Skip Navigation Links
MACA Chess Horizons Magazine Article
 Book Review: John Herron, Total Chess: Learn, Teach, and Play the Easy 1-2-3 Way
 Nicholas P. Sterling, Ph.D.
  November 2011

When I first learned how to play chess in my early teens, I grew up on David Pritchard’s Begin Chess (the original small paperback edition with the frail paper and the wooden yellow and brown chess pieces on the front cover). Poring through page after page hungrily, I memorized paragraph after paragraph of the stuffy British text (“defence” spelled with a “c”), the descriptive notation (“Kt” equaled “Knight” and “P” equaled “Pawn”), and the tiny too-dark 4 x 4 diagrams. I worshiped this book as my chess Bible. Not surprisingly, long after I ceased to own that book (having sold it to a Providence bookstore), I relied on what I could remember of its lesson outline – rules, tactics, strategy, scorekeeping, openings, endings, what’s next? – to teach with. 

Now, however, the time has come, as I expand my chess teaching to nine different classes plus some private students, for me to upgrade to a new manual. I need a far more organized and comprehensive primer with full-size diagrams and deeper analysis, while still keeping some sort of lesson plan in place.
Enter John Herron’s Total Chess: Learn, Teach and Play the Easy 1-2-3 Way (2011, Hair-Ball Publishing, MI) which Herron introduces up front as “your complete guide to chess.” A complete guide it is. The book is divided into six sections: Rules, Openings, Midgame, Endgame, Tactics, and Checkmates – pretty similar to Begin Chess. But in the details of these six sections, this chess guide jumps light years ahead of my old Bible.
After an overview of basic rules, Herron provides a really helpful Teacher’s Guide, breaking down the lessons into three levels – Beginning, Intermediate, and Advanced – and three game phases – Opening, Middle-game, and Endgame. Each set of lessons is supplemented with a series of Practice Drills. Because Herron divides each section into subsections (numbered 1.1.1, for instance), and labels each subsection with its own separate heading, he can conveniently rearrange them to fi t meaningfully into any of his three lessons plans. For instance, Beginner Lessons start off: (1) 1.1. Setup, Moves, Values; 1.2.1. Chess Notation; 1.5. Thinking, Playing, Sportsmanship. These will be great for me - invaluable aids for organizing lessons for my own students.
Each subdivision opens with one or more opening paragraphs to introduce its topic, followed by defi nitions of relevant terms or principles (highlighted in bold type or ALL CAPS) where applicable. Many subdivisions also have two or three pages of illustrative diagrams with analytical captions, lined up in two columns. The book is so convenient to use with this setup that one could just fl ip through, fi nd some random topic, and see a whole lot of example diagrams right there in front of one’s eyes. So it’s a quick reference, or a full course textbook – it’s that fl exible.
Total Chess has an attractive green-and-white checked cover with red and dark blue title lettering; the text is sans-serif font, and the paragraphs are single space. The layout of the paragraphs makes them easy to follow, and the spacing of the diagrams makes them easy to refer to. One quibble, though, comes from the diagram captions: they are printed in a tall and narrow font that is hard on the eyes, and the overall visual effect of the diagrams is to make those pages look rather overcrowded.
Herron’s writing style is crisp, his explanations simple and straight to the point. Some principles he claims, such as about bishops and knights in open and closed positions, might give pause to readers of John Watson’s Secrets of Modern Chess Strategy. However, most of Herron’s claims are basic and fundamental enough to be essentially beyond dispute.
His selection of illustrative material is highly informative, particularly in his methodical illustration of different types of middle-game tactics and endgame categories (though how often his illustrative positions are likely to come up in over-the-board play remains an open question). I also appreciate his use of multiple move-by-move diagrams to illustrate especially pertinent or seminal positions, such as B-and-N checkmates, some basic K-and-P endgames, and particularly fascinating middle-game positions, such as those involving Queen sacrifices. Considering the vast quantity of possible examples he could have chosen, Herron has done fair justice to middle-games and endgames at an introductory level.
It’s with Openings, however, where I have some problems with Herron’s approach. Herron goes through Opening Strategy, Plans, Mistakes, and Pawn Centers well enough, to introduce the concepts to beginners. Then come a few pages of Opening Traps, seemingly worth knowing for intermediates (I myself have fallen into the Budapest 9. … Nd3#, I admit with an abashed grin on my face), but confi ned to a few positions per lesson. They are going to take a while to go through, it would appear. Then there come Opening Battles, or so-called “fi reworks”, all exciting stuff, to be sure. But when I see that these are to be divided into three separate Intermediate lessons, I’m starting to question how much time, at that level, should be spent on all these nonstandard sequences of play. Then we fi nally come to Opening Systems in 2.7, a so-called “Advanced” Lesson. But the subsections merely list a few scattered main-line variations and treat each opening with a mere summary sentence. Furthermore, whole extra variations (for instance, 2. … e6 and 2. … Nc6 in the Sicilian) are ignored completely. This hardly gives “Advanced” students enough credit. If a student asks, “But what if White (or Black) plays this?”, is this quick sketch going to help? For openings, I feel I’m going to need some extra openings book (such as Bill Robertie’s Winning Chess Openings) rather than try to make use of what I see, unfortunately, as an inadequate treatment of openings in Total Chess.
To sum up, despite Herron’s bold claims, I suspect that Advanced players are not going to fi nd enough new material to satisfy them overall, and therefore I have reservations about recommending this book for them confi dently. On the other hand, for Beginner or Intermediate players, or their teachers, no question – this reviewer recommends this book unreservedly, hands down. For that audience, it is a wonderful primer.