Simple Chess

By Michael Stean

book

Why

The reason why I started reading strategy books is probably relatable. In the middlegame, I often find myself having no idea what to do. The principles aren’t as obvious as in the opening, the rules are not as evident as in the endgame.

Generally, I research topics on my own but this time it was a little easier because NealBruceBC (which you definitely want to follow if you’re into Chess and twitter) read the most important Chess Strategy books and ranked them. So based on that preselection, it was much easier to find this book.

What

The book is short, its organization its pretty classical for a Chess strategy book: each chapter focuses on a few ideas and presents some annotated games to illustrate those ideas.

Here are the chapters:

  • Introduction
  • Outposts
  • Weak pawns
  • Open files
  • Half-open files: the minority attack
  • Black squares and white squares
  • Space

Just seven chapters and the whole book amounts to just 160 pages. I consider it a feature: each chapter has very high quality content, instructive games, and insightful annotations. Let me go over them one by one.

Introduction

The introduction is wonderful. The author Micheal Stean, a 25-year old Grandmaster at the time of writing, provides his definition of “Simple Chess”. I could not possibly image a better introduction to a strategy book. Stean’s definition of “Simple Chess” will resonate with most Amateurs and will lay down the foundations of the coming chapters. Just a taste of the author’s writing style:

If each player is capable of quick development, castling and of not blundering any pieces away, what is there to separate the two sides? This is the starting-point of Simple Chess.

Outposts

The second chapter starts with a clear definition of outposts and then goes over a few games to illustrate the strategic value of outposts. The author makes a somewhat nuanced distinction between permanent outposts (squares that can’t be attacked by an enemy pawn) and temporary outposts (squares can be attacked by an enemy pawn but it would take time to do so). It’s an intriguing distinction and maybe the only concept in the whole book I wish the author would dig deeper than he did.

Weak pawns

The third chapter is one of the main reasons I love this book. The way the book explains the relationship between pawns and pieces is exceptional for an amateur like me. It gave new light to the concept of pawn structures and pieces activity. After presenting a few illustrative games, the author moves on to doubled pawns where he explains that they can’t be always considered a weakness. In his words:

The pros and cons of doubled Pawns may be thought of in terms of a military line along which forces are evenly distributed. One can reinforce a certain part of the line only at the cost of weakening another.

Open Files

If chapter three is one of the main reasons why I love this book, chapter four is the reason. Before reading it, I had a basic understanding that open files are good for you but I had often failed to see the advantage in a practical game. The why is perfectly explained in this chapter and, alone, worth the price of the book. The core concept is what the author calls entry point: a square one of your pieces (possibly a rook) can penetrate the opponent position. It seems so obvious once he explains it: an open file is valuable only if it gives you a chance to penetrate.

The concept is wonderfully explained and games presented are very instructive.

Half-open files: the minority attack

As I started chapter four, I was delighted that the amazing quality of the writing carried over to the next chapter. I did not think I would enjoy a discussion on half-open files and the minority attack as much as I did. The author explains the ideas with extreme clarity and I’m sure I will remember the following for the rest of my life:

…These are the simple mechanics of the minority attack. It is no more nor less than a method of weakening an otherwise sound Pawn set-up by advancing Pawns at it. The process is quite long and slow, the payoff at the end relatively small (one weak Pawn to aim at, two maybe if you are lucky), but its value is undeniable. Moreover, it cannot easily rebound on you. An open file can change hands, a half-open file cannot. Indeed it cannot even be challenged.

After the wonderful introduction, the author presents a few annotated games. I particularly enjoyed that he first presented some games on how to execute a minority attack and then some to illustrate how to neutralize it.

Black squares and White squares

Chapter six is also lovely. It describes the relationship between pieces, squares, and the square colors in a very practical way. With the help of somehow “extreme” positions, it explains with great clarity the concept of “bad bishop vs good bishop” and the importance of color complexes and the king in the endgame.

Space

The last chapter of the book is also the most difficult. But, as the author explains in the first paragraphs, the concept of space is hard to grasp. I think GM Micheal Stean does a great job of simplifying the concept as much as possible with the help of good metaphors and “extreme” positions. One unexpected (at least to me) but very enjoyable aspect of the chapter is the discussion of the main lines of the Ruy López:

The closed Ruy López positions represent a very fine balance between space and structure which only becomes apparent after many years of experience with them. When you understand the Lopez, you have mastered simple chess.

This is something I intuitively agree very much with. I often ask myself “why do we see some many Sicilians, Ruy López, and Queen’s gambit declined at the highest level?” I think if I’ll ever really know why I will have mastered the basics of Chess.

How

I already read the book twice in a very short amount of time. Because it’s that good, yes. I suggest you buy a copy (it’s incredibly cheap for its value) and go back to it every time you feel like refreshing your ideas about outposts, weak squares, space, and so on. A must-have book which is a joy to read. I’m sure I will wear out my copy in the coming years.