1. My 60 Memorable Games
By Bobby Fischer
Simon & Schuster, 1969
The great chess books are great less for their prose style than for their insight into the application of highly controlled violence. “My 60 Memorable Games” was written while Bobby Fischer was still on his steep ascent to the world-champion title — and long before the slide into madness that ended with his death in January. He recounts his eviscerations of some of the most brilliant minds of the mid-20th century. But Fischer was never content with victory alone; he aimed to inflict agony on his opponents — in his own words, “I like the moment when I break a man’s ego.” Where did such ferocity come from? Fischer, who never knew his own father, once explained that “children who grow up without a parent become wolves.”
2. My Great Predecessors
By Garry Kasparov
Before Garry Kasparov ended his playing career in 2005 to battle for democracy in Russia, he was rightly considered to be the greatest grandmaster of all time. But here he humbles himself charmingly before giants such as world champions Wilhelm Steinitz (1836-1900) and José Raúl Capablanca (1888-1942). In this comprehensive study of grandmaster play — from the “Italian school” of the 16th century to our current postmodern synthesis — Kasparov aims to connect his forebears’ playing style with “the values of the society in which they lived and worked” and the “geopolitical reality” of their respective eras. The result is a work of unparalleled depth, spirit and ambition — it already stretches into five volumes, and a sixth is on the way.
3. Tal-Botvinnik, 1960
By Mikhail Tal
Russell Enterprises, 1970
How exactly do grandmasters think? Mikhail Tal’s account of his struggle for the world championship title nearly a half-century ago is not merely an analysis of 21 thrilling games. It is an intimate view of the chessboard fantasies of a supreme tactical genius. Tal (1936-92) was pitted against Mikhail Botvinnik (1911-95), the world’s foremost “scientific” player, the defending title-holder and the dean of the Soviet school of chess. In the resulting clash of styles, Tal prevailed by a convincing margin. His victory was a vindication of unfettered imagination and a demonstration that chess can be scientific only in the way that Soviet socialism was scientific, which is to say not at all.
4. My System
By Aron Nimzowitsch
Aron Nimzowitsch (1886-1935) described “My System” as a “chess manual” based “on entirely new principles.” His idea that pawn masses at the center of the board might be a liability — vulnerable to attack from the flanks — was revolutionary, toppling verities and generating fierce resistance. “The reward for my new ideas consisted of abuse,” he wrote bitterly, “or at best systematic silence.” Today, nearly a century later, he would delight to know that his “hypermodern” approach is widely accepted. But if Nimzowitsch’s “My System” aimed at rationalizing chess, as the title suggests, its premise was supremely romantic: “For me,” he wrote in a characteristic passage, “the passed pawn possesses a soul, just like a human being; it has unrecognized desires which slumber deep inside it and it has fears, the very existence of which it can but scarcely divine.”
5. Lasker’s Manual of Chess
By Emanuel Lasker
The German mathematician Emanuel Lasker (1868-1941) wrote in his “Manual of Chess” that the game “would be laughable, were it not so serious.” After decades of studying philosophy, he came to believe that truth could be found only in mathematics and chess. Of the contest of wills between two players manipulating 32 wooden pieces on 64 squares, he wrote: “Lies and hypocrisy do not survive long. The creative combination lays bare the presumption of a lie; the merciless fact, culminating in a checkmate, contradicts the hypocrite.” Lasker, a close friend of Albert Einstein’s, won the world championship in 1894 and held the title for 27 years, the longest reign so far.
Mr. Schoenfeld, the senior editor of Commentary, is a chess columnist for the New York Sun.