Yesterday, at the pet store, a little girl was bawling her eyes out. "I want a guinea piiiiiggggg!"
The mother patiently explained, "You can't have a guinea pig. Besides, you have one at home and you never play with it."
The girl wailed, "I want another one!!!!!"
My wife thinks this not much different than my chess book habit. We have a truce: I get to buy chess books, and she gets to buy clothes.
My "intended audience" for this blog are people that already play tournament chess or rated chess games online. They already know the rules, the values of the different pieces, how to read chess notation, and most likely use a computer to help them analyze and store their games.
However, maybe you're a scholastic player that just started playing, but you're getting beaten badly at the club. Maybe you're like me, and later in life something triggered a desire to learn more about the game. I want to make a few suggestions to those just starting out in chess, to help "bring them up to speed."
You can spend an awful lot of money on chess books, software and equipment. However, you don't have to. Some people just "have" to get the latest version of their favorite chess program, or just "have" to get that book on some opening they never play but that got rave reviews. I haven't been involved directly with scholastic players, but I'm willing to bet that parents often fall into two traps: getting books or equipment that their child doesn't use, or buying whatever book or program their child "has" to have.
I'm going to suggest a list of "bare essentials" that will provide the most bang for their buck. Some of the specific recommendations are a matter of taste, but if you stick with the general strategy you shouldn't go wrong.
1. The first things you need to know are the rules (including castling kingside and queenside, en passant capturing, and stalemate), and how to read and write chess notation. I'm assuming most readers of this are well beyond this. However, if one of the above terms was unfamiliar to you or your child, you probably want to tackle this before plunking down money on more advanced material.
2. Next, you need to know basic tactics...forks, pins, skewers ("X-ray attacks"), removal of the guard, deflection, and so on. I am going to argue on this blog, very strongly, that tactics is by far the most important thing you can spend time on. There is a lot to choose from in this category, but in general any book that explains the value of the pieces and the basic tactics mentioned above will be a good place to start. You can start with one or two of the books below, and add more challenging ones as you progress.
My two personal recommendations are out of print, but you may be able to find them online or in a used book store:
- The Chess Tutor: Elements of Combinations by Leslie Ault. My first copy that I obtained as a kid was lost when I moved. I found another used copy and foolishly sold it to a friend. This book should have become a classic, in my opinion.
- Winning Chess: How to See Three Moves Ahead by Irving Chernev and Fred Reinfeld. This is a better known book, but hard to find.
One free resource for practicing chess tactics is the Chess Tactics Server, which I've just started using. One downside is that your performance rating is related to how quickly you solve the problem, so it encourages superficial thinking. Think of it as more of a drill to practice your ability to recognize tactical patterns quickly.
I could make many, many suggestions for studying chess tactics. I'll just say that time spent solving tactical problems is never wasted.
3. Test your newly-acquired chess kung-fu by joining a chess club and playing rated games. In the United States, this means joining the USCF and finding a local club. You can also play rated games online, for free (e.g. the Free Internet Chess Server) or by paid subscription (e.g. the Internet Chess Club, which is where I play most of my games). The point of playing rated games is that you can be matched against players of roughly the same playing strength. No one likes losing all the time, and beating much weaker players isn't going to help you improve your chess. Also, the rating gives an indication of how much progress you're making as a player, and gives an incentive to try your hardest each and every game.
Nowadays, playing chess online is the easy option, but there are many disadvantages. One is that most games are played at fast speeds, so bad habits tend to get reinforced. This is one of the problems I'm currently battling. Also, stronger players at your chess club will be able to go over your games and point out your mistakes. You may even find a local master willing to give lessons.
4. Now that you've played several games against other people, get software that allows you to store your old games and analyze them. I now use the Chessbase products Fritz 9 and Chessbase 9 , but there are cheaper options for people just starting out. The main thing is that you want to be able to:
- store your games for future reference
- analyze your games for tactical errors
- read databases of games obtained from the internet or elsewhere
The most valuable ability of a program like Fritz or Chessmaster is that it can analyze your own games and find your mistakes. They're great at pointing out "you missed a mate in 3" or "you could have won a pawn here". Programs like Fritz and the Chessmaster series allow you to play against the computer as well. I think that training with the computer is a good way to correct yourself of bad habits, because computers will mercilessly punish your mistakes. The computers are so strong these days that it takes some fiddling around to get a program like Fritz to play almost as bad as you do (my understanding is that Chessmaster is a bit easier to use in this regard).
Whereas a program like Fritz is a computer opponent and analyzer with some database features, Chessbase itself is a chess database with some analysis features. Chessbase will not analyze your game while you sleep, or play a game with you, but it will analyze the current position if you tell it to. Chessbase is useful in finding things like:
- here is where your game becomes different from all other games in its huge database of games
- in this opening at move 12, the following 9 moves have been played by masters, and 12.d4 has the highest win percentage for white
- you have played the Ruy Lopez opening as white 451 times in the last 7 years, and your opponent has responded with the Steinitz Defense 23% of the time.
- here are all the games with players rated above 2400 with and endgame of same-coloured bishops and with pawns on g2, f3 and h4 vs. pawns on g6 and h5
There's oodles of software out there, for both mac and PC, both commercial and free. I like the Chessbase products because they not only read the standard .pgn database files, but they also read their own .cbh and .cbf-format chessbases that allow for extra commentary like drawing arrows or key squares, or inserting diagrams that will appear when the game is printed out.
5. If you're still having fun and eager to learn at this point, get one basic book on endgames, and a book or two on strategy. My recommendation for endgames is Pandolfini's Endgame Course, although it has some typos. Just the Facts! by Lev Alburt and Nikolay Krogius is similar, but with fewer positions and more discussion. I could mention others, but pick one and read it cover to cover for starters.
I strongly recommend Best Lessons of a Chess Coach by Sunil Weeramantry and Ed Eusebi, and How To Reassess Your Chess by Jeremy Silman. However, if you're a new player or a young child you may want to look through a copy of each and make sure it's not too advanced. These are the two books I stumbled upon as a young adult that opened my eyes to what "real chess" was. The first book, in particular, was revelation after revelation after revelation. I have a terrible memory for master games, but the first game in that book demonstrated how a knight on a safe, advanced square (or "outpost") could be a terrible, terrible thing, and I have often used that idea in my own games. The latter book is close to being the bible of positional chess, and will teach you how to analyze a chess position and choose good moves.
I don't think beginners need to study a lot of chess strategy (tactics is far more important), but they need to be introduced to basic elements of strategy. Understanding positional chess helps you to choose good moves (or avoid bad ones, like weakening pawn moves) when there are no clear tactical shots.
6. Don't worry about openings at this point. I didn't forget to include suggested books on openings...I deliberately am not suggesting one at this point. I intend to write about openings soon, but at this point all you need to know is that you should get your pieces out as quickly as you can. If your chess program has a built-in opening book (and most do), you can compare what you play to what the "book" moves are and decide what you yourself like to play. You will go through an awkward phase where your pieces seem to get tangled up, or you realize your knight works better on d7 in a certain opening rather than c6, or you get punished for not castling soon enough, but you'll learn from your mistakes. At your level, actually learning "opening theory" is largely a waste of time because your opponents will also be playing lousy moves not found in any of the books. Getting your army mobilized faster than your opponent, and having a sharp eye for tactics, will be far more important.
- learn the basic rules and tactics
- play rated games against people, both face-to-face and over the internet if you can
- use software to store your games and analyze them for errors
- learn the basics of endgames and chess strategy