Sunday, July 6, 2008
Book Review: Play Winning Chess
First, a bit of backstory is in order.
I started taking chess semi-seriously about three months ago when I started playing Facebook Chess. I decided I would do some reading and get my learn on. Of course, I started with reading whatever I could find on the web that seemed relevant. There's lots of good information for the beginner out there, but most of it is poorly organized and difficult to collect into some sort of coherent whole. To attempt to solve that problem, I went to the library to borrow and read two books, Chess for Dummies and The Chess Player's Bible. I didn't borrow these books for any other reason than they seemed like the least crappy books that my local library had to offer.
Both book are decent. Chess for Dummies is actually pretty good for the chess newcomer, and I will recommend it to folks looking to take a first shot at chess. However, it is not a book you are likely to refer to ever again after your first reading, so I suggest you do as I did and just borrow it from somebody.
I only bring up the issue of my web reading and book reading to show that I have at least a little bit of context on which to base my review of Play Winning Chess.
I will also mention that in my search for some modicum of chess skill, I bought a copy of Chessmaster 9000, which has oodles of good drills, exercises, and tutorials. Some of these tutorials were written by Yasser Seirawan, the author of Play Winning Chess (PWC). The tutorials he wrote were so helpful I decided I would read some of his books, and PWC is the first in a series of seven books called Winning Chess.
Now, to the issue at hand. PWC begins with an introduction to chess. It describes the board, the pieces, the legal moves, algebraic notation, and so on. Pretty much what you would expect for an introduction to chess. Seirawan injects information about the origins of the game and about the evolution of chess into what it has become today.
The real meat of the book comes next, where Seirawan breaks down chess play into four main topics: force, time, space and pawn structure.
Force, as the author describes it, is a measure of the pieces on the whole board, or on a section of the board (material on the kingside, for example). Along with showing how to calculate force, Seirawan shows ways to use force, or to increase relative force. There are some subtleties to calculating and using force, such as doubled pawns, the risks of developing the queen too early, and so on.
Time is a somewhat more ephemeral subject, but Seirawan handles it quite well. He explains how important it is to develop your pieces quickly and he explains ways to increase your time advantages with various tactical plays. He also describes how to successfully use an advantage in time once you have gained it.
Next comes a section on space. As with force, there is a description of how to calculate spacial advantage. And as with force, there are additional subtleties that tag along with the spacial count. I found this section particularly enlightening as I had not previously seen a good treatment on the subject of space.
The fourth section is on pawn structure. The author explains the types of pawn structures, such as pawn chains, pawn islands, passed pawns, backward pawns and so on, and he shows how they are important in relation to he abilities of the other pieces. He also shows the importance of the pawns during both the middlegame and the endgame.
After all of that, Sierawan sets out to use examples from real chess games to show the applications for force, space, time and pawn structure. Whether or not they are famous games, I have no idea. However, they are excellent examples never the less.
PWC is shot throughout with short sections about historic chess players as well as quizzes and tests to puzzle your by-now-squishy brains. You really must run through the quizzes and tests if you want to get the most out of this book as they will give you at least as much incite into the game of chess as the annotated games.
You've probably guessed by now that I think this book is great. The writing is well organized and clear, which tends to be rare among technical books. The writing style is also quite light, so those of you that are allergic to dry tomes of knowledge shouldn't be scared off by this book. Beyond all that, unlike Chess for Dummies, you will likely continue to refer back to this book for quite a while into the future.
PWC, along with Seirawan's tutorials from CM9k, have given me a fair bit of faith in his writing, so I've begun reading the second book in the Winning Chess series. It, however, is about an order of magnitude more difficult to digest than PWC, so don't expect a review any time soon ...