In a Nutshell

Chess Lessons or by the Book?

by on Jul.14, 2016, under Chess

By the chess tutor and author in Utah: Jonathan Whitcomb


Whether you decide to take private chess lessons from a tutor or just study from one or more books, one proven method of improving your game is this: Concentrate on actual chess games against one or more worthy opponents. How critically important is that little detail of practicing what you learn!

Do you play so badly that your house cat beats you? Keep concentrating and learn from your mistakes. Soon you’ll beat that cat and prove yourself worthy of human competition.

Jonathan Whitcomb in Pasadena, California, in the 1960's

Me (Jonathan Whitcomb) as a teenager in the 1960’s

I’m now a much better chess player and the cat is dead

We can learn something from that, surely . . . something

Learn Chess Through Books

I improved my chess through practice in actual games and by reading chess books. I won the 1966 Pasadena (California) Chess Club Junior Championship with a perfect 4-0 score, but I studied and practiced for years before getting to that point.

You can also learn from chess books and from playing against worthy opponents, but be aware that major improvement, giving you first place in a tournament, will probably take years, possibly many years. The road to winning a chess tournament is usually a long road if you depend on chess books and never have any private lessons from a tutor. I know that from experience over a period of decades.

Why is progress so difficult with only studying from chess books? It’s not always so, and we’ll soon look at an exception, but in general it’s this: The author of the book you stare at has no idea exactly where you stand at the moment in your chess abilities. And since you are the student, how can you figure out what you most need to learn at the moment?

Before showing an example of the challenge of learning from chess books, please let me promote my own publication: Beat That Kid in Chess. Why is this an exception? I wrote is specifically for the raw beginner, the novice who knows the rules of chess but almost nothing else about how to play. In other words, my chess book works best for the player who has not yet won a game, not that the competition is fierce but that he or she has no idea what moves to make on the board.

Giving yourself, or someone else, a copy of Beat That Kid in Chess is like giving a car, and the car keys, to someone who might eventually drive across the country in that vehicle. (Knowing the rules of chess is like knowing how to drive.) My book is more than just the owner’s manual, however, telling you about the periodic vehicle maintenance schedule and about how to use Bluetooth with your cell phone while driving.

Beat That Kid in Chess is also like a small road map of your neighborhood, showing you how to safely get to and from the nearest supermarket while avoiding the more dangerous intersections. It also has something like the directions to the nearest freeway, although you’ll eventually need a much more substantial collection of maps to get you across North America while enjoying many tourist attractions.

By the way, becoming a grandmaster can be compared to becoming a working biologist. After graduation, you can drive through your neighborhood, get onto the nearest freeway, and eventually get to Yellowstone National Park. There you’ll hike deep into a remote forest where you’ll study the behavior of the local wildlife, with a deep knowledge and understanding that you already obtained from your lengthy education in biology. You’ll also have spent much time getting the exercise necessary to make it possible for you to make that long hike.

"Beat That Kid in Chess" paperback book by Whitcomb

Beat That Kid in Chess – The book for the beginner

Now for the example of how chess books can fail. I won’t mention names, but I know of a man, living in the Western USA, who got some practice in playing in his chess club (but probably not nearly as often as once every week). He also got a few chess books from a particular grandmaster-author. That’s when he went astray.

The man loved general principles of strategy, the kind of perspectives that grandmaster excel at. He had some success, at least in some of his games at his chess club. But then he started teaching (using an online medium that I will not mention—I don’t want to reveal his identity.) He became almost a celebrity, in his narrow field of chess education, using his enthusiasm to correctly explain principles of competition and strategy. What’s wrong with that? Most of what he said was true, in those generalities about playing and winning chess games.

Yet he took the position of an American football coach who has never played football outside his childhood backyard. He became popular in teaching in his online medium, and he won some of the games he played at this chess club, so what was the problem? He tried to pole vault to the top of a ladder that was much higher than he had anticipated. He should have climbed up that ladder one step at a time.

After his successes in publicizing his teachings about winning chess games, he entered a small tournament. As I recall, not one of the players was a master, and experts (if any) were few. Yet the man who had enjoyed so much success in apparently teaching others how to win at chess, the man who had learned so much about advanced strategy—that man did very poorly in the tournament. As I recall, he won only one game but lost many.

Learn Chess With a Tutor

I’m a chess instructor, living in the Salt Lake Valley of Utah. I know something of how the beginner and the post-novice and the moderately-advanced player, can benefit from chess lessons. It begins with tactics, NOT strategy.

The man who went astray in the study of strategy first, that man who did so poorly in his first tournament—he had not taken the first steps up the ladder, those critically important steps of learning and practicing tactics in the simplest perspective.

Chess lessons from the right tutor can get right to the point: where you now stand in your tactics. Don’t throw away a piece or pawn without compensation, and take advantage of your opponent’s blunders in giving away a piece or a pawn. Tactical motifs like the knight fork and the pin—those can come soon thereafter.

If you live in or near the Salt Lake Valley of Utah, get in touch with me to talk about chess lessons. You can call me at 801-590-9692 or send me an email.



Learning Chess by a Book or by Private Lessons

Just as an enjoyable sport can give your body physical exercise, the enjoyment of a game of chess can give your brain exercise. [For improving your game, between practicing in actual chess competition, private lessons can be the best way to go.]

Salt Lake Chess Tutor Lessons

The chess-book author Jonathan Whitcomb, of Murray, Utah, is now offering a new method of chess instruction in private lessons in the Salt Lake Valley.

Chess Books for Beginners

A brief search on Amazon, for chess books, can give one the impression that there’s an unlimited number of them, including publications for novices. The following are a few of the available chess books for beginners.

Best chess book for many beginners

For a teenager or adult who knows the rules of chess but little else, the choice may be easy: the new book Beat That Kid in Chess [even though the cover and title seem to suggest this chess book is for children]


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