Resources for Learning
Settings for learning
Computer-assisted group instruction
Coaches and coaching
Tutors, camps, etc.
Handheld gaming devices, iPads, iPhones, and so on
Think Like a King
Comparing Chessmaster and TLAK
Chess Tactics for Beginners
For Little Ones: “Learn to Play Chess with Fritz and Chesster”
Learn to Play Chess
Bobby Fischer Teaches Chess
Books by Bruce Pandolfini
Books by Jeremy Silman
Chess! Lessons from a Grandmaster by Yury Shulman and Seth Rishi
Comprehensive Chess Course Volumes 1 & 2
Chess Training Program for Beginners by Susan Polgar
Highland Park Curriculum for Beginners and Intermediates
Chess Tactics for Students by John Bain
Logical Chess Move by Move by Irving Chernev
How to Beat Your Dad at Chess by Murray Chandler
Dan Heisman’s books, “Novice Nook” columns and videos
There are more than 30,000 chess books in circulation, offering a vast supply of learning material. There are also hundreds of standalone software programs, videos and websites offering chess instruction. These resources are aimed at the entire range of audiences, from beginners trying to learn the game, teachers and coaches trying to prepare themselves to teach chess to their students, and advanced players focusing on specific topics to continually improve. The plethora of material can quickly overwhelm a new coach or club director.
Our goal here is to recommend dependable choices among the many good ones available. Our initial focus is primarily on curricula aimed at beginning and intermediate players. We do so in part because our experience is that coaches of more advanced players tend to have favorite material of their own, tailor their coaching to the specific needs of their students, or rely primarily on game reviews.
In our experience, most students who are starting out progress more quickly, and enjoy it more, when they learn through interactive computer-based media: either software or programs online. As a result, we discuss those resources first.
The curricula at the top of our list are those which cover the basics: not only the rules, but tactics, key principles of openings, middle games, and endgames, and common checkmates. We understand that these topics cannot be mastered during the first year or two of instruction, but all are essential to what we consider a solid foundation in chess.
Some caveats: We do not consider ourselves experts in evaluating instructional material. Nor do we claim to have picked the absolute best of the many choices available. We come across new content continually and it was beyond our capacity to review more than a few dozen of the choices available. Even for those, we have not compared and analyzed every feature. What we have done is to compare notes and put together a reasonable set of potential starting points, listing resources that at least a few of us on the Youth Committee have used and benefited from in our own scholastic chess clubs.
Before getting to the specifics, we make some general observations.
Settings for learning. Some students learn chess individually from a family member or friend. Others learn chess on their own through books or software. Most students probably learn the game through group instruction. The tools described in this section can be the basis of learning in any of these settings. Which tools will work best for particular students, or particular coaches, is partly a matter of taste and style. In any event, there are plenty of choices.
Computer-assisted group instruction. Group chess instruction has traditionally been done using demonstration boards, with the pieces being moved by hand. This allows lessons to be taught interactively, with students going back and forth between their seats and the demo board. Many coaches are now using computers as teaching tools, most commonly connecting a laptop to a projector. This has several advantages. One is that it eliminates the time required to re-set the board when multiple positions are being displayed during a lesson; a click on the keyboard suffices. Computers also facilitate re-playing recorded games, especially when alternative lines are being examined, as a few keystrokes can replace the frequently difficult task of reconstructing a board position after a “line” has been explored.
Some coaches also have access to interactive “smart” boards, allowing them and their students to mark up and make moves on a large electronic chessboard. A projector is used to display a computer’s video output on an interactive whiteboard, which then acts as a large touch screen. The screen can also be controlled from a computer. This technology combines the efficiencies of computer-assisted instruction with the interactive capability of a demonstration board.The standalone software described below can all be used either with a traditional projector, or a smart board. The same is true of the internet options assuming an internet connection is available at your teaching site.
In our experience, kids react well to computer-assisted group instruction. As one kid told us, “I like it because it’s what I’m used to.” We expect that the number of coaches using such technology will continue to increase.
Coaches and coaching. There is no substitute for a good coach, and choosing the right person is generally more important than choosing particular teaching material. No curriculum, whether in hard copy or electronic format, can replace an enthusiastic teacher who can adapt his or her style to a particular group of students with differing learning styles and abilities, and who can convey a love of the game.
We’ve made some suggestions to coaches in the Instruction section of “Starting a Chess Program” below. One club provides new coaches with more detailed advice.
Tutors, camps, etc. Many serious players supplement their instruction by finding private tutors. Nothing is better than individual instruction if you can afford it, or are lucky enough to find someone willing to tutor on a volunteer basis. (Some tutors will teach pairs of students or small groups, which brings the price down.) Other kids attend chess camps, clinics, workshops, and lectures, all of which have the capacity to improve their play. Many such events are listed in the Events section of this website.
Handheld gaming devices, iPads, iPhones, and so on. An ever-increasing number of electronic devices have built-in chess games or downloadable chess “apps.” Instructional material is also available for some devices. (For example, a version of Chessmaster [described below] is available for the Nintendo DS and PlayStation Portable.) We understand the use and potential overuse of these devices are matters to be resolved within the family. To the extent that kids are already spending time with these devices, however, some of the available programs can be quite beneficial to chess players. Simply put: the more kids play, the more likely they’ll improve. All the better if they can learn by accessing lesson material or by getting feedback while they’re playing.
Cost. We include pricing information in the discussion below, and have focused primarily on low-cost options. Books and standalone software have one-time purchase costs. Some internet-based options involve annual fees.
For basic chess instruction, including tactics and strategy, we have two favorites. After describing them, we make a few comparisons.
Chessmaster. This PC/Mac software is probably the best-known and most widely-sold chess software in the U.S. It contains three sets of lessons and a game module. It is available in several editions, including an 11th Edition, a Grandmaster Edition, and a version called "The Art of Learning," but the less expensive 10th Edition (under $10 online) includes all of the important content and features.
The software is full of bells and whistles some kids will enjoy, including numerous display options (types and colors of boards and pieces, 3D, and graphics galore). We find many of these options distracting, and prefer a traditional 2D display, but to each his own.
The lessons are contained in the Chessmaster Academy, which is divided into three separate courses: the Josh Waitzkin course, the Larry Christiansen course, and the original Chessmaster Series. For beginners and intermediates, we strongly recommend starting with the Chessmaster Series, where the lessons are clear, well-organized, and systematic. They teach all the basic rules, tactics and strategies of chess. In addition to displaying the text on the screen, Chessmaster will read the text out loud like an audio book. This feature is particularly helpful to younger students. After each lesson, the student is asked to solve chess problems by making moves on the board. The software’s high level of interactivity is much to be commended. Kids gain momentum going through the lessons and find them engaging.
The Chessmaster Series is divided into Beginning, Intermediate, and Advanced lessons. The Beginning lessons offer clear and detailed instruction on how the pieces move, how to use basic tactics, and how to think strategically. The interface is elegant and easy-to-use. The system tracks the student’s progress, and helps them pick up exactly where they left off in a prior session.
The Intermediate section includes some lessons by famous chess coach Bruce Pandolfini on opening concepts, as well as a Pandolfini-designed rating exam that assesses the overall strength of a player based on a series of chess challenges. The Advanced section includes reviews of famous games, with the twist that you are asked to select the correct move before you see what the grandmaster did.
The other parts of the Chessmaster Academy are more specialized, and are appropriate only for small subsets of advanced students. For example, the
Chessmaster has an excellent game module which allows a student to play against dozens of predefined opponents who play at different skill levels, and often with different styles. When you are playing in “Training mode,” you can turn on a “coach” who will help you improve your play by marking up the board to help you analyze positions. The coach will also warn you if you are about to make a bad move, and can suggest a good move. As you become a stronger player, you can change the issues that the coach addresses. For example, you can ask your coach to point out bad pawn formations, helping you improve your pawn strategy. The training mode is an especially good way for a beginning player to play a lot of games and get real-time feedback.
The combination of the well-designed chess lessons and the chess coach feature make Chessmaster an outstanding product. It is an excellent starting point for teaching chess to students from kindergarten through middle school. For more information: http://chessmaster.us.ubi.com/xi/index.php.
Think Like a King. Think Like a King (TLAK) software, also available for PCs and Macs, has the highest-quality instructional content of any chess software we have seen. The clarity of the language and the logical progression of the lessons is exceptional, which may be the reason the software is the only scholastic software endorsed by the U.S. Chess Federation. The creators of TLAK are committed to the notion (as we are) that chess develops critical thinking skills, and that philosophy is reflected in the precision and sequencing of its lesson content. It also has a built-in system of rewards in which students earn points for working through lessons.
TLAK abstains from using fancy graphics, using a simple and clear 2D board in its lessons. Nor does it contain a sound track, so its users need to know how to read or need help from someone who does. But the content is highly appealing. Its authors seem to anticipate our questions, and they sprinkle their answers with humor.
The TLAK software is made up of seven “volumes” or electronic books, which include explanatory text and interactive exercises. The lessons are referred to as “Workouts.” An excellent and comprehensive set of beginner’s lessons called “First Lessons in Chess” – as good as anything we have seen -- was added after the other volumes were completed and does not carry a volume number.
Volumes 1 and 2 cover basic tactics and basic methods of achieving checkmate. The topics covered are similar to those in Chessmaster, but they often go deeper into the material and include more practice puzzles.
The TLAK software really starts to shine in Volumes 3 and 4, which teach a student how to think about openings and the endgame. The lessons are more detailed than their counterparts in Chessmaster and therefore may be more appealing to the serious student. The material is more challenging and involved, but worth the effort. Students using this software show dramatic improvement as they study these two volumes.
Volumes 5 and 6 are suitable for more advanced players. They cover additional topics in tactical and checkmate thinking. The TLAK developers believe that completion of these volumes can take a user to a playing strength equivalent to a USCF rating of 1600 or higher.
The people at TLAK also created a software program called Chess Club Manager, which facilitates club management and contains a rating system for games played within a club. The software, which we strongly recommend, is described above. See “Starting a Youth Chess Program/Competition/Chess Ladder.” TLAK also includes a system of rewards for students, involving what it calls “Thinking Tags” and “Thinking Belts” (based on the colors of Karate belts), and allows printing of a variety of award certificates.
For new users, TLAK offers a free “Quick Tour” CD which contains video tutorials explaining how to use Chess Club Manager and the Workouts. TLAK’s built-in on-screen User Manual is also first-rate.
As this section was being completed, TLAK began testing a new feature which is being closely watched by the scholastic chess community: an online system called Major League Chess, being developed along with the Internet Chess Club, which will allow school or other teams to compete against each other online. We will keep our viewers posted on their progress. TLAK is currently planning a free one-year trial period of the new system, which will include Chess Club Manager.
TLAK is available online at www.schoolchess.com. The cost for the lessons is approximately $15 per volume or $45 for a set of four volumes. Other package prices are available. Chess Club Manager costs $99. It has a network version for PC’s, part of the reason it is used in many school systems across the
Comparing Chessmaster and TLAK. We’re already made a few comparisons between these two excellent choices. They differ in a few other respects. The user interface in Chessmaster is more engaging and intuitive than TLAK, which may make it easier for young students. For older and more serious students ready to tackle text-heavy lessons and for younger students learning with an adult, the TLAK content is unbeatable. We’ve already mentioned the larger number of practice puzzles in TLAK.
Both contain systems for tracking progress, which can be motivational, but the system in Chessmaster is simpler and more visual. Chessmaster also makes it easier for students to pick up exactly where they left off, reducing confusion in both home and computer lab settings. But Chessmaster does not have a network version. TLAK’s network version for PC’s (not presently available for Mac) allows students to work at separate computers and learn at their own pace (most commonly in a computer lab), and simultaneously allows a coach to monitor their progress from a central location.
Chess Tactics for Beginners by Convetka (CD ROM for Windows 98/XP). This software, based on a bestselling book by Sergey Ivashchenko, focuses solely on tactics, and does it well. It contains more than 1,300 exercises (all “drag-and-drop”) starting with simple mates in one and becoming progressively harder, ending with King and Pawn endgames. Its target group is probably players with ratings up to approximately 1400. The program generates statistics and ratings of its own, using easy-to-read bar graphs. It also contains visual hints, and a built-in chess engine (Dragon) which can be called upon to analyze a problem and show alternate lines of play. More than one user can register on the software. The manual and help files are excellent. It’s available from Amazon.com for under $35.
For Little Ones: “Learn to Play Chess with Fritz and Chesster” (Volume 1 in a series of 3) is a Windows/Mac based software program targeted at young beginners. Although it is marketed as suitable for kids aged 8 and up, we find it well-suited for much younger and even pre-literate kids as long as they get a little help from an adult (no playing experience required). The program covers the rules of chess including castling and pawn promotion. The program also covers common ways to finish a game through draws and common checkmates such as ladder mates, back rank mates and smothered mates.
The story line of the program, told in cartoons, revolves around the efforts of two children, one the son of the White King, to answer a challenge presented by the Black King. The challenge is simple: to beat the Black King at chess. The two children journey from their castle through the countryside to the
Inside the Intelligym, an expanded set of basic chess concepts are both explained by the program’s audio track and displayed on a chessboard after clicking on objects like a punching bag or a window shade. This can be confusing, as there’s no apparent relationship between the objects and the lessons they take us to, but the lessons themselves are clear enough. Yet a third method of accessing the lessons is available through a "map" showing the route from the castle to the academy. Lesson labels on the map display have more logical textual descriptions of the topics covered.
For example, one training exercise, designed to teach Opposition, is accessed by clicking on the crown when first entering the Intelligym. The board is set up with each King on the opposite side of the board from his “throne” (his intended destination). To win the race to your throne you must take the Opposition and make the other King move around you. One of our parents wrote, “This exercise really got the concept across to my pre-K daughter. However, the introductory lesson for the same concept found along the journey using Sumo wrestlers was confusing to her.” Some players may react differently.
There are additional concepts and challenges grouped by skill level. A player who completes them successfully can win trophies for his or her “trophy cabinet.” They can also request a measurement on their “Chess-o-meter” to gauge whether they’re ready to move up to the next skill level or explore and play on their own.
The narrations are clear and thorough, but can’t be turned off, which could be annoying to older kids or those more familiar with chess. You can also play chess against some of the characters and vary their playing strength before you finally accept the challenge and play against the Black King.
ChessMagnetSchool.com is an internet-based program designed to train students ranging from beginners to players with ratings up to 1800. The program consists of more than 5000 lessons, exercises and puzzles on a wide range of subjects listed on its website. The lessons are grouped by playing strength. They focus briefly on the topic (e.g. Intermediate Forks) with a few explanatory screens and then display a series of puzzles. The lessons are focused and clear but lack the interactivity of Chessmaster and the depth of TLAK. Chessmagnetschool keeps track of the student’s progress through the lessons, creating incentives for learning.
Coaches can use the program to assign lessons to individual students or groups, a particularly useful feature for clubs with players of widely differing abilities. Lessons can be assigned in whatever order the coach chooses. Students can also advance and explore on their own. Although there is no audio track for the main lessons, there are audible cues, hints and feedback in the exercises. If students can’t find the solution, the program will display it.
The program also has a game module, allowing students to play against the computer and earn “Chess Magnet Ratings” generated by the system. The student can also take a test to generate such a rating and get a sense of their playing strength. The program does not allow students to play against each other. The program also contains a built-in chess engine allowing students and coaches to explore chess positions in depth.
A strength of the program is its diagnostic and evaluative tools, which allow coaches to monitor their students’ progress. The program keeps track of group statistics such as the number of students completing puzzles, the group’s error/completion ratio, and collective strengths and weaknesses (by topic). The system can also generate reports of a particular student’s performance down to the level of each exercise. The reports show details such as the number of attempts a student made at solving each puzzle, the time spent on each exercise, and the total time spent in an online session. Coaches can monitor their students’ progress whenever it is convenient for them, a significant plus for coaches with busy schedules. The assumption of the program is that coaches, after identifying weak spots in their students’ games, can then encourage particular students to repeat certain online lessons or focus on shared weaknesses in subsequent live lessons.
The website is relatively new, and coaches may differ on the value of its diagnostics. The program’s developers acknowledge that the diagnostics may not be sufficiently finely tuned to be uniformly helpful, and may provide only a general snapshot of students’ strengths and weaknesses. They are not a substitute for live observation of a student’s play.
ChessMagnetSchool.com costs $30 a year. There is a 10% discount for USCF members. The company offers a 30-day free trial.
Learn to Play Chess. Want just the basics? USCF and Chess Magnet School have collaborated on a free set of interactive online lessons on the moves and rules. The lessons include simple practice exercises, which are sufficient to get someone started. Tactics and strategy are not covered, but there’s a built-in simple game module. The site can be accessed through the USCF site (http://main.uschess.org/content/blogsection/19/28/) or the ChessMagnetSchool site (http://www.chessmagnetschool.com/learnchess.php.
The Internet Chess Club. Students can join the Internet Chess Club at www.chessclub.com for $30 per year. This web site allows them to do two helpful things. First, the student can log on 24x7 and challenge another player to a game. The site has so many members that there is always an opponent available, although they are mostly very strong players. As you play, the web site records the game for later review. These replays have enormous potential to help a player learn where a game got on or off track.
Second, the web site includes a number of training drills to learn how to handle common situations, such as achieving checkmate with only a queen and a king. These drills are great educational tools. The site can tell you the optimal number of moves to achieve checkmate, and you can measure yourself against that meter stick. (Under the Action menu, select Practice and Improve to see your choices.)
Rockfordchess.org, maintained by
The lessons are light, clear and entertaining. The site contains a particularly good set of handouts and flashcards for beginners. See http://rockfordchess.org/instruction/index.htm.
The first few pages of the book explain how the pieces move. Thereafter, each right-hand page of the book has a chess problem or puzzle that builds on the previous puzzles. When you turn the page, the next right-hand page offers a brief but clear explanation of the last puzzle, and then presents another. The early puzzles are easy, and most kids take pleasure in their ability to progress rapidly. They learn a little bit more on each page. Although the puzzles become increasingly complex, the book draws you in.
It seems odd at first that the material on the left-hand pages is upside down. When you reach the “end” of the book, however, you flip it upside down and start over. What used to be upside down on the left is now right side up on the right (and vice versa), and you’re presented with another set of puzzles. Kids like this unusual book design, and many are motivated to see how quickly they can flip the book.
We have not found any other chess books that are as engaging. Younger kids (grades K-3) with limited reading skills can get value from this book, but may need help from an adult. A surprising number of chess parents have read and enjoyed this book with their children. It’s available from Amazon and through many other booksellers for under $10.
Books by Jeremy Silman. Once a child masters the basics of chess, it’s time for them to begin the fun part – strategy and thinking! Silman has written a masterpiece to help the intermediate chess player develop into an advanced player. How to Reassess Your Chess teaches players how to make a game plan by understanding how to turn the imbalances on the chess board to their advantage. Silman teaches players how to recognize and use seven key imbalances: Superior Minor Piece, Pawn Structure, Space, Material, Control of a Key File or Square, Development and Initiative. One Illinois parent of a gifted player wrote that her son’s chess coach made the book required reading when her son was in 5th grade. “He diligently worked his way through it,” she wrote, “and his rating jumped 300 points!” Her son, now in 8th grade, believes the book taught him to “turn the smallest advantage into a win.” Silman uses humor and excellent examples to make his points.
A great follow-up book is The Reassess Your Chess Workbook, which allows the student to work through many puzzles to achieve mastery of chess imbalances. Also highly regarded is Silman’s Complete Endgame Course, which includes specific guidelines for each playing level from beginner through Master. We also recommend The Amateur’s Mind, which corrects common mistakes made by amateur players. Each of his books leaves us with the impression that we have seen the game through a different lens. Silman’s books are all available for under $20 on Amazon.
Chess! Lessons from a Grandmaster by Yury Shulman and Seth Rishi. Need a “go to” book for puzzles and positions to share with your chess club? Grandmaster Yury Shulman’s Chess! Lessons from a Grandmaster might do the trick. Shulman and his student, Rishi, have created a plan for teaching chess in 25 lessons. The opening chapters address the basics, including notation, how the pieces move, chess rules and opening principles. The middle chapters focus on tactics, including forks, pins, distraction, attraction and discovery. The closing chapters are geared toward intermediate players, focusing on properties of particular pieces, what makes a position strong or weak, coordinating pieces in an attack, and endgames. Each chapter ends with several pages of homework problems, with answers and explanations provided at the end of the book. The book concludes with an excellent chess glossary. From Bad Bishops to Ladder Checkmates to Zugzwang, Shulman teaches students the chess lingo necessary to discuss their game.
Shulman and Rishi’s work is the only program we know of that invites advanced scholastic players to become “certified” chess instructors. Those who complete the book submit the homework problems to Shulman, along with a log evidencing 20 hours of community service. Shulman then issues a “Certified Chess Instructor” certificate, intended to be a teaching credential for those wishing to teach younger players within a club or as private tutors. The book is available for $30 at www.shulmanchess.com.
Comprehensive Chess Course Volumes 1 & 2 (From beginner to advanced player in 24 lessons) by Roman Pelts and Lev Alburt. These are the first two in a highly-regarded series written two former Russian players and coaches. The books are based on the once-secret Russian training method which some believe explains the decades-long Russian dominance of the game at its highest levels. The entire series is designed to take a player to the Master level, but these two volumes have the potential, according to others, of getting a player to the 1600-1800 range. The first two volumes cost about $35 on Amazon.
Chess Training Program for Beginners by Susan Polgar. Ms. Polgar, a Grandmaster, has made her excellent beginners’ curriculum available as a free pdf (64 pages) available on this site. It contains 30 lessons which move around nicely between the basics, tactics, strategy, and many common endgames. The curriculum contains questions and exercises, and has a lively feel. It does not have a Table of Contents so it’s not ideal if you’re hoping to quickly find teaching material on a particular topic.
Highland Park Curriculum for Beginners and Intermediates. This is another free download (36 pages) that covers the basics described in the introduction to this section. It was designed to be used by new coaches who know how to play but need help in thinking out a reasonable sequence of topics and want help on the details. The curriculum provides content and board diagrams sufficient for 30 to 50 lessons. It is used by most coaches in
Ten Tips to Winning Chess by Arthur Bisguier. Want something shorter (13 pages) to get started? This classic, by a highly respected Grandmaster, can be downloaded from the USCF website (http://main.uschess.org/content/view/9111/28/) and covers the fundamentals.
Chess Tactics for Students by
Logical Chess Move by Move by Irving Chernev (Batsford Press, 2003). This book consists of a collection of 33 games played by many of the world’s top players, some dating as far back as 1889. As its title suggests, the book analyzes each move of each game in detail, and it does so superbly. It was originally published in 1957 with “descriptive” notation, now considered old-fashioned. But it stood the test of time, and was re-published (first in 1998) in modern algebraic notation. The writing is clear and entertaining, and the book has become a classic first book of annotated games. Game reviews constitute a crucial part of any chess player’s education, as only by looking at complete games can the player get a sense of the games’ ebbs and flows.
Studying these games will teach basic strategy, put tactics into context, and build calculation skills. It also helps answer the question, common for beginners, of what move to make when no good move seems apparent. It’s available for under $15 on Amazon.
How to Beat Your Dad at Chess by
Dan Heisman’s books, “Novice Nook” columns and videos. Heisman is another of the country’s top chess educators, an award winning author, journalist and lecturer. His many books get top ratings from readers on Amazon.com. He’s written a monthly chess column since 2001, twice named the best chess column in North America, on an enormous range of subjects, including not only traditional chess topics but also on the thought processes essential to being a strong player such as decision making, psychology, and time management. His columns are available in chronological order at http://www.chesscafe.com/archives/archives.htm#Novice%20Nook and are grouped by subject at http://danheisman.home.comcast.net/~danheisman/Articles/Novice_Nook_Links.htm#subjectorder.
Heisman is also a popular lecturer, and his videos appear on the website of the Internet Chess Club at http://www.chessclub.com/chessfm/index/heisman/index.html. You can review samples of most of his lectures for free, but need to join ICC to view them in their entirety.