Wrong Books (2): Bobby Fischer Teaches Chess

It’s often said that Bobby Fischer Teaches Chess is the USA’s best-selling chess book of all time. It’s easy to see why, as well. Everyone’s heard of Bobby Fischer, everyone knows what a phenomenal player he was. So who better to teach you, or your children, chess than the great man himself?

When social media posts ask readers to nominate their favourite chess book, or even the greatest chess book of all time, this book is still often mentioned, probably by those who haven’t read any other chess books.

The bottom line is that it’s great for teaching you all about back rank mates, but doesn’t really teach you anything else at all.

Fischer, as you might well suspect, was only peripherally involved. The named co-authors are Stuart Margulies, a chess master and educationalist who would later write a famous (some, including me, would say notorious) paper claiming that chess improved reading scores, and Donn Mosenfelder, a colleague of Dr Margulies. Other players are also acknowledged: Leslie Ault, who would later author a more advanced, but much less popular, book using the same principles, Ray Weinstein and Mike Valvo. So it took a whole committee to write a book on back rank mates.

It uses an educational method called programmed learning, based, I guess, on what was, in 1966, the growing science of computer programming (which I’d study myself a few years later), which had a fairly brief vogue in the late sixties and early seventies. Educational fads of this nature (including chess in schools) have come and gone over the past 60 years at least: a topic I may return to elsewhere at some point.

If you open the book at a random page (my copy is a 1972 US mass market paperback) you’ll see something strange. The right hand page contains a diagram and an explanation, while the left hand page appears to be upside down. The idea is that you’re presented with a diagram and asked a question about it. To ensure you don’t inadvertently see the answer, you have to turn over the page, where you’re told whether or not you’ve solved the puzzle correctly, and then presented with another puzzle. When you reach the end of the book you turn it upside down and continue until you reach what was originally the first page.

Weird, or what? Like all educational fads it has a certain amount of common sense behind it, but its proponents go totally over the top. At some point someone should write a history of instructional chess books. Most of then, such as Golombek’s The Game of Chess, the book I learnt from, showed you what good chess looked like rather than using the Socratic – question and answer – method. This wasn’t the first instructional book to incorporate puzzles, but it was probably the first to include little other than puzzles. The problem, as mentioned above, is that it really only covers one very small area of chess. While we will all agree that checkmates are important, there’s lot more to chess than Rxe8#. Or, as the book chooses not to introduce notation, Rook-takes-Rook-checkmate. There have been many much more useful books written since then which teach tactics using puzzles while covering a much wider (well, it could hardly be more narrow) range of topics. A very interesting further question is how best to teach novices other aspects of chess which are less amenable to this approach: strategy, openings and endings.

As a general chess primer, then, the book is almost completely useless, but even now, 45 years after its first publication, it’s still selling well.

It just goes to show, yet again, that there’s a sucker born every minute; that the world is full of foolish and gullible people. Fischer described The Compete Chess Addict as being ‘full of foolishness’: quite rightly so as that was the idea of the book. I wouldn’t describe Bobby Fischer Teaches Chess as being ‘full of foolishness’, instead I’d describe it as being full of nothing very much, and bought by those who are full of foolishness.

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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