Good Books – Part I

I have often been approached and asked to suggest some good books that will help the player improve. There is no universal answer to that question because it depends on the level of the player who is asking the question. One book is good for one player, but it can be useless for another. In this post I wanted to outline the books that made a deep impression on me throughout my career, both from a perspective of improving me as a player and also from a psychological and human angle.

I made my first steps with Capablanca’s Chess Fundamentals, albeit I read it in Serbian as “Osnovi Saha.” A clear book that explained the basics with Capablanca’s own games analysed in the last chapter of the book. I think that replaying those games, coupled with my father showing me a lot of games in the Spanish (I still feel the harmony of white’s position after the Nbd2-f1-g3 maneuver) developed my positional understanding.

When I improved a bit my father made the monumental effort to translate Nimzowitsch’s My System from Russian, so that I can read it myself. I remember the thick book with black cover and fine thin pages, I still have it in my library. A few years later I learned to read Russian so I could read the original, but going through the book with my father deepened my positional understanding and introduced me to the concepts of blockade, prophylaxis and outpost. I think that these two books, Capablanca’s and Nimzowitsch’s lay the foundation of my sound positional undestanding and intuition.

Then came Kotov’s How to Become a Grandmaster (this is actually my translation of the Russian title Kak stat Grossmeisterom, which I think in English comprises two books, Think Like a Grandmaster and Play Like a Grandmaster). This was a more “mathematical” book than the previous two, which were more laconic. It provided a structured way how to analyse a position (numbering all the elements of the position, both stable and temporal, citing Steinitz’s 4 rules of positional play, all the combinational elements etc.), how to construct a plan, how to calculate variations. The last part (on calculation, Kotov’s famous variation “tree”) has drawn a lot of criticism lately, but it nevertheless had a positive impact on the inexperienced youngster who never had a coach because it gave me a direction and showed me how things should be done ideally. As I grew stronger I realised the limitations of Kotov’s method as I became more aware of my own thinking processes. Nevertheless the book was a great guidance at the time and it helped me discipline my thinking.

At that stage I was mainly studying the classics, so Alekhine featured prominently. After studying his games I always noticed improvement in my understanding, play and results. I felt the power in his games and I was particularly impressed by his technique, very forcing and precise. Alekhine’s own books On the Road to the World Championship and his book on both New York tournaments in 1924 and 1927 (I read it in one single book in Russian, in English there are two – New York 1924 and New York 1927) were huge – I remember one summer vacation with my family when I took On the Road with me and I spent hours analysing his games in our “Brako” trailer soaking wet from the heat inside. I even encountered a mistake in his comments to the game against Asztalos from Kecskemet 1927 when the line he gave at the end of the game was incorrect. And there was also Kotov’s monumental work on Alekhine in two volumes, Chess Heritage of Alekhine which was a deep analysis of Alekhine’s game from all possible aspects.

Continuing with the classics there were two more authors whose books influenced me greatly – Botvinnik’s trilogy of his best games (Volume 1 1925-1941Volume 2 1942-1956 and Volume 3 1957-1970) and Bronstein’s Zurich 1953. Botvinnik’s games taught me logic and technique, discipline and hard work during the game. He was merciless and the way he dispatched Tal at the age of 50 in the revenge-match in 1961 still amazes me. His comments were short but always to the point and served to explain his decisions. Bronstein’s book on the Zurich Candidates tournament was full of insightful comments that at times were difficult to understand. Later on I learned much more about Bronstein’s life and his way of writing and expressing things and I started to read between the lines. This made it even more fascinating, but that was later – the first time I studied the book I mainly focused on the games played in the Spanish and the King’s Indian as those were my main openings with white and black, respectively. I remember that I was feeling uncomfortable when I was going through the games in the fianchetto line in the King’s Indian because in the vast majority of them black played the system with Nbd7 and e5 and then took on d4, playing with a weak pawn on d6. I didn’t like those positions so in my games I was usually playing the line with Nc6 followed by Bg4 or Bf5.

Bobby Fischer was always my idol and the moment I got hold of My 60 Memorable Games it became one of my favourite books. I tried to absorb everything from it – the explanations, the variations, the style, the psychology. A lot of my theoretical preparation at those times (pre-computer ages!) was based on his analysis and ideas. It is one of the books that I kept returning to at various points in my career and I always managed to discover something new. As I undestood more about chess I understood more about Fischer and how difficult it is to play and win like him. And that always served as inspiration.

In Part II I will continue discussing the books that had profound impact in the later stages of my career when I already became a relatively strong player.

Alex Colovic
A professional player, coach and blogger. Grandmaster since 2013.
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