Chess Book Face Off: Best Lessons of a Chess Coach Vs. Pandolfini's Endgame Course

In my recent efforts to continue to improve at chess, I've read through a couple more books on the subject. As always, I read books in pairs so that I can get multiple perspectives on a topic and learn it more thoroughly. Sometimes the books cover nearly the same material, and other times—like in this case—the books are only loosely related. The first book is Best Lessons of a Chess Coach by Sunil Weeramantry, a FIDE Master and highly successful chess coach. This book is the kind of book that explains a handful of games in intimate detail. The second book is Pandolfini's Endgame Course by Bruce Pandolfini, a USCF National Master and a more famous highly successful chess coach. Being a book about endgames, it does not go through full games, but contains an extensive collection of endgame positions to study. So both books were written by accomplished chess masters and coaches, meaning they have at least that in common.

Best Lessons of a Chess Coach front coverVS.Pandolfini's Endgame Course front cover

Best Lessons of a Chess Coach

This book is set up with one game per chapter, and Weeramantry discusses the game in detail, going through nearly every move and analyzing what the best move should be in each position. He doesn't do this in the normal way of straight prose following each move listing, though. He presents the analysis in the form of questions and answers with a hypothetical student. He poses questions to the student, and the student answers, mostly incorrectly or partially correct at first, before coming around to a better answer. Through this dialog the reader gets a better understanding of why some moves in a given position are bad and other moves are better because they address the essence of the position.

This back-and-forth dialog was a little weird at first, but it actually became quite entertaining and started to flow nicely once I got more comfortable with the rhythm of the lessons. Numerous variations are explored in each game, discussing why certain lines are more desirable for one side or the other, or why various tempting moves would really not be a great idea to play. A diagram is presented every few moves, making it easy to follow along with only the book and forgoing a board or chess program to play through the games. The board diagrams were also some of the clearest, most visually appealing diagrams I think I've seen in a chess book. The pieces are bold and easy to see while the squares are just the right shading to be there but not overwhelming. The printing was extremely consistent, too, which, oddly enough, seems to be a recurring problem with other chess books.

Each lesson also had a few questions for the reader, with answers at the end of the chapter along with review lists of the important ideas of the lesson and some supplemental games that display those same ideas as the main lesson game. Between the generous diagrams and the concise dialog, the book was a quick read, and I flew through it in a few days, reading two or three chapters in a sitting. The lessons were great, and they covered all of the things you would expect from a beginner-to-intermediate chess book. Development, space, good and bad bishops, pawn structure, knight outposts, it's all there in ten easy lessons, presented in a clean, understandable way. Even though I had pretty much read all of these ideas before in Yasser Seirawan's Winning Chess series, it's always good to review and study them over and over again with as many perspectives as possible. If I could just learn and understand these concepts more fully, I could greatly improve my chess ability. Of course, that's easier said than done.

The book had a definite progression, and the concepts got more difficult in the later lesson. The diagrams got a little more sparse later on, too. This is a good thing, and I like how the difficulty ramped up through the book. It felt like just the right increase in complexity from the first, noticeably easy lesson to the more difficult final lesson. Expecting the reader to visualize more of the moves between diagrams in the later lessons was a great thing as well because it's so important to develop that chess vision to be able to see lines in your head while you're playing. The challenge of keeping all of the pieces straight in your head between diagrams or when considering alternate lines was quite satisfying and great practice.

One thing that was slightly annoying throughout the book was the number of Weeramantry's games that were used for the lessons where he was the winning player. Fully seven of the ten main games were his with only one draw (the last one) and one loss on time, but with a winning position. The supplemental games contained another six Weeramantry wins. It's fine to show some personal games that were won, but it's also nice to see how to analyze games that were lost, where you have to take a hard look at why you messed up and try to find where you lost the thread. It's a hard thing to do, but so valuable if you're going to improve. It would have been nice to see more of this in the lessons, and I think the same type of instruction could have been done even while including some actual losses to discuss.

Having said that, all of the games chosen were quite interesting and did a great job of showcasing the ideas that Weeramantry was trying to get across. My favorite game was the one from the fifth lesson between Louis Paulsen and Paul Morphy. The final route was so complex and beautiful, I sat and pondered the different possible mates for a good twenty minutes or so. Here's the full game. The fireworks really get going at move 17 with black's queen sacrifice:

This game shows why it's a good idea to develop all of your pieces before attacking, something Morphy was especially good at. By the 19th move, he already has a nice mating threat with 20.... Bg2 21.Kg1 Bxf3 mate. The defense of 20.Rg1 is not enough because Morphy then has two mate possibilities: 20.... Rxg1 21. Kxg1 Re1+ 22.Qf1 Rxf1# and 20.... Bg2+ 21.Rxg2 Re1+ 22. Rg1 Rexg1#. White needed a better defense and played 20.Rd1. Morphy still had a significant advantage, but he missed a quicker mate on black's 22nd move, with 22.... Rg2 23.Qc4 Rxf2+ 24.Kg1 Rg2+ 25.Kh1 Rge2#. He went on to win sufficient material anyway, or at least the threat of it. In the final position the continuation would have been 29.Rf2 Rxf2 30.Bxe3 Rfxh2+ 31.Kg1 Rh1+ 32.Kf2 Rxa1, with white giving up both rooks for the bishop to avoid a mate in two: 29.Bxe3 Rhxh2+ 30.Kg1 Reg2#. It was quite the flashy game that I thoroughly enjoyed, much like the rest of the book. I would highly recommend it as a pleasant chess read that will teach the advanced beginner to intermediate player valuable concepts in an approachable way.

Pandolfini's Endgame Course

This endgame book has a pretty unique structure. Each page presents a position. That position has a title that gives a subtle hint for how to go about solving it. It also says whether the best play will result in a win for white or a draw. Below the position is a discussion about how to play the position, and finally, the best line to reach the result is shown. Because each position is contained on a single page, (very rarely the discussion and solution spilled onto a second page) and they were all endgame positions with only a few pieces, it was fairly straightforward to think about the position and follow the discussion without a board or computer program to play along while reading.

As I worked through the book, I attempted to solve each position for myself before reading the discussion and the best line. I found this method to be a great way to study the positions and learn as much as I could as I went through the book. Any positions that I struggled with or failed to solve, I noted in a spreadsheet so I could easily copy the positions into a chess program and play them against a chess engine at the strongest level to get extra practice. The large collection of positions—239 in all, although some built on each other—would make it a bit tedious to go through multiple times, but pulling out the troublesome positions to review and improve on is a great way to keep getting benefits from the book after finishing it.

The one downside to Pandolfini's Endgame Course is that it is riddled with errors. There are incorrect board positions that don't match the discussions, positions are wrongly labeled as draws when they should be wins or vice versa, and incorrect moves are listed all over the place. There was one position where the king was listed as moving to the same square two moves in a row, and there was even a move listed in one discussion as Rk1 when there wasn't even a rook in the position and such a square does not exist. In most cases the errors were obvious and could be worked around, but I was astonished at how poorly checked the book seemed to be. In the end the positions are the most important part and having so many to work with is great, but the error rate was kind of unnerving.

The positions are split up into logical sections and chapters, starting out with elementary mates like queen and king vs. king and heavy pieces vs. minor pieces, then moving on to various one and two pawn endgames, and finishing up with a variety of pieces and pawn endgames. Within each chapter the positions start out simple and get progressively more difficult. It was all set up with a nice learning curve that kept things interesting without throwing impossibly difficult positions at you. In fact, I would say the difficulty level was kept reasonable throughout the book, and there were no master-level positions like there were in Chess Endings: Essential Knowledge. It's just the right range of difficulties for the level of chess player that the book is meant for, without trying to over-extend itself.

Before closing, here are a couple positions that I found especially interesting. First, this position has two solutions for the shortest mate in 6, even though the book only discusses one. I found the other one before reading the solution and had to verify that my idea was still valid:

This position is great for showing how to peal the king away from its rook so that you can remove the rook from the board and go in for checkmate. The line shown in the book is equally valid, with the double threat of mate and winning the rook happening on b5 instead of b6:

There's also a pin thrown in for good measure. On the other extreme, I especially liked the pawn endgames. I found it fascinating how seemingly drawish positions were actually completely won when the player with the advantage played the right moves. Outflanking the opponent was especially satisfying because it gives the sensation of completely controlling the other player with no hope of their success. They're just hanging on for dear life, like in this position:

Even though black is up a pawn and closer to his pawns, he is completely lost. He can't get around to white's pawns in time, and his own h6 pawn is in the way so that he is destined to lose the opposition on his next turn. After that, there is no stopping white from maneuvering along the h-file and gobbling up all of black's pawns before queening his own e4 pawn.

The book is full of highly instructional positions like these, and it was a lot of fun to try to figure them all out. Even with the frequent errors, it was definitely worthwhile to study the positions presented here, and I feel like my endgame play has strengthened considerably as a result.

I feel like both of these books were excellent for anyone around the level 1200-1500, and I expect to see my play improve considerably as I absorb the lessons I've learned. They are very different books to be sure, with Best Lessons of a Chess Coach formatted as a series of lessons taught from full games and Pandolfini's Endgame Course as a large collection of endgame problems, but that's the beauty of chess books. The best ones are each unique in their own way, and it's great to learn from a wide variety of different styles. Each style will teach you something new, and constantly changing things up keeps the studying interesting.

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