E. Vicary's Top 10 Teaching Books
By Elizabeth Vicary   
September 2, 2007
Photo Betsy Dynako
One of the things I love the most about chess is its profoundly anti-social nature. Playing a tournament game at a slow time control, secure in the knowledge that no one is even allowed to talk to me, is probably (honestly) the only time I'm actually relaxed around other people. Of course I enjoy the social parts of chess as well, and they do exist. To my mind, one of the most organic social aspects of chess is teaching, and lately I've been noticing how widespread it is. Most strong players have had a chess teacher at some point in their lives, and many players, even those who aren't professional educators, teach chess in some form or another.

I work in a public junior high school in Brooklyn NY, teaching a mixture of chess and eighth grade English. This week I've been getting ready for the new school year, trying to plan (roughly) my year's curriculum. In doing so, I'm noticing how much I steal from a relatively small collection of books; this gave me the idea to write an article detailing which ones these are, in the hopes that the list is useful to other chess teachers. I also enjoyed and learned quite a bit myself from these books, and so I also hope a reader with no interest in teaching might get something useful from reading them.

Let me be clear that I am choosing these books specifically for teachers who give group and private lessons. This means they will have material that can be translated into lessons-- ideally into lessons with multiple parts: warm-ups, direct instruction, practice, extended thinking, etc. In addition to giving my thoughts about each book, I often try to describe how I translate these into 45-minute (or longer) classes. The teacher-focus also means that some excellent books for beginners are omitted. For example, nothing by Yasser Seirawan made the cut, although his books for beginners are quite appropriate for both adult and young adult readers who want to teach themselves the basics of chess strategy. For whatever reason, they just don't work for me, in my classroom.

I should say upfront that my personal top ten list is heavily skewed in favor of a few authors. Why? Because great teacher-authors seem to consistently write great books. I'm sure there's some gems I'm leaving out; please feel absolutely free to leave a comment with your favorites!

10. Practical Chess Exercises by Ray Cheng

I include this book out of personal laziness. When I'm overwhelmed with work (or just so caught up in whatever stupid thing that I haven't prepared a lesson), my favorite quick fix is to give students a photocopied page of six Cheng problems. They get 10 or 15 minutes to work alone, 10 minutes to compare their answers with a friend, and then we go over the answers together in the remaining 15-20 minutes. It's a perfect fit for a 45 minute class period, and kids enjoy it because they get to be active, to solve puzzles, and to talk to their friends. This kind of lesson is great for emergencies, but so fun and practical that I've come to schedule it into my week as well.

The beauty of Cheng's book is that the problems aren't just tactical; they are positional, strategic, prophylactic, about identifying threats, defending, finding counterplay, etc. And he gives no 'category' clues at all, so you have to approach each problem as you would a real game. Which, conversely, means that when they are in game situations, my students are trained to think about their opponent's threats and how to prevent them, long term strategy, etc. Generally it's very hard to find examples of positional pawn sacs, prophylactic play, positional ideas, etc. that are solvable by 1200s, but this book has them.

9. Silman's Complete Endgame Course: From Beginning to Master by Jeremy Silman

Why didn't someone think of his idea of organizing material by rating level before? It's obviously genius, since you can work your way through the book and actually finish a chapter without dying of boredom. I've tried to read many endgame books, but each time I get overwhelmingly sick of rooks halfway through the Philidor position and never reach the stuff I ought to be learning. The book is particularly well suited for teachers since you don't really have to think about the curriculum: just check your students' average rating and open to the relevant chapter. I also love the conversational and clear explanations, as well as the overall quality of the book--high quality paper and a nice font. My only reservation-- and it's minor-- is that the book has a strangely large number of typos.

8.Mastering Checkmates by Neil McDonald

I hesitated on this choice, because there are a number of good books on tactics that translate well into lectures. I also enjoy and use:
Paul Littlewood's Chess Tactics,
Chapter four of The Art of Attack by Vladimir Vukovic,
The recent (and fantastic) Understanding Chess Tactics by Martin Weteschnik, and
John Nunn's Learn Chess Tactics.
But McDonald won out for three reasons:
1. Narrowly defined themes, like a whole chapter on "Knight and Queen against the Fianchettoed Position" and "Rook and Minor Piece" mates. The quality of focus makes patterns clearer to beginners.
2. Well-chosen positions from modern games (Oh, how sick I am of the lazy writers who just reuse old positions. We've seen them all! Please stop! You might be wondering why a book like the popular and excellent Chess Training Pocket Book: 300 Most Important Positions and Ideas by Lev Alburt isn't on this list. It's a great book, but I can't give him credit since every example is lifted directly from the brilliant but hard-to-find Russian tactics collection Chess Combination Art by Maxim Blokh. This practice is surprisingly common, as I discovered while writing a tactics workbook for Chess in the Schools several years ago. I should add that I did exactly the same thing.)
3. The format of explained examples followed by a (relatively easier) problem set. This makes it simple to give the lecture and photocopy the problems for homework/classwork.


7. Best Lessons of a Chess Coach by Sunil Weeramantry

I hesitated a lot about where to put this excellent book. In terms of explanations of opening concepts, it's hard to beat. I also love the writing style and the question-and-answer format, which allows Weermantry to address many misunderstandings common to beginners. Reading it, I feel like Sunil really is in the room, kindly and patiently explaining to my inner child how to beat any Class D player with the Grand Prix Attack.

My two reservations concern the quality of the games themselves and the reading level of the book. More than half of the games (7/10) are Weermantry's own, which enables him to explain them deeply and well, but means they tend to lack the beauty and epic scope of McDonald's choices (see later rankings). I find myself loving the games as lessons up until about move 25, because the explanations of structure and piece placement and timing are *so* good, but then they disappoint me by ending in a seemingly random tactic on the other side of the board.

Of the games that aren't his, Smyslov-Rudakovsky is a wonderful example of a central knight outpost, but both Paulsen-Morphy and Steinitz -- von Bardeleben strike me as a overly complicated and unwieldy as lessons. I should admit here my prejudice: I believe tactics and calculation are best taught by having students solve problems rather than by showing whole games. Whole games are excellent for illustrating positional and strategic concepts, but I find they get messy and impractically time-consuming when used to illustrate calculation. That said, Sunil does do a top-notch job of verbalizing the thought process behind calculation.

My second reservation is nit-picky--the book is just slightly above the reading level of the seventh and eighth graders I work with. This was not obvious to me at first, because it seems so well written, but when I tried assigning my students games to study on their own it became evident. And it's really a shame, since the book was clearly designed to provide interactive, conversational chess lessons to the solitary reader. Despite this minor complaint, Best Lessons is a valuable book, and I recommend it wholeheartedly to adults or high school students rated 1000-1800.

5. Winning Chess Exercises for Kids and 6. Winning Chess Puzzles for Kids by Jeff Coakley

Two fantastic puzzle books from a dedicated and successful Canadian coach. The first is a straightforward collection of worksheets with a unique structure, constructed so that each page practices a variety of skills. Every worksheet consists of ten questions: six are your standard bread and butter: three checkmates and three tactics problems, all sharing a common theme. Then things get weird: in position seven white is in difficulties--you have to find a way out. Problem eight is a general best move question-- it could be positional, strategic, tactical, anything. Position nine is an endgame. Ten is a word problem ("Can you escape from a check with a check?" "How many moves does it take a knight to get from a1 to h8?") I love using these for homework because they require real thought: some straightforward calculation, some subtle assessments, and some creativity.

Winning Chess Puzzles is Exercises's clownish younger cousin. I use it mostly to play an enormously popular game in my after school chess club called Chess Jeopardy. This is played with 6-20 students (larger numbers are grouped as teams), a chalkboard, and a demo board, (but ideally several boards, so positions can be set up ahead of time). Each game has 4-5 topics with four questions, plus a Daily Double and a Final Jeopardy. Categories can be anything I want students to practice or review, but often include:
Openings (either a question like "Show me a reasonable line against the English," or I use this category to go over recent opening lessons)
Mates in 2 (/3/4 etc.)
Thematic Mates (back rank mate, smothered mate, etc.)
Tactics (fork, discovered check, etc)
Chess Culture (questions like "Name five American grandmasters," "What do you have to do to become a grandmaster?" "Who is the current World Champion?" etc.)
Math puzzles related to chess
Silly Puzzles (and this is where the Coakley book comes in, all these examples are taken directly from WCP): Who's the Goof?, Switcheroos, Triple Lloyds, Retro, Mazes

A selection of Coakley's problems with descriptions of types is below. Answers are at the bottom of the article.

Who's the Goof asks students to figure out what's illegal about a position.

In Switcheroos, you switch any two white, black or white-with-black pieces to create a checkmate on the black king. Various rules ensure the legality of the resulting position: no pawns can be placed on the first or last rank; both kings can't be in check; the position can't be impossible to reach legally. Try the following three switcheroos.


Triple Lloyds are set up without the black king. To solve the problem, students must determine where the king would be for the position to be a) checkmate b) stalemate c) mate in

Retro problems are simple retrograde (backwards) analysis.

Mazes ask the solver to maneuver one white piece to capture the black king in a certain number of moves. The catch is that only the one piece may move; it may not capture anything or be placed on a square where it is in danger. Mazes are particularly useful in training kids not to hang pieces.

4. Basic Tactics/ The Chess Kid's Book of Tactics by David MacEnulty


Now, two versions of this book exist, and I want to be clear that I'm not entirely sure how different they are. David initially wrote Basic Tactics while working for Chess in the Schools, who published it in-house as a softbound workbook. It's currently available as a trade paperback (Random House) under the title The Chess Kid's Book of Tactics. I only have the first version, and I love it. MacEnulty starts with "En Prise" (an unfortunate and unnecessary vocabulary word--thankfully he adds "Take for Free" in parenthesis) and works up to more subtle concepts like "Deflecting," "Decoying," and "Trapping."
I love this book for three reasons:
1. MacEnulty's chapters are well structured. A verbal explanation of the idea (a man with a light bulb head asking "What's the Big Idea?") is followed by one big diagram with a good description of the mechanics of the tactic, and then by 4-16 practice problems (with the solution in tiny font at the bottom of the page).
2. It's got hard-to-find examples of tactics that don't quite have a name, like "Piling on the pinned piece" and "A pinned piece doesn't protect."
3. The reading level of the text is simple enough that you can give it to an interested kid (over age 9 or 10) to take home and read without your help.

3. Chess: The Art of Logical Thinking and 2. The Art of Planning in Chess: Move by Move both by Neil McDonald

I'm not distinguishing between these two titles, because to me they are, in almost every way, identical. The one slight difference is organizational: the first is grouped by openings (with chapters like Classical Chess Thinking: 1. e4 e5; Sicilian Defence: Dynamic Chess Strategy; Strategy Under the Microscope: 1. d4 d5, etc); in the second, games are arranged by theme (Dangerous Diagonals, Ferocious Files, etc.)
Let me say first that the books are surprisingly aptly named, a rarity in the world of chess books, where every title seems to include the comic promise "Secrets..." But logical really is the perfect description for McDonald's two books, both in terms of the explanations within the games and the overarching message of each chapter.
Another great strength of these works is McDonald's selection of games. They are, without exception, epic. Plans arise from the opening structures, play out in the middlegame, and come to a logical conclusion either in a mating attack or in a thematic endgame. They are also all modern games from the strongest players, which I like because a) I'm sick of showing and seeing Morphy and Capablanca's games and b) it exposes kids to some chess culture: I want them to know who people like Kramnik and Topalov are. The games are all instructive, beautiful, and relatively short--nothing over 40 moves and most are under 30.

Let's take the Sicilian Defense chapter as an example. McDonald starts by trying to describe in very general terms the long-range dynamics created the first few moves. His first point is approximately this: in exchange for a temporary lead in space and development, white (in the Open Sicilian) gives black the positional advantage of an extra center pawn. White will try to use the initiative and checkmate black in the middlegame. If she can't manage this, black will win either with a counterattack, or by trading into an endgame where his extra center pawn matters.

To illustrate, McDonald starts with Anand - Ivanchuk Linares 1991, a super sharp Najdorf that sees Black patiently defending against white's opening initiative, then, when it's over, striking back in the center with 29..d5. White resigns four moves later.


This is contrasted with Nunn - Sokolov 1986, Dubai in which black delays castling and gets brutally mated in 25 moves.


McDonald has two more points to make in this chapter: that the Sicilian can lead to both tactical and positional fights, and that its battles can be conducted on the kingside, queenside, or center, or on multiple fronts simultaneously. Each point has a pair of complementary illustrative games. As a philosopher of chess, McDonald reminds me of John Watson, perhaps simpler but no less profound.

The Art of Planning is also a lovely book, perhaps slightly easier, and organized by the type of winning plan involved. Here's a semi-randomly chosen position from the book, with the author's explanation.

Bacrot-Kempinski Khanty Mansyisk 2005 after 12...b6

"Black's idea is to put the queen's bishop on b7 and use it as part of a concerted attack on White's center with Nh5, Nf4, and f7-f5. However, this turns out badly so perhaps he should make do with 12.. c6, guarding the d5 square and keeping the bishop on the c8-h3 diagonal. Then at some point the black knight might return to the center via c7 and possibly go to e6, assuming that the e5 pawn was securely defended after a move like Nh5.
So Bacrot has to choose a plan. What should it be? The situation in the center is stable, and White can't initiate action on the kingside-he has to wait to see what Black attempts there. On the queenside, however, the b6 pawn is an inviting 'hook' for a c4-c5 pawn advance to break open the c file. Yes, that is what the White position requires! But if Bacrot plays 13. c5 Black simply takes it, so he has to do things gradually, 13. a3! etc."

Great stuff: easy for a beginner to understand, but I also feel like I learned a lot.

1. Winning Chess Strategy for Kids by Jeff Coakley.

If you are a chess teacher and don't personally own a copy of this book, stop reading the article, and BUY IT RIGHT NOW. This is easily the best instructional chess book that has ever been written (or will ever be written) in English; at least half of my favorite lessons are stolen directly from it. Explanations are clear; the material covered is useful and relevant to beginners; example positions are excellent; and every page has a silly cartoon of a chess piece engaged in some lesson-related activity! In addition to being an extraordinary teacher and engaging writer, Coakley is also a strong player (I think 2300ish), which means his work is mercifully free from error (at least, I haven't found any). Four distinct kinds of lessons are interspersed:

Kiril's Klass is 28 strategic lessons on topics like "Rooks on the Seventh," "Trading Queens," and "Rams and Levers." I'm going to describe one of my favorites, "Weak Pawns," and simultaneously try to explain how I might turn this into a lesson or two or three. (Of course the number of lessons will depend on the age and experience of your students, as well as the length of your time with them. In general, what is described below takes me one 35-minute lesson with 11-12 year old beginners, or two 20-minute lessons with 8-9 year olds, but I tend to go pretty fast.)

Coakley's introduction describes the three types of weak pawns (isolated, backward, doubled) and gives example of each.



Notice how easy it is for a teacher with one demo board to move from one position to the next with minimal adjustments. Then Coakley asks students to apply this knowledge by finding examples of weak pawns in the fourth position:


I love this particular position because it
immediately assesses whether the kids understand the basic vocabulary
has many answers (so multiple kids in the class can participate)
takes care of all three types of weak pawn and various combinations thereof, and
allows you to push kids' understanding further by discussing how white's isolated doubled pawns are much weaker than black's doubled but defended c pawns, or which of the f6 and f7 pawns might be weaker, and why.
Rules for dealing with weak pawns follow; these make a fantastic visual aid when copied with brightly colored markers on large sheet of chart paper and posted on the classroom wall:
If the opponent has weak pawns
Attack them so they have to be defended by pieces.
Keep the game simple
Trade into an ending where the opponent has passive pieces
Don't weaken your own pawns.
If you have weak pawns
Try to trade them off
Complicate the game
Avoid trading into an ending
Weaken the opponent's pawns.

Next Coakley gives nine positions with variations: typical methods of playing with or against
a weak isolated pawn in the endgame
a strong isolated pawn in the middlegame
a weak backward pawn in the endgame
a doubled pawn in the endgame as part of a pawn majority
a doubled pawn in the endgame as part of a pawn minority
a doubled pawn in the early middlegame that seriously weakens the king
a doubled, isolated pawn in the middlegame
two examples of how doubled pawns can sometimes give one side additional central control
I love the thematic simplicity of the examples and the logical sequencing of them. I don't usually use all positions, but if I had more time I would. Let's look at one example:

A backward pawn is very similar to an isolated pawn. Both can be especially weak if they're on an open file, like the white c-pawn in this diagram. We also use the same plan against a backward pawn that we do against an isolated one. Make the opponent guard it with pieces! 1...Rfc8 2.Rac1 Rc4! The square in front of a weak pawn is almost always a great spot for pieces. 3.Rc2 [3.Rfe1? Rac8 4.Re3 Rxd4! is terrible for White.; But defending the pawn from the side with 3.Rfd1 Rac8 4.Rd3 is a good plan. Black keeps the advantage though by 4...b5! The game might go 5.Rb1 Rxc3 6.Rxc3 Rxc3 7.Rxb5 Rc1+ 8.Kh2 Rc4 9.Ra5 Rxd4 10.Rxa7 Re4 11.a4 Rxe5 12.a5 Re2 13.Kg3 Ra2 and black should win.(A note directs readers to the back of the book, where more supporting variations are given)] 3...Rac8 4.Rfc1 The white rooks are totally passive. 4...b5! Now the threat is ...b4. 5.a3 [After 5.Kf1 b4! 6.Ke2 bxc3 7.Kd3 Ra4 black wins the a-pawn: 8.Rxc3 (or the d pawn: 8.g3 Rcc4 9.f4 Rxd4+) 8...Rxc3+ 9.Rxc3 Rxa2] 5...Ra4 6.Ra1 b4! And Black scores! Neither white pawn can capture on b4 because of the pins. [The simple 6...Rxd4 is fun too!]

Combo Mombo -- 22 short tactics lessons consisting of one detailed example, solvable for white and black, and three practice exercises. These translate beautifully into 10-15 minute tactics lessons, almost the perfect length for a standard 45 minute class period in which the children also play.

Tactics 101 --8 worksheets of 9 problems each on tactical themes-knight fork, pin, double check, etc. The first three problems are generally simple; the next three are more "real life" type position, and the last three are harder and often require creative thinking. For example, in Queen Forks, one position asks students to find 4 forks; the Double Check worksheet asks readers to find two double checks in a row.

Find four queen forks for White

Find two double checks in a row for White

Chess Lingo defines chess terms in entertaining, 1 page blurbs. My two favorites are piece and threat. Have you ever thought about how confusing the word "piece" can be? It's commonly used in three distinct ways, to refer to:
1. any chess man ("32 pieces"),
2. a knight, bishop, rook, or queen ("Develop your pieces," "When you are ahead, trade pieces"),
3. a knight or bishop ("I'm up a piece").
Most experienced players aren't even aware of these multiple meanings because they determine the intended meaning through context without any conscious thought. But imagine how confused beginners might be when they develop their king and all their pawns in the opening only to lose horribly.
My other favorite half page Chess Lingo section is "Threats." In the lesson I've adapted from this page, I start by talking about the difference between a threat in real life and in chess. One's a terrible thing that will get you suspended; the other's a fantastic idea that often will win you the game. I walk them through Coakley's example (see below) and then expect them to be able to find the threats themselves in a second position, which I make up.


How many moves can you find for white to make a threat?
1. Be3 threatens to capture the black queen.
1. Bd6 threatens to win the exchange (Be sure to define "the exchange" if you haven't already!)
1. Qg2 threatens mate on g7.
1. Qd2 threatens 2. Bxh6, leading to mate
1. Be5 makes the positional threat to double black's pawns by 2. Bxf6
1. Qe3 "threatens" to trade queens, which helps white because she's ahead in material.
This is a *lot* of rich discussion material in a single position. It is also extremely useful and practical-what could be better than a simple 15-minute lesson that makes kids eager to search out all possible threats?

Two Websites and Another Book:
I also frequently steal from two websites to create lessons:

1. chesspublishing.com has over 19,000 (and growing) annotated games in its database. Although it's primarily designed to help the tournament player keep up with innovation in opening theory, I like to use it to teach new openings to students because it's easy to find exactly what I need. Let's say, for example, I want to show a game where white plays the slow kind of Guicco Piano with c3, d3, Bc4-b3 and Nb1-d2-f1-g3. But today's lesson is about what to do when black responds with an early ..d5. And I know my kids get bored when I talk too much, so I do a quick search for the position after 1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bc4 Nf6 4. d3 d5 where white wins in under 30 moves. And I get 5 games to choose from, all well-annotated with descriptions of the plans and relevant tactical variations. Voila, instant lecture.

2. An even more instant lesson can be found at chesslecture.com. They have a archive of over 500 lectures, with a new addition daily. Presentations are 15-40 minutes long, range from complete beginner to master-level difficulty, and cover all aspects of the game. Sometimes I show the video itself to a class (using a laptop and a projector); other times I watch a few times until I can do the lecture myself. Jesse Kraai and David Vigorito are my two favorite presenters, closely followed by Eugene Perelshteyn and John Watson.

While I'm at it, (and since you read this far) I want to mention one other recent book that I feel deserves some recognition. Perfect Your Chess is a tactics book from Ukrainian GM Andrei Volokitin and his trainer, Vladimir Grabinsky. Although totally inappropriate for teaching, it's full of really beautiful positions from recent high-level games for anyone over 1800.

The first section is called "Make a Move"-- its premise is that strategy, calculation, opening prep, etc. is all fine and well, but the real characteristic of a strong player is the ability to make really good moves a lot of the time. I read this and wasn't impressed, but when I looked at each problem, the same thing would happen:
1. I wouldn't see the solution.
2. I'd start thinking about some interesting tension or possibility.
3. I'd think "wait, can move x possibly work?"
4. I'd start looking at move x, and realize it's UNBELIEVEABLY STRONG. After making move x, the opponent basically has to resign. There are 125 examples of this, all excellent and previously unpublished.
Other sections are almost as great. "Find the Win" has examples where you are better but have to find some way to clarify the position. For me, this is very useful - I'm always self-destructing in good positions. Then "Answer a Question" has unusual but useful questions that ask you to make the kind of practical decisions tactics books rarely train you in. ("What's the best square to move the attacked bishop to?). The solutions are peppered with amusing, slightly strange stories-- all very enjoyable.

Who's the goof: white's h pawns are doubled, but black has all 16 original pieces
Switcheroos: 1: a2- Re7 2. Rd6- Bf6 3. Re7 Bf6
Triple Lloyd: a. Ke6 b. Kh1 c. Kd1
Retro : Re1 x Be2
Rook maze in ten: Ra2-e2-e7-c7-c1-b1-b8-a8-a5-g5 x g8

Elizabeth Vicary is a chess coach- you can read a popular interview between her and Jennifer Shahade here . She also just started a U.S. Chess League and gossip blog. Lizzy Knows All.  The next Back to School article will feature Jonathan Hilton in another How Wojo Won article, this time focusing on Wojtkiewicz's Black openings.