Irving Chernev’s Logical Chess, Move by Move

As Ecclesiastes reminds us, “Of the making of many books there is no end.” Frankly, there are simply too many good chess books for most of us ever to come close to reading them all: at a certain point you simply have to choose an armful and drive on with your studies. Don’t be like the donkey in the famous philosophical problem of Buridan’s ass, in which the poor beast starves to death because he can’t decide between two mangers which are equally close.

Here are three key criteria I use for including a book on my overlearning list:

1)      Do I enjoy it?

2)      Do I believe in its key concepts?

3)      Do I believe it will help me to win more games?

A book usually has to satisfy all three criteria to make it onto my list, or if not all three, then at least the last two.

Let me state something that may be far from obvious: even a so-called bad chess book may have some value for you, if it introduces you to an idea you have not seen before, or merely reminds you of a good idea you have seen before. As the prominent New York chess teacher Bruce Pandolfini wrote in his entertaining column “The Q&A Way” on the excellent website Chess Cafe:

Almost any chess book treating material beyond the moves and rules should be beneficial. … Most introductory manuals advocate playing for the center, developing your pieces, getting your king to safety, not wasting time, and so on. It’s not likely, no matter how badly written or constructed some chess books are, you’ll ever encounter one that recommends playing for the corner, staying undeveloped, exposing your king early, and wasting time. So you can’t really go too far wrong.

I truly believe you have a tremendous amount of flexibility in choosing books that work for you. Everyone has unique interests, strengths, and weaknesses as a chess player.

Yes, Chernev’s Logical Chess is a beginner’s book. It is also useful, in my opinion, for players all the way up to and including national master. I consider myself fortunate in that I was given it as my first chess book, when I was fourteen, by a math teacher with whom I used to play chess every day during an open period in my class schedule. When the year began he was a better player than I was; as the fall term passed we became roughly equal; by the end of the year he could hardly get a draw from me. This book and our games gave practical impetus to my love for chess. I found our games so interesting and valuable to my chess development that I dropped a spring term course that got in the way of our daily meeting. It was a mandatory hands-on course, my choice of shop or electronics, but the school year was 1972-73—Bobby Fischer had just won the world championship—and apparently the school administration accepted the excuse that the course would have interfered with my daily chess games. They had little choice, because I refused to report to the classroom and kept playing chess instead.

Why is Logical Chess so valuable? I admit, you may want to pass quickly over Chernev’s repeated explanations of why basic opening moves are good, but the book offers many solid lessons. It reinforces repeatedly the critical importance of quick and efficient development in the opening, careful piece placement, strong squares, weak squares, creating threats, neutralizing threats, initiative, counterplay, obtaining an advantage, exploiting an advantage, turning positional superiority into decisive winning tactics, and patience in the endgame.

The U.S. Army has a teaching principle, “Show me what right looks like.” Logical Chess is a collection of excellent master games that show you what right looks like, and also show you how to think practically and realistically about the positions that will arise in your own games. Yes, the openings are older, but other more modern books in your study program can make up that deficiency. Personally, I find extremely useful and reassuring the implicit calm attitude, pervasive throughout the book, that the chessboard is a rational world with rules we can understand and apply, while admitting many exceptions based on special circumstances; where truth can be discovered and justice triumphs in the end. Finally, as if more justification were needed, Chernev is a skillful writer: cultured, witty, entertaining, well able to sugar the pill of instruction.

This post is long enough. Next week I will conclude my discussion of Chernev’s Logical Chess, and explain why famous English GM John Nunn despises it.

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