolfini's Endgame Course. As a chess author and instructor, Bruce Pandolfini is legendary for his ability to communicate ideas about chess in a way that is easy for those who aren't chess experts to understand. His Endgame Course is a perfect example of this, covering all the major endgame concepts in a way that is both simple to understand and entertaining. That Pandolfini's coverage of a topic many students of the game of chess find rather dry has become so wildly popular really says it all.


6th: Winning Chess Strategies - Yasser Seirawan

Now that we have a firm grounding in tactical and endgame concepts it is finally time to have our first real look at chess strategy. For this we return to Yasser Seirawan's "Winning Chess" series. Like his tactics book that is 3rd on our list, Winning Chess Strategies is an equally superlative introduction into the world of chess strategy. The difference between strategy and tactics is probably easier to grasp intuitively than it is to define precisely. Early 20th Century chess great Savielly Tartakower may have given the best know explanation of the difference when he said "Tactics is what you do when there's something to do, strategy is what you do when there isn't. " In other words if there is some opportunity to accomplish a concrete short term, whether it is to win a pawn or force checkmate, it is tactics that are required. Examples of strategic ideas covered may include getting your pieces onto the squares where they will be most effective which is the subject of chapter 4, or gaining control over a larger area of the board so that your opponent is left with little space to maneuver which Seirawan covers in Chapter 7. In both cases "cashing in" on a successful strategy will require some sort of tactical maneuver, which is one reason it is important to have a solid grounding in tactics first. It might be said that the goal of strategic ideas is to help ensure any tactical opportunities are in our favor. Winning Chess Strategies does an admirable job of conveying these ideas then nailing them down with a host of examples, many of which were taken from Seirawan's own games.



7th: How to Open a Chess Game- Larry Evans et al.

The final part of the game we'll single out for individual attention is the first phase of the game. Though I'm not sure if anyone has ever counted, I feel confident suggesting there are probably more books written on the opening than on any other aspect of chess. Yet there are fewer good choices for a first book on chess openings out there. Your first book about chess openings should look deeper into the principles of opening play so that you get a sense of why the ideas behind any particular opening are so important. Without this it's easy to let your future opening studies fall into the same move memorization rut so many other players find themselves in. And so it is that the recommendation here is not another survey of opening lines and variations, How to Open a Chess Game addresses the problem of how to approach this question in general. While an individual author might be forgiven for slanting their advice towards their particular style of play, How to Open a Chess Game avoids this pitfall as it contains the advice of seven grandmasters representing a variety of playing styles. This is a book written for players of all levels, but don't worry if some of the material is beyond you at this point. The importance of the book at this stage is to give you a taste of what goes into the choice of opening moves. Before you expand your knowledge of openings by choosing which lines you'll make your own and building an opening repertoire



8th: The Rules of Winning Chess - Nigel Davies

Now that we have looked at every major aspect of game play and you will hopefully have some experience under your belt with actual game play, it's a good idea to immerse yourself a little more deeply into good old chess wisdom. We touched on this earlier as much of the benefit of our second recommendation "Logical Chess: Move by Move" was a taste of practical chess wisdom as it applied in the games Chernev examines. With The Rules of Winning Chess, British Grandmaster Nigel Davies takes a more direct approach, individually laying out 50 separate practical principles of strong chess play, each of which are discussed individually and illustrated with examples. The writing is clear and to the point, and most notably steers clear of long-winded variations. The result is not only instructive but eminently readable.


9th: Zurich International Chess Tournament, 1953 - David Bronstein

By now you should have spent a great deal of time with tactical exercises, with the recommended tactical exercise book in our 4th spot and elsewhere. There is one other area of study you should now become familiar with- the study of annotated games of the masters. The recommendation here is another great classic, David Bronstein's "Zurich International Chess Tournament, 1953". The book is a collection of every game played at the Zurich tournament that year which was who's participants included many of the worlds strongest chess players of the day, including Bronstein himself. He has annotated each game masterfully to illustrate the great clash of ideas, why one idea sometimes prevailed over the other and even where the great masters went wrong.



10th: The Ultimate Chess Puzzle Book - John Emms

Though this book sits at a particular spot on the list the time for it is whenever you are completely finished with, and I mean thoroughly chewed up and devoured "Winning Chess Tactics for Juniors" that is our suggestion for your fourth book. If so you should be able to turn to any page of that book, look at any problem position and know the solution within a few seconds so confidently that you don't need to look it up. You should now be able to try your hand at some more involved problems. While there are many books you could continue with, The Ultimate Chess Puzzle Book overcomes the shortcomings of many. John Emms has put together 1001 computer verified tactical chess exercises taken from actual positions that occurred in reasonably recent games, meaning they don't have the contrived feel of composed problems and unlike some of the classic titles from before the computer chess age there won't be any solutions that turn out to have holes in them. The problems are broken into sections that generally get more difficult as you work your way to the book. Some of the sections are strictly checkmate problems while others are a mixed bag of mostly material winning solutions. The general recommendation here is to work through each section at least twice before moving to the next, and when you finish the later section, go back to the beginning of the earlier section to start your review. I suggest you nail down the first four sections as well as you did Hays's book before moving on.






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