by Steve Lopez

The holdays are here! A time to be with friends and family, a time to relax, a time to blow your Christmas gift money on a few new chess books (after you've bought some software, of course!).

I've recently been reminded by a few friends that I haven't written any book reviews in a while. It's Christmas, I'm fairly lazy, and writing reviews is easy. So let's take a gander at my bookshelf and see what's new.

American GM Yasser Seirawan has added to his Winning Chess collection with a brand-new entry in the series: Winning Chess Openings [Microsoft Press, 1998; ISBN 0-7356-0514-9]. This is a fine series of books and the new volume is no exception. I see posts nearly daily in the chess newsgroups asking for recommendations on a good single-volume introduction to the openings; this one is it.

Yasser does a very smart thing with this book. He doesn't try to cover every off-beat opening known to man. He gives basic variations in most of the standard e- and d-pawn openings, with lots of text explanations instead of endless trees of variations. He explains the major openings, then suggests a basic opening repertoire for the beginning and intermediate player (including the King's Indian Attack for White -- no surprise there).

Yasser's a pretty entertaining writer. He even has the guts to admit that he was no chess prodigy. He includes several of his early games to prove the point. As my English friends would say, he was "bloody awful". If Yasser was this bad starting out, there's a glimmering of hope for the rest of us.

I would suggest that anyone looking for a basic book that explains the openings try this one out, then progress to Fine's Ideas Behind the Chess Openings after finishing Seirawan's book. If, however, you're in the market for a huge compendium of all the latest variations and opening theory, it's best to look elsewhere.

Al Lawrence and Lev Alburt have published a book called Playing Computer Chess [Sterling Publishing, 1998; ISBN 0-8069-0717-7]. This book is somewhat hard to review as it's neither fish nor fowl: it combines basic chess instruction with a basic look at how to use chess computers. Neither topic is covered in-depth, but it's an interesting read. I bought it out of professional curiosity. I wondered, "Have these guys stumbled upon something I haven't?" I was hoping to pick up a tip or two that I hadn't considered.

Unfortunately, I was disappointed on that score, but I thought it was an OK book anyway. There's an introductory chapter about getting to know the features of your chess computer. They explain the basic concepts and then impart the cardinal rule for using a chess computer which can be summarized as: RTFM -- Read The Freaking Manual! The rest of the book intersperses basic chess principles and examples of how they can be used to beat your computer.

Chapter Five is pretty interesting. It's an interview with ChessBase USA's capo de tutti capi, Don Maddox, who talks about the Kasparov-Deep Blue rivalry. It's also revealed in the book that Don was the guy who developed Deep Blue's controversial opening book (I knew this as far back as 1996, but I was sworn to secrecy). It's a good interview and you get a good look at Don's "take" on computer chess.

Playing Computer Chess comes in two flavors: you can buy the book alone or in combination with a portable standalone chess computer. The computer looked like fun but was only rated at Class B, so I passed on it and bought the book by itself. The chess instruction in this book is very basic, but there are some good tips on how to beat your chess computer plus some nice general info on chess computers and software. I won't tell you to run out and buy it -- most intermediate players with prior experience in playing computers will be disappointed by it. But if you just got your first copy of Fritz or Chessmaster for Christmas and you're becoming frustrated at your inability to make headway against the computer, you might give this book a try.

Publishers Carroll and Graf have hit upon a revolutionary idea in chess literature: inexpensive chess books. Egad, what a concept! The first time I saw Graham Burgess' The Mammoth Book of Chess on the shelf, I skipped right over it. I figured the fat boy would have a $30 price tag. On another trip to the bookstore I saw the price ($10.95) and completely wigged out! Needless to say, it came home with me.

The Mammoth Book of Chess [Carroll and Graf, 1997; ISBN 0-7867-0431-4] is just that -- a thick 537 page compendium of all sorts of chess information. There are tactics tests, mate quizzes, basic openings, a chess FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions) chapter, and sections on attack and defense, and endgames. He's also included two excellent chapters on computer chess and correspondence chess. However, I do disagree with one thing: Burgess seems fairly wishy-washy on the use of computers in correspondence chess on the premise that "everyone's doing it". Sorry, Graham, but two wrongs do not make a right -- I've done the math. While he doesn't advocate such computer usage, he skirts the issue by presenting both sides of the argument which might mislead some less-than-attentive readers to think that computer usage is permitted in standard correspondence chess events.

He also has a nice section on on-line chess (the best I've seen in any chess book). He's come to many of the same conclusions I have: for chess, Usenet sucks and CompuServe rocks. He talks about FTP downloads, live on-line chess, and chess Web sites. In the two months that I've been back full-time at ChessBase, I've discovered that many people don't know what a valuable chess resource the Internet can be; Burgess' book gives a nice introduction to the on-line chess world.

At $10.95, this book is a must-buy. You really can't go wrong with this book. No matter what aspect of chess interests you (with the exception of chess biography), there's something in this book for you.

Game collections are often overlooked in the age of Internet downloads. While I agree that it's ridiculous to spend money on a book of unannotated games, many computer-savvy players are under the mistaken impression that books of game collections are useless. Not so; most printed game collections contain annotated material and they're quite instructive.

An "oldie but goodie" I've recently rediscovered is 500 Master Games of Chess by Savielly Tartakower and J. Du Mont [Dover, 1975; ISBN 0/486-23208-5]. This is probably the greatest game collection ever. You get a ton of games for very little cash outlay (I don't know the current price of this book. My copy was $10.95, which works out to just over two cents a game). The authors divide the games by opening, so it's a nice reference when you're studying an opening you've not played before. The games are all decently annotated, and some of Tartakower's commentary is a hoot (the man had a wicked sense of humor). I can't praise this book highly enough! It's a true classic and I love it dearly (despite the use of descriptive notation).

Another of the Carroll and Graf "cheap chess books" is destined to become a classic. The Mammoth Book of the World's Greatest Chess Games [Carroll and Graf, 1998; ISBN 0-7867-0587-6] by Graham Burgess, Dr. John Nunn, and John Emms is absolutely incredible. The authors voted on the 100 greatest chess games of all time (using a point system similar to NCAA polls). You might not agree that these are the 100 greatest games, but you have to admit that they're all pretty impressive. All are annotated in-depth. The authors recommend that the reader use a program such as ChessBase to keep track of all the variations and sub-variations. I agree that this is an excellent suggestion -- I can't picture trying to follow the maze of variations without computer aid.

But there's more to this book than just moves. Each game is preceded by an excellent introduction, including biographical information on the players. Then there's a description of the course of the game. This is followed by the game itself, which is concluded with a section on lessons from the game (readers of my own Battle Royale will recognize the approach).

The games are arranged chronologically. Only thirty games predate World War II, while a mere 16 games are from the 1990's. You might be surprised at some of the selections. The 1938 AVRO tournament is generally recognized at one of the all-time greats, yet only one game from it makes the top 100. The 1953 Zurich event (another great) gets four games in the top 100. Ten of the games are from World Championship matches. There's one game from the 1992 Fischer-Spassky rematch, as well as one from the 1996 Kasparov-Deep Blue confrontation. Correspondence players will be gratified to know that there are a few correspondence games in the top 100. What does this all mean? I don't know -- I'm just pointing out some highlights.

The Mammoth Book of the World's Greatest Chess Games is a "desert island" book for me. If I was to be marooned somewhere, I'd want it along with me (as long as I had a solar-powered laptop computer, too). Check this one out; I'm sure you'll enjoy it.

A very good "top games" collection is back in print: The Most Instructive Games of Chess Ever Played by Irving Chernev [Dover, 1992; ISBN 0-486-27302-4]. Chernev has selected 62 games from before 1962 and annotated them in an entertaining and instructive manner. The introduction to each game describes what to look for as you replay the game, while the annotations within the game clarify the point. The games are great and there are some nice photographs included too (I particularly like the photo of a contemplative Tal on page 21). The only downside to the book is (again) the use of descriptive notation.

This should give you a few ideas on how to spend some of the Christmas gift money that's burning a hole in your pocket (as well as an idea of what I've been reading lately!). Until next week, happy reading and have fun!

Reminder: ChessBase USA will be closed on Friday, January 1, 1999. Happy New Year!

You can e-mail me with your comments, suggestions, and analysis for Electronic T-Notes. If you love gambits, stop by the Chess Kamikaze Home Page and the Yahoo Chess Kamikazes Club.