Friday, July 29, 2016

The Most Instructive Annotated Chess Game Collections

Not All Games Collections Are Created Equal

Chess books should be used as we use glasses: to assist
the sight, although some players make use of them as if
they thought they conferred sight."

-Jose Raul Capablanca
As I and others have written, studying annotated master games is a very helpful way to improve at chess. In this article, I will be presenting what I believe are the most instructive collections of annotated games. If you could only buy a limited number of chess books, this is the list I would start with if you want to improve your chess.

There are many good collections of chess games. However, I focused on the following characteristics when making my selections:

  • The annotatations should be instructive. Certain annotations, such as long complex variations, may be useful for very strong players, but they are not necessarily meant to "teach." So many of the books listed include more instructive prose. For this reason, books such as Mikhail Tal's Life & Games of Mikhail Tal, which definitely should be in your collection, do not make this list.
  • The collections should be fairly diverse. For this list, I focused on collections that are generally diverse in nature. For example, they cover different openings, players, and phases of the game. So I've excluded excellent books such as Bobby Fischer's My 60 Memorable Games. Similarly, 
  • The quality of the games should be fairly high. You should be studying games where the winner of the game plays a fairly solid game with relatively few errors. Now, in some of the collections that contain early games, one may criticize the opening theory, but in general, principles that are explained in the game should be sound.
Okay, let's get on to the list! I have arranged the list as a progression in the order I believe they should be read.

Logical Chess Move by Move

Author: Irving Chernev

This was one of my first chess books and remains my highest recommendation for new and beginning chess players. What Chernev does very well at this level is explain what a master is thinking about when he looks at a position.

Concepts like development, weak squares, outposts, attacking the king, and pawn breaks are explained in context of beautiful and well-played games by some of the greatest early masters like Capablanca, Morphy, and Rubinstein.

Every move is annotated, and although sometimes it gets a little repetitive especially with simple recaptures and in the opening, at the beginning levels, I think this is very important. Things that seem mundane for intermediate and advanced players isn't so for beginners. I recommend this to any player rated below USCF 1400, but I think all players would benefit and enjoy the games within this book because of their beauty and instructive value.

I believe Logical Chess Move by Move belongs on everyone's chess bookshelf.

Winning Chess Brilliances

Author: Yasser Seirawan

While Logical Chess Move by Move contained earlier games, Winning Chess Brilliancies covers games from the 1970's to the 1990's. This makes sense, as this starts when GM Yasser Seirawan first started playing chess (in the 1970's) to when he was near his peak (in the 1990's).

This is most fortunate for us, because this time period also contained some true chess titans, including Bobby Fischer, Anatoly Karpov, and Garry Kasparov - all of whom have games featured in book.

This book contains twelve games, but they are perhaps among the greatest games every played. For example, Mr. Seirawan's coverage of Bobby Fischer's masterpiece against Boris Spassky in the 6th game of the 1972 World Championship match (which was mentioned in my interview with National Master Jim West) is worth the price of the whole book.

Besides the wonderful games, the value of this book is Yasser Seirawan's annotations. One of the great marks of someone who truly understands chess is the ability to explain the intricacies in a way that a novice can understand while still being valuable to an expert. Yasser is a master communicator. Studying his annotations, analysis, and stories will not only make you a better player, but also inspire you to seek chess mastery, if only to have a glimpse of seeing the game the way someone like GM Seirawan does.

Get this book. Thank me later.

The Most Instructive Games of Chess Ever Played

Author: Irving Chernev

In The Most Instructive Games Every Played, Chernev focuses on high quality games that illustrate a positional theme. For example, the first game features rooks on the seventh rank (Capablanca-Tartakower, New York 1924) while the third game features the knight outpost on d5 (Boleslavsky-Lissitzin 1956).

Unlike Logical Chess Move by Move, this move does not have annotations for every single move. However, Chernev focuses on explaining important points relevant to the positional aspects he is illustrating. Although I recommend getting a positional handbook like How to Reassess Your Chess (which breaks down , seeing the strategy in the context of a whole game is very instructive. You can see how the opening moves set up the strategy in the middlegame and endgame.

Chernev also points out potential tactical missteps that players could make, which was important to me when I studied this, because I would think "what if I try to do this." Chernev often would have a variation to explain why this wouldn't be a good move. He doesn't analyze every move, but I was surprised how often he seemed to know what I was thinking.

I think this is a valuable book for players under USCF 1600, although I would definitely read Logical Chess first if you haven't done so. Besides the instructive games, again it is Chernev's passion and love for the game that shows through his writing that justifies inclusion on this list.

Best Lessons of a Chess Coach

Author: Sunil Weermantry

Although this is not a "move-by-move" book, I think its style inspired many of Everyman's Move-by-Move series. FIDE Master Weermantry (who also happens to be the stepfather of GM Hikaru Nakamura) takes you under his wing and teaches you, asks you questions, and provides supplementary material in ten beautiful and instructive games.

Like The Most Instructive Games Ever Played, Weermantry has a primary positional theme that he is illustrating. However, through the course of the game, there is much description and instruction of the opening phase, tactics, attack, defense, and many more points in addition to the primary theme of the lesson.

Besides the ten primary games, Mr. Weermantry gives many supplementary games illustrating the lessons as well as quizzes and exercises throughout. It is as if you are sitting in his chess class, with homework to reinforce his lessons.

Although Best Lessons of a Chess Coach is accessible to beginners, I think it is best read after studying the first three books in this list - at the very least after having read Logical Chess Move by Move. I would recommend this to players with ratings between USCF 1200 to Expert.

Understanding Chess Move by Move

Author: John Nunn

Recognizing the need for a more modern treatment of the move-by-move instructional concept, GM John Nunn provided the gold standard for instructional annotation in Understanding Chess Move by Move.

John Nunn balances prose and analysis at appropriate moments. He chooses high level encounters, so often there are a lot of sharp positions which require alternative variations to understand the quality of the move actually chosen during the game.

One thing that this book does moreso is explain some of the theory and the reasoning behind it. This is important because at the stage that this book is most suited for - high intermediate to advanced players - specific opening theory will be more important to learn.

One thing John Nunn mentions in his introduction which I found interesting is that this book doesn't "replace" older books such as Chernev's Logical Chess but instead updates it. I think it is good to note that you shouldn't skip the other books and just read this one, but instead build upon the others with this one.

Finally, this book does a great job of covering diverse openings and topics, including openings principles, strategy, tactics, attack, defense, and the endgame. His choice of games is excellent for both quality and soundness as well as the effectiveness of the games illustrating specific elements of chess.

If you made it through the first four books with earnest study, you will have learned a lot about chess, and this book will help complete your "basic" training. I recommend this book for players above USCF 1700.

Other Good Books

Here are a couple other games collections books that just didn't quite fit but I think are quite good as well.
  • Chess The Art of Logical Thinking by Neil McDonald. This book is kind of in between Chernev and Nunn, but I didn't quite find the annotations as good as either. However, the selection of games is good and I almost included this in the main list. Worth checking out if you enjoy games collections.
  • Books in Everyman's Move-by-Move series (by various authors). I haven't read many of these books, but I've browsed a few and talked to friends about them. I think the quality of the books are independent of each other, and I've heard good and bad things about individual titles. 
  • Zurich International Chess Tournament by David Bronstein. This is a classic book, and many a master have put it in their top book lists.
  • Modern Chess Move by Move by Colin Crouch. A decent book with some great chess clashes, but I felt it relied a little too much on presenting many variations without as much prose as I would have liked.
  • 50 Essential Chess Lessons by Steve Giddens. Each lesson is a master game. The games range from 1935 to 2005. I thought Mr. Giddens' annotations were very good.


When I decided on this list, I really wanted to pick the best books for you to study. Books that I had personally learned a lot from, but also that I think if read as a progression, a player can really get a firm grasp of the game of chess. 

After reading these books, plus a few specific books on strategy, tactics, and the endgame (check out my list of books for beginners), I believe you can start to focus your study on your specific openings through good books and videos. Until next time, good luck and better chess.

Your Turn

Is there a book you would have put on this list? Do you disagree with any of my picks? Let me know and please share this article with your chess friends.

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  1. A good list. Chernev's books are sometimes looked down on as too simplistic, but I first went through "Logical Chess Move by Move" a few years ago and found it full of useful observations and ideas. Nunn's book is the new gold standard but is aimed at a somewhat different, more advanced audience (not a bad thing). Bronstein's book on the Zurich tournament isn't designed for systematic reading, but remains /the/ great entertaining (and practical) tournament book.

    1. Thanks for writing ChessAdmin. I always enjoy checking out your writing. I agree. When I first read Logical Chess Move by Move, I found it accessible around 1500, but didn't really "get it" until the 1650-1700 level (that was my experience at least) and I don't think it "replaces" Chernev, whose writing I just enjoy. One book that may make a future version of this list is Steve Giddens 50 Essential Chess Lessons which isn't a move-by-move book, but has nice annotations aimed at the <1500 audience, but good for higher rated players as well.