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
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
7. Judgment and Planning in Chess, Dr. Max Euwe, 1979
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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,
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
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
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,
The Most Instructive Games of Chess Ever Played was
my most instructive book.
1. Garry Kasparov on My Great Predecessors, Part I,
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
Updated 10.27.2005 |