19 March 2012

My First Chess Book

Lesson of the Week: Value of Books

There is a story that I like to tell, an autobiographical story that explains the source of my chess skill. My intent is to motivate aspiring chess students (and their parents) to delve into the world of chess books. This world becomes harder to promote as electronic substitutes grow in quality, diversity, and availability. But it remains a world of value.

My story concerns how my little sister taught me the moves of chess after learning the game from the neighbors. I was in second grade; she was in first. For the next several years, chess was one of the games that we played like Parcheesi or Monopoly. None of us were skilled. Being the oldest, I won more than my share and was able to maintain the self-deception that I understood the game. Then, in Junior High (they call it Middle School now), I was visiting a friend and saw that he had a chess book: Chess in 30 Minutes. "Wow," I told him, "You have a book about chess, you must be pretty good." We determined through the course of a game or two that he was no worse than me, and maybe a little better.

This event took place the year that Bobby Fischer was laying out more and more demands concerning his upcoming World Chess Championship defense against challenger Anatoly Karpov. They never reached agreement and Fischer forfeited his title. The drama kept chess in the news for several months. We did not understand all the details of Fischer's demands, nor was our knowledge of World Championship matches more than superficial. We did understand that there was some appeal to a long match of more than twenty games between the same two players. That was enough comprehension of world events to inspire action. We commenced a match of twenty-one games or so that took place over the next few weeks or months. Alan also introduced me to golf, which occupied most of our time together.

As I recall, Alan and I were about equally matched when the games began. During my next trip to the Cannon Air Force Base Library, I found the chess books. I checked out an armful, or perhaps one or two. The book that I remember reading was Irving Chernev, The 1000 Best Short Games of Chess (1955). From this text I learned to coordinate pieces in attack. I learned to attack the king. As I usually tell the story, I learned to read chess notation from the explanation in the front of this book. This past week I acquired a paperback copy of this now relatively rare Chernev text from Brused Books in Pullman, Washington. To my surprise, the text does not contain an explanation of how to read chess notation!

What else in my story proceeds from faulty memory? I am certain that Chernev's text was one of those I found at the Cannon library, and have only a vague memory of others. Perhaps I read something by Fred Reinfeld. Likely, I remember Chernev's classic because I spent more time with it than the others. It also influenced both the style of my play, and my skill level. By the end of our match, I was better than Alan. Developing my ability to attack carried me a long way, even into USCF C Class. Moving up from there, however, required more of a positional style. But that gets decades ahead of the story.

Back in 1975 a new friend moved in next door--people were constantly moving into and out of the neighborhood as is typical of military life. We were comparable in our chess skill. We started a match. I kept reading chess books. My skill development outpaced his. I became better at chess than my friends.

Then I played my Dad.

After my mother and siblings had gone to bed, my father and I faced one another across the dining room table. We were there late into the night drinking tall glasses of orange juice and maneuvering our armies. He taught me how to play slower, to think about every move. I managed to win both games, each of which was played on a separate evening.

Then I joined the chess club at Yucca Junior High. That meant taking the early bus to school one day per week. It was dark at the bus stop and cold outside the school while we waited for the janitor to open the door.

I have been an avid chess player since 1975, although I played very little from 1980 to 1989. My first computer and Chessmaster 2100 brought me back to the game. I returned to the Spokane Chess Club in 1995, the year after I finished graduate school. I've lost count of how many chess books that I own.

The Lesson

Chernev's book was my first encounter with the famous checkmate trap attributed to Legall de Kermeur, and with which I became reacquainted through a book that I read twenty-five years later (The Art of the Checkmate [1953] by Georges Renaud and Victor Kahn). It is game 10 in Chernev (5).

1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 d6 3.Bc4 Bg4 4.Nc3 g6 5.Nxe5 Bxd1

White to move

How did the game finish?

Game 15 in Chernev's text is a game between Joseph Henry Blake and William Hook, played in London 1891.

1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 d6 3.Bc4 f5 4.d4 Nf6 5.Nc3 exd4 6.Qxd4 Bd7 7.Ng5 Nc6

White to move

According to Chernev, "White now announced a mate in five moves" (7). Chernev gives the moves, but you can work find them for yourself.

The young chessplayers will be challenged to work out the solutions. They may work together using chess boards.


  1. I grew up on a diet of Chernev, Horowitz, and Reinfeld. He doesn't get a lot of respect these days, but there are a lot worse ways to be introduced to serious chess than an Irving Chernev book. His passion for the game is contagious.

    1. dfan, Thanks for the comment.
      I find myself frequently recommending Chernev, Logical Chess Move by Move. And for the educational benefits of chess, the many hours that I spent in high school with I. A. Horowitz, Chess Openings: Theory and Practice was every bit as valuable as anything that I ever did in a classroom for preparing me for graduate school.

  2. 1.Bf7+ Ke7, 2.QxN+ KxQ, 3.Nd5+ Ke5, then I suppose 4.c3, with 5.Bf4+ is mate in five, but I would prefer to keep up the checks with 4.Bf4+ Kd4, 5.Be3+ Ke5, 6.f4 mate.

    1. After your 4.c3, Black can snatch the knight with the queen. You get the queen, but not mate with Bf4+. After your second line, the king takes a walk Kc4 and it takes several moves more to hunt him down.

      Blake brought his knights back: Nf3 followed by Nc3 with a pretty checkmate.

    2. The knights mate is indeed pretty but only works because their is a pawn on f5 blocking the king's escape square.

      I didn't notice that the king had c4 to escape on, but 5...Kc4 6.Nxc7+ Kb4, 7.a3+ Ka5 (Ka4, b3+ transposes), 8.b4+ Ka4, 9.Bb3 mate is just as pretty. :-)

      Yes, I also missed 4.c3 QxNg5, but is probably why I didn't trust giving Black another turn. ;-)

  3. Chernev, Logical Chess Move by Move - this was also my first chess book, and I loved it.

    Of course, you can't translate this sort of formulaic chess into concrete analysis at the board, just as an isolated center pawns strength or weakness depends on the position, but it got my thinking deep about chess, and for the early 1980's, what a great time to start out with a book like this. I liked Chernev, Horowitz back then. Of course nowadays I only read algebraic notation, but I suppose this may have been reprinted since then.

    1. Logical Chess: Move by Move and The Most Instructive Games of Chess Ever Played keep calling me back. These two books can get most players from beginner to C Class, but I wonder if revisiting them might not be a bad idea for an A Class player longing to break through 2000.

      I, too, have become rusty in reading descriptive notation. In the late 1970s I was able to play blindfold using descriptive, but when I spent the time to become proficient at algebraic in the mid-1990s, my descriptive skills atrophied.

      Still, just for fun, I'm reading the game score in Chernev's 1000 Best, and then entering the moves from memory into my database.

  4. That's an interesting exercise. I think all of the blindfold exercises can only help. A whole visualized game is very strong, you should be able to make Expert if you can do that.

    I probably wouldn't learn anything going over that book again other than to find all of the moves that the opponent could have chosen which were better. There is always the temptation for an author to say something like "Yes, it would have been better had Tiny Tim played this more obvious defensive move instead, but after all this is the endgame and to be down += against Rubinstein or Karpov in the endgame is like being sucked into by a Black-Hole, therefore the opponent was justified in playing this tricky, crazy move in a tongue-in-cheek sort of way, which obviously loses yet even more quickly."

    One thing which does help a lot is the ability to blitz/outblitz an opponent tactically in time-trouble. This is a very common winning theme which comes up a lot in my games OTB.

    I should be studying tactics more than I do, even now when I am sorta okay at them against my level of opposition.

  5. I should that most of the time an author is right when they say a position is a lost-cause like that, but then again I believe Sammy Reshevsky is also right that most games are lost by move 10. I saw a Gelfand-Anand game yesterday, and I think White was just lost as soon as move 8, when Gelfand played f3 kicking the Ne4. "The End", and the rest is window-dressing at the super-GM level. 30 moves of mopping-up.