Grandmaster and top-notch commentator Maurice Ashley's new book from Gambit publishing, The Most Valuable Skills in Chess, is an original take on a book for absolute beginners. While Ashley assumes some knowledge of the rules, he explains the elements of tactical play through a variety of inventive exercises and methods drawn from his teaching experience.
Ashley says he has a unique approach and in this department he does not disappoint. He has a number of interesting exercises, like visualizing "landmines" or "finding the crossing points." Better yet, Ashley is great at reconceptualizing chess basics. The TRIP method of defense, for example, is a handy way for beginners to remember how to meet a threat: Take, Run, Interpose, or Protect. He also extends the standard idea of thinking of piece values in terms of money by suggesting readers understand the fluid value of pieces as something more akin to the stock market. A pawn might only be worth $1 in some positions, but on the seventh rank its value skyrockets. And that powerful bishop? Reconfigure the central pawns and its stock could tank. Ashley's approach is refreshing, but he does make some surprising decisions. Piece values are ignored until the fourth chapter. Furthermore his emphasis on the absolute basics of tactics, as opposed to the more traditional focus on first principles in beginner books (development, central control, etc.), seems a little strange, but that might be my conservative teaching style talking.
Ashley ends with "The Fabulous Five," a collection of beginner-friendly classics. Most of the choices here aren't surprising, Ashley presents Byrne-Fischer, Morphy vs. the Count and the Duke, and a couple other natural choices. Nevertheless, the commentary is well written and classic games circulate widely for an obvious reason: they're instructive. Also, I've got to give Ashley credit for including one of my absolute favorites, Boris Spassky's obliteration of Bent Larsen following the Dane's provocative 1.b3.
Ashley's book is excellent, but it did raise a broader question: how useful are chess books for beginners? When I was first learning how to play, I didn't even know people bothered to write books about chess. As a sixth grader, I learned the basics of tactical play over the board. Careless moves were met with emphatic captures. Slowly, I learned to be more careful. This is the best way to learn. That being said, if both players are absolute beginners, this process can be extremely slow and directionless, which is why the other key for a beginner is to learn from better players. The more you play and talk with other people the quicker you'll improve. I've learned a lot more from my chess friends than all of my books combined.
Now, where does my little aside leave us? Chess books are good for beginners, and Maurice Ashley's book is an example of how a beginner book can be done very well. However, I do think that books should always be an accessory rather than the center of a beginner's development. Ashley's exercises, for example, are perfect for parents to practice with children. In fact, Ashley's book would work beautifully for learning to play chess along with your child. Alternatively, if you're an adult learning the game but don't have a strong community of chess players around you, the best thing you can do--other than participating actively on chessvideos.tv (SHAMELESS plug!)--is reading a high quality beginning chess book like Maurice Ashley's The Most Valuable Skills in Chess.