Chess Fundamentals

By José Raúl Capablanca

Rating:

Media type: book

Why

Chess Fundamentals was originally published in 1921 and the first question I asked myself when I came across the book was: Why would I want to read a book that’s almost 100 years old? it’s a legit question. With the advent of Chess engines, the theory has perfected and expanded, opening theory has been improved a lot, and some books became kind of obsolete. Well, the answer lies in the title itself, Chess fundamentals covers the core of the game. And, while almost 100 years passed, the nature of the game did not change. What Capablanca discussed is still valid today. The world champion Mikhail Botvinnik considered this to be the greatest chess book of all times. While I don’t enjoy standings when it comes to books, it’s still quite the endorsement.

What

The book is organized so that concepts are presented in a progressive order of difficulty, which makes studying it very appealing to novice players. Here is the table of contents:

  • First Principles
  • Endgame Principles
  • Planning a Win in Middle-game Play
  • General Theory
  • Endgame Strategy
  • Further openings and Middle-games
  • Illustrative Games

For the novice reader, the first chapter alone is worth the price of the book. It introduces you to the very fundamental (ah!) concepts of the game. The writing style is always simple and clear. I selected one quote from this chapter to illustrate how good the chapter (and the book) is:

The four squares, e4, e5, d4, and d5 are the centre squares, and control of these squares is called control of the centre. The control of the centre is of great importance. No violent attack can succeed without controlling at least two of these squares, and possibly three.

This is how good Capablanca is at explaining crucial concepts in a simple way.

Capablanca then immediately moves on to the endgame, making clear that starting from the end is the best strategy to get better at chess. The second chapter is full of concepts on extreme importance, most of which are going to be new to the novice. A great example is how to obtain a passed pawn (white to move):

Once you read this paragraph, you’re never going to forget how this works. Keep in mind this was just one example, the whole chapter is worth studying in depth if you’re new to the game.

The next chapter, “planning a win in the middle-game play”, introduces the reader to concepts that help planning an attack on their opponent. When the novice players survive the opening, they often struggle in the middle-game as they have no attacking plan. This chapter gives them an initial framework to build their own plans.

The second part of book is written is a different style, and I would argue it’s a little harder to read for the novice (the books still deserves 5 stars!). Capablanca uses real over the board games he played (sometimes it’s other strong grandmaster games) to explain concepts regarding general chess theory, endgames, and openings.

How

First of all, please make sure to acquire a recent edition of the book. It’s easy to run into the original edition of the book which uses descriptive notation which you’re probably not going to be familiar with. Of course you could learn this notation as well, but if you’re new to the game it’s arguably better to invest time in learning more about the game itself.

My suggestion is to read the first three chapters a couple of times before attempting the rest of the book. While the games presented in the second part are very instructive, the concept discussed are not as strong on the “fundamental concepts” presented in the second part. It’s probably also due to Capablanca’s style of discussion. It’s a privilege to read his thoughts on a specific position, but the experienced reader will probably get more out of the second part of the book. The book is so good though, it’s worth going back to it often enough, till the concepts presented in the various parts of the book feel really basic.