More About Irving Chernev’s Logical Chess, Move by Move

Before we look at GM John Nunn’s opinion of Logical Chess, here are sample dicta from Chernev’s book, typical of his teaching approach as he presents annotated master games for a non-master readership:

“Every pawn move loosens the position” (quoting Tarrasch).

“The best openings to play are those you are most at home in.”

“No move is weak unless proper advantage is taken of its flaws.”

“Recognizing a weakness and knowing how to take advantage of it marks the master player.”

“Open lines favor the player whose development is superior and whose pieces enjoy greater mobility.”

“The advance of any pawn around the king loosens the defensive structure and results in a permanent weakening which can be exploited, while the pawn that made the forward step itself often becomes a target for direct attack.”

“Action in the center is the best remedy for a kingside attack.”

“Moves are good or bad by one standard only: their effect on the position at hand.” (Some people call Chernev dogmatic, but statements like this one give them the lie. It is true that Chernev’s analysis can sometimes sound dogmatic, especially early in the book, but gradually he becomes more flexible as the reader is presumed to become more sophisticated.)

“In a cramped position try to relieve the pressure by forcing exchanges of pieces.”

“When you are a pawn ahead, reduce the material (and your opponent’s chances) by exchanging pieces, if it does not weaken your position.”

“It is subtle moves in apparently simple positions and not queen sacrifices that mark the master player.”

“Do not chase after pawns at the expense of your development.”

“An attack that leads to a forced win takes precedence over positional considerations.”

“The move that is congenial to your style is the best move, and the one you should play.”

“I would caution you that this and other maxims are not to be blindly followed. In chess, as in life, rules must often be swept aside. In general, though, the principles governing sound chess play do make wonderful guideposts, especially in the opening, the middlegame, and the ending!”

“Develop with a threat whenever possible.”

John Nunn

John Nunn

Noted English GM and all-around chess authority John Nunn despises Chernev’s book. Nunn has argued that Logical Chess Move by Move is a severely limited work produced by a weak player. To be brutally honest, GM Nunn called it “a tissue of superficiality.” He added: “In the same way that pseudoscientific theories may appear convincing to those with little knowledge of science, ‘pseudo-chess’ books may appear convincing to their target audience. Unfortunately, such misleading chess books are distressingly common.”

To right this caissic wrong, GM Nunn produced his own book, Grandmaster Chess Move By Move, from which the quotes in the previous paragraph are drawn, and which is fifty years more up-to-date than Logical Chess. Nunn, who once ranked in the top ten players in the world by rating, is a far stronger player than Chernev, who was probably no more than a national master at his peak. Nunn’s book is far more sophisticated and accurate than Chernev’s, with numerous cogent variations—no doubt computer-checked—backing up his characteristically precise prose. However, for these very reasons I consider his book not as useful as Chernev’s for most players below the level of master. Chernev targets primarily players who are not masters and therefore need first principles hammered home, early and often.

Irving Chernev

Irving Chernev

Just as we give babies soft food because it requires no chewing and is easily digestible, so Chernev nourishes the infant judgment of lower-level chessplayers with easy, plausible rules to guide their faltering footsteps. Really he is only trying to direct their attention to the right topics, such as piece activity, piece coordination, king safety, time, space, squares, files, diagonals, color complexes, and so on, to furnish the empty rooms of their minds with necessary terminology and to provide a starting place for their own investigations. Later, if they stick with the game, they will inevitably and naturally move beyond their early nostrums, and one day may even pick up GM Nunn’s much more finely grained work and profit from its superior wisdom. In Logical Chess, Chernev himself prepares his readers for that glorious day by confessing, essentially, that ultimately there are no rules: “Moves are good or bad by one standard only: their effect on the position at hand.” Later in the book he amplifies this important point:

Nothing in chess—no convention, principle, or recommended procedure—is to be practiced rigidly. The value of any single move or combination of moves can only be measured with respect to the particular position on the board. It must fit in with the scheme of the game you are playing and be tempered by the demands of the opponent. A great deal depends on what he does, or lets you do. This is why you may find it expedient to develop your queen at the sixth move or to castle at the sixtieth move.

Logical Chess was my first chess book, which accounts for my familiarity with it, and fondness for it. Read it, make it your own, and from time to time the author will whisper in your ear.

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