Sergey Ivashchenko et al: Chess School 1–3
If you know anyone who plays the board game Go, try asking them, “Hey, I learned the rules, I’ve played a bit, and I want to improve; can you recommend a good book?” I will lay even money that they will say, “Go this minute and read Graded Go Problems for Beginners.” GGP is a series of four books containing nothing but hundreds of problems (here’s a position, find the best move) and brief answers. Volume 1 starts with problems that basically just test if you know the rules, and by the time you eventually get through Volume 4 (I can’t, yet), you’re probably a dan player, or expert. You’re led through every basic tactical technique along the way; there’s no more efficient way to improve your game.
While there are tons of chess problem books, I’ve never been able to find a good GGP equivalent. The books are usually either aimed only at beginners, or only at experts, or mix up a bunch of problems of wildly different difficulty in order to keep you on your toes. But with Chess School I’ve finally found it: a graded problem book series that starts from square one, ends at square sixty-four, and covers every basic tactical technique. They were originally made for teaching Soviet children, and it’s hard to argue with those results.
There are four volumes, but Chess School 4 is an endgame collection; 1–3 are the real meat of it (to further confuse things, Volume 1 has been split up into 1a and 1b in this edition, and they’re sold separately). Volume 1 starts with mate-in-one problems and ends 1300 positions later with problems that I have to think about and sometimes get wrong (I’m rated 1800, for reference). Volume 2 is really the sweet spot for me. When I was taking chess lessons my teacher would give me homework problems from Volume 3, among other sources, and I’d rack my brains over them for a week; a master could still benefit from working through it.
If you want to improve your chess game and are rated below 2000 or so, there’s no better way than by studying tactics. And if you’re studying tactics, it’s hard for me to make a higher recommendation than these books. It’s not a complete chess course — you’ll need to learn about openings and endgames and strategy elsewhere — but it’s a great foundation.
(Unfortunately, these books can be kind of hard to find in the US. I’ve had good experiences with Chess Books From Europe.)