Most Impressive Chess Books

by NM Scott Massey

The question was raised at the Kenilworth Chess Club, “what are the ten best chess books?” I was asked for my list. I felt honored and important. I guess that I won't have to see the shrink this week.

For those that are not familiar with me, let me describe myself a little bit. I just hit the half-century mark and have been a master for half of my life. I started tournament chess during the Fischer boom of 1972. Nowadays, I consider myself more of a chess teacher than a player. I have taught two different scholastic players who have made the All-American team multiple times. I never took a formal chess lesson myself, but learned by discussing chess with strong players, from tournament games and post mortems, and of course, from chess literature.

As a kid, I visited the Hillside public library often. Chess books fascinated me, so I collected them. My personal library of chess books (excluding periodicals) has now eclipsed Kasparov's rating. A large portion is reference. I call it a “working library” as opposed to a library for true collectors of rare specimens. It contains a lot of books by the greats of chess.

The players that I admire the most in chronological order are Emanual Lasker, Mikhail Botvinnik, and Garry Kasparov. My criteria for choosing these players are obviously chess strength, but also strong character, length of career, work ethic and generosity of giving back to the chess world (through literature, etc.).

Thirty years ago, many leading players were asked what ten books they would want if they were stranded on a desert island. Many classics (pre-1975) appeared, such as Basic Chess Endings, 500 Master Games, 1000 Best Short Games of Chess, My System, Fischer's 660 Games, and Keres’s Best Games (Arco's three-in-one paperback). Other classic game collections included My Sixty Memorable Games, Alekhine's Best Games (in three volumes), Zurich 1953, and Tal-Botvinnik 1960 by Tal. My list doesn't include any of the above titles, mainly because these simply are not the books that have impacted me the most.

I would divide chess books into two categories: those that expand your love of the game and its history and those that improve your understanding of how to play: basically non-technical and technical books. I’m not sure which I’d want most on the desert island. Before I get to the books that increased my understanding, here are my top eight non-technical books:

1. Profile of a Prodigy: The Life and Games of Bobby Fischer, by Frank Brady (1973).
Frank Brady did a superb job and was more than fair in this biography.
Since it was published, Fischer has refused to speak to Brady. Guess
who loses there.

2. William Steinitz, Chess Champion, by Kurt Landsberger (1995). This is a well-researched biography of the first world champion by his grand-nephew who lives in New Jersey. Steinitz, who himself once lived in nearby Montclair, New Jersey, gave us structure in the form of the theory of chess so a knowledge of his life and games is invaluable.

3. Impact of Genius: 500 Years of Grandmaster Chess, by R. E. Fauber (1992).
Fauber tells the history of chess from the time of Columbus (when chess took its present form) to 1990. There are many important games with light notes. This is a history of chess through the games of the greats.

4. Russians versus Fischer, 1994. When Fischer and a Soviet player participated in a tournament, the Soviet player was obligated to file a report about Fischer. These KGB secret files are the basis of this book.

5. The Great Chess Tournaments and Their Stories, by Andy Soltis (1975).
Andy Soltis does history!

6. The Great Chess Masters and Their Games, by Fred Reinfeld (1952). This is New York master Fred Reinfeld at his best. He uses his vast experience to tell the life stories of Adolf Anderssen through Max Euwe.

7. Achieving the Aim, by Mikhail Botvinnik (1981). This autobiography of the first Soviet world champion explains his “scientific” approach to the game.

8. The Kings of Chess, by William Hartston (1986). The British IM covers history from Philidor to Kasparov, including one chapter titled “Lazy, Vain, and Invincible” about Capablanca. Ten years later, Hartston authored the similar Guinness Book of Chess Grandmasters, but with many games included.

Now like David Letterman's “Top Ten List,” here are my choices for the top ten technical chess books that have impressed me the most:

10. Chess Self-Teacher, by Al Horowitz (1961).
Everyone remembers their “firsts”: first time riding a bicycle, first kiss, and first time doing some favorite activity. This was my first chess book that I read cover to cover. I read this during the winter recess of 1971-1972. It was the right book at the right time. It made almost as big of an impression on me as watching Shelby Lyman explain the 1972 Fischer –Spassky World Championship Match not long after. Al Horowitz did a wonderful job to make my introduction to chess literature smooth and enlightening. There are eight chapters, each with a review and a quiz, so I had to work through the text. I had learned the moves at age five, but it wasn't until age sixteen that I started to become a good player or start collecting chess books. I think this first book bears a lot of responsibility for my mammoth collection

Next, I wasted part of my life reading The Treasury of Chess Lore. But soon, I was back on track with Chess Primer and Chess Fundamentals –both very useful books that should be required reading for novices. Capablanca explains the Bishop and Knight Checkmate and many useful King and pawn endings among other elementary topics, making these vital things interesting and memorable.

9. Winning Chess Strategy for Kids, by Jeff Coakley (Chess 'n Math Association and Canada's National Scholastic Chess Organization, 2002).
Through trial and error we have arrived at our present technology. Technology has helped us in our lives. It has also helped us, along with computers, in producing chess books by eliminating many errors and adding diagrams.

Teaching techniques have also improved vastly. When I started to teach young scholastics, I looked through many beginner books for ideas. Of course, one could use each book as a guide for the course. I synthesized the information to best help the young beginners. When I came across Winning Chess Strategy for Kids, I found the best. Kiril the pawn and his friends explains a tremendous amount of information designed to be understood by young children. I especially like the chapter titled "Logic of Chess" on page 202. Jeff Coakley's companion, Winning Chess Exercises for Kids (2004), is just as good but very challenging for the novice.

Years ago, Reinfeld, Horowitz, Fine and Chernev taught beginners. Today, some competent authors who target the child novice are Pandolfini, Walker (the British Pandolfini), Heisman and Snyder.

Lev Albert has authored many books that are geared toward the more mature novice. I especially enjoy the two-book course by Aleksander Kostyev, From Beginner to Expert in 40 Lessons (1998) and 40 Lessons for the Club Player (1990), both published by Batsford. These lessons cover a couple of topics which take approximately an hour of classroom time.

8. 1001 Winning Chess Sacrifices and Combinations, by Fred Reinfeld (Wilshire Book Co., 1955)
Puzzle books interest me so I choose the grand-daddy of them all (not its easier sibling, 1001 Winning Checkmates).
Since I have difficulty finding time to set up the pieces in order to review a game, puzzle books allow me to stay in semi-chess shape. Some players use puzzle books to warm-up for a tournament. The problem solving simulates playing conditions.

A while back, I shared teaching methods with a fellow master. I mentioned how I use a heavy dose of tactics with my private students. We agreed on how valuable 1001 Winning Chess Sacrifices and Combinations is for novices. The other master admitted that he uses it frequently himself. It must work as he is currently our state co-champion. Puzzle books today don't only rely on combinations, but also endgame and positional problems like Alburt's 300 (I used this to help our team finish fourth out of 260 teams at the 1998 U.S. Amateur Team East behind Karpov's team). Lazlos Polgar's 2534 Combinations is great for novices. Chris Ward authored many puzzle books targeting novice to intermediate players. Two other challenging favorites are Nunn's Puzzle Book and Barden's Puzzle Book (retitled Batsford's Puzzle Book). A beginner should devour these books, because "One who understands combinations, then understands chess."

7. Judgment and Planning in Chess, Dr. Max Euwe, 1979 McKay. DN.

The fifth world champion, Max Euwe, wrote/co-wrote more chess books than any other world champions. His target audience was the improving middle of the pack enthusiast. Among his best was Judgment and Planning in Chess, which helps with planning what to do after 10-15 opening moves. Some chapter titles are; Pawn majority on the Queen's side, Weakening the King's side and The attack on the King's field. For me, the chapter on Knight again 'bad' Bishop ranks as highly instructive as Kotov's chapter on opposite wing castling from Art of the Middlegame.

Other outstanding Euwe titles are; The Middlegame, Book one, Static features and Book two, Dynamic features with Kramer, A Guide to Chess Endings with Hooper, The Development of Chess Style, edited and enlarged by John Nunn, 1997, and the Bob Hope and Bing Crosby road books. They are The Road to Chess Mastery, Chess Amateur versus Chess Master and Chess Master versus Chess Master, written with Walter Meiden and can only be picked up in reruns.

Judgment and Planning, The Middlegame books and A Guide to Chess Endings would help strong Class B players and up to advance to the Expert class. The other books would help those in the B-D classes.

In all, a lot of good stuff for the improving student.

6. Pawn Structure Chess, Andrew Soltis, 1995, McKay. Opening.
At the beginning of each month when my copy of Chess Life arrives, I go directly to Chess to Enjoy. Andrew Soltis is my favorite contemporary writer.

Pawn Structure Chess was my most important opening book. It is better than
Rueben Fine's The Ideas behind the Opening and the similar Pawn Power by
Hans Kmoch (endorsed highly by IM Dan Kopec).

Pawn Structure Chess describes the pawn breaks in ten different opening pawn structures. It also shows piece placement to aid your break or hinder your opponent's break. Several chapter titles are; Chain Reactions, Stonewalls and Other Prisons, and The Queen's Gambit Family and its Relatives.

In my first year of tournament chess, I digested Selected Chess Masterpieces by Szetozar Gligoric, McKay, 1970. This book is a collection of his Game of the Month columns from 1965 to 1969. The game of the month pitted the chess elite debating a fashionable opening variation with recent theory on the side. Chess Life and Review ran this popular column until the early 1980's. Three other interesting opening books are; How to Play the Opening in Chess by Levy and Keene, Bobbs-Merrill, 1974, How to Open a Chess Game, seven Grandmasters, RHM, 1974, and Chess from Morphy to Botvinnik, Imre Konig, 1950, Dover reprint. All four are descriptive notation and out of print. My choice at present for an opening book goes to the New in Chess yearbooks.

5. Lasker's Chess Manuel, Emanuel Lasker, Dover, DN. Philosophy.
Before World War I, there were few instructive type books in English. Most chess literature was either periodicals like International Chess Magazine, Lasker's Chess Magazine, British Chess Magazine or tournament books or game collections (Morphy, Steinitz, etc.). Steinitz's Modern Chess Instructor is still a difficult read and a large percentile is devoted to openings.

After the Great War, the new world champion, J. R. Capablanca, published Chess Fundamentals in 1921. Chess Primer was available in 1934.

Also at this time, several masters were experimenting with non-classical openings and defenses (other than e4, e5 or d4, d5). This different way to play chess would allow the opponent to occupy the center with pawns and the hypermodern player would attack and destroy it. Some of the new inventions created were Reti's Opening, Alekhine's Defense, Nimzowitsch Defense and Nimzowitsch-Indian Defense (shortened to Nimzo-Indian Defense). Aron Nimzowitsch produced Mein Systemish in 1925 (translated from German to English in 1927). My System is an instructive guide on how to play closed positions. This was different from Tarrasch's teachings which followed Steinitz's theory.

Also in 1925, the second world champion introduced Lasker's Manual in German (translated to English in 1930). Emanuel's Manual (as I like to call this book) is part philosophical and hugely a tribute to the father of modern chess, Wilhelm Steinitz. Because of Steinitz's theories of chess, Lasker wrote, "He was a thinker worthy of a seat in the halls of a University."

My favorite Lasker quote explains Steinitz's theory of accumulation of small advantages, "In the beginning of the game ignore the search for combinations, abstain from violent moves, aim for small advantages, accumulate them, and only after having attained these ends search for the combination-and then with all the power of will and intellect, because then the combination must exist, however deeply hidden."

Another great Lasker quote is, "What is immobile must suffer violence. The light-winged bird will easily escape the dragon, but the firmly rooted tree must remain where it is and may have to give up its leaves, fruit, and perhaps even its life."

Our Sy Fish puts it more succinctly, "Mobility is nobility." Probably the most famous quote is, "On the chessboard, lies and hypocrisy do not survive long. The creative combination lays bare the presumption of a lie; the merciless fact, culminating in a checkmate, contradicts the hypocrite." Fischer used this quote in the beginning of his My Sixty Memorable Games, yet failed to include Lasker on his 1964 list of greatest chessplayers.

Lasker was world champion for 27 years and had a high winning percentage (much higher if you subtract his results after he turned 65 on December 24, 1933). He finished ahead of Capablanca at St. Petersburg 1914, New York 1924 and Moscow 1925 and 1935. The first time Capablanca finished ahead of Lasker in a tournament was Moscow 1936 and then again at Nottingham when Emanuel was 67. Maybe that is why Lasker retired after that tournament.

Writings from such a great player are always valuable. And Lasker's analysis was highly regarded.

4. One Hundred Selected Games, Mikhail Botvinnik, Dover, DN. Game collection.
The first player that I greatly admired was Bobby Fischer. The saga of how he annihilated everyone in his path. His 20 game winning streak was incredible. He was on a mission (a little Blues Brother Music). I watched Shelby Lyman explain his strategy and tactics on PBS in July and August of 1972.

Later that year, I joined the 80,000 membership of U.S.C.F. and played in my first rated tournament, a quad on December 17 at the J.E.C. in Elizabeth. I went from 1300 to Class A player within a year. During this year, I played over the games from My Sixty Memorable Games. I learned a lot, but much was over my head.

After the 1972 match, I saw Fischer guest on the Johnny Carson show. But then he disappeared. Sure there was a sighting here or there, but no tournaments (he promised to be an active world champion), no simuls, no lectures, no books nor articles and no commercial endorsements. Zilch, nada, nothing.

As if Fischer's behavior leading up to winning the world title was strange enough, it was about to become even more strange. The person, who most people considered the greatest of all time and devoted himself to chess entirely, halts all public chess activities and doesn't defend his world championship. Fischer was a hero to many Americans and many chess players. But how can one have a hero if they don't see that person participate in that activity?

Besides Lasker, a qualified player not on Fischer's 1964 Ten Best Player list was the man who Fischer called “a horse's ass”: Mikhail Botvinnik. He was probably omitted because of jealously of the Soviet's title and for failing to qualify to play for it. Plus Fischer could only draw a winning game against the sixth world champion at the 1962 Varna Olympiad. In M60MG, most of the annotations to this game are by Botvinnik, thus proof of the high standard of his analysis. As great as M60MG is, One Hundred Selected Games was just as great when it first came out. Both are must read for the serious student. My claim is that Botvinnik was the most influential chess player of the twentieth century.

When the Russian civil war hostilities ended, the Soviet Chess Federation claimed 1159 surviving members in 1923. Then the government decided to support chess. Chess clubs were started in schools, factories and everywhere else. This is when Botvinnik learned to play. The U.S.S.R. sponsored Moscow 1925 and the chess membership grew to half a million soon after.

One Hundred Selected Games starts in 1927 when Botvinnik first became a master at age sixteen. It covers the first half of this confirmed communist's career when he dominated Soviet chess by winning six of his record seven national championships. From 1931 to 1948, the Soviet patriarch finished first or shared first in 18 out of 22 tournaments, culminating in becoming the first soviet world champion. The final games of this volume were played in the year Alekhine died with the crown.

In the second half of the twentieth century, the soviets held the world title all but three years. Most of the candidates to the title were also Soviet players. Botvinnik played seven world championship matches and won only one more Soviet championship during 1951 to 1970. His compatriots had caught up with him, so he declared himself to be first among equals. He retired shortly after playing on the victorious U.S.S.R. team over the rest of the world team. Botvinnik had his chess school in which future world champions twelve and thirteen attended. The seeds that Botvinnik and the Soviet Chess Federation sowed are evident today.

Botvinnik's other game collection books are also very well done, but One Hundred Selected Games impressed me a great deal. Besides, my copy is autographed.

3. Practical Chess Endings, Irving Chernev, Dover reprint of 1961 Simon and
Schuster. Endgame.
Irving Chernev is my favorite writer on chess. I learned the most about endings from PCE because solving problems was a lot more fun than the usual dry method. Chernev gives 300 White to play and win endgame studies. All but a handful of the problems, the student must be 100% accurate for the win. This teaches the student to calculate accurately plus all the endgame motifs, such as opposition, zugzwang, the square, bridging, triangulation, winning a tempo, counting a pawn race etc. Even the drawing lines are instructive

When the student uses this book, they should use the Purdy method. Purdy instructs the student to cover the solution when attempting to solve the problem. After the problem is solved or an earnest attempt is made, the student should slowly uncover the solution. If the solution is identical to the student, then they should proceed to the next line. If the solution is different, then the student should try to figure out why and proceed to solve the remainder of the problem.

The two minor defects of this book are there are no important drawing lines (such as Philidor’s position) and it is printed in descriptive notation.

I enjoy endgame studies the same as puzzle books or combinations, mainly to stay in some chess shape. There is a plethora of good endgame books. Some of them are; How to Win in the Chess Endings by Horowitz, Chess Endings: Essential Knowledge by Averbach, Basic Chess Endings (revised by Benko) by R. Fine, Endgame Strategy by Shereshevsky, Mastering the Endgame volume 1 & 2 by Shereshevsky and Slutsky, The Survival Guide to Rook Endings by Emms and Essential Chess Endings by Howell.

I tell my friend, Michael D. Wojcio the runner, that it is more important how one finishes a race than how one begins a race.

2. The Most Instructive Games of Chess Ever Played, Irving Chernev, Dover reprint from 1965 Simon and Schuster, DN. Instruction.
One can never go wrong when purchasing a Chernev book, from An Invitation to chess, or 1000 Best Short Games of Chess, or The Fireside Book of Chess, or Logical Chess Move by Move or many others.

Batsford wisely translated LCMBM from desriptive notation to algebraic in1999. On the cover, did you recognize the King-eye view of the Game of the Century, at the time of the Queen sacrifice? I am convinced that a fellow Kenilworth Chess Club master has this book memorized. I feel that I have a slight edge over him because I favor LCMBM's sequel, The Most Instructive Games Ever Played.

This is Chernev at his best. His passion for chess and instruction is exhibited as he annotates 62 highly instructive games. Chernev starts with his hero and the classic Capablanca-Tartakover, New York, 1924 (Rook on the Seventh Rank). Also included is Pillsbury's decisive game at Hastings, 1895 against Gunsberg (March of the Little Pawns). Tarrasch's impressive technique against Thorold at Manchester, 1890 demonstrates how to win in a single rook ending with a clear pawn plus (Aggressive Rook in the Ending). I digested this book in my first year of tournament chess and I believe that it helped me gain close to 300 rating points. The above games show how to win different endings. Among my favorite games is Boleslavsky-Lissitzin, Moscow, 1956. I have asked my students to evaluate the position after move 20. Then I show how Black resigns ten moves later.

Yes, in over thirty years I have outgrown Chernev's notes, but these are great games and great for teaching. A few more favorites are Marshall-Lasker, New York, 1907, Alekhine-Yates, London, 1922, and Steinitz-Sellman, Baltimore, 1885.

The Most Instructive Games of Chess Ever Played was my most instructive book.

1. Garry Kasparov on My Great Predecessors, Part I, Everyman Chess,
2003. Most impressive
There are different methods of learning a subject. My favorite method is through history. With trial and error, we have evolved to our current technology. Have you ever noticed that the most powerful nations often had the strongest chess players, such as Spain and Italy in the 1500 and 1600's, France in the 1700's, England and Germany in the 1800's and since then, Russia, Europe and U.S.?

I enjoy history. I also enjoy viewing the best players and their best efforts. The Golden Dozen by Chernev was an early favorite. The World's Greatest Chess Games by Nunn, Burgess and Emms filled a void in 1998.

Then the symbolic holy grail appeared. The greatest player in the history of the game wrote about the early great players and his predecessors. So what if much was ghost written or was aided by computers? He still had to guide the computers (computers calculate, humans think or reason). Kasparov had to make evaluations of the games that changed history. The biographies of the players and the stories of the matches and tournaments are very interesting and well done.

My choice for most impressive book is Garry Kasparov on My Great Predecessors, Part I. Garry autographed my copy.

Updated 10.27.2005 | Contact Michael Goeller