Pick Simple Chess by English Grandmaster Michael Stean. The original edition of the book was written in 1978, a few years before Stean retired from chess at the age of 29. Fred Wilson edited the book and translated it to algebraic notation for Dover Publications in 2003.
Why this book in particular? An argument could be made for the “best” book in many categories of chess: tactics, endgames, and especially openings. In each case there are a number of comparable titles, though we all have our favorites.
But I think there is no argument about the most useful strategy book for most players.
The kings will experience harsh treatment from beginning to end in Hacking Up The King!
Hacking Up The Kingis all about trying to checkmate the enemy king, whether castled or still in the center. There are countless books in this genre, but the 2014 work by English International Master David Eggleston is better than most.
I recommend Positional Chess Handbook to players (and coaches!) of all levels. Players rated from zero to at least 2200 will benefit. The book will give beginners ideas about strategy; it has much to teach club players; and it is a good refresher for the 2000+ crowd.
Originally published in 1991, it is filled with instructive game fragments from famous and not-so-famous players and composers. You’ll find examples from Morphy and Steinitz, as well as from Fischer, Karpov, and Kasparov. In all, there are 495 diagrams over 208 pages (plus index). I’m sure author Israel Gelfer (FIDE Master and FIDE Senior Trainer) spent many years compiling the examples that helped his students the most.
So what does it cover?
Positional Chess Handbook: Contents
Most of the 21 chapters isolate a certain positional feature, making it easy to reinforce understanding of a particular concept without distraction. A few sections are more general, but very instructive nonetheless. Of course, tactics are everywhere in this book, too — strategy cannot exist without them, right?
There isn’t much use for Descriptive Notation (1. P—K4, 2. N—KB3) these days. Chess books long ago moved to Algebraic Notation (1.e4, 2.Nf3), not to mention chess websites, magazines, and apps.
If you want to read classic chess literature, however, learn to read DN. A lot of instructive books from the past have not been “translated” into AN. Some classics that have been reissued in AN were mangled badly in the process! The new edition of Basic Chess Endings is more exception than rule.
If you want to read great authors of the past like Euwe or Znosko-Borovsky, you need to learn this old “language.”
Naming the Pieces and Pawns in DN
They’re the same as in algebraic, except we name the pawns as you will soon see.
In some books, Kt is used for Knight, instead of N.
As with algebraic notation, “x” is used for a capture, castling is written 0-0 or 0-0-0, and “+” is check. Some old books will use “ch” for check; no big deal.
Files in Descriptive Notation
Take the starting position:
The file where the kings start is called the King (K) file.
The file where the queens start is called the Queen (Q) file.
Not too bad, right? Let’s continue.
Both sides have two each of bishops, knights, and rooks. How do we not mix them up? The files closest to where the queen starts get the prefix “Queen,” and the files closest to where the king starts get the prefix “King.”
Firstly, the file in green is the Queen Rook (QR) file.
Secondly, the file in yellow is the Queen Knight (QN) file.
Finally, the file in red is the Queen Bishop (QB) file.
Firstly, the file in green is the King Rook (KR) file.
Secondly, the file in yellow is the King Knight (KN) file.
Finally, the file in red is the King Bishop (KB) file.
The trickiest part
I think the main reason people get confused with DN is the orientation of the chessboard.
With algebraic notation, the 1st rank is white’s back rank, and the 8th rank is black’s back rank.
In descriptive notation, both sides have a 1st rank and 8th rank! This means every square has TWO addresses, not one!
In the starting position:
White’s king starts on his own K1 square, and black’s king also starts on his K1 square.
White’s king is on black’s K8 square, and black’s king is on white’s K8 square.
The square in red has two names:
From white’s perspective it is the Queen Bishop 5 square (QB5).
From black’s perspective it is the Queen Bishop 4 square (QB4).
Let’s Practice with DN
We’ll reach a typical opening position, one move pair at a time.
White’s pawn has moved to it’s K4 square, and black’s pawn has moved to its QB4 square.
White has moved a knight to KB3. writing “B3” is not enough, because he also has a QB3 square. For black it’s the same, in reverse. You have to specify which B3 square the knight moves to if there is a choice.
3. P—Q4 PxP
White moves a pawn to Q4, the only one that can go there. Black captures with a pawn. We can just say PxP because black has only one pawn that can capture, and white has only one pawn that can be captured. We don’t need to say, for example, “BPxP,” “QBPxP,” or “PxQP.” Sometimes, with more than one possible capture, we need to be more, well, descriptive!
White has only one knight that can capture one possible pawn, so writing NxP is enough.
Black has only one knight that can go to a B3 square as the other B3 square is already occupied, so we can write N—B3 instead of N—KB3.
Here we have to be specific and write N—QB3 because N—B3 is ambiguous: the N on Q4 could move back to KB3 as well!
Black has only one pawn that can go to Q3.
White has two bishops that can go to a N5 square. We name the square, rather than the piece if possible. So we write B—KN5 and NOT QB—N5, because we are choosing one of two destination squares, as the two bishops cannot reach the same squares.
With rooks or knights, however, it’s common to name the flank the piece comes from when there’s a choice of pieces that can go to one destination square. For example, QN—Q2 vs. KN—Q2, or QR—K1 vs. KR—K1.
Nothing ambiguous about these two moves.
Castling is notated the same as in algebraic. Some really old books will write “Castles” or, if there is a choice of which side to castle on, “Castles K” or “Castles Q.” These are pretty self-explanatory, though.
Conclusions about Descriptive Notation
Look, I understand why DN isn’t used anymore…it’s clunky and a relic from the past! Still, some people have an irrational fear or hatred of DN, and I hope this guide helps more people read classic chess literature. Play through a handful of games and you will pick up DN!
Have you ever wondered what it’s like to be a USCF tournament director? Today I’m going to whet your appetite. Everything I discuss below relates to U.S. Chess Federation tournaments only. FIDE-rated events held in the USA must follow FIDE rules, too, so I won’t be discussing these events either.
Getting on the USCF Tournament Director wheel
I would encourage all players, parents, and coaches to gain a basic understanding of USCF tournament rules, whether they have an interest in directing tournaments or not.
Your Club TD term lasts three years, and can be renewed by passing an open-book test with a 70% score. You can direct tournaments expected to draw up to 50 players — up to 60 players if you have an assistant TD and use pairing software. For most TDs, this is plenty.
Well, if I have to take a test anyway…
You may be interested in a promotion to Local Tournament Director.
To meet the experience requirements, you need to direct at least three tournaments with a total of 50 or more players, and be Chief TD of at least one of those events.
A simple way to do this is to run a rated quad and assist at as many tournaments as needed to reach the 50-player-total threshold. Email the USCF for the Local test and score 80%.
Local TDs can direct any tournament expected to draw up to 100 players. That increases to 120 players if they have an assistant and use a computer pairing program.
Promote If you have any desire to run or assist at larger tournaments. At Local, Organizers will be interested in giving you a chance; it’s hard to find good directors! The three levels after Local are Senior TD, Associate National TD(ANTD) and, at the top, National TD (NTD).
Pause! Let’s back up for a reality check.
There’s no harm in becoming a Club TD. If you never run an event, no big deal. Tournament directors don’t work for the USCF — they just need to abide by the rules and basic ethics if they run rated events. A small club or classroom tournament can be a nice experience.
It’s the bigger events you need to think carefully about.
TDs work long days … often very long days.
Tournaments have long hours! A scholastic event doesn’t start with Round 1 at 10 am. On-site registration opened at 9 am. Setup (tables, chairs, chess sets, food, concessions, etc.) started at 7:45 am, or even the previous day. Prizes and cleanup run 1-2 hours after the last game ends.
Don’t worry; I just want you to see the big picture. If you help at a larger event, you would probably be asked to show up at 9:30 am and watch games on the tournament “floor,” answering questions and settling disputes. You may also help with setup and/or cleanup, and leave at 5pm.
All in all, it’s not a terribly stressful way to earn some extra cash, but it’s an acquired taste.
Chess tactics software has experienced a boom in the past 10-15 years, and many good products have hit the market in that time. First appearing on CD and DVD, this material can now be purchased via download. There are many online tactics trainers to choose from as well.
Which chess tactics software should I choose?
It doesn’t really matter which product you choose; pick one you like that presents a challenge.
Convekta chess tactics software
A popular recommendation is the free Chess Tempo, but I have never liked the look or functionality. Another possibility is chess.com, which I currently use and think is worthwhile, but far from perfect, and you need to pay to get access to more than about 10 puzzles per day.
I raised my rating from 1850 to 2000 over 10 months in 2008. The two main things I did were work seriously on my openings, and solve 40-100 tactics puzzles each day using Convekta’sChess Combinations Encyclopedia and CT-Art 3.0. I absolutely adore these two tactics suites…maybe I should go through them again?
Remember: You are training to find tactics in real games!
Some players solve tactics purely for enjoyment; others want to improve their results in blitz (5-minute or less) or bullet (1-minute) games. Still, I assume most players who spend a lot of time solving tactics want to see results in their over-the-board tournament games.
At minimum, you have 30 minutes of thinking time for each game. There’s no need to bash out an answer for a tactics problem, or worse, a guess. Don’t worry about training for time scrambles; focus your training on the meat of the game.
I admit it’s tempting to play the first answer that catches your eye; I’ve done it more than I would care to admit! This is why I still recommend students use physical books to solve puzzles, even in this day and age — it’s not just nostalgia.
Instead, take your time and calculate! I can’t stress this enough. Some tactics programs give you more or less points depending on how quickly you solve the puzzle. Ignore this! Force yourself to see future moves, not just guess them or hope your moves work.
Hard work pays off
If you normally struggle with calculation, prepare to miss a lot of moves — for you and your “opponent!” If you keep at it, I promise you will improve.
Also, don’t focus on doing as many tactics as you can; do as many as you can while giving 100%.
You will quickly notice your play in longer games (say 15-minute) become much stronger. This is another reason, by the way, why you should give up blitz if you really want to improve your tournament results!
1b is intended for players rated 900 to 1500. In my experience, this range is accurate; students reach that level when they finish the book. It’s important to work on other things, but nothing is possible in chess without tactics.
There are six positions on almost every page, same as the first volume. Diagrams are just the right size — huge diagrams mean a much larger book, and tiny diagrams are hard to see.
You need to find 2-3 move sequences to win material, make a draw, or figure out “How to Proceed?” The last 300+ puzzles don’t give you any clues — just like in a real game!
A lot of tactics books teach patterns; this book will improve the way you see chess.
Your analytical skills will be stronger by the time you finish the book, and your endgame play will also improve. The many endgame positions in books 1a and 1b set them apart from other tactics collections.
The cover art and illustrations show the book was intended for kids, but adults wanting to improve should not be put off by that.
This book has stood the test of time, and there’s no need to search for a flashy alternative.
If you see this one, buy it!
I should also mention: there is a lime green-colored Chess School 1 which contains Chess School 1a and 1b in one hardcover volume! It’s hard to find, so buy it if you can find it! Not to mention, it’s cheaper than buying 1a and 1b separately.
This book (or 1a and 1b together) will take a beginner to 1500-1600, provided they get some instruction on other parts of the game. Certainly, the downfall of most players — tactics! — won’t be a problem.
I started assigning Chess School 1a to students circa 2007, and still recommend it in 2020.
There are 719 puzzles in this book, with an intended audience of absolute beginnners up to an approximate rating of 1000. I definitely recommend it as a first tactics book, and it can help a player for awhile.
The book starts with mate-in-1 positions where you are told what to mate with, followed by mate-in-1s where you aren’t told what to use. Next are puzzles where the object is to win a piece. Later come mate-in-2 puzzles, drawing combinations, endgame puzzles, and more.
I love the variety of the examples chosen and the gently increasing difficulty.
Directions are given at the top of each page in English, German, Russian, and Spanish. There are puzzles for white and for black, and the solutions are at the end of the book.
Chess School 1a will improve your pattern recognition and tactical skills. This book is not always easy to find, but it’s definitely worth it. I have ordered it from overseas in the past, but at the moment this isn’t necessary.