How to Read a Chess Book

Really? An article about how to read a book? Chess books are similar to textbooks used in schools, and getting the most out of a textbook requires some technique. The better your technique, the more information you retain. The more information you retain and put into practice, the better your chess game!

I was first introduced to this idea in college when I took an Introductory Archaeology class. On the first day of class, the teacher announced that we would first learn how to read our textbook before actually reading it. While the rest of the class rolled their eyes, I prepared to take notes. Why? Well, because I had been expelled from high school, I suspected I had a lot to learn about the art of learning! Here’s what I learned from that professor and from my own observations after reading many chess books.

Your first order of business is to invest in a notebook and a few pencils. You are going to take notes while reading. Why take notes if you own the book? Because you can jot down key concepts and ideas in your notebook and access them more quickly than if you had to skim through the book to find the same information. Also, the act of writing something down helps to implant it within your memory. As an added bonus, you’ll often be able to keep the key ideas from seven or eight books in a single notebook, making it a compact source of useful information. I have a single notebook that was created from eleven chess books I read. When you start reading a book, write the title and author down in your notebook prior to taking notes. This way you know where the information came from.

The first thing my professor told our class was to read the table of contents thoroughly. Many people simply plow into their reading, ignoring the table of contents. The table of contents tells you exactly what you’ll be studying, breaking it down into sections. Read the Book’s introduction as well. Some people find this a waste of time, but often you’ll find that you make a connection with the author and that connection, no matter how slight, pulls you that much further into the book. I read a chess book once where the author said that he was the worst chess player in the world when he started. I could identify with this which made me really want to pay attention to what he had to say as well as read all his other books. If you have a connection with a book you’re apt to put more effort into your reading and studying. Read the bibliography because this will tell you where the author’s ideas came from. If you really like the author’s writing, you might want to read the books listed in the bibliography. If there is an index, read that as well. While this might sound a bit silly, by reading the index prior to reading the book, you’ll have a better idea of the book’s contents and be able to easily find things while reading.

So now we sit down and start reading our chess book. Before even glancing at page one, have a board and pieces next to you. While you can read some chess books without having a physical board and pieces, you won’t retain as much information. The act of moving pieces, physically playing through the book’s examples, helps cement that knowledge within your memory. If you’re a Tablet user and read chess books in electronic form, invest in a chess book reader. These apps come with a small screen containing a fully functional chess board, allowing you to play through the book’s examples as you read. It really helps when studying openings. If you’re an old school, paper books or nothing type of chess player, have a board and pieces set up. Now you can start reading.

Many chess books start each chapter with a written explanation of that chapter’s key concepts. While most of us just want to get to the game examples, it is critical that you carefully read and understand the concepts being explained in that chapter. Even if its a concept you already understand, read the written explanation. While the basic explanation of a concept may be universal, each author offers a unique way of presenting that concept, one that might make even more sense to you, but you’ll never know unless you read that author’s explanation.

After each paragraph, stop reading and ask yourself, what did that last paragraph just say? We often plow through technical books too quickly, not assessing our own understanding of the material as we read. If the paragraph talks about the three primary opening principles, see if you remember those principles. If you can’t immediately remember them, go back and read the paragraph again. However, don’t get caught up with trying to memorize the paragraph. You’re after just the basic idea presented within the paragraph. While this may seem like slow going, this is not a race. You are here to learn, so take your time. If you do you’ll walk away with a great deal of information within your memory.

As you read each paragraph, jot down any key concepts that appear within that paragraph in your notebook. By doing so, you’ll easily be able to answer the question, what did that last paragraph say? Try to write the concept or idea down as a single sentence. Many chess books have the key concept being discussed written as a single sentence in bold letters. Write that down and then translate it into your own words. Again, try to keep your own explanation to a single sentence. Write down any specific words or terms used. Look those words or terms up if you don’t understand them. I have no problem keeping a dictionary handy if it means I get more out of the book I’m reading.

When you get through the entire chapter, review your notes to make sure that you understand everything you’ve just read. I cannot emphasize this enough. When you’re new to a subject, such as chess, there will be many concepts and ideas that are foreign to you. The more effort you put into understanding these concepts and ideas, the easier studying chess will become in the long run because you’re building a solid foundation of knowledge for yourself. This brings me to the game examples within the book you’re reading.

One type of chess book that tests the patience of chess students are books on various openings. Because there are so many variations presented in these books, many players try to skim through them. Don’t do it. Play through every single example no matter how long it takes. This is where the chess book app is king. With the Tablet app, you can play through numerous variations without having to physically reset the board. If you’re using a physical board and pieces, still play through all the examples. When playing through an opening, after each move, ask yourself why that move was made before referring to the text’s explanation. This really helps your understanding of the opening’s mechanics. Take your time and explore every move!

There is so much to this topic that you could write an entire book about it. However, this should give you enough ammunition to fight the good fight. Remember, what you get out of a book is directly proportional to what you put into that book in the way of effort. Read one book at a time! Here’s a game to enjoy until next week!

Hugh Patterson

This entry was posted in Articles, Hugh Patterson on by .

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).