Chess history has always been special to us. History books may not make for the most instructive materials, but there’s never a bad moment to reach for one on the shelf. We just can’t have enough of chess’ stories in different times and places.
We are pleased to give you some of the best chess history books we know.
Whether you’re out to get more familiar with the game’s most remarkable figures, relive some of the most thrilling battles for the chess crown, or just spend a few moments relaxing, they are sure to give you countless hours of reading pleasure.
1. Jose Raul Capablanca - A Chess Biography by Miguel Sanchez
This is one of the very best chess biographies, and the gold standard others should be measured by. It covers the life of the great Cuban starting from the early 1890s, when chess grew popular in Cuba following the World Championship match between Wilhelm Steinitz and Mikhail Chigorin in Havana in 1892, up to his death in 1942.
It’s very comprehensive and contains all the relevant information and events in the life of Capablanca – his family, the political situation in Cuba between his birth and death, his schooling in the USA, marriage, chess career, and great contemporaries. His relationship and matches with Emanuel Lasker and Alexander Alekhine for the world championship are especially put to the lens.
The amount of work and research that went into this makes it an obvious labor of love. Its splendid translation from Spanish and novel-like flow, moreover, make it a must-have for every chess enthusiast.
2. The Kings of Chess by: William Hartston
This book’s aims to trace the history of chess through the lives of its greatest players, and how it succeeds! It’s a colorful telling of the lives and times of chess’ greatest figures, and an engrossing historical account as well of their respective eras, namely The Romantic Age, The Classical Age, and The Hypermodern Era.
Aside, of course, from bringing to life all the great players from Anderssen to Karpov, the book really shines in characterizing the understanding and treatment of chess throughout the five hundred years that it has come to its modern form.
There are plenty of trivia and details on the lives of the world champions, and much discussion of their influence to their period, and even to succeeding ones. That’s entertainment and chess education at the finest!
3. Learn From the World Champions by: Lars Bo Hansen
We have included this book in our list of the best middlegame books, but it’s such a cross between an instructional and a historical book that we have also included it here.
This book is similar to Kings of Chess, only that it focuses more on chess’ eras than its greatest players.
Hansen covers every era admirably, and presents the typical style of play in each one with plenty of illustrative games. He explains very well why eras moved from one to another, and how great players contributed to all these transitions.
It treats chess history more academically than The Kings of Chess, and naturally has less colorful sketches of great players. Hansen makes up for this with more instructive input.
Vladimir Kramnik believes studying chess history will do much for one’s game, and books like this prove his point. In particular, it will help you identify which schools of chess thought you can relate to, what playing style you are most comfortable with (Classical or Hypermodern), and who to pattern your play after among the chess greats. It will help you know yourself, in short, and that will go a long way towards chess improvement.
4. My Great Predecessors Vol. 1-5 by: Garry Kasparov
Garry Kasparov’s sweeping account of chess history complements magnificently his achievements as a world champion.
The set are five of the very best books anyone can have both as a historical and instructional material for several reasons.
First, its scope is simply breathtaking, covering as it does all the great players since the time chess came to its modern form. While it focuses on the world champions, every other player deserving tribute is given his fair share of sample games.
Volume 1, for example, covers not only the first four world champions in Steinitz, Lasker, Capablanca, and Alekhine, but also significant players of the 19th to 20th century in Pillsbury, Tarrasch, Nimzovitsch, and Rubinstein.
Second, the quality of the annotations is very high, which reflects Kasparov’s meticulousness and attention to detail. Kasparov usually gives the correct continuation in critical points, but these aren’t too dense as to be above the average player.
The effort to annotate hundreds of games in the series this way is baffling. Anyone diligent and willing enough to commit the time to plow through these five books will surely raise his rating by many points.
Third, they are as entertaining as any history book there is. Even if you choose to read them as a historical material and leave the games aside, they won’t be any less the great books that they are.
These books are sure to come down as monumental works in chess literature, so be sure to have them in your library.
5. Chess Secrets I Learned From the Masters by: Edward Lasker
This classic autobiography of Edward Lasker (namesake of the great Emanuel) fed the imagination of generations of chess players after its release in 1951.
Lasker was a strong German master of the early 20th century. In this book, he traces his fifty-year career and shares his encounters with the who’s who of his time.
Lasker the world champion, Capablanca, Alekhine, Rubinstein, Nimzovitsch, Tarrasch, Marshall, Schlechter and all the other greats are here, all told in very warm and memorable anecdotes.
To boot, it has illustrations of them by the artist Kenneth Stubbs that have become lasting images of these masters. This has no earth-shattering theory, and its games are clearly dated in their descriptive notations, but few can come close to it for leisurely, enlightening reading.
This book may have been responsible more than any other for imprinting great players in the minds of many adoring, aspiring chess players. See, for example, his recollection of the great Harry Pillsbury:
“But soon it became evident that I would have lost my game even if I had been in the calmest of moods. Pillsbury gave a marvelous performance, winning thirteen of the sixteen blindfold games, drawing two, and losing only one. He played strong chess and made no mistakes. The picture of Pillsbury sitting calmly in a chair, with his back to the players, smoking one cigar after another, and replying to his opponent’s moves after brief consideration in a clear, unhesitating manner, came back to my mind thirty years later, when I refereed Alekhine’s world record performance at the Chicago World’s Fair, where he played thirty-two blindfold games simultaneously. It was an astounding demonstration, but Alekhine made quite a number of mistakes, and his performance did not impress me half so much as Pillsbury’s in Breslau.”
If passages like that can’t stoke your imagination and inspire you to be a good chess player yourself, then perhaps any other book hardly will.
6. Soviet Chess 1917-1991 by: Andrew Soltis
A book that is the equal of Sanchez’s biography of Capablanca in terms of breadth and scholarship.
Soltis traces the development of Soviet Union chess from the Bolshevik Revolution to the last decade of the 20th century, when it had been firmly established as a modern day powerhouse.
Everything in between is strikingly presented, with the Soviets first resolving to prove themselves superior at the game for propaganda purposes, then organizing a strong national chess program under the leadership of Nikolai Krylenko, arranging their first international event, then finally producing players as strong as Mikhail Botvinnik.
Soviet chess was partly glorious when talents like Riumin and Levenfish – non-world champions who could give Botvinnik a run for his money – abounded. But it’s partly dark, too, when so many of its strong players were lost in the war against the Nazis and Stalin’s own purges.
Russia has been said to have its own school of chess, but Boris Spassky rejected this when he said: “The Soviet school of chess means playing every game as if it is the last game of your life.” Leaving historical maters aside, that statement may well be the whole chess flavor of this book, because when the Soviets fought, they fought hard on the board.
Soviet chess is history by itself, and this book must be on your shelf.
7. From Morphy to Fischer By Al Horowitz or The Big Book of World Chess Championships By Andre Shultz
These are two books of the same purpose, and even of the same presentation.
One of the first books to give a comprehensive account of the world championship matches was Al Horowitz’s From Morphy to Fischer. Andre Shultz’s The Big Book of World Chess Championships follows in this mold, albeit it’s more modern, covering as it does the 21st century matches and laying the games in algebraic notation.
Both authors follow the format of introducing the combatants, the challenger’s rise to the championship, and the pre-conditions and negotiations that sealed the match. They then encapsulate the matches by explaining important points and presenting critical games.
Aside from the engrossing accounts of the world championship matches, these books serve as basic texts for knowing by heart the matches for chess’ highest crown. Who were the world champions? Who succeeded one or the other? By what score did this champion win the match? Where and when did they take the title? Every serious chess player should know the answers, and they must know the answers before they can consider themselves so.
These are the books that give real chess players impressive knowledge, and two that shouldn’t be missed.
8. Chess Secrets: Giants of Innovation By Craig Pritchett
In this book, Pritchett presents five of his greatest innovators in chess. It’s not technically a history book, but Pritchett’s choices stand more than a hundred years apart that it passes off as one. Wilhelm Steinitz was an innovator in his own time, and so were Emanuel Lasker, Mikhail Botvinnik, Viktor Korchnoi, and Vassily Ivanchuk today.
Pritchett’s theme is nothing new, and many other books before have surely laid the same claims. What brings his book to this list then?
Well, it’s for the simple fact that Pritchett is an outstanding writer. Something about his prose is grand, but very clear. Sure, he-only re-stresses Steinitz contributions to chess, but he does so in a beautiful way that you have to read more than a few times his take on his five subjects.
Apart from teaching innovation through these five players, the book exemplifies what a well written one should be. It will serve players who aspire to become chess writers, or just about anyone who appreciates that both chess and books on it can be very beautiful.
Our list ends here, but everyone knows that the history of chess is a continuing story. For sure, there will be plenty of books of the kind that will regale us in the coming years.