One of the great things about chess is that someone’s understanding of the game can be explained in writing, something that is not the case with many other arts such as music or tai chi. Accordingly we have the opportunity to take lessons with some of the greatest players in history, but only if they were good at communicating their ideas and we then read their books.
Which are the best of these? A personal favourite of mine is Lasker’s Manual of Chess by the former World Champion Emanual Lasker. I’ve read this one about 4-5 times from cover to cover and dipped into it on many other occasions. It is a tremendous storehouse of wisdom on chess with wide applicability to other fields, something that I haven’t really found in any other chess book.
Of those which have value for chess alone I’ve always liked Capablanca’s Chess Fundamentals which clearly communicates many important strategic ideas, especially in simple positions. On the other hand I’ve never liked Nimzovitsch’s My System that much, finding it to be a tough read and rather convoluted in its thinking.
A wonderful source of instruction from champions are their annotated games collections. Mikhail Botvinnik’s were books that I learned a lot from as were those of Paul Keres and Bent Larsen. I didn’t really like Bobby Fischer’s My 60 Memorable Games quite as much, perhaps because it lacked much of a story line. Alexander Alekhine’s two books are also something I didn’t take to immediately, though these days I appreciate them far more and would like to find the time to go through them again.
Amongst more recently published books my personal favourites are Viktor Korchnoi’s two books on his games covering those with White and those with Black. One thing I particularly like about them is Korchnoi’s great objectivity about how he played, he doesn’t seem to be out to dazzle his audience with his abilities despite the fact that he is one of the greatest players in history. This quality makes it much easier to learn from him and also provides a useful piece of guidance about what one should avoid.