5 Best Non-Chess Books to Improve Your Chess

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We can only study so much chess. At least, I can only study so much chess. But how we study is just as important as what we study. And the habits and practices of your study are even more important. That’s why in this post we offer suggestions for 5 non-chess books that will help improve your game. These are all books we have read in the past year.

Non-Chess Book #1: Atomic Habits

Non-Chess Book 1: Atomic Habits

We are huge, huge fans of Atomic Habits. We have an entire post dedicated to how to build an atomic chess study habit. I have recommended this book more than any other to my friends and family.

“You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems.

James Clear, author of Atomic Habits

Chess improvement requires daily practice. It is incredibly important to get into a systemic habit of chess study to reach your chess goals. James Clears tells us exactly how to do that.

Atomic Habits discusses making a regular routine out of things and making incremental progress. If you get just slightly better at chess every day, you will see compound growth. A tiny bit of improvement each day adds up to a ton of improvement over the course of a year. Put in the effort to make the little changes in the beginning and keep your consistency.

Focus on the process, not the end result. Chess players are obsessed with their ratings. Instead, focus on your improvement habit and your results will follow. Rating is a lagging indicator of chess progress. Measure the time you spend studying instead.

Non-Chess Book #2: Essentialism

Essentialism is very popular in the ChessGoals discord. Several people gave it as a favorite for (non-fiction) books they have read and enjoyed in the recent past.

This book is all about getting you to focus on what matters most in your life. If chess is one of those things, it is important to realize how everything is competing for your time. We are living in times of the most distractedness in human history. Ask yourself if chess is something you want to focus your energy on. If so, Essentialism will help you.

The principles can even be applied to which aspects of chess are essential to study. Want to learn a new opening? Focus on that. Want to study endgames? Study only endgames, and cut everything else out. Figure out what is most important for your improvement and focus on it.

Chess players, especially adult improvers, are easily sidetracked by new shiny objects. A new book, a new chessable course, a new tactics module. These things are all great, and I’m as guilty as anyone. If you’re new to chess or don’t know where to start for improvement, try one of our 12-week study plans.

Non-Chess Book #3: Deep Work

This book is all about how to focus without distraction. Essentialism gives you the plan, Deep Work gives you the implementation. Pair this with Cal Newport’s other book, Digital Minimalism, for a thorough breakdown on how to cut down on our phone and technology use.

One reason I love over-the-board chess is the lack of distractions. There are no cell phones, no noise, no distractions at all. It is just you and your opponent sitting at a board with physical pieces. A game could last four hours but it can go by in a blink of an eye.

Try to re-create this environment for your chess study. Can you sit down, undistracted for prolonged amounts of time to focus and improve? You may also consider having different tiers of chess improvement and how distracted you will allow yourself to be. Going over a master game with a physical board and reviewing annotations takes a lot of deep focus. Reviewing a chessable repertoire on the commute to work (hopefully you aren’t driving) requires less.

Non-Chess Book #4: Thinking Fast and Slow

This is the most intimidating book on our list. It is a page shy of 500 and the audiobook clocks in at just over 20 hours of read time. Needless to say, it’s a big book.

We love that Daniel Kahneman discusses chess quite a bit in this book. The biggest takeaway from Thinking Fast and Slow is his explanation of the two systems of thought that the brain uses.

System 1 is your automatic thinking system. In chess, this is the system you use during the first 10 problems of puzzle rush. You intuitively see a pattern and play it without deep calculation. It’s also the system you rely on for bullet chess.

System 2 is your consciously aware system. This is the part of the brain you use on difficult chess problems and slow over-the-board tournament games.

When you first learn to drive a car, you are using largely system 2. Everything is new, you need to learn how to apply pressure to the gas and brake pedal, how much you need to turn the steering wheel, directions, etc. As you become more comfortable, these maneuvers become much more automatic and you lean on system 1.

We use systems 1 and 2 for nearly everything in our life. Of course, we also use it in chess. Magnus Carlsen’s system 1 would annihilate my system 2. My system 2’s deep concentration is no match for Carlsen’s intuition.

Tactics and opening training will help you transform more and more of your knowledge of chess from system 1 to system 2. It is important to train your system 1, your system 2, and the border between them!

Non-Chess Book #5: Ego is the Enemy

Ego is the Enemy by Ryan Holiday is likely the most “controversial” pick on our list. We purposefully left out recommendations for diet and fitness for the same reasons- these issues are very personal.

In Ego is the Enemy, Ryan talks about how we believe that the world revolves around us1. This is also true in chess. We want to get our rating higher. We have this number attached to like our worth as a chess player right and the higher that number is the better we are.

Stay modest and stop equating yourself to your chess rating. There is always someone higher rated than you.

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