A couple of weeks ago, Ryan Emmett asked me to produce a list of the best books for an aspiring club player. This task was way way harder than I first imagined, and has also made me realise I have some 'catch-up' reading to do.
I've broken it down into 4 categories, picked 2 books from each, but also listed some other worthy contenders. You'll notice there are no openings books, but only because the best ones depend on which openings you like to play. Reuben Fine's "The Ideas Behind the Chess Openings" nearly made it onto the list as a general guide, but apparently many of the variations are now too dated. As a general rule for openings books, avoid the reference manuals with variation upon variation and concentrate on the strategic concepts / key games / repertoire style books.
Averbakh's handbook covers all the basic endgame theory that every chess player should know (and it's amazing how many don't); essential... yes! For a guide to strategic endgame concepts and practical play then Shereshevsky is your man.
Going further: Dvoretsky's "Dvoretsky's Endgame Manual", harder work, but the next step after you've mastered Averbakh's book. For a deep insight into endgames arising from specific openings, and for a general improvement in your chess planning and understanding, "Mastering the Endgame (Volumes 1&2)" again by Shereshevsky are wonderful books. Finally, for an endgame reference work there is Keres' classic "Practical Chess Endings".
Middlegame / Strategy
- "How to Reassess Your Chess" by Jeremy Silman
- "The Art of the Middle Game" by Paul Keres and Alexander Kotov
This was the most difficult category, as I've read few of the great middlegame books. Both of the chosen works were recommended to me, and receive exceptional reviews.
Two books I have read that came close are the legendary "Think Like a Grandmaster" by Alexander Kotov (I'm somewhat sceptical on the first chapters about analysis, but the book remains fantastic) and Dvoretsky's "Secrets of Chess Tactics" (which is only kept off the list because I suspect it's best suited for 2200+ players rather than improving club players). In fact any of the Dvoretsky books could be in this list; I suggest looking out for the revised Olms versions as they appear this year, or picking up cheap used copies of the older works.
Other middlegame classics to consider are "Pawn Power in Chess" by Hans Kmoch, "Modern Chess Strategy" by Ludek Pachman, "Manual of Chess" by Emmanuel Lasker, and "Simple Chess" by Michael Stean. "From Beginner to Expert in 40 Lessons" by Alexander Kosteyev also deserves mention.
- "Zurich International Chess Tournament 1953" by David Bronstein
- "Understanding Chess Move by Move" by John Nunn
Bronstein's work on the 1953 Candidates tournament was the first book on to my list, and if you are only allowed one book on a desert island, this is the one to take. Thirty rounds of chess between fifteen fabulous players including 3 World Champions, inspiring analysis, arguably the dawning of the new 'modern age' in chess. Nunn's work could equally have gone into the strategy category, a deep but readable study of 30+ of the best games played in the 90's (excellent for studying the classic games, see yesterday's improvement tip).
There are many contenders: Timman's "Art of Chess Analysis" is similar to Nunn but covers great games from the 70's'; Chernev's "The Most Instructive Games of Chess Ever Played" is a fabulous collection of well-chosen games, but I found the annotations annoying. Of course, Fischer's "My 60 Memorable Games" remains a 'must-have' book, but I'd be more tempted by Kasparov's five volume series on "My Great Predecessors" (start with part 5 on Korchnoi and Karpov). Interestingly, what is missing is a book of Kasparov's games by Kasparov.
The 'And Because' Category
Whilst the above books will all help your chess, this final category of books are in because I think it's important to know about the history of the game, in particular the Cold War politics, indoctrinated mindsets and repression that chess has been instrincally linked to:
- "Chess Is My Life" by Viktor Korchnoi
- "Fischer Versus Spassky: Chess Match of the Century" by Svetozar Gligoric
Also "Karpov - Korchnoi 1978" by Keene covers a fascinating match; "The Soviet School of Chess" by Kotov and Yudovich is incredible propaganda; Nimzovich's "Karpov - Korchnoi 1978" is wonderful from a historical point of view. Happy reading!
On Amazon: Chess Tales 'Must-Have' Books
I'm conscious the list is missing a pure tactics book (find the winning combination); any suggestions from Chess Tales readers welcome.