By Ilya Maizelis
The reason why I picked up The Soviet Chess Primer is simple: I had just finished Chess Fundamentals and I was hungry for more.
I did not know what to expect even though the book comes with the recommendation of Garry Kasparov and Anatoly Karpov. After a quick look, I understood this is not your average Chess book, so let’s dive straight into it.
The Soviet Chess Primer is a general introduction to the game, some would call it the “ultimate introduction to Chess”. And while I often find these claims a little on the nose, I would have to agree in this case. The book exceeds expectations in all aspects: the writing style is engaging, the content is superb, and the material is organized in a very original way.
The book is divided in two parts. The first part is called “The Elements of Chess” and goes over the most important aspect of the game. The author assumes no previous knowledge of Chess, so the first chapter covers the rules. I had considered skipping the chapter and I’m very happy I did not. The chapter is organized in a spectacular way. Every time it presents a rule, it follows up with a short puzzle. So, even if you know all the rules, you’re probably going to enjoy this chapter quite a bit because the puzzles are incredibly interesting. My favorite one is about mating your opponent, after explaining the rule, the book presents you with this puzzle:
And the text reads: “Mate in one, in 47 different ways”. How fun is that? Can you find them all?
Another peculiar aspect of The Soviet Chess Prime, it’s the way diagrams are presented. Already in the first pages, some diagrams do not show the whole board, just the “interesting section”. While this felt a little odd the first time (new things always do), it became immediately clear this approach provides great clarity if you’re going to explain a very specific concept (a good example is castling. The book presents only the first two rows of the board, before and after castling. Making the rule easy to grasp for those who never came across it).
Like every other chapter in the first part of the book, the first chapter ends with a short paragraph called “Entertainment pages”. It presents a few short games, and I can assure you they’re all pretty fun.
The second chapter focuses on the goal of the game: mating your opponent. Once again, the content is presented in an exquisite and original way. The book goes over basic mating patterns with each piece, each section shows several patterns. The diagrams are gold for newcomers to the game. They show the kind of mating pattern that would be a little hard to see but you’re never going to forget once you saw it (for example mating a king with a rook). Once again the author uses sections of the board for most diagrams so you can focus solely on the pattern. The “entertainment pages” are fun as always and in this chapter there is a bonus section of “fun mates”. The entertainment is guaranteed.
The third chapter discusses strategy and tactic. Here’s a remarkable passage from the first page of the chapter:
All the changes on the chessboard occur, after all, as a result of the moves of the two players, and these moves are not fortuitous. They are united by an overall purpose - to win, to checkmate the enemy king, to avoid defeat by the opponent. Every move attempts to do something which contributes directly or indirectly to achieving the ultimate aim. Out of such purpose-oriented moves, whole maneuvers and game plans regularly take shape. The plans must be conceived in advance, and constitute what is known as strategy; the implementation of these plans is the task of tactics.
Beautifully explained. The chapter presents a few games to explain how tactics allow you to achieve a specific plan. It also discusses the “traditional” relative value of pieces and it’s maybe the only paragraph in the whole book that shows its age as the author considers knights and bishop to be completely equivalent in terms of value.
The fourth chapter, “Techniques of calculation”, discusses the situations in which precise calculation is enough to determine the outcome of a position: the rule of the square, counting of attacked pieces, pawn promotion, critical and corresponding squares. The explanations are crystal clear.
The fifth chapter, “combination”, discusses several positions (mostly from grandmaster games) in which a forced combination arises. The games are selected very carefully and it’s worth setting up a board for each of them. After the “usual” entertainment pages, the chapter offers two groups of puzzles. In the first group, you have to find the right combination and in the second one you have to find the right refutation. The latter is somewhat an underrepresented category of puzzles which gives the reader one more reason to love the book.
In chapter sixth “positional play” is discussed. The book presents a variety of important positional concepts like “weak squares” and “the centre” using positions from grandmaster games as examples. While discussing weaknesses in a position, the author makes a clear distinction between temporary and permanent weaknesses. The paragraph is a real gem.
Chapter seven, “how to begin a game”, finally discusses openings. The fact itself that openings come so late in the book speaks for the quality and the attention the author put into teaching the reader Chess core concepts. Openings are important, but no so important for a newcomer. As for the content of this chapter, the author goes over the most critical openings principles: control of the centre and minor pieces first. This chapter closes the first part of the book.
The second part of the book is called “the Chess game (its three phases)” in which each chapter discusses a phase of the game. One notable aspect is the “reversed order” of presentation: endgame, middle-game, opening. Once again, the author is really careful didactically as it presents the content in a sensible order.
The books ends with a beautiful appendix: a collection of compositions and studies. The position presented are challenging and interesting for the newcomer. The author also explains in detail what gives compositions artistic value.
The book is full little gems, interesting puzzles, and greatly annotated games. The book is worth reading back to back so, if you never read it, I would suggest you read it that way one time. I would read the second part of the book at slower pace: the last three chapters are very dense of difficult positions and annotated games. To get the best out of them, it’s better to go over a few pages per day only. Ideally by setting up a board for each position. The content presented ties really well into the explanations of the first part of the book so it also acts as a reinforcement of the core concepts.
If you’re going to love it as much as I did, and I believe there are great chances you will, I can imagine you’d also want a copy lying around at your desk. So that you can pick it up whenever you want and enjoy its amazing content.