Chess is one of the most enduringly popular games in the world, transcending language barriers and teaching valuable life skills. Chess teacher and master Andrew Green recommends books (plus a few websites) to help beginners of all ages learn the game.
Before we get to the books themselves, can you talk a bit about how you got into chess and why you decided to set up a chess academy?
When I was little I went to a school in London. Before assembly they got some chess sets out. I had no idea how to play but all the other kids somehow seemed to know. My best friend at the time taught me and then I started beating him. I quite liked it but I didn’t do anything with it – I was much more interested in football – until I was 10 or 11 and back in Scotland and my dad signed me up to a website, an old chess website called kasparovchess.com. When I wasn’t playing football, I was inside playing on this website. And then there was a chance to play the world champion at the time, a prize draw to play Vladimir Kramnik. I put my name in the hat, and I was lucky enough to be one of the 10 people picked. So I took the day off school to play the world champion. A journalist came around who told me about a local chess club, and I went along and found out there was a summer camp and tournaments, which I had no idea about. And I found out that actually I was the best chess player for my age in Scotland.
Later, when I was 15 or 16, I really didn’t understand why kids didn’t play chess. None of my friends played, and at school there was absolutely nothing. I remember being in my economics class, dreaming about starting a chess school one day. When I was a student at university I taught chess on the side to get some pocket money, and my students were doing quite well.
Since 2013, I’ve been a full-time teacher and now I teach about 600 children every week and make a living out of it. I don’t play much anymore. I miss playing but the Edinburgh Chess Academy takes up all my time. I want to get as many kids playing chess as possible. Whether it’s casually or if they want to become champions, I want to get kids playing chess and enjoying the game.
Would you say that the first two chess books you have picked are best for kids, and the other three for beginners of any age?
All five books are fine for kids – I deliberately picked them that way – and for chess beginners of any age.
Let’s talk about your first pick of the best chess books for beginners, Winning Chess Strategyfor Kids by Jeff Coakley.
I actually think it’s a mistake calling this a book for kids, because it’s just such a fantastic book for learning chess. I think sometimes adult improvers don’t pick this book up because of the title, and they should. It’s one of the best chess books I’ve ever read.
Coakley has actually written three other books, there’s a set of four. Winning Chess Strategy for Kids, in my opinion, is by far the best. But if any parents want to get the others, there is a red, there’s an orange, and there’s a blue. Basically, the red and orange ones are puzzles. And the blue one is also puzzles, but it’s much harder. They’re all very, very good, but it’s important that kids go through them and do the puzzles in the right order: red, orange, blue.
Why is Winning Chess Strategy for Kids your top chess book for beginners, what’s special about it?
The author is definitely a very experienced chess teacher. A bit like me, I think, he’s a master player who clearly started focusing on teaching. He’s been teaching in schools, he’s been teaching privately, and the material is fantastic. He wrote for a chess magazine, and they collected it all together. Unlike other books which are just puzzles, it explains concepts and ideas really well, the examples are picked really nicely, he’s got a good mix.
In chess, we divide it into three parts, you’ve got the opening, you’ve got the middle game and the end game. This book covers all of them, there are lots of bite-sized lessons. Within the book there are also puzzles, which are more interactive, more doable. Chess has its own language. There are all these terms and phrases chess players use which to the outside world make no sense at all. Coakley calls it ‘chess lingo.’ He explains all these terms and phrases, which is really useful for kids and parents. And there are lots of illustrations to make it more approachable, more friendly. My book is so tattered and dog-eared because I look at it all the time.
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Let’s move on to your next recommendation, which is a series of workbooks, Learning Chess, based on the Steps Method. Are these books intended for kids who are learning to play, or more for chess teachers?
The Steps Method is for chess coaches and kids. It’s a Dutch curriculum, and it’s considered one of the best curriculums in the world. It is maybe a little bit out of date with all the electronic resources that are available, but it’s still very, very good. These workbooks go from complete beginner all the way up to master level. Basically, it’s a set of puzzles. But if you just buy your kid this for Christmas it’s not going to work. The way to get the most out of these books is you need a chess coach or chess teacher to explain the idea and then tell you “look, those are some exercises you can do, go solve them”. The chess teacher marks them and then they can see how you did. I think in the Netherlands, sometimes at chess clubs the coaches hand this out as homework. Some kids love it, they really like that approach. Some kids say “no, this is a workbook, that’s like schoolwork. I’m not doing that”.
I guess it’s important that it stays fun.
Yes, so that’s my one criticism of the Steps Method books, they are a bit dry. But some kids love it. Others want to go online and watch animations. These books are a good offline alternative. If you’ve had the 30 minutes of screen time and you still want to do some more chess, there’s your Step book.
There is another series called Stepping Stones, which looks like it’s for very young kids, probably 4-8 year olds, is that good as well?
Yes, that was basically the very first Steps book for beginners to learn chess. They decided that the pace went a bit too fast, so they broke it down for younger kids. Again, some kids love it, some kids don’t, but it’s definitely something you could try.
Your next book recommendation for beginners is Bobby Fischer Teaches Chess, a bestselling classic from 1966.
I’m not going to lie, this book is quite out of date. But I loved it. When I started getting really into chess I went to the chess book section in the public library and picked up this book, and I remember reading it on the bus home, I just couldn’t keep my eyes off it. There was a huge chess boom in the 1970s because of Bobby Fischer. He didn’t write this book, someone else wrote it and they put his name on it, and Fischer liked it. This book explains some concepts and ideas, and then gives you exercises based on those ideas. It’s like multiple choice, it’s a very interactive book. It’s a very, very good first chess book for trying to learn some basic ideas. I really enjoyed it, personally.
I looked at some reviews, which suggest that this book is mostly about checkmating and less about strategy.
Yes, I think that’s about right. But that’s the most important thing. Teaching in schools, I see that the thing that children struggle with the most is understanding check and checkmate. They can understand super fast how the pieces move, but then you try to explain that you’re not allowed to take a king, you’ve got to trap the king. Once they get that, they’re like “this is awesome.” It’s just getting them over that little hurdle. Tactics is very short term, seeing one or two moves ahead, which is the most important thing to learn when you’re new to chess. Strategy is planning longer term, like the next 10-15 moves. You can still learn about strategy, but if you’re trying to do a long term plan and then you just give away stuff because you can’t do tactics, it doesn’t work. So you should really focus on tactics first.
Let’s move on to your next book for beginner players, Chess for Tigers by Simon Webb.
This is the most advanced book I have put on the list. It’s a good book for kids or adults who have been playing for a year or two and are starting to enter competitions. It’s got loads of practical advice, like how to beat players that are stronger than you, how to beat players that are weaker than you, how to manage your time when you’re playing in tournaments with chess clocks, how to get better at chess by studying by yourself… It’s also got loads of cool illustrations, which I loved as a kid. I’d say this book is for kids that are becoming a bit more serious and thinking about playing chess tournaments.
I read that the author was famous for coming back from hopeless positions in his games.
Yes, he was definitely very resilient and tenacious, and those are really important characteristics for a chess player. Chess teaches us so many valuable life lessons. One of them is to never give up. Another is to have a growth mindset, how to take losses, how to react to them, learn from your mistakes. And to be aware of your opponent, to respect them. If you just focus on your own thing, you’re not going to be a good chess player. You have got to figure out what your opponent is going to do, and react to that, or decide to ignore it.
Today, when so many kids go on electronic devices and tend to have quite short concentration spans, do you think playing chess is more valuable than ever for learning to concentrate and focus and plan ahead?
Definitely. Attention spans are getting shorter, and chess is a great way to get children focusing for longer. I’ve had students who play long games of chess, and then when they go to exams they’re so much more prepared, because they’ve been playing in all these chess competitions and they’re used to sitting there and focusing. And they’re playing a game, it’s fun. They like it, and they don’t realise that actually they’re paying attention. You can play chess for hours and completely forget about the real world. You can do chess online, but there’s also an offline alternative, which I really like.
We have come to your final recommendation of the best chess books for beginners, The Chess Player’s Bible by James Eade.
This one is actually more my students’ recommendation than mine. I have to admit I’ve never read this from cover to cover, I’ve just looked at my students’ books. But I have seen more than one kid coming to chess tournaments carrying this book everywhere they go, they absolutely love it. It’s an introduction to chess. It’s got lots of diagrams, it’s very, very visual. A bit like the first book I mentioned, Winning Chess Strategy for Kids, it covers a wide variety of topics: how to start your games, how to play in the middle, how to play at the end. I think it’s a great first or second chess book. It’s something that kids can dip into again and again, once they decide they really like chess and want to learn more.
I haven’t looked at that one but the author seems to be a pretty good chess player who has been doing a lot of teaching, and I think that’s really valuable. The problem with chess books is that a large majority of them are really hard and not for kids or beginners at all. There’s no clear guide saying this is for beginners, this is for intermediate and this is for advanced. So for parents or adult beginners, knowing what chess books to get is really difficult. I’m hoping this interview will help.
Are there any websites, apps, online tutorials or other resources you would recommend?
If you’ve got a kid that is completely new to chess, probably the best place to start is chessity.com. It’s not perfect, but it’s a good website. It’s a Dutch site, the English isn’t great and it does not explain check or checkmate very well. But it’s very interactive and it’s probably the best place to learn how the pieces move. It’s a step by step course; once you complete each level you get a little diploma. Once kids have got a basic understanding, the best place at the moment – again, it’s not perfect – is chesskid.com. The best thing about that is they’ve got fantastic educational videos. There are some questions after the videos that are a bit too hard, but it’s a safe place to do puzzles and play games. Both these websites are for primary school age kids; because they’ve got animations, I wouldn’t show these to secondary school kids who are trying to be cool.
For adults or older kids, chess.com is good. You can play games, you can solve puzzles, there are lots of good videos on there. And there’s a good alternative which only chess players know about, called lichess.org. It’s actually a charity, it’s amazing. You can play on there for free, it’s basically a playing website. These days there are loads of educational chess videos on YouTube. It used to be really bad quality, but it’s got a lot better. For younger kids I’d probably stay clear of YouTube streamers because you don’t know what they are going to say; I think chesskid.com is a good, safe place for them. But for older kids it’s probably ok to watch them.
There seem to be relatively few role models for girls in chess. In an earlier chess interview on Five Books, all the books picked were written by men, and it’s the same with your book recommendations. Are many of your students girls?
I teach in lots of schools, mostly primary schools. I have found that if it’s a mixed school I’ll only get two or three girls signing up, on average, in a class of 24 children. However, in an all girls’ school I have 60 girls playing chess and they love it. I don’t know why that is, there should be just as many girls playing chess as boys. It’s something that we’re trying to work on.
I think one of the problems is you come to competitions and you’re surrounded by boys, so that can put girls off right away. Then, when they get older, they seem to drop off more. It’s a global problem but the chess world is actually really good at trying to get more girls to play chess, like they’ve done with other sports, like women’s football. I think the way to generate more girls playing chess is to have more girls’ tournaments, just to have a nicer environment, and then they can also play the mixed ones. It’s frustrating because chess is not physical, it’s completely mental so you can compete on an even playing field. Georgia has fantastic female chess players and there’s a large number of women playing in that country; I don’t know if it’s a cultural or societal thing. Girls can be terrific chess players. There’s no reason, there are just more men playing.
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If you want books that are written by women, I haven’t read them so I couldn’t recommend them. But the greatest female chess player ever, Judit Polgár, and her sister Susan Polgár, have written chess books. Some of them are definitely for beginners. The Polgár sisters are actually a really interesting story. Their dad, László Polgár, wanted to know the answer to the question “are geniuses made or are geniuses born?”. He decided that with his children he was going to test this idea. He did it with all three daughters, all three became extremely strong players. And Judit beat everyone, she’s an incredible player. They’re trying to get more kids playing chess and Judit has a foundation in Hungary.
Do you find that your students are good at losing as well as winning?
It’s completely mixed. Most kids are fine with losing, but some take it very personally. It is a really valuable lesson. At the extreme end, you will get kids that just can’t stand losing, like it’s the worst thing in the world. They probably won’t go very far, because it’s too emotional, they get too upset. Then, at the other end, you get kids who don’t care at all if they lose. And, again, they’ll play for fun but they probably won’t become a champion.
Would you say that you learn more from the games you lose?
I’d say for a kid to become a chess champion they would probably 80% really not like losing, but then they’ve got that 20% for the problem solving, to think “okay, I need to do something about that, what did I do wrong in that game?”. What you should do every time you play chess, and you should play loads of games, is to try and go over those games and then fix your mistakes. Some of my students are European champions and one of my biggest battles is they focus on the results too much, they focus on chess ratings too much. If they’re expected to win and they lose, or they draw with someone with lower ratings than them, they can get really upset. I tell them to change their mindset, to look at the moves in the game, at what they did well, what they did wrong, and fix the things that they did wrong. And then the other stuff will come later. That’s a really important lesson in chess, but it’s also really important for life.
Is there anything you want to say in conclusion about the books, or about chess for beginners?
I personally think every kid should learn chess and my dream is to have it in the school curriculum. I would love it for every child age 7 or 8 to get one year of chess tuition so they learn the game, the basic ideas. In one year, you can teach a kid so they know how to play chess to a decent level. After that, I’d like there to be a chess club in each school, so that if they want to do it more they can go along to that chess club and keep developing their skills. If you do that, every kid has got a hobby for life. That’s the great thing about chess. I’ve stopped playing for now but one day when I retire I can still play chess. If you’re disabled you can play chess. I’ve had blind kids I’ve taught. My favourite thing about chess is it doesn’t matter if you’re wealthy, if you’re poor, your age, if you speak the same language – it’s a universal language. You can travel around the world and make friends playing chess. I’ve played with people on the streets and with CEOs of companies, I’ve played people I have no idea how to communicate with. But we can play chess and understand each other, it’s amazing!
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