It is said that more books have been written about chess than about all other games combined. I don't suppose anyone has ever attempted to count them but it is a very plausible (if useless) piece of information. As a young man, I found it impossible to afford all the new chess books I wanted to add to my library. The world's largest private collection is that of the German grandmaster Lothar Schmid, which is thought to contain around 20,000 chess books.
I console myself that quality is what counts, rather than quantity. There are a small number of truly great books and a great deal of second-rate, often ghost-written dross. Chess fans have long parted with their money for manuals said to have been written by X, but which have merely been signed off by the great man.
What follows is my own list of recommendations of pure gold — books which no chess library should be without. Since there are six members of the army of chess pieces, that is the length of my list.
First — and the most obvious — is the only book genuinely by the late Bobby Fischer, My 60 Memorable Games (Batsford), which, exceptionally, contains three of his losses — and in the notes to all the games he is laceratingly self-critical. "I simply underestimated the force of Tal's reply", "I already knew I'd been outplayed", "I offered a draw, afraid he wouldn't accept" are the sort of remarks that crop up throughout these marvellous annotations. They give a clue to Fischer's sporting greatness: the players who understand their own failings and address them honestly have the greatest capacity for objectivity and therefore self-improvement. Thus, Fischer opens his book with a quote from Emanuel Lasker: "On the chessboard lies and hypocrisy do not survive long. The creative combination lays bare the presumption of a lie; the merciless fact, culminating in a checkmate, contradicts the hypocrite."
If there were a title for the most compelling writer among the chess elite, it should have been awarded to David Bronstein, who died six years ago at the age of 82. He failed to become world champion by the narrowest of margins: in his 1951 challenge against Mikhail Botvinnik, he was leading the so-called "father of Soviet chess" with just two games to go, but somehow failed to close the match out. Some speculated that he had been made to throw the title — he was Jewish, Stalin had sent his father to the Gulag, so he was not the Soviets' ideal champion.
Yet Bronstein's legacy as an author remains supreme. Although his most famous work, The Chess Struggle in Practice (David Mckay), is justly regarded as the greatest of all tournament books, my personal favourite is the much less well-known 200 Open Games (Dover). As the title suggests, these are 200 examples of games by Bronstein beginning with the moves 1.e4 e5. Within that arbitrary limitation, he weaves a gloriously rich tale of a lifetime's creativity, combined with a wonderful sense of humour. Like Fischer, Bronstein includes a number of his defeats, including this one, playing Black against the future world champion Boris Spassky in 1960: the astonishing final combination gained a peculiar fame when it appeared in From Russia with Love.