The Chessmill

Ramblings and ruminations on chess in Milwaukee,

SE Wisconsin, theUSA and the World.

Alas, there are very few chessplayers who train. The majority of them merely process information.

 — Mark Dvoretsky

Getting Started

I get asked questions about learning how to play, by parents asking for their kids, and by adults asking for themselves. “Is there a book you’d recommend?” is frequently the “opening gambit” of the conversation.

I don’t like to recommend books without knowing the person I’m recommending them for, because there are several choices and every person is different, so what works best for one might not work for another. But there are a few titles that keep recurring. I’ll reproduce the list here, along with some notes.

Bobby Fischer Teaches Chess. Yes, as a human being the man was pond scum. So was Ty Cobb, when it comes to that, but he was still a great baseball player and one of the best hitters who ever lived. Like wise, Bobby Fischer was one of the greatest chessplayers ever.

But that’s not why I recommend this book. The book was designed from the ground up by professionals to be a teaching manual. Fischer contributed the chess expertise, but the text and the manner of presentation have nothing to do with him, and they’re pure gold.

It’s a “programmed instruction” format, meaning each page asks a question that is answered on the following page, and it builds up chess knowledge by a gradual question and answer cycle. It works well even as a teaching tool used by a parent for a child, but not so well in a classroom environment. It builds from one concept to another perhaps a little fast for young children, but middle school on should find it quite useful.

Comprehensive Chess Course. Two volume set from Lev Alburt and Sam Palatnik. This is much better suited for a classroom, formalized environment than the last book, and also much better for younger children. Don’t confuse this with the follow-on volumes Lev Alburt issued later, I’m talking just about the two-volume set.

Progress here is slow, you’re halfway through the first volume before you learn how all the pieces move. That pacing makes it good for the younger children, but can lose older kids through boredom. Take the program the way it’s written for primary-age children. Let the older children race through the book at a faster pace, or better yet, get them into a different set of books.

Guide To Good Chess. Cecil Purdy was an Australian, a world champion correspondence chess player, and one of the best chess writers ever, probably the best who ever had english as his native language. Mix those last two attributes into a beginner’s chess book, and you have something special.

Mind you, his word selection can be a bit archaic (he wrote this in the middle of the last century, after all) so the person reading it should be able to handle that, but even if it’s a bit difficult at times, it’s more than worth it. Contains exercises, advances from concept to concept very quickly until it gets to some pretty advanced territory for a beginner’s book.

For those reasons, I definitely wouldn’t select this book for anyone below middle school level, and really, it’s more for the high school and older crowd.

Secrets of the Russian Chess Masters. OK, so the title is a bit pretentious, but this series of two volumes from Lev Alburt and Larry Parr is sort of an adult version of Comprehensive Chess Course. It contains exercises and information, and builds from one concept to another, but doesn’t take as long, so it covers more territory, and thus has space to give deeper concepts a more detailed approach.

This series is definitely for the older player; advanced middle school or higher because of the vocabulary and the speed of progression. It can also be followed as a classroom manual, though it will take a little more ingenuity for this set over Alburt’s previous set.


Well, there it is. These are the best books I’ve found for starting someone out from the very beginning. Once a person has the basic concepts from these books and has started playing the game, there are other questions, other learning opportunities, and other books. The order of presentation here doesn’t mean anything special, so don’t read anything into that. Take what I’ve said about the books, and look them over. One will probably appeal to you more than the others; pick it. You can’t really go wrong with any of the selections I’ve listed here.

Good luck, and let me know how it goes.

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