My First Chess Book(s)

by admin on June 3, 2013

Last August I wrote a post called My First Chess Set/Board/Clock. But for some reason I didn’t think of writing the obvious sequel, about my first chess books. What does a player’s first chess book say about him or her? What kind of impact does it have on his or her future development?

In my case, I can think of several first chess books, whose influence ranged from zero to moderate. Probably the first book I ever looked at was An Invitation to Chess, by Irving Chernev and Kenneth Harkness. Though it’s old and probably only available in English Descriptive notation, I still think it must be one of the best beginners’ books ever written. I remember the silly photos of the pieces sized according to their value, so that you could see the giant queen was worth much more than the puny pawn. Still a useful lesson for beginners! I remember an illustrative game on Legal’s mate, although they didn’t call it that. A cool thing about it was that every move was illustrated, not by a diagram but by an actual photograph of a board with the current position. What a great way to make the game accessible to people who don’t know chess notation and have never seen a chess diagram! I’m surprised no one else has thought of it.

Chernev’s book was a hand-me-down from my father, so in that sense it wasn’t really “mine.” The same is true of another book, Reuben Fine’s 50 Chess Lessons from Modern Master Play. “Modern” is a bit of a laugh now, because the first edition came out in 1945! All the games were played between 1941 and 1944, which shows that the chess world did not stop during the Second World War. Although it’s probably a pretty good book, I’m afraid that it had zero effect on my chess development because it was way over my head.

In 1972 I played in my first rated chess tournament and joined the USCF for the first time. Back then the USCF was the only source of really specialized chess books, so their catalogue opened up a whole new world for me. One of the first books I got was I. A. Horowitz’s Chess Openings: Theory and Practice. I remember looking over it on the train to Chicago, my second rated tournament, and taking the “fool’s gold” approach of looking for lines with the ± symbol at the bottom. Although the analysis is highly outdated now, I still love the organization of Horowitz’s book, with “Idea Variations” that show you what White and Black are trying to accomplish when the opponent doesn’t make the best moves, followed by “Practical Variations” that show you the main lines as they were in 1970. Then there are illustrative games. (Complete games! Not the fool’s gold of partial lines with a ± or = evaluation.) Finally, at the end of each chapter there were “Supplementary Variations” covering side lines.

To me, this is still the way that opening books ought to be organized. It really is a great way to learn them, as opposed to just memorizing lines.

The other earliest books I bought were mostly a waste of money. I made the mistake of getting the cheapest books written by players whose name I recognized. So, for example, I ordered Reuben Fine’s deservedly long-forgotten book on the Fischer-Petrosian match, The Final Candidates’ Match, Buenos Aires 1971. I imagine this pamphlet (it was nothing more than that, stapled together) was prepared very hastily to capitalize on the Fischer boom, and probably vanished from the catalog shortly after the Fischer-Spassky match.

Another extremely low-budget production was Larry Evans’ Scotch Game, a 28-page monograph from Ken Smith’s Chess Digest series. I can imagine Larry Evans saying, “I need to make a little money, and how hard can it be to write a book about the Scotch Game?” I hadn’t thought about it for years, until I wrote my last blog post! Yesterday I mentioned Garry Kasparov’s revival of the Scotch Game in his world championship match with Anatoly Karpov in 1990. In particular, he revived the 5. Nxc6 variation, which is the only variation that anybody plays for White these days. But in Evans’s book the main line was the classical 5. Nc3 Bb4 etc. It would be a really amusing period piece today! Unfortunately, it is no longer in my possession.

Of my early purchases from the USCF, the only other one that I can say was truly useful in my chess development was Eugene Znosko-Borovsky’s The Art of Chess Combination, which (unlike the other books I have written about) is still in print! It’s one of the few chess books I ever read cover to cover, and it covered all the standard chess combinations — the Greek gift sacrifice on h7, etc. I think that probably every developing chess player needs a book like this at some point, although it doesn’t have to be Znosko-Borovsky. Perhaps the same function is served by problem-oriented chess websites like Chesstempo.

I should also mention Bobby Fischer Teaches Chess, which was the first prize I ever won at a chess tournament (fourth place unrated at the Indiana State Championship in 1972, thank you very much). What a stunning disappointment that book was. One of only two books ever to come out with Bobby Fischer as the (titular) author, in reality it was just a series of mate-in-two type problems. The book could have been written by anybody. You don’t get any insight into Fischer’s chess mind from it.

Fortunately I wised up and at some point I bought the one true Bobby Fischer book, My 60 Memorable Games, and I’m very glad that I did. For many years it was out of print and not easy to obtain. Thanks to the Internet, I don’t think that will ever happen again.

So, what can you learn about me from my first chess books? Number one, that I was a very poor judge of chess books. Number two, I had nobody to guide me. Number three, a LOT of time has gone by since then…

Okay, I’ve had my turn. What were your first chess books, which was your favorite, and why?

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{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Ashish June 3, 2013 at 10:44 pm

Huh. I think you may already have been too advanced when you got to _Bobby Fischer Teaches Chess_. It’s still the book I recommend to beginners, before Reinfeld’s 1001 series. I’ll differ with your assessment – I thought it showed that Fischer really understood how to communicate with a beginner; the vast majority of chess authors (except perhaps for Silman) write at a level far too advanced for their supposed audience of class players.

The first “serious” book I can remember reading was Koltanowski’s _Checkmate_ – I remember being very impressed by Boden’s Mate.

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horatio June 5, 2013 at 1:50 pm

My first chess book was a bad (it featured far too many virtually uncommented games) general opening book by Alexey Suetin and the second one was Chernev’s superb Logical Chess: Move By Move. Then came Silman’s endgame tome which though me basic endgame skills and Polgar’s monster book which mainly contains mates in 1,2 and 3.

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Dan Schmidt June 6, 2013 at 4:26 am

It was mostly Reinfeld, Chernev, and Horowitz for me (mid 70s). Luckily Logical Chess Move By Move was one of them. I also remember going through Reinfeld’s Great Brilliancy Prize Games of the Chess Masters over and over again. I also had that Znosko-Borovsky book, which I think was a hand-me-down from my father (along with a first printing of My 60 Memorable Games!).

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Praveen Narayanan June 6, 2013 at 12:58 pm

1. Chess master vs Chess amateur (Euwe and Meiden) – used to reside in my dad’s bookshelf (~1990-91, I was about 10 and just learning).
2. (some counterfeit endgame treatise with sources pulled from other great works)
3. The road to chess mastery (Euwe and Meiden) ~1998 – well used and now lost, but I’ve repurchased it recently. This belongs to the must read list, excellent, global treatment of positions from various openings and formations.
4. The art of defense in chess (Soltis) ~1998 – essential reading for the positional pretender.
5. The development of Chess style (Euwe and Nunn) ~1998-2000 – need I say more, it’s both Euwe and Nunn
6. The mammoth book (Burgess, Nunn, Emms(?)) ~1998-2000 – possibly the best game collection to have – well worn, close to falling apart.

I still have 4,5,6 in my shelf here, and they have made the long journey across several oceans. I guess I lived up to the reputation of being an armchair enthusiast by reading all those great books without having played more than a dozen games in my pre-adult life!

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ChessAdmin June 23, 2013 at 10:40 am

I discovered a copy of Larry Evans’ “Chess Catechism” on my father’s bookshelf and was fascinated by the idea of a book about chess. It was a great introduction to “serious” game concepts and the literature, presented in an entertaining survey form along with some of Evans’ Chess Life columns. I credit it for spurring my interest in the game to go beyond the Milton Bradley (i.e. toy store) level.

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