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Chess Books And Youth vs Old Age

Chess Books And Youth vs Old Age

Silman
Sep 29, 2016, 12:00 AM 32 Other

Sitting in a coffee shop in Tokyo that’s little known but adored by those who frequent it, I was staring at the most beautiful and delicious cappuccino on Earth. This was my second one, but before I downed my drink I thought of IM John Grefe and IM Jay Whitehead, both now deceased. Once close to both these players, we had drifted apart.

It tastes as good as it looks!

Ordering a third cappuccino, I realized that I shouldn’t make the same mistake I made with Grefe and Jay, and I promised myself that I would get in touch with my “posse” when I returned to Los Angeles.

IM Jay Whitehead

U.S. Champion John Grefe

THE POSSE

GMs Jim Tarjan (Portland, Oregon) and Yasser Seirawan (Amsterdam) and IMs Jack Peters, Anthony Saidy (both living in Los Angeles), John Watson (San Diego), John Donaldson (San Francisco), and Cyrus Lakdawala (San Diego).

[Photo by John Saunders]

GM Tarjan (with the beard) quit chess in 1984. He returned to the game in 2014.

GM Yasser Seirawan at 21 years of age, showing GM Robert Byrne his muscles

Yasser and Silman playing blitz at Seattle's Last Exit.

BACK TO LOS ANGELES

Back in LA, I kept my promise about staying in touch and called Saidy, who had dreams of going to the Olympiad in Baku. He called it his “last hurrah.”

The legendary IM Anthony Saidy

Then Peters came by to show me his games from a recent tournament.

IM Jack Peters

Glancing at his scoresheets, I noticed something odd: He played several children, drawing all of them. I looked at him with pity. “Come on, Jack, you can’t beat little children? All you have to do is play a solid positional game, and they will fold.”

“Nope,” said Jack, “That doesn’t work anymore.”

Then he showed me the following game. His opponent was 12 years old.

Apparently, after 33...h6 White can’t make progress. A lucky save for Peters. Anthony Ge played quickly (often just taking 10 or 15 seconds a move), and his style made it clear that positional chess was his bread and butter.

After watching a strong player like Peters get kicked around by several kids, I got curious. Are children from 8 years of age and up really that strong? I haven’t played in a tournament since 1999 (!!!), and I started to get a creepy feeling that I was in a coma for 17 years and, when I woke up, I discovered that anyone over 18 years of age was, regarding chess, over the hill.

Had I walked into a different reality? I called a friend who is into chess and asked him about this “kids vs. adults” battle. He said, “I’m glad I retired from tournament chess twelve years ago. My pal Jumpin’ Jim still competes, and he’s been held to a draw by a six-year-old boy and a nine-year-old girl, and he was beaten—rather badly—by an eight-year-old boy.”

Good grief! It was worse than I imagined!

That night, freaked out and still suffering from jet lag, I fell into a deep, dark sleep. A nightmare followed:

“Grandmaster Tarjan, who plays at least two 8 year olds every tournament, told me that it’s best (if you want to avoid defeat) to offer an immediate draw. Seirawan agreed to quit talking about live grandmaster games, instead recommending the creation of a group of six-year-old kids showering their wisdom on the spectators. And then, realizing the seriousness of the situation, I had an epiphany: Hundreds of thousands of little children are members of sleeper cells that cover the globe. With a key word on a text message sent by their leader (an evil five-year-old super-genius with gigantic frontal lobes), they will rise up, win every chess tournament in every city on the planet, and then announce to the world’s adult players that they have solved the game of chess once and for all.”

I woke up in a cold sweat to the ringing of my phone. It was Cyrus Lakdawala, who said (as if he was tuned into my dream), “These kids terrorize us old guys. Yesterday my 9-year-old student won the Gambito tournament!”

IM Cyrus Lakdawala, terrorized by children

When I heard that a 10-year-old Indian boy got an IM title I decided that enough was enough. I told Lakdawala and Watson that I would come down to San Diego and discuss various issues, including super-charged kids, chess books (I wanted to know how Cyrus writes 4 books a year), and which of us would be the next victim of old age. Shortly after, Donaldson (who lives in San Francisco) agreed to join us.

ALLOW ME TO DIGRESS

Famed science fiction writer, retired English professor, and chess aficionado Vance Aandahl sent me the following bit of chess history:

“Al Wallace was a strong player who won the 1960 Denver Open. He loved chess and was one of the most active players in the state, entering every tournament he could, year after year, until he was murdered by his wife for playing too much chess. To honor his memory, Denver chess organizers held an annual tournament called the Al Wallace Memorial for a couple of decades.”

Vance’s tale reminded me that, decades ago, women married to chess players were referred to as, “chess widows.” I brought this up because my own wife has been making mutterings about “too much chess,” and the new knife set she recently purchased made me a bit fidgety. Thus, a trip away from home sounded like a very good idea!

A FORUM OF FOUR

Donaldson, Silman, Lakdawala, and Watson

Our first stop was Watson’s house (being chess nerds, we instantly checked out his chess book collection). After telling each other how wonderful we looked (“wonderful” is code for “I’m amazed you’re still alive”), how badly our backs hurt, and other boring chats, we drove to Lakdawala’s place, ate a huge meal (courtesy of Cyrus and his wife), and then (fighting the desire to take a nap) settled down and began to discuss various chess related issues.

How the Elderly can Still Defeat the Young and the Talented

DONALDSON

[code name: “Giant River Otter”]

John Donaldson, "Water, shaken not stirred."

Cyrus is the one who not only talks the talk but walks the walk. I have played very few strong children (defined as under 12). Not only have I played very few of them, I rarely see a lack of respect for elders in action. The Mechanics’ Institute Tuesday Night Marathon with 130 players is truly the land of the dinosaurs with over half the field over 50 and a large number of players ranging in age from early 60s to mid 80s. The veterans hold their own. One game a week, a 4-hour time control and holding the round on a school night works wonders for those who remember Nixon.

LAKDAWALA

[code name: “Akita Hunting Bears”]

Cyrus Lakdawala, ready for his tryout for a Star Wars Movie

The young may be talented, but the years have sown into us something even better—a devious mind. Just swap pieces and the kids become fish.

SILMAN

[code name: “Honey Badger”]

Jeremy Silman, "You talking to me? Nobody else is here. You talking to me?"

Cyrus, I didn’t realize that you were a poet!

WATSON

[code name: “Cairn Terrier”]

John Watson, also known as The Boss!

Cyrus is the expert on this.

LAKDAWALA

Okay, I’ll run with it!

When I was a kid, I desperately wanted to be an adult, with complete freedom. Now that I am an old adult, I desperately want childhood back for its freedom. I believe it was Aristotle who claimed that victory is always praiseworthy, even when acquired through deviousness! Here is my sneaky method of confusing and beating gifted kids:

This little girl can beat all of you!

1. Stay away from complications as much as possible, always picking the subtle over the coarse and the couth over the uncouth. Our old assumptions of competence get their teeth knocked loose when we foolishly agree to a fist fight against some talented kid. There are positions in which we, the elderly, shine, and simple, logic-based positions are one of them. I have long since realized that all attempts to analyze a complex position is superfluous since the odds are low that I will make the correct move in an irrational position, so I try and stay away from them entirely. When my clock is low and the position is complex, I tend to put my hand on my heart, the way we do when we sing the national anthem, except in my case it is to make certain I am not going to drop dead of a coronary. Just remember that we excel when it comes to the overall picture and plan. Our greatest danger is the specifics portion of the game, where comes the dot-the-i’s-and-cross-the-t’s part. We can’t win a chess game in the realm of the abstract when we lack the means to convert it to reality with competent calculation. So be on high alert at this stage, since we are endangered by our young opponent’s vast computational ability.

2. Swap pieces every chance you get. With every swap, you deprive the kid of rating points, while adding points to your own. Our goal is to win every game in 100 moves, by a single tempo.

3. Solve daily tactics puzzles to keep you sharp. It’s a kind of antidote to our enveloping dullness of mind.

4. Boost your caffeine intake, but only on the day you play. I drink only one cup of caffeinated tea each day, and then on Saturdays, when I play in the Gambito G/45, I drink eight cups. The added alertness inoculates me from my own idiocy.

5. When you stand better or are winning, always take the safe route over the tricky quicker route. When we blow a promising position, we hold the winning lottery ticket, and then misplace it. Keep it simple and when given a choice between the integral and the singular, always choose the latter.

6. Pick the dullest, most solid, most old-manish opening repertoire possible. For example: Colle/London with White and Caro-Kann/Slav with Black. Don’t worry about extracting an advantage as White. Just be sure to enter positions which require judgment and strategic intuition over calculation. A safe/familiar opening repertoire also means that we won’t be dragged into time pressure due to our fading ability to calculate. I lament and shake my head sadly when I see my deeply misguided fellow elderly titled players agree to play Open Sicilians and Four Pawns Attacks versus King’s Indian (I’m talking about you, John Watson and Jack Peters!). The other virtue of such openings is the need for memorization is downplayed. When we play a kid-opening (like the Najdorf) and mix up our lines, it just doesn’t cut it to cite a loathing for administrative detail.

SILMAN

Cyrus, you’ve solved the kid-problem! If we keep up this pace we might end up solving climate change. Unfortunately, since we are chess writers, nobody wants us to talk about boxing or physics or our favorite movies. They want us to talk about chess books. So, let’s do it!

Why are There so Many Chess Books?

SILMAN

I love chess books! Who wouldn’t want a chess book? They are addictive, and once you get one, you will want another and another until you have to buy a larger house. My first chess book, at the age of 12, was "New York 1924" by Alekhine and I almost swooned when I held it in my hand. Ah, what a book! I knew right then and there that I needed more. But how could a 12-year-old get money for books?

After pondering this problem, I went to a nearby swamp, captured various non-poisonous snakes, hid them in the basement (my parents would have freaked out), and sold them as pets. Where there’s a will, there’s a way!

DONALDSON

There are many reasons, but if I had to give just one I would say chess notation. Being able to replay a game from yesterday, last year or a hundred years ago and enjoy it is what makes chess special and unique. Authors of books on other games like poker and backgammon really don’t have that advantage.

Donaldson, aka the Enforcer (standing), protects us from the thousands of rabid chess fans.

WATSON

A chess publisher’s lament! Two factors come to mind: 1. Much as in the restaurant business, everyone thinks that starting a chess publishing company is easy and profitable (to their regret); 2. The glut of wannabe chess authors results in low-cost labor, encouraging volume publication to make up for low-margins.

LAKDAWALA

Chess players tend to be fanatical about their games, and books are their drug of choice. Right now, I kind of think there are too many books which spread across the limited market like a prairie field fire fanned by a strong wind. This makes it tough for publishers to survive in the over-saturated field.

What is the Quality [of chess books] Today Compared to the Past?

WATSON

Overall, much better, if only because the analysis is protected from blunders by engines and the material available with a mere click has broadened exponentially. If you see an idea in a game, you can easily call it up years later, rather than scrambling to locate the players for a scoresheet, or working from some notes on a misplaced index card. Transfer from a game in ChessBase to a Word file is a click away.

On the other hand, for reasons I’m not clear about, you see very few original ideas or even observations in modern chess books (apart from opening innovations, of course). Masses of books blindly repeat dull (or even dead) stereotypes about strategy, players, chess “tips”, etc. In annotations, simplistic interpretations abound regarding why strong players make mistakes; we are told, implausibly, that they mysteriously fail to “understand” elementary positional ideas.

LAKDAWALA

Technically, the quality is higher since all writers use computers today. But from a prose/explanation standpoint, it’s the same now as in the past.

DONALDSON

There were great books in the past, but the overall quality is much higher now. There are more strong players writing and ChessBase and god-like computer engines—all of these things are very useful tools.

Donaldson explores Watson's chess book collection.

SILMAN

What do we mean by “quality?” A book isn’t necessarily a quality piece of work just because a grandmaster spews out perfect variations while the masses of chess fans scratch their head in confusion.

I’ll say this: There are many, many more quality books for advanced players. But books for the vast majority of chess lovers are, in many cases, nothing more than literary snake oil.

Russian and German Books Used to Rule the Market, Has That Changed?

DONALDSON

Definitely. English is the primary language today and the one used by the big publishers—Everyman, Gambit, New in Chess and Quality Chess. If there is a good book in another language, it is almost certain to get translated into English.

Russian and German books use to be popular in the days of the Soviet Union and East Germany, in part because they were very inexpensive.

So comrades, where have you stashed the Russian chess books?

LAKDAWALA

It seems that books written in English are prevalent today.

SILMAN

Very much so. If you want a book to sell in high numbers, it needs to be in English. Of course, if the book is a hit then translating that book into German, French, Spanish, and perhaps even Chinese will (potentially) make your bank account become fat and happy.

WATSON

In the United States, English-language books took over the high-quality market when certain publishers such as Batsford and Pergamon/Cadogan/Everyman appeared on the scene. The large number of excellent German publishers has shrunk considerably, presumably for economic reasons involving the much larger English-speaking/reading market. I have no idea how many new Russian chess books there are, but there are certainly plenty of qualified authors!

What are You Adding to the Long List of Books?

WATSON

Nothing at the moment. My two most recent works are "Taming the Wild Chess Openings," with Eric Schiller (New in Chess), and the 4th edition of my "Play the French," which is thoroughly revised and naturally the best book available on the French Defense.

SILMAN

Chess information is everywhere, but if it isn’t accepted and/or understood by the readers then that information will be ignored or rapidly forgotten. Thus, a truly good book usually needs the following:

  • To be written for a particular rating group. In other words, the writer needs to KNOW HIS AUDIENCE, and give information that can be understood for that audience!
  • The author needs to be a good writer. There are lots of chess writers, but not many really good writers.

Personally, I write for players in the 1000 to 2100 range (depending on the book). I also use humor to make the book more readable and thus more enjoyable. Though masters and beyond might want reams of moves, the vast majority of chess players get bogged down by that and instead prefer explanations as to what’s going on, and how to make use of that new knowledge.

LAKDAWALA

I have an odd writing style which people tend to either love or hate. I view chess as a metaphor for life, so I have no problems writing about my terrier’s neurosis, or any strange thought which pops into my head, as long as it relates to the position. Also, I advocate the blasphemous thought of often rejecting fashionable theory and maybe opting for an opening line which suits the readers’ temperament, rather than always going for that theoretical “+=”, and then landing in a position for which they may be unsuited.

We are all slaves to suggestion. If a line is championed by a top GM, then we, in lemming-like fashion, are tempted to take it up as well, even if the line is totally unsuited to our style. For instance, a natural strategist may wander into the theoretical wasteland of the Najdorf (when he or she should be playing Caro-Kann!), which is littered with the bleached bones of the unprepared and the unsuited. It is one thing to take risks in the hopes of future gain, and it is quite another to endanger ourselves for the purpose of being in fashion!

In the opening stage, most of us tend to be loyal to both orthodoxy and precedent (perhaps out of some atavistically misguided self-preservatory instinct), but this also has the effect of suppressing creativity. I encourage readers to play many openings, just for the creative release. If you play too narrow an opening repertoire, the endless repetition exerts a numbing effect on our minds, as we thoughtlessly go through the opening stage motions. When it comes to our opening repertoire, our biggest decision is: specialize or diversify? If you look at the world’s top 10 players, we see that all of them have huge and varied repertoires. I try to focus on a position’s salient essence, rather than its details. The reader should not be accosted by crowded and conflicting impulses without clear explanation. Instead, the reader must be given permission to dream and to create.

DONALDSON

I write about subjects that interest me and haven’t been well-covered.

Donaldson discovers that Silman is a werewolf.

Why are so Many People Saying that "Zurich 53" is the Best Book?

LAKDAWALA

Because Bronstein (like Tal in his 1960 match book against Botvinnik) plumbs his thoughts rather than simply spewing information. It offers the reader a look into the decision-making process of a top GM.

SILMAN

Cyrus! I used the word “spew” a while ago and now you’re stealing it by using “spewing.” Okay, it’s a great word. Insane minds think alike.

DONALDSON

Zurich 1953 was a great tournament. It had pretty much all the great players of the time (except Botvinnik) playing a 15-player double round robin. The Candidates' tournament in its current format is something special, but this mammoth event was 28 rounds and lasted nearly two months!

Bronstein was a participant in the tournament and one of the best players in the world (drawn match with Botvinnik in 1951 and equal second in this tournament) so he was well-qualified to write a book on it. The analysis is important, but what gives this work lasting value is his prose commentary which reads well. Bronstein credits this to his collaborator Boris Vainstein. Keep in mind I don’t read Russian and am referring to the Dover publication translation of "Zurich 1953" by James Marfia. It may be even better in the original.

There are many other great books, and limiting one’s answer to just one title is pretty much impossible. "Zurich 1953" is a safe default choice in much the same way that the "Master and Margarita" by Bulgakov is for Russian grandmasters when giving the title of their favorite book in Just Checking.

Saidy, Donaldson, and Larry Finley, who was a childhood friend of Bobby Fischer

WATSON

First, tradition. In some countries (definitely in the United States) the Bronstein version was for many years one of a small number of chess books available in conventional bookstores and at a very low price. Everyone grew up with it, and when choosing favorites we tend to be more nostalgic than objective. I wouldn’t be surprised if something similar applied in England and perhaps even Russia as well. It’s certainly not on my list of favorite books at all, but as connoisseurs have pointed out for decades, the Najdorf book about the same tournament (recently republished with extra features by Russell Enterprises) is a superb book; it is far more complete and absorbing, with better analysis and writing.

What is Your Dream Book, a Book you Wished that You (or Someone Else) Would Write?

WATSON

It would take a hard-working author with considerable chess understanding, but someone might write a book on Petrosian that includes plenty of biographical material and annotated games, but also, most importantly, a discerning, non-stereotyped discussion of his style.

Watson looking for his dream book

DONALDSON

Everyone remembers how the Fischer-Reshevsky Match ended abruptly and lead to bad feelings on all sides, but few know of the efforts Jacqueline Piatigorsky made to patch things up with Bobby. He was invited to play in the 1963 Piatigorsky Cup but declined. She later invited him to the 1966 event which he played and made his great comeback in the second half. The World Chess Hall of Fame in St. Louis has the invitation letter from Jacqueline to Bobby for the 1966 event and in it she asks if he would write the tournament book. He declined, but what a great book that could have been! Likewise if Fischer had written a book on the 1972 match or updated "My 60 Memorable Games," it would have been warmly welcomed.

I’m still trying to finish the final volume of a four-part series on Bobby Fischer. The first three are easy to describe: volume one is on Fischer’s 1964 exhibition tour of North America. It’s the third edition of this book and now up to 400 pages. In addition to including many previously unknown games it is also a coming of age story as Bobby turned 21 during the tour and many people shared their memories of him—quite a difference to how he was portrayed in his later years.

The other books are completely new. The second is on all of Bobby’s other exhibitions and non-tournament games while the third, which is over 500 hundred pages, contains all of Fischer’s writings except "My 60 Memorable Games" and Bobby Fischer Teaches Chess, both of which are readily available and under copyright. My idea was to gather all of Bobby’s writings in one place. Much of his earlier work was in Chess Life and the American Chess Quarterly so it needed to be converted into algebraic notation. Fischer also wrote various one-off pieces for various publications around the world which required some detective work to track down.

I mention the page count for the books because it is unclear if they are suitable to appear as physical books. They have many previously unpublished photographs of Bobby and his contemporaries which if published in their entirety in a regular book would likely make them commercially unviable. Right now the first three are available on Kindle and down the road something for the iPad is planned.

Book four is an attempt to answer all the questions I have had about Bobby that were not answered by books like "Profile of a Prodigy" or "Endgame."

The HORROR! Instead of chess, they are talking about basketball!

LAKDAWALA

I wish I had written "How to Reassess Your Chess," but Jeremy beat me to it.

Guess what guys, while you were talking I wrote another chess book!

Are There Books/Authors Which are Undervalued?

SILMAN

Lots of books are undervalued. For example, books on chess history don’t sell well, even though they might be absolutely fantastic. In general, players really don’t know what they need so they buy opening books or bland endgame books that end up confusing them and, in many cases, freak them out. Books like that end up in the bookcase, never to be used again.

Books on chess history not only makes you feel like you’re part of something noble and rich and important, but the games that go along with it help you get better.

Nowadays people think that only new things have any value. Due to this shallow view, they miss many wonderful books by Edward Lasker, Irving Chernev, and Fred Reinfeld. These chess pioneers wrote a lot of quality, easy-to-understand instructional books, and also wonderful books on chess history and players that are rapidly vanishing from our collective consciousness, but should be read by every person who loves chess.

LAKDAWALA

There are many wonderful books, which for one reason or another, just don’t sell. Also, you can have a fantastic writer who is with a small publisher, so his or her work goes under the radar and isn’t noticed.

DONALDSON

Al Horowitz’s monthly magazine Chess Review, which ran from 1933 to 1969, comes to mind. The magazine had many interesting articles and pictures and still makes for great reading.

SILMAN

Quite right, JD! Chess Review is absolutely amazing. An unbelievable mix of nostalgia, great analysis, stories, news, and, as John said, incredible photos. I never tire of sitting back and reading an issue or ten. They are completely addictive. Come to think of it, our love for Chess Review shows our age.

WATSON

“Undervalued” is tough to pin down. One interesting subset would be authors who may be held in lesser esteem because they have written a few too many unexceptional books, perhaps quickly—written popular ones, when people aren’t aware that they’ve also done some brilliant and original work. Andy Soltis seems to fit this description; in his case, I particularly admire "Soviet Chess," "Why Lasker Matters," "Bobby Fischer Rediscovered," and "Mikhail Botvinnik," among others. Tim Harding also seems to escape notice; his work has steadily improved, and it includes a number of wonderful books on both historical subjects and correspondence chess. Tibor Karolyi is an author who has put out many terrific books in recent years yet doesn’t seem to be widely recognized.

Some popular authors (e.g., of elementary books) are probably undervalued by relatively sophisticated readers (in the old days, we had writers like Reinfeld and Chernev who got little credit due to their subject matter and the volume of their work). There are other fine writers who fit this category, mainly because they haven’t written enough to become widely known.

Is it True That Chess Books Today are Better Than Ever?

LAKDAWALA

I think so. The variety and writing styles have expanded, offering the reader greater choices. A chess opening, like Count Dracula, is a creature of eternal resurrection. You can write a book on the London System, and then eight years later the theory has altered so much that the publisher wants you to write another book on the London.

WATSON

The simplest part of this answer is to isolate opening books, which are not only much better by virtue of engines, blunder-checking, and instantaneous searching of huge databases; authors also understand the structures and ideas much better every year.

Endgame books are also much more reliable, and a handful are superior for reasons of originality and readability. A few standouts are Marin’s "Learn from the Legends," "Silman’s Complete Endgame Course: From Beginner To Master," and the hybrid endgame/problem book "Van Perlo’s Endgame Tactics."

Most middlegame books are similar to each other, and I seldom see any that expand the range of our thinking. But many of them are improvements over earlier attempts. Just for example, I like Nunn’s "Understanding Middlegames" a lot as an excellent teaching book, and Gelfand’s recent "Positional Decision Making in Chess" is insightful and fascinating.

There are too few new tournament books to claim that they are getting “better,” but publishers like Caissa Editions and Russell Enterprises stand out for having reprinted and improved many classic tournament books as well as producing excellent new ones.

I can’t assess training books, except to say that there are many out there and in my opinion they tend to be too complicated and lack focus, so I don’t use them. There are still no books that succeed in telling you how to think, or improve more than slightly, in spite of many attempts!

I should also mention various collections of modern essays, for example, Sosonko’s and Ree’s, while the book on another Dutch journalist, Donner’s "The King," is some people’s all-time favorite.

Finally, there has been an explosion of extremely interesting games collections. Some of many that stand out for me are Shirov’s brilliant "Fire on Board" volumes, Gelfand’s "My Most Memorable Games," and Browne’s recent "The Stress of Chess."

SILMAN

There are certainly far more books for advanced players—lots and lots of quality information if you don’t mind drowning in variations. I love those books, but most of them are useless for players under 1800.

However, are these books (and books for lower rated players too) “better.” Some are, but most modern books lack charm. There are exceptions, of course, but the majority are dull and much too serious.

One chess writer that stands out is Cyrus, whose material is very good. However, what I really like is his prose, which is fun, and it also humanizes his books. A really great chess book needs some humor, an amazing amount of energy (for example, "The Life and Games of Mikhail Tal"), charm, and/or something that is so profound (for example, "Watson’s Secrets of Modern Chess Strategy") that you can’t take your eyes off what’s written.

Yes, a book might be magnificently drafted and offer many things of great importance. But if the author was able to add one of those things I just mentioned, it would be so much better. Sadly, offering profundity, charm, humor, or energy is a skill. Most people can’t do it.

One person that managed it was Gelfand, whose "Positional Decision Making in Chess" is full of charm, and though it’s advanced, it’s absolutely fantastic. Sosonko’s books stand out, as does Donner’s "The King." Both share the human condition and are magnificent. Tal and Larsen also had agile pens and incredible personalities. However, these are the exceptions. In my view real writers are fairly rare in chess.

FAVORITE BOOKS

DONALDSON

Many excellent books have appeared the past decade. One I really enjoyed was "Positional Decision Making in Chess" by Boris Gelfand. Another one at the top of the list which is a little bit older is Pal Benko’s"My Life, Games and Compositions". It’s a massive book that is close to 700 pages and covers all aspects of his life with well-annotated games, many good quality photographs, and lots of biographical material plus a first-rate survey of Benko’s contributions to opening theory. A great book to take to a desert island.

LAKDAWALA

My favorites:

  1. Edward Lasker’s "Chess Secrets I learned from the Masters." I carried it around with me in junior high, surreptitiously reading it during math class.
  2. Tony Saidy’s "Battle of Chess Ideas." This book inspired me to make the fatefully stupid decision to make a living from chess, rather than accept a five figure income, working for my family’s business.
  3. "Capablanca’s Best Endings" by Irving Chernev. I discovered Capa, our version of Mozart.
  4. Jeremy’s "How to Reassess Your Chess." I realize this book was written for players rated between 800-1500, but by reading it (I thought it would help me become a better teacher) my rating, which was stuck for years just under 2500, inexplicably soared to 2598. There was some magical influence in it which kicked in, but to this day I still can’t identify what this substance is!
  5. Tal’s 1960 match book against Botvinnik. I model my books on Tal’s book, where he doesn’t just analyze the position, but describes in great detail to the reader all this thoughts—rational or irrational—to the reader.
  6. "Zurich Candidates 1953," By David Bronstein. This book is the predecessor to Tal’s book. Bronstein also digs deeply into his own mind, rather than merely focus on the analysis.
  7. Kotov’s "Think Like a Grandmaster," which is the blueprint of how to analyze a critical position.

Fischer getting the Key to New York. Saidy, who wrote Fischer's speech, is to Fischer's left.

SILMAN

I’ll avoid the obvious answers (with the exception of the books by Botvinnik and Larsen). I’ll also avoid great books like Edward Lasker’s "Chess Secrets" and Chernev’s book on Capablanca since Cyrus already mentioned them.

Books that I never tire of are:

  • "Aron Nimzowitsch: On the Road to Chess Mastery 1886-1924" by Skjoldager
  • "The Turk, Chess Automaton" by Levitt
  • "A Alekhine, Agony of a Chess Genius"
  • "Botvinnik: One Hundred Selected Games"
  • "Bent Larsen’s Best Games" by Larsen
  • "Bobby Fischer’s Conquest of the World’s Chess Championship" by Reuben Fine. It’s so hideously bad that it’s actually good (whenever I feel down, I pick up this book and laugh).
  • John Donaldson’s two book set on Akiba Rubinstein.
  • "New York 1924" by Alekhine
  • "Pachman’s Decisive Games" by Pachman
  • "The King" by Donner.

Arrgghh... I could go on forever.

How Does Lakdawala Pull it off churning out 4 books a Year?

LAKDAWALA

Actually in 2014, I wrote six books, totaling around 1600 pages. You can’t do this unless you are cursed with an obsessive personality. I think about the book I’m writing all the time—sometimes even in my dreams! I often wake up in the middle of the night and make a note, which I literally dreamed up. In the eight years of writing chess books, I filled 50 yellow notepads of notes for my books.

DONALDSON

Cyrus teaches a lot (20-plus hours a week) and plays often, but his real passion is writing. That passion plus a strong work ethic allow him to consistently produce good quality books year in and year out. He is a real Stakhanov!

SILMAN

It’s a mystery. It takes me five years to write a new book. Cy writes 20 in that time. On top of that, each book he writes is at least 500 pages, and each book is nothing less than excellent. The only explanation is witchcraft.

Are Your Favorite Books When you Were 20 years Old Still Your Favorites Today?

LAKDAWALA

Yes.

SILMAN

There’s no doubt that modern opening books have smashed old books on openings into the dust. But other than that, I really prefer old books to new ones. For example, there are tons of endgame books on the market, and though some are very nice the vast majority of them are incredibly boring. And, if a book is boring, very few people will read it. Compare that to a little endgame book (written way back in 1940) by Fred Reinfeld titled, “Reinfeld on the Endgame in Chess.” It’s not big, not pretty, but Reinfeld’s prose is a delight, and he goes out of his way to teach you something. He does this by explaining everything in a way that is both fun and incredibly instructive. He somehow makes you feel that he really wants to help you improve. Not many writers are capable of doing that.

WATSON

In general, no, although there are exceptions. "My System" is still a masterpiece, and incredibly entertaining. Extending the question a few years past age 20, "The Life and Games of Mikhail Tal" is another book that wears well. And of course there are other excellent older books. But most of the classics by grandmasters and world champions before 1940 now seem dry and/or too obvious. Several games collections and tournament books are really great, but I wouldn’t call them favorites.

DONALDSON

Most of my favorite books today were written in the past decade, but I still like many books that I read when I was young including Tal’s book on his 1960 match with Botvinnik, his collection of best games ("The Life and Games of Mikhail Tal"), "My 60 Memorable Games" by Fischer and "Larsen’s Selected Games of Chess."

My favorite tournament book is on the Second Piatigorsky Cup, which was a ten player double round robin with many of the top players in the world (Petrosian, Spassky, Fischer, Portisch, Larsen to name a few) participating. Even though Fischer did not write it, this book is something special. All the players annotated each of their games except Fischer who did only one and Donner who made comments to all but his last round game, a horrible loss which ended a miserable tournament. Comparing different annotations to the same game, especially in the pre-computer era, is always interesting.

Before I forget, congrats to the U.S. Olympiad team, including super captain Donaldson.

Is Writing About Chess a Means of Income in the US Today?

DONALDSON

Maybe for writers like Cyrus, Jeremy and John, but definitely not me! I’ve written 37 books, primarily game collections. Many of them were never intended to be nor did they turn out to be commercially successful! Most chess professionals in the United States earn their living from teaching. Writing, playing and commentary can be important, but teaching and instructing at camps is much more lucrative.

WATSON

I can hardly imagine anyone making a decent income solely from chess writing, and there are only a couple of exceptions I know of. They are authors of beginner’s books and elementary training books, the biggest market by a wide margin, with the least selective (and knowledgeable) readership.

LAKDAWALA

I make a lot more per hour teaching, but I write for the joy of it, rather than the money. Most professional chess players are burdened by fate with the soul of a poet. The problem is if we enter chess as a profession, we must prepare to have the bank balance of a poet as well!

Enough talk, let's play!

What is Essential in Becoming a Good Chess Writer?

LAKDAWALA

Clarity of explanation is the key. The analysis is virtually irrelevant, since five years after the book is written, the new generation of comps renders your old analysis either obsolete, or outright incorrect. All that matters are the verbal explanations. Some readers don’t understand this and in the reviews (some written eight years after the books are published) claim the analysis is bad, because their comp (which by now is much stronger than the original one eight years ago) found some errors.

SILMAN

Starvation and the need for money. At first my books were silly little things, but the need for food, clothes, and dates with supermodels made me hone my craft until the cash poured in. Now I have a house in Beverly Hills, a yacht, a private jet, and another home in Tokyo. You can learn how to do this too by ordering my latest book: “How to Make Billions by Writing Chess Books.” The book comes with a two-hour video explaining, step-by-step, how easy it is to become wealthy by writing about the hidden mysteries of little chess pieces. All this for the small price of $499.00.

DONALDSON

Jeremy, what kind of dreck was that? “How to Make Billions by Writing Chess Books?” Come on! 

Anyway, the essential thing in becoming a good chess writer is having a genuine interest in what you are writing about.

WATSON

Among many qualities worth noting, one is simply a concern for the reader and awareness that he or she is there. Books are meant to be read, but you wouldn’t know that from a goodly number of chess books. Chess authors tend to write and think like engineers (I should know: I’m an electrical engineer). Another is hard work. I think chess books come out reasonably well in this regard, but authors could still put quite a bit more time (and care) into their work. Most importantly, a truly good book reveals that the author has reflected over what he or she is saying, and contains some original thoughts (this is remarkably rare).

What About Garry K’s Books?

DONALDSON

I have all of them and the chess content is always of the highest standard. Note this series is aimed at players above 2200—It’s definitely not for club players.

It’s always interesting to have top players look at games of the past with fresh eyes as they often find something new. A case in point is Winter-Capablanca, Hastings 1919, the famous game with the buried bishop on h2 that has been used as a teaching example for close to a hundred years. Garry points out that even with the bishop permanently out of play White could have held if he set up a blockade.

LAKDAWALA

His Great Predecessor Series is Fantastic, and I’m embarrassed that I didn’t put this series in my list of favorites!

SILMAN

Good point, Cy. It was odd when Kasparov’s Great Predecessor series appeared. So many people attacked it. Yet, it was wonderful. Yes, there were some errors here and there, but you’ll find errors in every book. What made me happy to see it is that it helped a lot of players who never studied chess history finally get their chops into something that is extremely important in chess: the great players that came before us, their sacrifices, and the things they discovered that, ultimately, helped chess become what it is today.

Are Club Players Able to Value Good Books?

LAKDAWALA

Some are, and others are swayed by a writer’s rating, where they praise a crappy book, based on a writer’s super-GM status, or bash a very well written book based on the writer’s relatively lower rating of an IM or FM, rather than the actual content of the book.

WATSON

Of course. There may be some books that are too technical or esoteric for any but the hardest-working amateur, but most good chess books will appeal to a very broad range of chess strengths.

DONALDSON

Yes, but they tend to buy more opening books than is good for them.

SILMAN

Sometimes a player can appreciate a good book, and sometimes a player falls victim to something horrible. The problem is that many low-rated players don’t know what is or isn’t good for them. It’s a sad thing because if they make a bad book gospel they will never improve and never really understand why.

Do you know what is or isn't good for you?

Tell us the Future of Chess Books in an Electronic Web-Connected Age

WATSON

This has been a great surprise to me. I felt that by now, electronic versions of books combined with the ability to play over the moves would have grabbed a greater portion of the readership, but for now, traditional physical books seem to be as popular as ever. That may change as the new online-paying generation takes over. One sad feature of our connected age is that books are increasingly copied and pirated, hurting publishers and authors alike.

DONALDSON

A few years ago I would have been less optimistic about the future of printed books in the short run than I am now. However, in the long run, I can’t help but note most of the chess players I know under 30 do not buy chess books.

LAKDAWALA

Like your grandfather, I absolutely hate our electronic era, and if I had access to a time machine, would joyfully hop in and transport myself back to 1898, where I would write with a feather pen and ink, in Shakespeare style, without email or word processors.

SILMAN

I honestly have no idea. I will say that I prefer novels and magazines in electronic form. It allows me to stick hundreds (thousands if I wanted) of books in my iPad, and thousands of magazines there too. It also allows me to always have perfect light when reading, even if the room is pitch black. I find that reading an electronic novel or magazine (oddly, even NIC Magazine!) is better than a paper novel/magazine.

HOWEVER, when it comes to chess books, I prefer paper. I guess the “feel” of paper is the most important thing since I view chess as a living thing, and a good paper chess book somehow makes this a reality to me. On the other hand, most electronic chess books seem lifeless... They have no soul.

I should add that I have the first three of Donaldson’s magnificent Fischer series (the final one will arrive in a few months), and it looks great in electronic form. For some reason that I don’t understand, it would look good on paper or in electronic form. Of course, time marches on, and as tech gets better and better I’m sure paper books will go the way of the dinosaurs.

How Many Chess Books do You Have Yourself?

LAKDAWALA

I don’t know if you mean how many I have written, or how many I own, so I will answer both: I just finished my 30th chess book for Everyman, and for the books I own, have limited bookshelf space, and tend to donate old books (often with deep regret!) to the San Diego chess club’s library. My wife tells me I own around 500-600 books, but I have bought thousands over my life.

SILMAN

I had around 6,000 chess books. However, it took up too much space so I got rid of around 1,500 books (I was insane... I miss them now!), shipped another 1,500 chess books to my house in Tokyo, have another 1,000 in my West Hollywood house and another 2,000 in storage.

DONALDSON

Anyway, I have around 1500, with about half bound periodicals like British Chess Magazine, Chess Review, Chess Life and the American Chess Bulletin. I would have more, but the library of the Mechanics’ Institute of San Francisco where I work, has close to 3000 chess books which fills in a lot of gaps for me.

SILMAN

Sorry, but I have to jump in. Donaldson’s bound magazines are magnificent. Beautiful binding, every magazine in wonderful condition. I’m envious.

WATSON

I honestly haven’t counted. I’m not a collector, but have accumulated books for many years. A wild guess, trying to incorporate the scores of box loads in my garage without counting, would be 3000, very few of them collector’s items, and many in awful condition.

Is Writing About Chess Good for Your Health?

What kind of insane question is that?

DONALDSON

Probably, but not necessarily for your chess game. The Fischer project has taken up much of my spare time the past five years, and I’m looking forward to playing again.

WATSON

Are you kidding?

LAKDAWALA

I can’t speak for other writers, but it’s good for my mental health, since writing itself is a creative outlet which makes me happy. But on the downside, it’s also a danger to my mental health, since the chess world is one of predation, infested with the mean-spirited posing as critics, who operate with the malicious motivation of vandalism, rather than of unbiased criticism. But on the whole, I have found the reviewers kind. The trick I have learned over the years is to never be overjoyed by a good review, since then I set myself up to be crushed by a bad, or an unfair one. My editor, GM John Emms, a very wise man, once offered me advice I never forgot. He asked: “Why fret over a bad review? It’s just one person’s opinion.”

SILMAN

Of course it’s good for your health! In fact, chess writers are athletes. I sit typing with one hand for 8 to 12 hours while the other hand funnels potato chips and chocolate into my mouth, then I exercise by climbing the staircase to my bedroom so I can take a nap, then a movie or two (nibbling on a pizza or a sandwich), then (around 4 or 5AM) I pass out. Repeat, repeat, day after day. Occasionally I look in the mirror to make sure my lovely pear shaped body is in peak condition. Then back to work I go, a human hamster on a never ending treadmill.

Thanks to our photographer, Jim Woodward

Just in case you thought we were always old (right from the womb!), these photos will show that we were indeed young centuries... errr... I mean, decades ago. There is no "young Donaldson" photo since he's immortal and still looks the same as he did back in the dark ages.

Lakdawala in 2008

John Watson

Jeremy Silman. I am the one at the end with the hair and white shirt.

Yasser Seirawan in 1976

Silman, 19 years old

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