Favorite Chess Books

By Michael Goeller

Someone suggested the club put together a list of recommended books for players of various strengths. I think a more interesting project would be to have several members of the club (whoever is interested) write up a completely subjective list of their favorite books with some notes about what made them so special. I hope the following list can serve as a first effort or even a model. And if some of these are your favorites too, please don't hesitate to say so and to add your thoughts as to why.

Secrets of Practical Chess by John Nunn (1998)
Nunn is one of the greatest chess authors writing and I think everything I've ever looked at by him is first rate (especially "Understanding Chess Move by Move" and "Secrets of Grandmaster Chess"). His notes can be dense at times, but there is always lots of good stuff. This little book, which I'm only half-way through, has had a big influence on my thinking of late and therefore springs first to mind when I am recommending chess books.... He even has a section on how best to use a computer to improve your play.
The Tactics of End-games by Jeno Ban (1965 / 1997)
This was one of my first favorite books. I liked to carry it with me on trips and so it bears many pleasant associations with basking in the sun at the seashore, sitting by a mountain lake, or taking a long train ride between Warsaw and Krakow. The great pleasure of it, though, is that it is many things at once. It is a book on tactics with puzzles to mull over, and as such can be read anywhere and is very useful to beginners for breaking down most of the thematic categories. It is a book on endings and so has much to teach (though its solutions often end where other books are just beginning -- such as after White has forced a winning ending of Queen versus Rook). It is a book of composed problems and so is full of artistic and inspired compositions -- but the positions, though composed, are of the type that could actually occur on the board. These are not those bizarre mate in two problems but real-life puzzlers in the style of Troitzky (also spelled "Troitsky" or "Troitskii") or his more familiar follower in America, Pal Benko. I have the original English edition (which is a small, squarish, handy, and very well-bound hardcover) but I noticed that it was re-issued a few years back by Dover in a very inexpensive paperback edition. I looked at it in a shop once and saw that it is an unedited reprint of my edition, complete (unfortunately) with the original's rather primitive diagrams and (heaven forbid!) English descriptive notation. But if you are willing to put up with those minor defects you will have many hours of pleasure from this great book. I suggest that you buy it and set it aside in your luggage so that you can discover it the next time you take a trip.
Pirc Alert! A Complete Defense Against 1.e4
by Lev Alburt and Alex Chernin (2001)
I do not own this book because, fortunately for me, it is owned by my local library in East Brunswick where, it seems, there are no other chess players since it is always on the shelf (except when I have it). I also do not play the Pirc, though I have thought about adopting it from time to time and have spent some time preparing to play against it as White. So what interests me in this book you might ask? Well, simply put, I think it is the best opening book ever written for the average player. If I were to write an opening book (and, if you see my Urusov website, you know I basically already have) I would want it to approach this level of usefulness. This is not one of those books where you just get reams of computer-generated analysis and a data-dump of games. This is a good old-fashioned book of ideas. Those ideas are supported by excellent and original analysis -- and more than sufficient analysis for anyone below master level. But there is so much more than analysis here. There are stories, pictures, full games with personal observations and notes, positional observations and typical motifs. In other words, this is a rare opening book designed to be read and not simply used for reference. With three or four diagrams on every page, this is a book you can actually read without a board. It is also a systematic presentation of the opening, complete with helpful guidance on remembering the key lines and neat catch-phrases describing each line or position which also serve a mnemonic function. I really can't say enough good things about this book. If your library doesn't have a copy you should buy one for them.
Zurich International Chess Tournament 1953 by David Bronstein (1979)
Putting this book on your list of favorites is sort of like listing Citizen Kane among your favorite films: you know it seems a bit cliched or even pretentious, but you can't imagine not listing it. Bronstein created what is widely seen as the best tournament book of all time and in the process wrote a primer on the middlegame that is just full of great ideas. If only it had an opening index or a little more room in the margins for notes... But at least it has that great Dover binding.
The Development of Chess Style
by Max Euwe and John Nunn (1968 / 1997)

The basic argument of the book is that onotogeny (the development of an individual player) recapitulates phylogeny (the development of the species -- or, in this case, of the game), and this idea has always struck me as deeply true. There are ideas in chess that we simply are not ready to grasp at the beginning, but the games of Morphy make sense. Only later are we ready to understand Capablanca, then Botvinnik, then Tal, etc. All chess study is, in some ways, the study of history. And I think there is no better book for guiding you through that than Euwe's "instructive and entertaining trip through the heritage of chess" (to quote the 1997 jacket cover). The book was updated in 1997 by John Nunn to include players through Kasparov.
The Road to Chess Improvement by Alex Yermolinsky (2000)
Yermolinsky is an interesting writer who has never been afraid to speak his mind. To get some sense of his style, you can check out his archived blog which seems intended to offend the chess establishment. The Road to Chess Improvement has a lot of similarly direct language and lots of original thinking. If you play the Sicilian as Black, I would say that this book is a must since he has a lot to say about learning how to play that dangerous and difficult opening. But there are so many good ideas here, it would be a shame to visit it only for opening advice. The thing I found most valuable was Yermo's idea that every game has emotional ups and downs for both players, which you can practically graph move by move and use to your advantage in trying to win a game. This seems very true to my own experience and has already helped me make practical choices.

Capablanca's Best Chess Endings by Irving Chernev (1978)
Yes, a Dover book but with algebraic notation! This is a well-made and durable text. The 60 games are all gems and taken together (and with Chernev's helpful notes) they make a textbook on the endgame, especially since it is always best to study the ending in the context of the whole game. Anyone who has seen this book is sure to remember forever the game Capablanca-Tartakower, New York 1924 (Game 36), where Capa sacrifices two pawns in a Rook ending in order to achieve a winning position for his King, Rook, and passed pawn. The game has been reproduced in a number of places, but few annotators are as helpful to the beginner or intermediate player as Chernev is. Of course, Mark Dvoretsky has pointed out in his Instructor column #50 at Chess Cafe that Tartakower could have put up significantly stiffer resistance with 36...a6! but that does not diminish Capa's achievement or the wonderful value of this classic game for illustrating the power of active pieces in Rook endings.


The Art of Sacrifice in Chess by Rudolf Spielmann
I remember being quite inspired by this book and ready to give up material at the first opportunity after reading it. Since then I've tempered my enthusiasm a bit, but it remains a favorite. Shamkovich's "The Modern Chess Sacrifice" covers the same themes for a more modern audience and extends Spielmann's categories, but I still like the older and simpler model better.

Tal - Botvinnik - 1960 by Mikhail Tal
This has got to be the greatest match book ever written and is likely to make you a great fan of Mikhail Tal's games. His "Life and Games" and Joe Gallagher's recent supplement covering the late Tal (titled "The Magic of Mikhail Tal") are also worth having. But you really get the whole Tal here more than anywhere else.


Fischer vs. Spassky: The Match of the Century by Svetozar Gligoric (1972)
There were a number of books on the 1972 World Championship (including a wonderful one by Ken Smith and others with a diagram and commentary for every move), but none surpasses Gligoric's great description of the event and the games together. I had lost my copy over the years and had one out of the library for a long time before finding it again recently (and for cheap) at a sale. If you don't have this little book, keep you eyes open and grab it the first time you come across it at a used bookstore or a garage sale. There is no other chess event so invested with historical significance and few other books with such endlessly fascinating games. If you get hooked by the history, then I recommend you also pick up "Bobby Fischer Goes to War" by David Edmonds and John Eidinow, which does a good job of telling the story of the 1972 match against the backdrop of the Cold War. The 1984 film "Dangerous Moves" is also worthwhile in capturing the Cold War maneuvering of that match and the later Karpov-Korchnoi contest.
The Golden Treasury of Chess by Francis J. Wellmuth (1943, but reissued by Al Horowitz under his own name through multiple editions, now out of print)
This was my first chess book ever and probably had a lasting influence on my play. It also taught me one valuable lesson about learning chess: you just have to play through lots of games before anything begins to make sense. I remember the late Mike Valvo once said during a lecture that he recommended young players just get the latest edition of the Informant and play through as many games as they could, ignoring the notes as much as possible. Only thus can you begin to get a feel for the game. I was able to puzzle out a lot of what was going on in these games on my own at age 12 and remember getting hours of enjoyment from that. The book is also full of the story and romance of chess (each chapter starts with a brief historical synopsis) and so helped stir in me an appreciation for chess history.


Updated 04.26.2005 | Contact Michael Goeller