Wrong Books (1): Modern Chess Openings

As promised a few weeks ago, this is the start of a new series of articles featuring books which are frequently bought for the wrong reasons.

Some of the books are excellent, but are bought by the wrong customers for the wrong reasons. Others were excellent in their day, but are now dated. Some have never been excellent at all, despite their popularity.

The series will include one or two of my books!

I’m a member of various Facebook groups for chess book collectors and chess teachers. Currently these groups are being flooded with requests for book recommendations, most of which are hopelessly vague. Most of the answers are also hopelessly inappropriate: people trying to be helpful by suggesting books which they enjoyed 40 or 50 years ago when chess was very different. We also know a lot more than we did a few decades ago about how learners process information and acquire skills.

There are many reasons why you might by a chess book. Self-improvement seems to be the current fashion, but you might buy books, for example, to inspire, to inform, to entertain, to refer to.

The reason for the recent mini chess boom is, of course, Beth Harmon. Beth is seen reading Modern Chess Openings, so viewers who think chess looks cool decide that if they buy MCO they’ll be able to play chess as well as Beth.

Various editions of MCO have been near the top of the chess best-sellers for a few months now, along with a number of lookalikes. The latest (15th) edition, from 2009, has recently been reprinted with a sticker on the front: ‘As seen in Netflix’s The Queen’s Gambit‘. A cynical marketing ploy? Perhaps, but publishers, like the rest of us, have bills to pay. And there I was thinking this would be the last edition as the format is well beyond its best before date. Of course there are many reasons why any novice who opens the book will be very disappointed.

Most obviously, it’s a reference book, not an instructional book. All you get is rows or columns of moves with no more than a brief introduction at the start of each chapter. Some of the punters know nothing about chess notation. Others have been conned into buying the Sam Sloan reprint of MCO6 (not a good choice for any number of reasons) and discover it’s in descriptive notation, which they don’t understand. Even if they manage to understand the notation and memorise a few variations, they’ll find that after a few moves their opponents will play something not in the book and become totally confused. In the words attributed (probably incorrectly) to PT Barnum, there’s a sucker born every minute.

Or, to put it another way, most people don’t understand how to learn, and most chess authors (and many chess teachers) don’t understand how to teach. Most chess players buy books that are too advanced for them, and all publishers promote books as being suitable for lower rated, or sometimes younger, players, when they’re actually much more suited to higher rated and more experienced players.

Richard James

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Richard James

Author: Richard James

Richard James is a professional chess teacher and writer living in Twickenham, and working mostly with younger children and beginners. He was the co-founder of Richmond Junior Chess Club in 1975 and its director until 2005. He is the webmaster of chessKIDS academy (www.chesskids.org.uk or www.chesskids.me.uk) and, most recently, the author of Chess for Kids and The Right Way to Teach Chess to Kids, both published by Right Way Books. Richard has been a member of Richmond & Twickenham Chess Club since 1966. Richard is a published author and his books can be found at Amazon. Richard is currently promoting minichess (games and puzzles using subsets of chess) for younger children through his website www.minichess.uk, and writing coaching materials for children (and adults) who want to start playing serious competitive chess, through www.chessheroes.uk. View all posts by Richard James

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