31 January 2021

Advice for Beginners

Interest in chess is growing. Social isolation during the COVID-19 pandemic and then the popularity of Queen's Gambit on Netflix have created a notable increase in requests for advice from beginners looking to play chess well. There are many books, videos, and websites that are useful. Advice is even more plentiful, but not all of it is useful. There are many approaches to learning chess that have proven helpful. What works for one person may not work for another. 

I was a beginner with almost no understanding of strategy or tactics for about eight years, then I starting reading chess books, and improved rapidly. My interest in chess grew, too. I've sustained this interest more than 45 years. In "My First Chess Book" (2012), I wrote about the beginnings of this growth in skill. The book featured there, 1000 Best Short Games of  Chess (1955), is out of print, but there are many similar books. It is possible to learn a lot about chess, as I did, studying hundreds of miniatures (short games of 25 moves or less).* These short games taught me how to attack the opponent's king. Playing through fantasy variations of these games on a chess board developed tactical skills.

I use a lot of short games in my teaching, as they can be useful. In more than two decades of coaching beginners, and watching them grow into tournament players, I have learned a lot about the development of chess skill. I am convinced that chess enthusiasts should build a foundation of knowledge that starts at the end of the game and works backwards towards the beginning.

A game of chess is commonly described as having three phases--the opening, the middlegame, and the ending. Why not begin with the opening? Studying short games taught me the opening and checkmates, but not the middlegame, and not technical endgames with few pieces. Nevertheless, I improved. There are merits to starting at the beginning, and there are chess teachers who advocate doing so. However, I believe there is a better way.

I recommend starting with Jose Capablanca, Chess Fundamentals (1921).** This book was first published one hundred years ago, but in my opinion remains the single best book for a new player. It covers all aspects of the game, and does so in the sequence that offers the best chance of success.
Chess Fundamentals was published after Jose R. Capablanca became World Champion as a consequence of defeating Emanuel Lasker in a championship match. He followed this book with A Primer of Chess (1935), which some readers have considered as an improvement. The two books follow a similar pattern, and in some cases repeat the same information, especially in the beginning. A Primer of Chess offers instruction on the basic rules, which is absent from Chess Fundamentals

Chess Fundamentals begins with some elementary checkmates--rook and king, two bishops and king, and queen and king. A Primer of Chess has these plus checkmate with two rooks. After these simple checkmates, both books offer the foundation of understanding of pawn promotion with clear analysis of two positions with a single pawn and the two kings. Capablanca then moves on to pawn endings with two pawns against one. It is at this point that Primer and Fundamentals diverge. Capablanca saw them as companion volumes.

After pawn endings, Capablanca offers middlegame positions. In Chess Fundamentals, these first middle game positions are checkmate exercises. One side can force checkmate through a combination, often requiring an initial sacrifice of material. The middlegame positions at this point in A Primer of Chess are not forced checkmates, but emphasize gaining a material advantage. Chess Fundamentals offers general principles of the opening with some illustrations of simple opening systems at the end of the first chapter. A Primer of Chess restates these principles, offering different examples.

The beginning of the second chapter of Chess Fundamentals explains the author's program, which also expresses the main reason for my enthusiasm for the book.
We shall now go back to the endings in search of a few more principles, then again to the middle-game, and finally to the openings once more, so that the advance may not only be gradual but homogeneous. In this way the foundation on which we expect to build the structure will be firm and solid.
Capablanca, Chess Fundamentals (1921), 35.
He develops his explanation in the later A Primer of Chess, explaining, "handling of a few pieces is easier than the of a larger number", as rationale for starting with simple checkmates and endings (25). He suggests that the student should create similar endings and try to solve them using the principles discussed. These days, it is possible to play these positions against a chess engine, which assures that the line you have worked out to be winning does, in fact, win. Moreover, Capablanca's book is not perfect. In a few cases, he might have missed a nuance because he had no option to check his analysis with software. I note one such error in "A Capablanca Error".

I see the principal benefit of Chess Fundamentals as starting players on a path that constantly cycles through a process of endings, then middlegames (both tactics and planning), and then openings. Whole games, miniatures and longer games complete this process. Checkmate is the foundation, as that is the object of the game. I use this cyclical process in my teaching, and my ultimate camp workbook (200 pages of my best chess lessons over some fifteen years of teaching) carries this pattern forward. This workbook is available through Amazon: Five Days to Better Chess (2017).

Other Suggestions

When beginners ask for advice, a common recommendation is Bobby Fischer Teaches Chess. This little paperback dates from the 1960s and is the work of Stuart Margulies and Donn Mosenfelder. They developed a system they called "programmed instruction", which engages the reader with questions, answers appearing on the next page. The book is not a comprehensive approach that covers all aspects of the game, as does Capablanca's, but it does an exceptional job with basic checkmates.

Bruce Pandolfini, Beginning Chess (1993) offers 300 exercises for players new to the game. Pandolfini is a National Master and considered by many chess coaches and players to be America's premier chess coach. Several of his books have been vital to my growth as a player, and as a teacher. All of the exercises in Beginning Chess have ten pieces or fewer, and so fully implement Capablanca's sage advice. The exercises teach fundamental tactical ideas like forks, pins, skewers, and so on (see "Tactical Motifs: A List"). I found such success one day working with a couple of young players and this book that I had an inclination to get copies into the hand of all my students. At the time, I was running after school chess clubs in two schools with more than fifty elementary students receiving weekly instruction, as well as supervised playing time. I did not have the resources to purchase fifty copies of Pandolfini's book, but I did have access to the photocopiers at the two schools. I started creating worksheets with exercises that I composed, based on ideas in Pandolfini's book (simple idea, ten pieces or fewer), and adding a bit of elementary endgame work. After several years of success with these worksheets, I compiled them into a Kindle book (Essential Tactics: Building a Foundation for Chess Skill) and also make the worksheets available to other chess teachers and learners.

Learning checkmate patterns is essential to success in chess. In my view, the best single book on the subject is The Art of the Checkmate (1953) by Georges Renaud and Victor Kahn (see "Checkmate Patterns"). Renaud and Kahn show the patterns in the context of whole games, show some positions where a checkmate threat can be parried, but still might lead to advantage for the player making the threat, and has exercises at the end of each chapter. This book is now available in an algebraic edition. Murray Chandler's popular How to Beat Your Dad at Chess (1998) offers less instruction, and no exercises, but the abundance of diagrams is an aid to younger readers.

For study of whole games, beginning players often gain more from the study of games by past masters than study of contemporary players. There are fewer subtleties in these older games. The games of Gioachino Greco (seventeenth century) and Paul Morphy (nineteenth century) are particularly useful. The Index at the right will lead you to several examples of their games. A notion that individual chess players progress through the same stages as chess history (recapitulation theory) is advocated by Max Euwe, The Development of Chess Style (1968). Richard Reti, Masters of the Chess Board (1930) is an older book that supports this notion somewhat, while Willy Hendriks, On the Origin of Good Moves (2020) critiques recapitulation theory, while taking the reader through the same chess history is an instructive way (see "On the Origin: Reading Journal"). Even more beneficial that these books might be using websites to play through rapidly many games of these old masters on the screen. The website chessgames.com is ideally suited for this mode of learning.


*The term miniature in chess is also used to describe studies with few pieces. The book Genrikh Moiseyevich Kasparian, 888 Miniature Studies (Belgrade: BeoSing, 2010) consists not of short games, but of composed positions with few pieces. Former World Chess Champion Garry Kasparov extolls such studies in his Master Class.

**Unfortunately, there are many editions of Capablanca's classic and some of them have been butchered.  My copy of Chess Fundamentals was printed in 1934. It is written in English descriptive notation, which puts it out of reach of today's beginners. A readily available algebraic edition was "improved" by Nick de Firmian (see Edward Winter's review on Chess Notes, where Winter accuses de Firmian of butchering a classic). The best edition in algebraic is the 1994 Cadogan edition (Cadogan is now Everyman Chess). Beware, however, that the Kindle version listed there is not the same edition. Rather, someone copied and pasted the original 1921 edition (available free from Project Gutenberg) into a file that they uploaded to Amazon. See "Ebook Scam" for more information on the Kindle versions of this text.

18 January 2021

Ebook Scam

While working on a post, "Advice for Beginners", I came across a new twist on a scam I had noted briefly nearly four years ago. In "Kindle Chess Books", I observed that there was a large number of Kindle books by many different pretend authors that were in fact books by Edward Lasker and Jose Capablanca, repackaged with someone else's name on the cover.

I had a hand in getting several of these books removed from the Kindle Store by reporting them as fraudulent to Amazon. My review, "Fraudulent", of Chess Fundamentals by Bennett Griffin is still on Amazon, but the book is not. Several reviews of rip-offs of Lasker's Chess Strategy are still available, too.

This afternoon, I found that there are no less than one dozen copies of Chess Fundamentals by Jose R. Capablanca available in Kindle editions. All of these present Capablanca as the author, mostly concealing the identity of the person(s) selling them as Kindle editions. Three of these are in algebraic notation. The other nine are principally copy and paste rip-offs of the original American edition (1934) that is available through Project Gutenberg. They range in price from $0.99 to $5.98.

A few of them reveal minimal effort on the part of whoever uploaded them to Amazon. Two are without diagrams, including the most expensive one. One of the algebraic editions appears from Amazon's preview to have pasted text boxes with algebraic notation over the descriptive in the Project Gutenberg edition, and also replaced fuzzy black and white diagrams with nicer ones. It has the largest diagrams of the three algebraic offerings. The clearest diagrams, however, are in a different algebraic version, and also the smallest.

Converting this classic text to algebraic and publishing it as an ebook is real labor, and deserves compensation. However, judging from the reviews, they may contain many errors. At least one of the algebraic editions is also available as an independently published print edition.

Those who are simply presenting the Gutenberg version are profiting from someone else's labor. Most of them put minimal, if any labor into the effort. One bills itself as an "illustrated edition" but omits the diagrams, making the book worthless. One version tragically asserts copyright over some aspects of the text, acknowledging the bulk to be Capablanca's work now in the public domain. It is clear from the notice that anything the "editor" added will contain flaws. His grammar and punctuation is horrid.

If you want this book on your Kindle or other device via the Kindle app, make sure you use the preview screen before hitting that one-click button. Otherwise, you may be sorry.