Welcome to Chess Book Club

In episode one of the popular Netflix series ‘The Queen’s Gambit’, the young Beth Harmon receives a chess book from the serious and mysterious Mr Shaibel.  As he hands her the book he portentously advises:  “It’s the best book for you.  It will tell you all you want to know.”  In subsequent scenes, she devours the book, even furtively reading it during her school lessons at the orphanage.  We, the audience, are led to believe that she has opened a magical spell book and has unlocked the ancient secrets of the chess masters. Or something like that.  But what is the truth about chess books?  And should you really trust what your janitor says about them?

When world chess champion Magnus Carlsen joined us in March, he told the aspiring young players to “read chess books” and that “almost any chess book” would be helpful. This advice seems useful and far more realistic than Mr Shaibel’s dramatic proclamation to Beth.  Magnus didn’t say you need to find a magical book of secrets and read it cover to cover. He didn’t say that books are only for prodigies and future world champions.  The world champion essentially told us to open a book and start reading!  

Starting in June 2022, we will be hosting a virtual book club as one of our regular weekly bonus lessons in the online academy.  These lessons are open to all club members and don’t require registration.  Our coaches will carefully choose books to inspire kids to learn more about chess.  We will read excerpts from the books and kids can try out key positions.  You don’t need to buy the book before attending the book club.  But you might want to!  We are confident kids will enjoy the bonus lesson with or without a copy of the book. 

Our book club meetings, like all of our weekly bonus lessons, are fun and interactive.  We use a variety of online teaching tools so that the kids can solve puzzles and try out example positions from the book.  Don’t just read the book passively — actually put your brain to work and try it out with your friends and the coach.  Sometimes we will be lucky enough to have the author join us for a Q&A.  Each week, we’ll provide a suggested reading for students who want to go deeper.

Our book club will provide a gentle nudge toward the world of chess books.  Don’t worry – we won’t suddenly send you a list of required textbooks or ask for homework and book reports.   At Magnus Chess Academy, we truly believe that our small group lessons offer the right mix of expert instruction, positive feedback, and fun game time. Our coaches have collectively read hundreds of chess books and they bring that knowledge to class everyday.  For most kids, this is all they need. But what if you are curious about books? Where would you start?  We think our new book club is a great way for our coaching team to share books with kids and parents.  And we certainly feel better qualified than your average janitor when it comes to book recommendations. 

A quick search on Amazon.com will show you that there are thousands of chess books available for sale. If you search specifically for “kids chess books” there are still thousands.  It’s a little bit overwhelming and hard to know what you are getting. Some of the titles sound suspiciously like “How to get rich quick in three easy steps.”  The chess equivalent will promise an easy victory, every time, using an unbeatable secret method.  While Magnus may have said that “any” book will help, we definitely believe that some books are better than others.  All our book club titles will be reviewed by our coaching staff.  And we will choose titles that complement our group lessons by inspiring students to explore further by reading high quality books. 

Some excellent chess teachers have published lists of their favorite chess books for kids.  For example, Elizabeth Spiegel (nee Vicary), the chess teacher featured in the documentary “Brooklyn Castle”, published a list in 2007 in which she identified some of her favorite source books for teaching material.  All of the books in Elizabeth’s list are “good” chess books.  I own several of them and occasionally use the material for teaching. However, a source book for teachers is not necessarily what we want to present in our academy book club.  Nor would a tactics puzzle book be a good fit. So what type of book will we be showcasing? 

Our very first book is called “Beyond Material” by grandmaster Davorin Kuljašević.  This relatively new (2019) book promises to free your chess mind from a dependence on materialistic thinking.  In chess, “material” refers to your pieces (queens, rooks, bishops, and knights) and pawns. Some pieces are clearly better than others and we assign them a greater material value.  

Teaching kids about material value is a bit like teaching them about the value of money.  “If you have one nine dollar bill, two five dollar bills, four three dollar bills, and eight one dollar bills, how much money do you have”?  Of course, we don’t have nine or three dollar bills but these are the values traditionally assigned to the chess pieces:  queen=9, rook=5, knight/bishop=3, and pawn=1.  All of this is very important and we believe in teaching it early, teaching it well, and reinforcing it through many examples.  Understanding these approximate material values is vital to good decision making when kids start to play chess. 

Materialistic thinking sets in when a student starts to think that more material will inevitably lead to victory.  However, a game of chess is not decided by who has captured the most pieces.  The goal of the game is to checkmate the enemy king and it doesn’t matter how much material you or your opponent has left.  In an ordinary chess game, one player wins some material and then systematically converts their advantage into a win.  But the beautiful games occur when a player sacrifices everything to create the decisive checkmate.  Those are the games that win “brilliancy” prizes.  Those are the games that we remember as “immortal.” 

As parents, we definitely want our kids to understand how money works but we don’t want them to be materialistic. The same is true in chess and “Beyond Material” has a wealth of carefully chosen examples to help students realize when material is not everything.  GM Kuljašević teaches, by example, how time and space can outweigh material under the right circumstances.  The book helps us to understand the psychology of materialism and to recognize those situations where greed is definitely not good.  By breaking free of rigid materialism we can free our minds to find creative, imaginative, and perhaps brilliant moves.  We can also find resilience and resourcefulness should we find ourselves at a material disadvantage. 

Before I started studying chess, I used to watch people playing blitz in Washington DC’s Dupont Circle.  One player, after losing a game, said to the winner “Whoa, you really took me to the dark side in that one. Four pawns for a piece is exactly what you wanted.”   As a beginner at the time, I was certainly aware of the material values but I had no idea that material, time, and space could be warped to create a “dark side” in chess.  It was a fascinating game and an intriguing comment.  The winner of that game is now a national master and was my first real chess teacher and we spent many hours discussing when material matters and when it doesn’t.  Those were valuable lessons and I’m sure that “Beyond Material” will provide similar inspiration for our students. 

So, what was that book that Beth Harmon received at the beginning of “The Queen’s Gambit.”  If you listen carefully, the title “Modern Chess Openings” is uttered with some wonderment and reverence.  This book, familiarly known as MCO, was first published in 1911 and is now in its 16th edition.  Bobby Fischer famously answered a question about how to improve at chess by saying something like “Read [Modern Chess Openings].  When you have finished, read it again, including all the footnotes.”  I have a copy.  It’s not very readable in the usual sense, not at all inspirational, and it has far too many footnotes.  We probably won’t be looking at that book in our book club.  But we will be sharing some great chess books and I hope you can join us. 

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