Tag Archives: holiday buying guide 2013

Chess Holiday Buying Guide: Part III (Books!)

Now we get to the books.  (Yay!)  Because you may be buying for a few different types of person, I’m going to break my recommendations into four main groups.  Note that each recommendation is accompanied by a very brief synopsis or note, and not with a full review.  I’d never get anything else done today if I were to strive for more than that!

Also: as a general rule, avoid buying any self-published Kindle books by authors you’ve never heard of.  They might be cheap, but you get what you pay for.

For the young beginning player

  • Chess For Children: How to Play the World’s Most Popular Board Game ($12.20ish at Amazon) is a lovely introduction to the game, replete with fun illustrations and solid instruction.  The authors are a Kiwi Grandmaster and his wife.
  • That same Grandmaster, Murray Chandler, also wrote How to Beat Your Dad at Chess ($12.71ish at Amazon).  This book focuses on checkmating patterns, and every player – including adults of all ratings – would do well to memorize the 50 patterns here.  True beginners might not be best served by this book, but it’s great for those who have played a bit and really want to beat Dad (or Mom, or Grandma).  Chandler is also the author of Chess Tactics for Kids ($15ish at Amazon) which outlines 50 key tactical patterns.
  • Susan Polgar’s dvd Learn Chess the Easy Way – Chess for Absolute Beginners ($19.95ish at Amazon) is a whimsical entry into the world of chess.  She uses computer animation and some silly characters to bring the rudiments of chess to life on the screen.  I’ve the first couple of chapters when leading workshops on chess for the Boy Scouts and at a chess camp, and the kids alternately enjoy the animation and groan when it gets a little much.
  • An older child – or an adult – will find Fred Wilson’s Simple Attacking Plans ($12ish at Amazon) to be of great value.  Wilson analyzes 37 games from players of a range of abilities, showing standard attacking themes and thrilling tactical thunderbolts.  I’ve played through the games in this book and found them very instructive, even at my relatively advanced level.
  • If you’re looking for a book to use to teach your child chess, Chess is Child’s Play: Teaching Techniques that Work ($16ish at Amazon) is a tested, systematic approach.
  • If your child was born with a mouse in her hand, there is the Fritz & Chesster trilogy ($20ish at Amazon) of learning programs from Chessbase.
  • Finally, having seen how obsessed children can be with tablets, the Dinosaur Chess app in the Apple Store is absolutely amazing.  I know anecdotally about two children who have used the app and adore it.

For the adult beginning player

  • John Nunn’s Learn Chess ($10ish at Amazon) is a no-nonsense primer.  Grandmaster Nunn is a reliable author, and most anything he writes will be a worthwhile purchase.
  • Chess for the Gifted and Busy ($16ish at Amazon) won’t quite get you all the way to expert, as the title suggests, but GM Lev Alburt and Al Lawrence have put together a book chock-full of instruction.  It’s dense, and it might move a little too quickly for some, but the work is overflowing with chess wisdom.
  • I’ve always thought that Chess Openings for Kids ($14ish at Amazon) by IM John Watson and FM Graham Burgess was sadly misnamed, since it’s not just for kids!  This is a well-constructed book that provides the key ideas for fifty opening systems and tabiyas.  Any player looking to expand his understanding of the most opening would find this book helpful.
  • Chess for Rookies ($20ish at Amazon) is another sturdy introduction to the game.  Craig Pritchett covers most all the bases here, and in a reader-friendly way.
  • Tactics are the most important thing for the beginning player to master if they are to improve.  Chandler’s How to Beat Your Dad at Chess and Chess Tactics for Kids, discussed above, are good.  I like John Bain’s Chess Tactics for Students, and I use this book when I teach at chess camps.  John Nunn’s Learn Chess Tactics ($16ish at Amazon) is comprehensive and clear.  Chess Tactics for Champions by Polgar and Truong ($17ish at Amazon) is a cost-effective collection of puzzles for solving.  Finally, Jeff Coakley’s Winning Chess Exercises for Kids  ($24ish at Amazon) is, for me, the best single collection of problems for beginning players of all ages to solve.  I’ve used pages from Coakley’s book with my chess team, and I’ve found the problems to be instructive and the answer key highly educational.

For the player ascending the rating latter

  • I believe that improving players – and particularly young players – should know their chess history.  Most good teachers will tell their pupils that intensive study of the great players of the past is a great way to improve their understanding and chess culture.  It’s for that reason that I think Max Euwe’s The Development of Chess Style (OOP, but lots of copies are available at Amazon) is a really important book for improving players to read.  Euwe shows the historical progression of chess strategy and theory through a few dozen annotated games.  He’s a great writer, and games are a lot of fun to play through.  Learning the theory of chess shouldn’t feel this easy.
  • I also really liked the new edition of Alekhine’s My Best Games of Chess 1908-1937 ($24ish at Amazon) released by Russell Enterprises this year.  Alekhine was a great annotator and his games are always entertaining.  You can read my review of this book if you are so inclined.
  • You can never do enough tactics.  Martin Weteschnik’s Chess Tactics from Scratch ($25ish at Amazon) will show your player how tactics work, while The Complete Chess Workout 2 by Palliser ($24ish at Amazon) will give them plenty of tactical practice.
  • Ivan Sokolov’s Sacrifice and Initiative in Chess ($21ish at Amazon) is an advanced treatise on attack.  It’s amazing, and it’s full of tidbits of attacking wisdom that would take years to acquire on one’s own.  If the person you’re buying for is a serious chess player, this is a fantastic book.
  • Finally, I just reviewed Axel Smith’s Pump Up Your Rating ($20ish at Amazon) and dubbed it the book of the year.  This book provides a full-blown training program for the improving player.  I can’t recommend it highly enough.

For the older tournament player

  • As we age, we have to face facts: we’re not going to (necessarily) be able to keep up with the 12 year old tactical dynamos.  Sometimes adjustments are required.  Two recent books by John Watson – for me, the best chess writer around – can help with that, at least with the openings.  Watson’s Play the French 4 ($23ish at Amazon) and A Strategic Opening Repertoire for White ($19ish at Amazon) are both opening works of the highest standard.  Both books offer fully vetted repertoires with excellent verbal explanation of key ideas.  Watson’s four volume series Mastering the Chess Openings [ volume 1 | volume 2 | volume 3 | volume 4 ] remains the single best resource on opening play in general, and all four volumes are now available in Kindle format.
  • Older players can also outstrip their young opponents through positional play and the endgame.  Bronznik and Terekhin’s Techniques of Positional Play ($21ish at Amazon) is a brilliant look at some of strategic tricks of the trade.  John Nunn’s Understanding Chess Endgames ($19ish at Amazon) is a handy overview of numerous endgame theoretical positions and themes.  Dvoretsky’s Endgame Manual ($26ish) is, of course, a real classic, and Mikhail Shereshevsky’s classic Endgame Strategy ($16ish at Amazon) is the best single introduction to endgame strategy in print.
  • Andy Soltis’ 100 Chess Master Trade Secrets: From Sacrifices to Endgames ($19ish at Amazon for paperback) is available in Kindle format, and will be out in paper in January.  This looks like another of Soltis’ better books, offering 100 ‘priyomes’ or nuggets of chess knowledge in very palatable format.
  • Fans of chess culture will love Hans Ree’s My Chess ($19ish at Amazon) and the new translation of Euwe’s tournament book on the 1948 Hague / Moscow Match Tournament ($19ish at Amazon).  You can read my review of the Ree book hereRussell Enterprises, as an aside, is really doing the chess world a great service by translating and algebratizing some of the treasures of chess literature.  Kudos to them!

I can’t possibly hope to cover all the books out there, but if readers have questions about specific titles, I’d be glad to try and answer them in the comments.

Chess Holiday Buying Guide: Part I

I’m beginning a new tradition at Chess Book Reviews this holiday season.  I know that it can be a real challenge for the non-initiate to determine what to buy for the chess player in their lives.  Well-meaning loved ones choose the wrong things with the best of intentions, and how can we blame them?  There’s so much chess swag out there, and if you’re not obsessed by the game, it’s easy to go wrong.  It’s my fervent hope that chess players the world over receive better-chosen gifts as a result of these three blog entries.  (Such hubris, John.  Such hubris!)

The first rule of buying for a chess player is this: unless they are a chess set collector, never buy them a themed chess set.  They look cute, and who doesn’t love Homer Simpson as the White King, or the Aztecs and Mayans battling it out over 64 squares?  The only problem is this: they can’t be used in tournament play.  Both USCF and FIDE rules have very specific regulations for boards, pieces and clocks.  In my experience – and again, if your loved one collects themed sets, ignore this – the novelty pieces and boards are set on a shelf in the closet, rarely to be visited again.

If, however, you want to give your friend chess equipment, consider giving them a digital chess clock, especially if they only have one of the old-fashioned mechanical ones.  (Older players are likely to still have and use these, in my experience.)    The advantage of a digital clock is that it allows for time controls that include either delays or increments, both of which are becoming standard in modern chess.  I can recommend two:

  • The Saitek Mephisto Competition Clock, which costs about $40 at Amazon.  This is the ubiquitous ‘blue clock’ that one sees at scholastic tournaments.  It’s extremely durable and fairly easy to program.  I coach a high school team, and this is the clock we use.
  • The DGT North American Chess Clock.  I have less experience with this clock, but others have recommended it to me, and I have used it successfully in rated play.

Most serious chess players will already have equipment, so chess books and software are the best choices for the real aficionados that you are buying for.  In this remainder of this first installment of the Buying Guide, I’m going to talk about chess GUIs.  In the second, I’ll talk about databases and engines, and in the third, I’ll recommend a number of books for different types of players and different age levels.

I think owning and using the right chess software is very important for the serious chess player.  There are a few main software publishers out there, but for anyone who isn’t Russian, I’d highly recommend using the ChessBase family of programs.  I’ve been using ChessBase programs and data – and here I’m dating myself – since the days of DOS.  I honestly believe that any serious player who is not using ChessBase to study and analyze is at a competitive disadvantage.

There are three components, as it were, to chess software.  First, there is the GUI.  This program allows users to reads and writes chess data.  Engines plug into the GUI, allowing users to get the computer’s opinion on various moves and positions.  You can play against some, but not all, GUIs.  Second, there is the database itself, which is indexed by player, opening, ending, or any of a host of other criteria.  The best databases are professionally curated and contains deep notes to some of the games contained in the data.  Some data also comes with audio or video training embedded within it.  Third, there is the engine.  An engine is the bit of software that allows the computer to analyze a position or game.  Most engines require a graphical interface (GUI) for ease of use.

ChessBase offers buyers all three components or elements of a complete chess software package.  I’ll talk about each in turn.

GUI: There are two choices for GUI within the Chessbase family.

ChessBase 12 is a complete database package, allowing users to read and write data in a nearly limitless fashion.  You can plug engines into the GUI to help with analysis, and there are various abilities to access online game data embedded in the GUI.  Users can export their games to text files, epubs, or to webpages hosted by Chessbase with one click.  It can read all of the training programs and DVDs produced by Chessbase, and the GUI also includes the Playchess.com software, which is Chessbase’s online chess playing site.

ChessBase 12 is the gold standard for chess software, and if you can afford it, it would be a fantastic gift for the chess player on your list.  There are three different packages out there, with the main difference being that the Starter package comes with a game database stripped of annotations, while the Mega includes them.  I don’t think the Premium package is worth the extra cost, but your mileage may vary.

Amazon has the Starter package for approximately $160, while the Mega package is about $260.  You can also download the program directly from ChessBase for about $140, but be aware that (1) you won’t get the game database in the download, and (2) the download version does not come with a membership at Playchess.

Deep Fritz 14 and Houdini 4 are another type of GUI from Chessbase.  They can read and write ChessBase databases with some limitations; as compensation, you can play games against the engine and GUI, which you can’t do in ChessBase 12, and the GUI will automatically analyze your games if you wish.  (For me, playing against the engine is far too masochistic an enterprise, but It can be useful to play out special positions against the computer for practice.)  These GUI comes with a smaller game database, but one that is entirely sufficient for most players.  Most importantly, Deep Fritz 14 and the stronger Houdini 4 include the engines for which the GUIs are named.

It’s harder to manipulate data in Deep Fritz or Houdini than it is ChessBase 12, and there are far fewer data indices or ‘keys’ available to the user.  Still, unless you’re doing heavy duty database work, you can do everything you need to do within Deep Fritz or Houdini.  I have both and use both.  If pressed, I’d probably choose ChessBase, even with the extra cost.

Deep Fritz 14 is available at Amazon, and costs approximately $80.  Houdini 4 Standard, which runs on up to six cores, is $99.95, and Houdini 4 Pro is  $115.95 and runs on up to 32 cores. Naturally you can also download these programs directly from Chessbase itself:  Deep Fritz 14 is about $80, Houdini 4 Standard is $90 or so, and Houdini 4 Pro is $115.

Note that the author of Houdini also sells the Houdini engine (without a GUI) on his website.  I’ll talk more about the pros and cons of each engine in Part II of this Buying Guide.