BOOKS, BOOKS, BOOKS

by Steve Lopez

It's been many months since we last took a look at some printed books in ETN. If you're a new reader of this column, you might be unaware of the fact that I've done a few book reviews in the past. I'm a firm believer in the notion that books and software work very well together and should be used jointly in an integrated learning environment. Even though ETN is devoted primarily to the use of ChessBase and Fritz software, I think that anything a chessplayer might find useful ought to be mentioned here.

I buy a lot of chess books. It's an addiction. There ought to be a 12-step program for people who have this compulsion. Many of us buy a pile of chessbooks and never read them the whole way through. We start out with good intentions but lose interest somewhere around Chapter Four. Chess books are extraordinarily tough reading. Unlike most novels, which can be read in a few hours, chess books take forever to read (since you have to follow most of the content on a chess board and sometimes require a second board for variation analysis) and dang few of them hold our interest for very long.

It's a rare book that's both interesting and informative. Better Chess for Average Players by Tim Harding [Dover Publications, ISBN 0-486-29029-8] is one of these unusual finds: a chess book that's informative and entertaining.

Harding (an Irish master) wrote this book back in the Seventies. He's revised and updated it for the new second edition, adding examples and changing a bit of text around. If nothing else, this book is unusual for a Dover book in that it contains algebraic notation.

Harding has divided the book into sections (Basics, Attack, Sacrifices, Defense, Positional Play, Choosing a Move, and Endgames). Each section is further divided into four or more units. By using this "building block" approach, he's organized an awful lot of material into small easily digested chunks. As I read the book I treat each unit as a separate chess lesson, stopping at the end of the unit to play a few games and try to put what I've learned into practice.

What else distinguishes this book? Harding has created an imaginary chess team, the Midlington Chess Club, and uses their exploits as examples of both good and bad play. His descriptions of the players are a real treat, especially for readers who are themselves chess club members. I guarantee that you'll see yourself or someone you know reflected in a Midlington chess player. Here's an excerpt I particularly treasure:

"With a smile of satisfaction, Harry got up from his chair and went to look at the other games; 'Dull positional stuff' he noticed. 'What's happening, Harry?' asked Mary, who had just made her move on Board Two. Harry liked Mary; a pretty girl in her twenties (Harry, of course, is middle-aged and married) and always very polite to him -- not like that fifteen-year-old Johnny who often made rude remarks about his play!"

I laughed for ten minutes after reading that paragraph. Harding, writing on the other side of the Atlantic, hit the bullseye with descriptions of three members of the Hagerstown Chess Club, circa 1991. There's lots of good stuff like this in the book and some fine chess intruction as well. This is a good book for players rated 1300 to 1600; the advice is valuable and the examples are very well-chosen. For $7.95, you really can't go wrong with this one.

Another book that provides a lot of bang for your buck is Teach Yourself Better Chess by Bill Hartston [NTC Publishing Group, ISBN 0-8442-3933-X]. This is one of an extensive series of "Teach Yourself..." books and might be easily overlooked by "serious" chess players. It's obviously a mass-market effort, so how good could it be (especially with a price tag of $7.95)? Sorry, but if you think this is just some quickie book written to rip off the patzers, you're in for a shock. There is some great stuff in this book!

The book contains 75 lessons, and has been divided into three sections: Basic, Advanced, and Mastery. Some of the lessons are provided in more than one section; for example, "Bishops and Knights" appears in both the Basic and Mastery sections, with a different treatment each time. The general pattern for each lesson is to provide discussion on the left-hand page while showing an illustrative example on the facing page. Many of the important concepts (though not all of them) are enclosed in a box and printed in bold typeface.

This is a great book for players with some practical chess experience, especially experience with tournament chess. It's helpful to be able to relate Hartston's advice to things that have happened in your own games. Most of his advice applies to situations on the board: "If there is active play on both wings, and no pawns are blocking the center, then a Bishop is stronger than a Knight". But some of his advice deals with the "inner game" that goes on within a player's own mind: "Always know your own intentions before your opponent forces you to reveal them", and "Poker faces work at chess, too". This advice might seem simplistic at first, but these maxims are kept simple as a memory aid. The accompanying text goes into much greater (and much more valuable) detail.

Hartston has written a tremendously helpful book which not only seeks to teach basic chess concepts but also to show when these concepts should be broken. He deflates some outdated chess concepts and gives you some startling new ideas to ponder: "Now we'll tell you what the fianchetto is really all about. Don't think about the Bishop move; think about the pawn move. Bishops, after all, can move backwards; pawns cannot. So the more significant move is that of the pawn." This is pretty surprising stuff, until you read the rest of the explanation; then you'll smack yourself in the forehead and say, "Of course! Why didn't I think of that?"

The point is that you will remember what Hartston says the next time you fianchetto one of your Bishops. What more can you ask from a chess book? Teach Yourself Better Chess is a really surprising book. I almost passed it up because of its mass-market lineage. I'm really glad I didn't. It's one of the best chess books I've purchased in the last couple of years.

Hartston wrote another (previous) book in the series: Teach Yourself Chess [NTC Publishing Group, ISBN 0-8442-3050-2]. It's a thicker book, costs a bit more ($10.95), and is aimed at beginning players. To be honest, it's just like a hundred other mass-market books for the beginning player., though the section "Basic Opening Theory" gives some nice text background on the ideas behind a few of the major chess openings.

I had high hopes for Tony Kosten's 101 Tips to Improve Your Chess [Henry Holt, ISBN 0-8050-4732-8]. The layout was pretty straightforward: 101 tips, running one to three pages each, with examples included. The tips are great (this is the first book I've read that spells out simply and clearly how to handle an opponent's isolated d-pawn beyond simply blockading it). But the examples are not so hot. The majority of his examples are from grandmaster games played in the 1990's and are very hard for the intermediate player to follow. Kosten supplies complete games (rather than just the relevant examples). With further text explanation this would have been a great idea, but with most of the tips and examples taking just one page, Kosten just throws a few quick variations out in front of the reader (some of which have nothing to do with the tip being "illustrated").

You can benefit from this book if you're willing to work a little harder than you'll typically do with a chess book. Otherwise, with its $15 price tag, you could do better by buying the two books mentioned previously in this column for a combined $15.90.

Next we move on to the pride and sorrow of American chess writing: Eric Schiller. In his latest books (which we'll get to in a moment), we're reminded on the cover (and several times on the pages within) that he's written over seventy-five books on chess openings. Unfortunately, most of them are bumwipe. I recall a book of his that I purchased several years ago, titled Kasparov's Opening Repertoire. The back cover proclaimed "This book shows exactly how Kasparov's opening systems have evolved, and how his efforts have frequently caused established theory to be written. Many games are analyzed, covering a wide range of openings. The many insights gained into the World Champion's play in this vital phase of the game will give you a perfect model for building your own repertoire".

The only thing this book gave me was a $9.95 hit to the wallet and the only insight I received was the knowledge that I should never again buy a book written by Eric Schiller. The book was simply a collection of the opening variations that Kasparov had played up to that point, with some analysis in the form of sub-variations. The "advice" on choosing a repertoire was limited to three pages in the introduction. The practical value of the rest of this book was exactly squadoo. The general opinion I heard from other readers concerning the rest of his work was pretty much in line with my opinion of this book; the term you frequently hear associated with a Schiller book is "database dump" and Kasparov's Opening Repertoire was a perfect example of this technique (the fact that it was co-authored by Leonid Shamkovich only made things more painful; Leonid should have known better).

So I was understandably hesitant to order a couple of new books by Eric Schiller: Standard Chess Openings [Cardoza Publishing; ISBN 0-940685-72-8] and Unorthodox Chess Openings [Cardoza Publishing; ISBN 0-940685-73-6]. The advertising blurbs made them sound similar to classics by Fine (Ideas Behind the Chess Openings) and Horowitz (Chess Openings: Theory and Practice); the books wouldn't contain a ton of variations but would instead consist of text explanations of the opening ideas, accompanied by a few illustrative examples.

Schiller's new books deliver as promised. Standard Chess Openings covers the major openings and systems that the average club player is likely to play or encounter. The book is well-indexed (making it easy to find the opening you want), and the text explanations are pretty good. While not as helpful on a general level as Fine's book, it covers more openings than Fine does. For example, here's what Schiller has to say about the Sicilian Richter-Rauzer:

"The Richter-Rauzer may look like an ordinary Sicilian, but appearances are deceiving. Here you will find no vicious flank attacks. Positional play is the order of the day, and the ability to evaluate the importances of weak pawns and squares, especially in the endgame is essential. This is not to say that fireworks never appear, only that they are comparatively rare, considering that opposite-side castling is normal."

This type of advice isn't too useful to the beginner but is extremely valuable to the intermediate player trying to decide if he wants to add the Richter-Rauzer to his repertoire. After a bit of further explanation, Schiller provides a sample game full of variations and text explanations. It isn't an exhaustive treatment, but it isn't supposed to be. This is a book written for the intermediate player who wants to try out various openings to see if he wants to add them to his arsenal. If a player likes what he sees here, he'll move on to another book (perhaps the Horowitz volume I previously mentioned, a book like Modern Chess Openings to see specific variations in action, or the ChessBase Opening Encyclopedia on disk).

Standard Chess Openings is a pretty good book and not badly priced ($24.95) considering that you get 756 pages (not counting the ads in the back of the book). I think it's a worthwhile acquisition for club-level players.

Unorthodox Chess Openings is a similar volume for devotees of gambits or generally weird openings (or for people who play against these rebellious souls). As with the companion volume, this book is not bad and is particularly well-suited for those people who love to seek out new and unusual gambit ideas. It's also a lot of fun for fun's sake (did you know that 1.h4 is called the Kadas Opening, but is also known as the Desprez Opening or, in America, as the Reagan Attack because it's "thoroughly unmotivated and creates weaknesses with only vague promises of future potential"? Yes, friends, 1.h4 stinks but it's still interesting enough to get two pages in Unorthodox Chess Openings! This book is a real treasure trove of the unusual!).

If you're looking for a couple of books to help you find new ideas to add to your repertoire, or you just want to go "slumming" in the weird world of chess openings, both of these books are a good introduction.

A caveat: there is a certain amount of duplication between these books. I looked up the Budapest Gambit in Standard Chess Openings and read the following: "The Budapest Defense borders on respectability. If White overplays the position, Black can close in quickly for the kill." There follows a bit of explanation and one example game. The text in Unorthodox Chess Openings reads exactly the same way, but the book contains a few more lines of text and a great deal of extra analysis. You'll see this tendency in these books: any opening covered in both books gets a more extensive treatment in Unorthodox Chess Openings.

The other night I was in Borders Books, perusing another new book by Schiller: World Champion Openings. It's a book about openings that the world chess champions have played. I noticed a section on the Budapest Gambit. Flipping to it, I read: "The Budapest Defense borders on respectability..."

Some things about Eric never change.

As my final selection, let me refer you to a book for the little chessplayers in our families. The Amazing Adventure of Dan the Pawn by Simon Garrow [Simon and Schuster, ISBN 0-671-46193-1] is a children's storybook about the first chess game played by Dan, the White Queen's pawn. Dan's pal, King Pawn Ernie, teaches Dan how all the pieces move. There follows an exciting conflict between the White and Black armies, complete with a Queen sacrifice and a surprising checkmate. The moves are given in algebraic notation in the margins so that you can set up a chessboard and show the moves as you read the story to your kids. The illustrations are a riot, the story is fun, and I can't recommend this book highly enough if you have some tiny chessplayers at home. My five-year-old twins love this book and asked me to tell you about it. It gets a seal of approval from all three of us and we think you'll like it too.

Until next week, happy reading and have fun!



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