Using Chess Books the Smart Way

books on table

Chess has gone through a transformation in to the digital age. Computers are involved in every facet of the game. We have strong, accessible chess engines for practice and analysis, online platforms to play against one another, and software for improvement. Not to mention internet forums, blogs and websites touching various topics: from opening discussions to strategy and endgame play, from practical advice to general recommendations (including this very site!). It’s easy to think that chess books are on their way out of fashion.

Still, some “old-school” chess players and enthusiasts prefer learning chess from books, as it is a “tried and true” method of learning the game. History’s greats learned primarily through books and experience. Books are also potentially a better way for you to absorb information.

Major publishing companies continue to produce new chess books in rapid succession (albeit sometimes only in a digital format), and many older books are considered to be all-time classics, still being read by generations of players. With so many books already on the shelves, and many more likely to keep hitting them, one is bound to get lost!

The purpose of this post is to provide some thoughts and ideas on how to use chess books in the most effective manner. These are, of course, only suggestions. We encourage you to decide for yourself. Some recommendations might suit you, and others may be inconvenient or undesirable.

Is There a Chess GOAT?

Some consider Jeremy Silman’s books on strategy (“How to Reassess Your Chess”, “The Amateur’s Mind”, “The Complete Book of Chess Strategy”) to be among the greatest chess books ever written. Others, including our very own Matt Jensen, are big proponents of the Artur Yusupov 9-book chess course. Some appreciate Dan Heisman’s no-nonsense approach and others like Andrew Soltis’s witty writing style. So how should one approach books by specific authors?

If you admire a particular author and like their writing style then reading their books exclusively can be useful for learning and improvement. You’ll want to make sure your favorite authors cover all aspects of the game.

It might also be useful to observe the game of chess from multiple points of view. Sometimes we should even read conflicting approaches and opinions. An important component of effective learning is being actively engaged with the study material, and constructing your own ways of thinking on a particular topic.

Some authors may be more renowned in particular areas of the game but not in others. It is generally helpful to provide yourself with a comprehensive menu of books covering every facet of the game.

Which brings us to the next subject of discussion…

Opening Books – Necessary or Excessive?

By far the most prevalent type of chess books is opening books – as of August 2021, more than 50% of books published to this point (whether standard or digital via Chessable) are discussing openings! It is also considered to be the main area of study among improving players:

…most club and congress players nowadays probably spend 80% or more of their chess study time on openings.

Gerard Welling & Steve Giddins, Side-Stepping Mainline Theory

But is it all that useful? Many coaches, teachers and players have stated that opening study should comprise no more than roughly 10-15% of the time spent on chess by the average club player. Beginners and novices should spend even less. Dan Heisman, in his “A Guide to Chess Improvement: The Best of Novice Nook”, argues that most players up to intermediate level (roughly up to 1500) will benefit more from learning and applying opening principles rather than studying and memorizing specific opening sequences and variations.

Still, some opening study is helpful to eliminate recurring mistakes – especially through analyzing your own games and comparing your lines with theory. For the improving player it might be useful to own books discussing various openings and tabiyas (the known sequence of moves in a particular opening variation), rather than dense encyclopedias. Good examples are “Winning Chess Openings” by Yasser Seirawan and “Mastering the Chess Openings” series by John Watson. For more advanced players, books that discuss the main plans and ideas of a particular opening through to the middlegame and even the endgame can be more beneficial.

Of course, this is a controversial topic in chess. Different people have different opinions, so again it is best to follow the advice that makes the most sense to you, and is the most effective for you in terms of time, money, improvement value and, of course, fun!

For some more ideas on the matter, check out this interesting read by “RoaringPawn”: How Opening “Experts” are Ruining Growth of Developing Players – Chess.com

The Most Important Thing

Chess is, after all, a game. As such, it should provide enjoyment above all else. Look for the books that you are really interested in reading – not just for buying and keeping on the shelf! – and read those with genuine intent. You might even improve your game a bit along the way…

About Me

I’m a chess beginner and enthusiastic learner. I have been featured on this blog here: Learner Series #18 – Ariel T. I’m neither a titled player nor a strong club player, but I’m a fan of learning, actively searching for the truth and pursuing different opinions and views of a subject. I have read numerous chess books, book reviews, blog posts and columns on the matter, and this post is a compilation of the opinions of smart and more experienced people across time and space, that might be useful for other improving players like me.

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Daniel Kolich

    I have hundreds of chess books. I like complete game books by Karpov, Alekhine, Geller. I then study tactics, strategy and endgames. Strategy because I want a game plan from the first move. Just pushing pieces and relying on tactics doesn’t help me pinpoint weaknesses in the opponents position. I prefer strategy and complete game analysis.

    1. Ariel Tzentner

      Thank you for the comment Daniel! I agree, game collection books are great for learning strategic ideas and how to analyze certain positions. It also makes the learning more enjoyable when you study the games of your favorite players. Karpov, Alekhine and Geller are great choices!
      Strategy is definitely an important component of chess study and there are certainly lots of great books for it!

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