Finding The Right Chess Book

One of the hardest tasks the beginning chess player faces today is self improvement. When I first started playing chess (around the time the Quill Pen was invented), improvement options were extremely limited. You would purchase a chess book, study it and test your new found knowledge out on your opponent. There was no training software or home computers at the time. Self improvement took place on the chessboard! In fact, in many ways self improvement was simpler because of the lack of technology. Only having books to guide you forced you into a healthy balance of studying and applying your new found knowledge on the chess board. However, there is a big problem with using books to improve your game these days and the problem is finding the right book for you. Here’s what the beginning chess player faces when search for the right chess book:

It’s been said that more books have been written about chess than all other games combined. I have roughly 2,000 chess books in my library which is a fraction of the number of chess books in other player’s libraries. As a chess instructor and coach, I make a point of keeping up with newly published chess books which sometimes feels like a full time job in itself! The point I’m trying to make is that there are a huge number of chess books available for players of all levels. The problem is finding the right one for you. By “right one,” I mean a book that is geared towards your skill level. Countless times, I’ve purchased a book, thinking it was suited towards my skill level, only to discover that its contents were too advanced. With so many available chess titles, you’d think that finding the right book for you would be easy. Unfortunately, especially for the beginner, it isn’t!

Some of the problem lies with the author’s assumption of just what a beginning player is. I teach beginning and intermediate students exclusively. One thing I’ve discovered about teaching chess is that it helps me improve my own game as well. Everything I use in the way of teaching techniques comes from chess books I’ve read. To make it easier for the beginning student wanting to employ a course of self study, I’ve come up with a few ideas to use when choosing a chess book.

Look at books geared towards young beginners (children). Many times, I’ve picked up a book written for adult beginners only to find explanations of a specific idea too complicated. Chess books written for children use the simplest explanations to explain seemingly complex ideas. I’ve learned more about the nuances of good chess through books written for a younger audience. Children’s chess books generally give clear explanations that get right to the point. If you’re new to the game of chess, take a look at the book’s table of contents. It should contain chapters that describe piece movement, basic tactics, opening principles, basic forms of checkmate and a bit on the endgame.

If you don’t want to use a children’s chess book (some adults are embarrassed by the idea of lugging around a kid’s book in public), I suggest a general survey book such as the Chess for Dummies by James Eade. This book gives the reader a good overview of the game of chess. Its explanations are clear and concise, covering all the basics. If you’re embarrassed by the title put a brown paper book cover on it. Another good choice is any of the wonderful introductory chess books written by Bruce Pandolfini. If you’re looking for a complete self study program, consider The Comprehensive Chess Course Volume I and II by Alburt and Pelts. This is a good series of books that train the novice in the fundamentals.

The above mentioned books are a general survey of the overall game, which means they don’t cover any one topic in great detail. These books give you a feel for the various components of a chess game and teach you the most basic fundamentals of each component (the opening, middle and endgames, tactics, mating patterns, etc). Once you’ve read through one of these books, it’s time to add a few more books to the collection. I’d start with a general survey of openings, a tactics book and an endgame book.

For openings, I recommend Chess Openings for Dummies by James Eade. This is a general survey of a variety of openings which means you’ll get the basics of the opening only. However, the author provides a great set of explanations regarding opening principles and gives games for each opening in which both sides win. By using a book such as this one, the reader will have a chance to try out a large number of openings and learn the underlying opening principles. Choosing an opening is a lot like buying a good car. You have to test drive a few before settling on one! Only after you have tried out a few openings should you consider purchasing books about specific openings.

For books on tactics, I cannot stress enough the idea of the beginner using a tactics book written for children. If you’re new to the game, you want clear explanations and clear examples. One book on tactics I’ve greatly enjoyed is Chess Tactics for Kids by Murray Chandler. It teaches the reader to recognize patterns in which tactics can be employed. Again, the explanations are clear and easy to follow.

Lastly, a good endgame book is necessary. I highly recommend Pandolfini’s Endgame Course. It teaches the reader the basics of endgame checkmates in a logical order. Beginners have a difficult time in the endgame because they haven’t mastered piece coordination. Reading this book will change that. Bruce covers how to use pieces in coordination with one another to deliver checkmate.

Whether you’re choosing a book on chess openings or one on endgames, look through the table of contents first. See if the book is laid out in a logical sequence. Read the introduction. Take a look at the first chapter. Read through a few paragraphs. Ask yourself “does this make sense?” Really scan through the book, stopping at diagrams, again asking yourself “does this make sense?” It’s better to stick to the most basic of books as a beginner rather than try to wade through a book written for advanced players. Keeping it simple applies to chess as well as life. As for other authors, anything written by Richard James is as excellent choice. When you have some experience under your belt, read everything Nigel has written! Here’s a game to enjoy until next week!

Hugh Patterson

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About Hugh Patterson

Prior to teaching chess, Hugh Patterson was a professional guitarist for nearly three decades, playing in a number of well known San Francisco bands including KGB, The Offs, No Alternative, The Swinging Possums and The Watchmen. After recording a number of albums and CDs he retired from music to teach chess. He currently teaches ten chess classes a week through Academic Chess. He also created and runs a chess program for at-risk teenagers incarcerated in juvenile correctional facilities. In addition to writing a weekly column for The Chess Improver, Hugh also writes a weekly blog for the United States Chess League team, The Seattle Sluggers. He teaches chess privately as well, giving instruction to many well known musicians who are only now discovering the joys of chess. Hugh is an Correspondence Chess player with the ICCF (International Correspondence Chess Federation). He studied chemistry in college but has worked in fields ranging from Investment Banking and commodities trading to Plastics design and fabrication. However, Hugh prefers chess to all else (except Mrs. Patterson and his beloved dog and cat).