Saturday, September 27, 2008

Michael Basman's "Chess for Kids": Book Review.

My nearly-teenaged son's embarrassed by the title when I've carried it in public to study, but he and I have managed to learn (some of) the basics with ease thanks to the clear illustrations, concise explanations, and large format. As with any Dorling Kindersley book, it's attractively designed. Like Daniel King's "Chess" primer (reviewed by me recently here), the graphics can be seen from a distance, which assists you when you follow the moves on a board. It can be laid open for study, and unlike small paperbound introductions, this advantage-- while it may mean less detailed information given the oversized layout can be transmitted to the eye-- invites the hesitant or impatient beginner to try out the strategies.

Basman's prose favors terseness, but he teaches you with memorable metaphors that follow the military inspiration of the game. "The power of the mind-- the avenue to success in business and study-- is awakened, developed, and strengthened by chess." (8) Castling "moves your king to safety, almost as though he is in a real castle." (22) Pawns, knights, and bishops enter early as a "light brigade;" rooks move like two tanks with the queen as a "rocket launcher."

He gives five easy rules for openings, diagrams to understand capturing and value, recapturing, safe and safe-enough moves, and a mental checklist to use before moves. Pins and forks with a simple diagram and a paragraph become comprehensible by the colored squares the photos add to show moves. These are readable and concise. Not only endgames and defensive moves and counterattacks but notably draws earn attention.

There's minimal space devoted to the history and lore; this focuses more on the tactics. Each piece receives a page that shows how it moves and also how it captures. Simple exercises invite you to practice what's been shown. I do find that notation tends in beginner's guides to be taught quickly, and while the basics upon reflection do prove obvious, Basman's book encourages the reader to continue writing the notation and following sample games with a board to supplement the book's directions.

DK's style may emphasize the pictorial over the textual, but for chess, this stress does match the necessity for one to begin as soon as possible to visualize the action. This directness may, however, be a weakness for rapid learners, who I reckon will outgrow much of this book quickly. As I mentioned earlier, the pace moves fast here, and King's text may please learners at a slightly more advanced level. Basman's book's suited for a casual first-timer, and certainly a long shelf of intermediate books can follow once the learner's grasped the basics here.

The text also adds a short glossary, a few websites, and addresses for chess federations that eager players may want to visit to expand their competence. While's there's not as much depth given to the context and culture of chess, the diagrams do draw your eye to the conflicts diagrammed and this visual concentration does match the large-format DK design well. It's probably also more widely distributed in bookstores than more specialized (if probably more profound) texts, available for quick purchase for not only kids but grown-ups wishing (like me) to learn, whatever one's age, this bracing and imaginative pursuit.
(Posted to Amazon US today.)

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