Category Archives: Book Reviews

Reviews of recommended chess books, past and present.

Mark Dvoretsky: Great Chess Authors, Part 7

After mostly choosing authors for this series who geared their writings for beginners and intermediate players, let’s discuss an author on the opposite end of the spectrum.

I warn you: this post will be long.

Mark Dvoretsky (1947-2016)

Mark Dvoretsky. Photo: ChessBase.

Mark Dvoretsky. Photo: ChessBase

Muscovite Mark Dvoretsky was a very strong player, becoming an International Master in 1975. In this period he reached his peak as a player but soon became a trainer.

And what a trainer he was! He worked extensively with such players as Women’s World Championship Challenger Nana Alexandria, Valery Chekhov, Sergei Dolmatov, and Viktor Bologan, among many others.

His most prominent student was Artur Yusupov, who rose to World #3 in 1986. Dvoretsky and Yusupov would collaborate on many books for very strong (or at least very ambitious) players. These were borne out of training sessions with future stars, including Vladimir Kramnik and Peter Svidler.

NOT for Beginners!

Honestly, no other author scares me the way Mark Dvoretsky does. That’s a compliment, by the way: his books will make you work like no others that I’ve seen. A trademark of his books is very deep analysis of his own games or his students’ games. He will often discuss how well or poorly his students did in solving these training positions.

I’ve read reviews that complain about the inclusion of chapters from other trainers’, but I appreciate the different viewpoints. Dvoretsky frequently gets lost in a forest of analysis so dense you question how helpful it is to your chess development. The contributors tend to stick to one topic and cover it in very instructive fashion.

I consider my study session a success if I can get through one chapter of one of these books.

Batsford Series

These are the books that introduced the West to Mark Dvoretsky. They feature lectures at the his chess school, sometimes with chapters from other contributors like Igor Khenkin, Aleksei Kosikov, and Boris Zlotnik.

Secrets of Chess Training (1991), Secrets of Chess Tactics (1992)

I have not read these two books, unfortunately. Well, maybe I have…we’ll come back to that.

Training for the Tournament Player (1993)

Steve Colding of Chess for Children lent me this book in 1998. I remember taking notes and studying it very seriously. The problem, of course, was that I was only a 1400 player…

Opening Preparation (1994, with Artur Yusupov)

I absolutely love this book. It isn’t about opening theory, but typical maneuvers and operations in a variety of opening systems. This book forms the basis of how I play the Sicilian against the Grand Prix Attack, and helps orient me when I face King’s Indian Attack-style setups.

Technique for the Tournament Player (1995, with Artur Yusupov)

I think I got my hands on this one, but I’m not totally sure. I’ll discuss it below.

Positional Play (1996, with Artur Yusupov)

Devour this gem one bite (chapter) at a time. It discusses positional play in ways you wouldn’t expect having read other classics. The contributors each have something valuable to add — including chapters by top players Vladimir Kramnik and Evgeny Bareev!

Assiduous study of this book will vault you far ahead of other class players when it comes to positional understanding.

Attack and Defence (1998, with Artur Yusupov)

This one is quite good, but literally makes my head hurt! Dvoretsky keeps making you think he has revealed the answer to one of his analysis positions…only to go back and reveal a further nuance to consider. The lasting impact it has left on my play is don’t assume. The attack you think is irresistible…the defense you think is impenetrable…may not be so!

Dvoretsky’s Endgame Manual (2003, 5th edition 2020)

This is perhaps the most popular of Dvoretsky’s books, as it is not aimed towards master-level players only. It contains a lot of explanatory material and diagrams, but personally I am not a big fan. Probably I would have a different opinion if I was taking my first steps in chess.

Dvoretsky’s Analytical Manual (2008)

I have never read this book, and don’t intend to. It’s famous for its dense analysis, and is geared towards budding International Masters and Grandmasters.

Edition Olms Books

Before talking about the books, let me just say that I have never regretted purchasing an Edition Olms book, or paying their high prices. They produce gorgeous paperbacks that you never want to ruin: high-quality paper, print, and binding.

Some of these books are reprints of the Batsford books that have long been out of print.

School of Chess Excellence 1: Endgame Analysis (2003)

I have not read this one.

School of Chess Excellence 2: Tactical Play (2003)

A good mental workout! It’s not a puzzle book, but a collection of positions are discussed which feature unexpected tactical solutions. I didn’t find this book as challenging as Dvoretsky’s other works, because of I’m used to solving paradoxical “Russian” tactics.

School of Chess Excellence 3: Strategic Play (2002)

This book is original, and not a reprint of the earlier Batsford series. It’s challenging, and stresses the importance of small nuances. It’s really helpful if you play King’s English (1.c4 e5) or Reversed Closed Sicilian (1.Nf3 Nf6 2.c4 g6 3.g3 Bg7 etc.) positions from either side.

School of Chess Excellence 4: Opening Developments (2003)

I have not read this one.

School of Future Chess Champions 1: Secrets of Chess Training (2006)

This one really helped me in my coaching endeavors. It stressed to me how individual chess improvement really is, and how much of a disservice coaches can do to their students if they take a cookie-cutter approach.

I very much enjoyed the anecdotes Dvoretsky provides about his experiences as a trainer, and the frame of mind a coach should approach helping a student from. I recommend it to coaches and to anyone directing their own self-improvement.

School of Future Chess Champions 2: Secrets of Opening Preparation (2007)

I have not read this one, but I think it’s a reprint of the 1994 Batsford book.

School of Future Chess Champions 3: Secrets of Endgame Technique (2007)

I believe this one is very similar to, if not a reprint of, Technique for the Tournament Player. Since I couldn’t get that one, I got this version.

The book doesn’t really teach endgame play per se. It discusses the player’s frame of mind when dealing with endgames, and gives some advice for improving your endgame play.

School of Future Chess Champions 4: Secrets of Positional Play (2009)

This is the same book as Positional Play.

School of Future Chess Champions 5: Secrets of Creative Thinking (2009)

This is the same book as Attack and Defense.

Others

I stopped buying Dvoretsky’s books because they require a commitment to study that I was no longer willing to give, but I might read his two autobiographical works at some point. His other titles include:

Maneuvering was the great coach’s last book, as he died in September 2016 at the age of 68. The wealth of training material he created will long outlive him.

What are your thoughts on Mark Dvoretsky’s legacy? Please share!

Irving Chernev: Great Chess Authors, Part 6

After seeing my choice of Fred Reinfeld last week, today’s selection should not be a surprise. In fact, he co-authored a few books with Reinfeld.

Irving Chernev (1900-1981)

Irving Chernev. Photo: World Chess Hall of Fame.

Irving Chernev. Photo: World Chess Hall of Fame.

Born in Pryluky (part of the old Russian Empire, now Ukraine), Irving Chernev emigrated to the United States in 1920.

He wrote 20 books, including classics that have been updated to Algebraic Notation from Descriptive Notation.

While I consider Max Euwe the most instructive chess author, there is no one I enjoy reading more than Irving Chernev. His love of chess shines through on every page. Well-chosen examples, insightful comments, and easy reading.

Game Collections

I absolutely love game collections, and Chernev wrote several good ones, including Logical Chess: Move by Move (1957), The Most Instructive Games of Chess Ever Played (1965), and The Golden Dozen (1976). There is also 1000 Best Short Games of Chess (1955).

I was also gifted The Russians Play Chess (1947) by Charlie Ebbecke while I was a member of the Bronx Yonkers Chess Club in the late 1990s. I played through many of the games in this book several times!

But my favorite — and one of my top ten books — is Capablanca’s Best Chess Endings (1978).

If you have trouble making sense of endgame play, take a couple of weeks and play through the 60 games in this book. It will transform your entire outlook on chess. Chernev isolates the final phase of the games and explains in words what is going on. Brilliant stuff.

Instructional

By my count there are Combinations: The Heart of Chess (1960), Practical Chess Endings (1961), and two earlier books Chernev worked on with Reinfeld: Chess Strategy and Tactics (1933), and Winning Chess (1948).

Others

I’ve always wanted to get my hands on 200 Brilliant Chess Endgames (yes, I have a weakness for endgames!). Other titles include The Fireside Book of Chess (with Reinfeld, 1948), and The Bright Side of Chess (1948).

Final Thoughts

Irving Chernev wrote a great deal of good books for the improving and average player. His works are easy to read and you can easily spend hours on them without realizing you have done so…

Fred Reinfeld: Great Chess Authors, Part 5

Not everyone will agree with this selection, but generations of American chess players grew up on the works of my next great chess author. I have read several of his books myself and always enjoyed them.

Fred Reinfeld (1910-1964)

Fred Reinfeld

Fred Reinfeld. Photo: World Chess Hall of Fame

Fred Reinfeld was born in 1910. The lifelong New Yorker was one of the USA’s best in the 1930s, playing in two U.S. Championships.

Retiring from active play in 1942, he never competed internationally. As a result, FIDE did not award him the International Master title when it was created in 1950. He likely had the requisite chess strength for this rank by today’s standards.

Reinfeld had the two ingredients every great chess author needs: playing strength, and an ability to reach improving players. His clever anecdotes and memorable rules are forever part of America’s chess heritage.

 

More Than 100 Books

Reinfeld was a prolific author, and I can’t name all of his works. Still, some of his titles stand out:

1001 Winning Chess Sacrifices and Combinations (1955)

1001 Brilliant Ways to Checkmate (1955)

These are still among the best puzzle books available. They’re cheap, filled with good material, and you can stuff them in your pocket and work through them on-the-go.

There are typos and the diagrams are not the most pleasing (at least in the old editions, new “21st century” editions of these books have been published in the last several years). But in a time before chess tactics software, web-based tactics training, and an overload of chess study material, I have no doubt these books helped create an untold number of master-level players.

I’m a big believer in Chess School 1a and Chess School 1b for players up to about 1600. At the same time, I would not second-guess anyone who put their trust in the Reinfeld duo.

The Complete Chess Course (1959)

The first Reinfeld book I read; and I still feel nostalgia when I see it in Barnes & Noble. Yes, it’s written in Descriptive Notation, as all of his books originally were.

This book, in eight parts, won’t do any harm, something I can’t say for every highly-acclaimed chess book. I borrowed the 700-page tome from the library circa 1995 and somehow finished it. I don’t remember much because my eyes began to glaze over at some point. There are many books I would recommend ahead of The Complete Chess Course, but I guess it was an amazing resource for its time.

Hypermodern Chess: As Developed in the Games of Its Greatest Exponent, Aron Nimzovich (1958)

Great Brilliancy Prize Games of the Chess Masters (1961)

Great Short Games of the Chess Masters (1961)

All of these game collections contain dozens of instructive games, each preceded by a catchy headline and introduction setting a frame for the battle. The Nimzowitsch book places more emphasis on the man’s theories as they come about in his games.

Reinfeld doesn’t go crazy with the analysis, and does a good job of choosing instructive lines to illustrate the play without getting bogged down in endless variations. Take out a chess set on a nice afternoon and play through a selection of these games!

Others

Reinfeld wrote many other books, some co-authored. One of the most enjoyable chess books I have ever read is Chess Traps, Pitfalls, and Swindles (1954) by Reinfeld and I.A. Horowitz. I still remember some of the stories I read in that one almost 25 years later, and the book helped me look for unlikely resources in bad situations — something that happens to me a lot…

He also wrote books on checkers, coin collecting, literature, and other things.

Which Reinfeld books are your favorites?

Final Thoughts

I’m not sure if Fred Reinfeld’s books will endure in the 21st century the way those of Euwe and Nimzowitsch surely will, but I hope they do! His books are instructive and engaging, and I heartily recommend you give them a try.

Aron Nimzowitsch: Great Chess Authors, Part 4

I continue my survey of chess authors by examining perhaps the most influential of them all.

Aron Nimzowitsch (1886-1935)

Aron Nimzowitsch. Photo: World Chess Hall of Fame

Aron Nimzowitsch. Photo: World Chess Hall of Fame

Half a century before Mikhail Tal and Edmar Mednis, Aron Nimzowitsch was born in Riga (now the capital of Latvia).

He gradually improved his level, competing in lower divisions of Coburg 1904, Barmen 1905, and Ostend 1907 — the latter event a 30-player round-robin lasting six weeks!

Nimzowitsch hit the big time in Karlsbad 1907, tying for fourth place behind Akiba Rubinstein. He continued to prove he was a top player and received an invite to St. Petersburg 1914, but did not reach the finals won by World Champion Emanuel Lasker.

Nimzowitsch fled Latvia during the Russian Revolution in 1917, eventually settling in Denmark. In the 1920s he won several elite events, reaching his peak by winning Karlsbad 1929.

One of the five-best players in the world in the late 1920s and early 1930s, Nimzowitsch could not secure financial backing for a World Championship Match. It was instead Efim Bogoljubov who got two chances at the throne in 1929 and 1934 againt Alexander Alekhine, before Max Euwe finally wrested away the title in 1935.

Leader of the Hypermoderns

The hack-and-slash Romantic Era (think Adolf Anderssen and Paul Morphy) was emblematic of 19th century chess. The reaction was the positional logic of the Classical Era led by Wilhelm Steinitz, Lasker, and Siegbert Tarrasch beginning in the last quarter of the 1800s.

By the 1920s, it was time for another sea-change. Nimzowitsch, Richard Réti (1889-1929), and Gyula Breyer (1893-1921) led the Hypermodern Era of the 1920s and 30s. Influence the center from afar with pieces, using plenty of fianchettos! Entirely new opening branches were explored, including Alekhine’s Defense (1.e4 Nf6), Nimzo-Indian Defense (1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 Bb4), and Grünfeld Defense (1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 g6 3.Nc3 d5).

It’s notable that the top players of the era including Alekhine, Rubinstein, and Jose Capablanca embraced Hypermodern concepts and incorporated them into their own play.

Literary Legacy of Aron Nimzowitsch

Nimzowitsch may be the only top player more remembered in chess history for his books than his games! I wonder how he would feel about that?

Before moving to NImzowitsch’s most famous works, I’ll mention Как Я Стал Гросмейстером (How I Became a Grandmaster) which contains some of his early games and suggestions for improvement, but has not been translated into English (as far as I know). I’m very interested in reading this book one day, though my Russian is poor.

Ok, here we go:

The Blockade (1925)

This small (<50 pages) exploration of Nimzowitsch’s ideas on blockade is a great introduction to his theories and also contains some of his early articles. He is over-the-top as usual and, never one to shy away from a pissing contest, leaves ample room to attack Tarrasch and others.

My System (1925)

The most influential chess book of the 20th century, and there isn’t a close second.

Nimzowitsch begins with what he calls The Elements. My System is considered a middlegame textbook, but in addition to strategic ideas like open files, passed pawns, and pawn chains, he includes tactical ideas like pins and discovered checks!

I’ll note that his remarks on endgame technique are very helpful as well, especially on “welding” your forces together and “general advance!” Keeping this in mind has helped me overcome my opposition more easily when I have a clear endgame edge.

The second part of the book is all about positional play, and here Nimzowitsch delves into the concepts that define him including prophylaxis, overprotection, and the isolani.

It’s time for me to pick up My System again! After I cure my laziness, of course…

Chess Praxis (1929)

NImzowitsch annotates over 100 of his own games. This was the first work I read by the great author, when I was rated roughly 1000. My advice…don’t read any of Nimzowitsch’s stuff until at least 1600, and maybe higher! Start with Blockade because it is short and easy to get your teeth into, then My System. If you want even more, there is Chess Praxis as well. And finally…

Carlsbad International Chess Tournament 1929 (1930)

This tournament book is disappointing! Nimzowitsch doesn’t cover all (or most) of the games, and the annotations are sparse. It seems the entire exercise was an effort to make a few bucks while attempting to secure a title match with Alekhine. Buy it if you love collecting chess books or are a Nimzowitsch diehard, but don’t expect great instructional value here.

Final Thoughts

Aron Nimzowitsch died in Copenhagen in 1935 at 48 years old.

His contributions to middlegame theory are second to none. Nimzowitsch also had a profound influence on openings, especially the Nimzo-Indian and Queen’s Indian Defenses, but also the French, Sicilian, and others.

This man left his fingerprints all over the chess world, and his influence is felt to this day.

What do you think of Nimzowitsch? Is he regarded appropriately, underrated or overrated?

Eugene Znosko-Borovsky: Great Chess Authors, Part 3

After Mednis and Euwe, the next author I want to shine a light on is Eugene Znosko-Borovsky! If you’re a more casual chess fan, you might be wondering: “Who, exactly?”

Eugene Znosko-Borovsky (1884-1954)

Eugene Znosko-Borovsky. Photo: Julian Mandel. Source: Wikipedia

Eugene Znosko-Borovsky. Photo: Julian Mandel. Source: Wikipedia

Born in Imperial Russia, Eugene Znosko-Borovsky was a literary critic and veteran of the Russo-Japanese War and World War I before emigrating to France in 1920.

Znosko-Borovsky was not a professional chess player, but fared well in international competition. He scored victories against Bogoljubov, Burn, Capablanca, Euwe, and Rubinstein at various points in his career. The win against Burn earned him one of the brilliancy prizes at the monster Ostend 1906 tournament.

A player who can defeat opponents like those — who also happened to be a professional writer? That helps explain why his chess books can be purchased more than 80 years after he authored them! Few others can make that claim.

 

Five Books in English

Five Znosko-Borovsky books (written between 1934-1940) have been translated into English and can still be purchased today. Not surprisingly, these translations use Descriptive Notation which will put off many readers flipping through the book in Barnes & Noble.

The books are cheap, pocket-sized (thank you, Dover!), and cover all phases of the game.

The Art of Chess Combination

One of my earliest chess books, and my first on tactics and combinational play. it was here that I was introduced to kingside attacking ideas like the “Greek Gift” sacrifice (Bxh7+), Legal’s Mate, Philidor’s Legacy (smothered mate), Fegatello (Fried Liver Attack), and so on.

How to Play Chess Endings

A really helpful book! It helped me learn many elementary endings: the bishop and knight mate and some elementary rook endings particularly stand out. I won several games with Rook+g+h pawn vs. Rook endings because of what I learned here. My only criticism is the confusing part on related squares. Just skip it.

The Middle Game in Chess

I read this book much later in my chess career, when I think I was already over 2000. I liked the way Znosko-Borovsky explained simple concepts without going through reams of analysis. This could certainly be a first book on middlegame play, before going more in depth with other works focusing on tactics and strategy like Judgment and Planning in Chess.

How Not to Play Chess

I’m a firm believer that knowing what NOT to do can be even more powerful than knowing what to do. This easy-to-read book lists common mistakes you can avoid by being aware of them.

How to Play the Chess Openings

I haven’t read this one, so I can’t really comment. I would expect that it is outdated theory-wise but, knowing Znosko-Borovsky, a worthwhile read for the ideas of common openings that have not changed much over time.

What else is there to say? Try one of Eugene Znosko-Borovsky’s books and see for yourself. I think you’ll be convinced that he is indeed a great chess author for improving players.

Max Euwe: Great Chess Authors, Part 2

In Part 1 we took a look at the chess career and many of the books of Edmar Mednis. Up for discussion today is Max Euwe.

Max Euwe (1901-1981)

Max Euwe. Photo: World Chess Hall of Fame

Max Euwe. Photo: World Chess Hall of Fame

Euwe, the Netherlands’ top player for decades, earned a doctorate and taught mathematics full time!

Despite not being a chess professional and playing sparingly, he improved by playing matches against Jose Capablanca, Rudolf Spielmann, and Alexander Alekhine, among others.

Euwe secured a World Championship match against Alekhine in 1935, winning 15½—14½ to become the 5th World Chess Champion. Alekhine won the 1937 rematch, but Euwe’s legacy was secure.

In his later years, the former Champion became FIDE‘s 3rd President (1970-1978).

Writings of a Bygone Era

Euwe was a brilliant author because he was clear and to the point. If you want excitement, look elsewhere — plenty of drivel is published each year to serve that purpose. But if you’re looking for pure, unadulterated instruction, Euwe has no equal.

The Bad News

Not all of Euwe’s books have been translated to algebraic notation. I assume this is a big reason the former Champion is not the most popular of chess writers. Well, I’ve got you covered: check out this primer on descriptive notation.

Middlegame Textbooks

Judgment and Planning in Chess taught me how to recognize the key features of many position types and play them successfully. Euwe tells you what you need to do and shows instructive examples. He doesn’t try to be entertaining or funny — it’s serious work for serious people.

Probably more popular are The Middlegame, Book One: Static Features and The Middlegame, Book Two: Dynamic and Subjective FeaturesI got these books much later in my chess career and didn’t read them in my developmental years, so I have less connection to them. Even so, I can’t imagine that careful study of these works wouldn’t help a club player immensely.

Best Endgame Book, Pound-for-Pound

A Guide to Chess Endings really should be more popular. I still reread portions of it from time to time, and the more I do the more I’m convinced of it’s greatness. The book gives very specific guidance on how to play the main types of endgames, well-illustrated with 331 examples. It also fits in your pocket, and thus cannot be compared with a standard endgame reference book.

Others

I recently learned about Strategy and Tactics in Chess and have skimmed parts of it. It looks like a great book, and I will surely read it one day.

Another famous Euwe book is Chess Master vs. Chess Amateur but I have not read this one. The book contains 25 (composed?) games between a master and a weaker player, annotated to help improving players. This idea has been imitated in other works, but I have to admit I stay away because I’m afraid of embedding bad patterns into my subconscious!

You can’t really go wrong by following the teachings of a World Champion! Especially as skilled a teacher as Max Euwe was. His math students must have been very fortunate to have him.

Edmar Mednis: Great Chess Authors, Part 1

A Completely Biased New Series!

I own several hundred chess books, and I’ve given several dozen books away over the years. I don’t buy books nearly as often as I used to, but even now I sometimes cannot help myself!

This is the first part in a new series of posts on writers I consider to be Great Chess Authors. I don’t yet know how long (or frequent) this series will be.

There will be obvious names, perhaps some surprising names, and controversial omissions! Everyone has a different taste in chess authors.

Today I begin with the author who makes up more of my chess library than any other.

Edmar Mednis (1937-2002)

Edmar Mednis. Photo: World Chess Hall of Fame

Edmar Mednis. Photo: World Chess Hall of Fame

Born in Latvia, Edmar Mednis emigrated to the United States during World War 2. A notable early result was second-place in the 1955 World Junior Championship. Future World Champion Boris Spassky won the event.

Few would proclaim Mednis a great player, but it’s incredible that the USCF refused to apply for his Grandmaster title. Puerto Rico did so in 1980. Mednis played on the 1962 Olympiad team and qualified for the 1979 Riga Interzonal. The first player to defeat Bobby Fischer in a U.S. Championship was not exactly a weakling!

A Tour of the Edmar Mednis Library

Mednis will be most remembered for his books (and columns in Chess Life magazine).

How To Guides

I don’t have one of his most famous titles, How to Beat Bobby Fischer, which includes his own victory plus 60 other defeats inflicted upon the 11th World Champion. A similarly-themed book is How to Beat the Russians, a collection of losses by Soviet Grandmasters to foreign players in 1973. I have the 1989 reprint How to Defeat a Superior Opponent.

Another, even more highly-acclaimed book is his How Karpov Wins, giving insight into the play of the 12th World Champion. I regret not finishing this one! Maybe someday…

Mednis game collections are an instructive, easy read for improving players.

Practical Advice

Mednis wrote a series of three books, all of which I have read and whole-heartedly recommend: Practical Rook EndingsPractical Bishop Endings, and Practical Knight Endings. They teach you the ABCs of these endings and provide great tips and examples. I only wish he had written books on pawn endings or queen endings!

“Practical” appears in a lot of the great author’s works, and in many of the titles! Mednis did not drown his readers in variations, instead providing step-by-step winning (or drawing) methods in a given position type, and then proceeding to lightly annotated examples.

He wrote a “Practical” series in the late 90s: Practical Opening Tips, Practical Middlegame Tips, and Practical Endgame Tips. I don’t think I own any of these works, so I can’t really comment. I do abide by the general rule “anything Mednis is a safe buy,” however!

Endgames and Strategy

Other endgame books I enjoy include Rate Your Endgame and Questions and Answers on Endgame Play. Mednis also wrote Advanced Endgame Strategies which I don’t believe I have, though it may be hiding somewhere!

Strategic Chess: Mastering the Closed Game is a good introduction to games starting with 1.d4, 1.c4, or 1.Nf3 for club players. Strategic Themes in the Opening and Beyond covers the strategic ideas in certain lines of the French Tarrasch and English Opening in depth.

There is also From the Opening to the Endgame, which features a selection of opening lines that can reach endgames (or at least queenless middlegames) almost immediately. This may be the only Edmar Mednis book that shows its age.

I’m leaving out some other titles (he wrote more than 25 books in all) but I think you can see the affinity I have for Mr. Mednis!

The Apple of My Eye

One book in particular had the biggest influence on the way I saw chess for most of my career.

From the Middlegame to the Endgame gave me hope. It gave me a grasp of the nebulous space between the middlegame and the endgame where I harvested so many points in the early part of my chess career. I finally found something I was good at in chess: endgame transitions. And there is no way I would have reached 1800, let alone 2100+, without this weapon.

Pick up an Edmar Mednis book if you haven’t already. Beware: you might fill your chess library with them before long!

Attack with Mikhail Tal

Attack with Mikhail Tal was written by the former World Champion with sports journalist Iakov Damsky. Tal died in 1992, but Ken Neat’s English translation was first published in 1994 by Cadogan Books.

Some players have a special aura in chess history. I would definitely include Paul Morphy, Jose Capablanca, Bobby Fischer, and yes, Mikhail Tal in this category.

The Magician from Riga

Born November 9, 1936 in Riga, Latvia, Mikhail Tal became the youngest-ever USSR Champion in 1957 at 20 years old (a record later broken by Garry Kasparov). He repeated as Champion in 1958, and won six Soviet Championships in all, equalling Mikhail Botvinnik’s record total.

Tal won the 1958 Interzonal Tournament and dominated the 1959 Candidates Tournament to challenge Mikhail Botvinnik for the World Championship in 1960. He won the match 12½—8½ becaming the 8th World Champion, and the youngest. He remains the third-youngest official, undisputed Champion in chess history, after Kasparov and Magnus Carlsen.

Botvinnik won the rematch in 1961. Tal never reached another title match, increasingly dogged by ill health, but he remained a top player through the late 1980s.

Still, Mikhail Tal captured fans’ imagination by the manner of his victories. He dismantled the chess elite with daring sacrifices and rich complications. But how did the Wizard see the game?

The point of Attack with Mikhail Tal

While Tal includes instructive puzzles at the end of each of the nine chapters (“What Would You Have Played?”), this isn’t a textbook. It’s not a first book on attacking chess; for that, choose The Art of Chess Combination by Eugene Znosko-Borovsky (written in Descriptive Notation).

“Misha” tries to cultivate in his readers an opportunistic eye and aggressive mentality needed to launch successful attacks when appropriate. Attack with Mikhail Tal is one of my favorite books, and I have always been an “attacking-challenged” player.

Tal knows that not everything can be calculated “to the end.” He took risks, but his play was not reckless! I would sum up the attacking principles presented as follows:

  • Pay attention to defects in the opponent’s position (Chapters 1 and 9)
  • Get as many pieces as possible into the attack (Chapter 3)
  • Get those pieces into strong positions (Chapter 6) and find the right path for them to get to the enemy (Chapters 4 and 5)
  • Remove obstacles (Chapters 2, 7, 8, and 9)

A chessplayer cannot be unduly materialistic. Chess is more than counting the point values of the pieces you and your opponent have; one also needs to assess their possibilities. Extra material is useless if it doesn’t take part in the game.

Tal evaluated the compensation would receive for his sacrificed material. There is a defnite value to strengthening your pieces or reducing the power of your adversary’s units! With practice, you will improve your feel in positions with unbalanced material.

Who should read Attack with Mikhail Tal?

Ideally, you should not be prejudiced about either sacrificing material or accepting sacrifices; do whatever the position in front of you demands. Easier said than done!

Just about anyone would enjoy Attack with Mikhail Tal, no matter their rating! Instructive games, memorable recommendations, and the book is a series of conversations or interviews between Tal and Damsky.

However, I would not expect huge improvement with this book for players rated below 1700. I am not sure they have the chess strength to evaluate attacking potential objectively.

My advice for lower-rated players: enjoy the book and re-read it as you improve. You will pick up new things upon a second and third reading, and Tal’s ideas will become easier to implement in your own play.

Capablanca’s Chess Fundamentals

Blast from the past

When I first borrowed Capablanca’s Chess Fundamentals from the library as a beginner in 1996, I didn’t like it. A few years ago I saw it in Barnes & Noble and purchased a copy; the way you view a book as a beginner is very different from how you see it as an expert!

Mikhail Botvinnik, the 6th World Champion, called Chess Fundamentals the best chess book ever written. I disagree with the Patriarch, but could I recommend the book to players trying to learn “fundamentals?” As it turns out, not so much.

Chess Fundamentals was originally published in 1921. This was the same year its author José Capablanca became the third World Champion, a title he held until 1927.

Capablanca may be the greatest genius in chess history. Undefeated from 1916 to 1924, he lost only 36 official games in his career. He was called “The Chess Machine,” and influenced future champions including Tigran Petrosian, Bobby Fischer, Anatoly Karpov, and Vladimir Kramnik.

 

Good, but incomplete

In some ways, Capablanca’s genius is the biggest fault with Chess Fundamentals. 

He doesn’t grasp that many of us are clueless and need a lot of help. He refers to the book as a guide and not a substitute for a good teacher or practical experience. There’s a lot he doesn’t spell out, and often tells “the student” to figure it out “for himself!“ For example, there’s no guidance on dealing with common pitfalls like Scholar’s Mate.

Some people are just too talented to teach others.

Capablanca’s insights on middlegame strategy and on endgames are thought-provoking for experienced players, but I much prefer the explanations of a different champion: Max Euwe.

Euwe, the 5th World Champion (1935-37), didn’t ask his readers to work things out for themselves; he gave short, precise commentary and presented instructive and memorable examples. He is one of my favorite chess authors.

Who would benefit from reading Chess Fundamentals?

Not only was the book written in 1921, its formal writing style is very different from modern books. Therefore, I can’t recommend it to children, but teens and adults can give it a try.

I would also hesitate to recommend Capablanca’s Chess Fundamentals to a chess newcomer, unless they had an appetite to explore chess for themselves and fill in the gaps. Otherwise, it would be an exercise in frustration.

If you’re a teen or adult who has played in a few tournaments, or has experience playing in a strong social circle, Chess Fundamentals could help you a lot. It could also serve as a decent guide for an ambitious parent teaching their child chess.

Basic Chess Endings (2003 revised edition)

A Thick Endgame Textbook You Won’t Mind Studying

Basic Chess Endings

Basic Chess Endings. 2003 revised edition.

About the Author

After starting his pro career in 1932, Reuben Fine (1914-1993) had a claim to being the best player in the world during the late 1930s. He won a string of elite tournaments including Hastings 1935/36, Zandvoort 1936, Amsterdam 1936 (tied with World Champion Euwe), Margate 1937 (tied with Keres), and AVRO 1938 (also tied with Keres). AVRO is considered one of the strongest tournaments ever held. World Champion Magnus Carlsen also rates Fine very highly.

Fine wrote Basic Chess Endings in 1941, and it covered endings of just about every type. BCE was a monumental work at a time when endgame books were scarce, especially one authored by a player of Fine’s caliber.

Unfortunately, such an extensive book published in the pre-computer era had errors and was notoriously tough to slog through. It was also written in Descriptive Notation (P—K4, Kt—KB3, etc.), which put many readers off.

So in 2003, Random House published a new edition revised by Pal Benko (1928-2019), former world championship candidate and renowned endgame expert. It also includes a forward by another renowned endgame authority, Yuri Averbakh. This version of BCE was written in algebraic notation (e4, Nf3, etc.) and is much easier to read.

What I like about Basic Chess Endings

The explanations are very well done; but many contemporary books could say the same.

What sets BCE apart is the sheer number of instructive examples: 1,131 in all. Not all of them have diagrams; often, just the positions of the white and black pieces are listed and the line of play given. But these are supplemental examples, and never the main teaching positions.

Too many endgame books skimp on the number of examples, especially positions with several pawns for each side.  Another favorite endgame book of mine is A Guide to Chess Endings by Euwe and Hooper, which contains only 331 examples. That one is a pocket guide, but still.

What I don’t like about Basic Chess Endings

My only complaint is that a hardcover edition isn’t available. A softcover reference book 586 pages long? I try to be very careful with my copy. Economics were surely a factor; most readers wouldn’t shell out $40+ for a hardcover edition, but couldn’t they have done a limited run?

Study suggestion

I recommend picking a section and working through all of the examples. Not all of “Knight endings” in one sitting, but a section, e.g. “One Knight and Pawns vs. One Knight and Pawns — Material Advantage.” Pick a section and work through the examples — you’ll learn exactly how you should play similar positions.