If you were taking up chess in the UK at any time between the 1950s and the 1970s, you had several books to choose from. There were, of course, any number of US books written by various combinations of Reinfeld, Chernev and Horowitz, but there were also a number of books written by prominent British players.
While the previous generation grew up on books by Hoffer and Green, by the post-war years it seemed that almost every strong player in England had been asked to write a book for beginners. I learnt my chess from Harry Golombek’s The Game of Chess, as did many of my contemporaries. Others learnt from BH Wood’s Easy Guide to Chess or Teach Yourself Chess by Gerald Abrahams. Then there was David Pritchard’s The Right Way to Play Chess, which, unlike the others, is still in print and selling reasonably well. Wood’s book was in print until fairly recently, but the Golombek and Abrahams titles are long out of print.
The Right Way to Play Chess, then, is the subject of this article, but it might be seen to stand for all the general low level instructional books of that vintage. It’s exactly the same age as me: first published in 1950, but the current edition is ‘revised and updated by Richard James’.
These books are perfectly sound as far as they go. They start by showing you how the pieces move, then move on to give you information about openings, middlegames and endings. They’ll also give you some examples of master play to serve as an inspiration. But, after reading just a hundred pages or so you’re expected to understand high level games.
The world is very different from what it was in 1950. Chess is, in very many ways, very different. We know a lot more about teaching and learning than we did in 1950. Most importantly, we all have online resources available to enable us to learn chess much more quickly and efficiently. It took me, learning in the 1960s, four or five years to reach 1400 strength: now, even though 1400s today are quite a lot stronger than a couple of generations ago, an intelligent, mature, self-motivated learner should be able to get there in a year or two. Books such as this one, even if they’ve been, according to the back cover, ‘superbly revised’, must be considered relics of a bygone age.
But where are the books which enable you to do this? There are a few on the market, but they tend to me more about providing knowledge than helping readers develop skills. In these days, when we’re (in my opinion, mistakenly) promoting chess as a game suitable for mass participation by young children, most beginners’ books are written for that market. Mainstream publishers are, by and large, no longer interested in chess: too much of a minority interest. Chess publishers, who sell their books through chess media to established competitive players, aren’t interested in beginners.
We know – as I’ve written before – how most novices, regardless of age, learn. They will do best to follow a logically structured course learning to do simple things well. Repetition and reinforcement, with appropriate feedback, will transform knowledge into skills. Reading a book won’t, on its own, do much to help you learn to play football, or the piano. and, up to a point, this is true of chess as well. You also need to go away and play some moves, with a coach who can provide feedback on how well you did and how you can improve. These days, even if you don’t have a coach, computers, while lacking the human touch, can provide feedback on the accuracy of your moves.
It shouldn’t be too hard to write a book of this nature designed as a first year course which will take you up to, say, 1000 strength. In ten years time, or perhaps even five years time, it will certainly be out of date, but then another book could be written to replace it.
Watch this space.