Chess.com Player Profiles: Jeremy Silman
Even though today´s featured interview subject hasn´t played a serious game of chess in over a decade, he is an obvious choice for a presentation here on Chess.com. He is an International Master of chess and he has won the US Open, the American Open and the National Open, and he is perhaps the most popular author of chess books in the world today.
Name: Jeremy Silman
Title: International Master
Fide Rating: 2383
Top USCF Rating: 2592
Date of birth: August 28, 1954
What, if push comes to shove, is your all-time favorite movie?
I have several favorite movies, and picking one genre masterpiece over another is pretty much impossible and unfair. Thus, I’m going to “cheat” on this one question. I don’t have any American movies in my list of favorites, and Japanese films are my passion. Nevertheless, I’ll give two that, perhaps, stand above the crowd, and then a small list that I watch again and again (in fact, I’ve seen every movie I mention at least 7 times). Of course, I could/should add a couple dozen more, but I’ll control myself!
UNTIL THE END OF THE WORLD (in German – Director’s Cut: 270 minutes, 1991) by Wim Wenders. It also boasts the finest soundtrack ever, with U2, Talking Heads, Lou Reed, T-Bone Burnett, Peter Gabriel, Elvis Costello, Patti Smith, R.E.M., Depeche Mode, Neneh Cherry, Nick Cave, Crime and the City Solution, Daniel Lanois, and Jane Siberry with K.D. Lang.
GOZU (in Japanese, 2003) by Takashi Miike (my favorite director).
The small list: RAINY DOG (in Japanese, by Miike, 1997), THE HAPPINESS OF THE KATAKURIS (in Japanese, by Miike, 2001), 2046 (in Chinese, by Kar Wai Wong, 2004), CHUNGKING EXPRESS (in Chinese, by Kar Wai Wong, 1994), LAST LIFE IN THE UNIVERSE (in Thai, by Pen-Ek Ratanaruang, 2003), KAMOME DINER (in Japanese/Finnish, by Naoko Ogigami, 2006), SHALL WE DANCE (Japanese, by Masayuki Suo, 1996), SURVIVE STYLE 5+ (in Japanese, by Gen Sekiguchi, 2004), TAMPOPO (in Japanese, by Juzo Itami, 1986), and anything by Hayao Miyazaki.
What kind of food and drink do you prefer?
Mediterranean cuisine, washed down with my special, extremely strong, Swiss bootleg absinthe (thanks to Johnny Depp).
What is your favorite book?
This depends on one’s given situation. For example, Grandmaster John Nunn wisely pointed out that if you were trapped on a desert island your favorite book would be, How to build a boat . However, in general (from the relative safety of my home), I have to say that I am that by Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj is my favorite.
What music are you currently grooving to?
I listen to a lot of music, but there are three artists/groups that I go back to again and again: My ultimate favorite is Nick Cave, who I view as one of the greatest songwriters of all time. His body of work is amazing, so it’s impossible to recommend any one song. A few of my favorites (off the top of my head), by old and new stuff:
Older Material – Sad Waters, She Fell Away, Darker With the Day, We Came Along This Road, The Ship Song, The Weeping Song, Red Right Hand (tons more classics).
Newer Stuff – Love Letter, O Children, Breathless, Nobody’s Baby Now, Abattoir Blues, More News From Nowhere, Dig Lazarus Dig, Wonderful Life (2003), Man in the Moon (again, countless other amazing hits).
Lately I discovered the Norwegian jazz singer Sidsel Endresen and her album, Undertow. My iTunes review: “Deep, dark, moody… Endresen drags you to another time and place and, by the force of her hypnotic/imploring voice, keeps you coming back again and again.”
Tell me a chess secret?
Aliens from the Pleiades have told me that the Sicilian Accelerated Dragon wins by force for Black. Shhhh… don’t let anyone else know.
What is your best chess memory?
Sharing floor-space in 1973 in a small apartment in San Francisco with John Grefe (who was U.S. Champion at that time) and Dennis Waterman (who was also an extremely strong master). The mix of poverty, panic, bubbling dreams, and otherworldly adventure that this “chess period” offered far exceeds mundane “bests” like best tournament victory or best game.
Which do you think is worse, failing or never trying?
Never trying is far, far worse than failing. In fact, never trying is a complete disaster! Anyone that devotes himself to something fails and fails again; it’s part of the learning process. In fact, you can’t succeed if you fear failure (you should hate failure, but not fear it). Those that never try are doomed to live in the loathsome world of “what if?”
What chess player have you ever wanted to be and why?
Something like, “What chess hero had the most influence on your chess development?” seems more pertinent. Of my childhood chess heroes (Lasker, Fischer, and Alekhine), I would have to say that Alexander Alekhine’s amazing games, and his notes, played the biggest role in addicting me to chess.
As for actually wanting to be someone else (I’ll choose a living player since being a dead one is creepy – I would already know all my accomplishments and failures, and how and when I’d die), and a chess player to boot (isn’t one life as a chess player enough?), I would choose my dear friend (and partner in crime) John Donaldson, since seeing the insane things we’ve shared over the years through his eyes would be most illuminating.
What do you do to get better at chess? How do you train?
I don’t do anything, since I haven’t played a serious game in more than a decade. If I decided to make a comeback, I’d hire Grandmaster Nakamura to look at my old games, rip them apart, rave about my endless weaknesses (muttering, “Anatawa baka des! Baka, baka, baka!” – does he even speak Japanese?), and convince me to immediately retire again.
How old were you when you began to play chess?
Twelve. A fat little boy at school challenged me to a game (I only knew how the pawns moved), and after he wiped me out he laughed and laughed at how horrible I was. Right then and there, I swore to avenge myself! The first step was to learn all the rules, and after that I played endless blitz games where my conqueror (and another player who was even stronger) would beat me over and over like a drum. Little did they know that these losses were all part of my grand strategy: The small price of chess humiliation allowed me to slowly but surely steal all their knowledge.
Is the Internet a big part of your life?
It certainly is! I start my day by making a huge mug of coffee with hot half and half and chocolate. Rushing to my office, I turn on my Mac, hit the browser, and away we go! As the caffeine kick-starts my brain, I make my rounds: JAPAN TIMES – check! Rolling Stone and the latest BLOG by Matt Taibbi – check! ANTIWAR.COM – check! Arrrgghh… blood pressure alert! Blood pressure alert! KOREA TIMES – check! Ahhh… too much fluff! I do a quick search on cannibalism in the U.S. It’s on the rise! Face eaters, brain eaters, heart eaters – could this be the precursor to a full-scale zombie infestation? More coffee! More coffee!
Need to decompress! I turn to chess to save me: First, the latest chess news on THE WEEK IN CHESS, and CHESSBASE, and Chess.com where I check out a couple of Pogonina’s always-excellent articles. I note in the reader’s comments’ section that she only got 3 marriage proposals (they don’t seem to realize that she’s already married!), and 6 declarations of undying love – far less than usual! I zip over to Serper’s latest (top notch) stuff – no marriage proposals for him!
Enough of this! Let’s check out the latest in film. I visit TWITCH FILM, spend an hour skimming over reviews, glance at the Apple movie trailers, and then see what the latest Asian fare (or bizarre oddities) is offered on Asian Cult Cinema’s SITE – Oh… My… God! They are selling the uncut version of ABRAHAM LINCOLN VS. ZOMBIES (“He emancipated the slaves. He saved the Union. And He slaughtered the Living Dead!”). Wait a second! That’s not the movie I was waiting for! I was looking forward to ABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPIRE HUNTER. They almost tricked me! What else? ZEBRAMAN 2 – already own it! WU XIA DRAGON with Donnie Yen – already own it! Nothing I haven’t seen before. Hmmm… That Lincoln film… is it fantasy or a documentary?
As you can see, the web is indeed an extremely important part of my life.
What was your childhood like?
When I was nine I learned survival
Taught myself not to care
I was my single good companion
Taking my comfort there
Up in my room I planned my conquests
On my own – never asked for a helping hand
No one would understand
I never asked the pair who fought below
Just in case they said “No.”
When I was twelve my father moved out
Left with a whimper – not with a shout
I didn’t miss him – he made it perfectly clear
I was a fool and…
Wait a second! That’s not my life, that’s the lyrics to the play CHESS. But… close enough!
What was it like meeting Mikhail Tal?
It was a wonderful experience. I took him to the Bel-Air Hotel (now owned by the Sultan of Brunei) for lunch (a beautiful outdoor location with peacocks walking about – Ric Ocasek was sitting next to us), and Tal chatted up a storm. He was really happy. Then I drove him to Disneyland (I hate the place, but he was dying to see it), and we spent the day doing the various rides (his favorite was the Pirates of the Caribbean) and analyzing various openings blindfold. At times it was extremely hard to keep up with him – he would blurt out a 20-move sequence at warp speed, abruptly stop, and then glare at me. There was more than one occasion where I was clueless. Eventually we ended up at the Disneyland store and he bought various gifts for his family back in Russia. He sang some Russian shopping song as he looked over the merchandise – Tal was a very, very sweet man.
What is chess to you – a game of combat or of art?
It’s my job. I write about it, I teach it, I lecture about it, and I follow all chess news. Chess is in my blood, and to me it’s an art, battle, and science that can easily lead to psychological Armageddon or unmatched joy.
When asked why I became a chess professional, I always reply: “For the money and the women.” The joke being that there is no money and there are very few women. We are into chess because we love it.
How much time do you devote to chess?
Chess related issues fill my days and nights. I’m surrounded by thousands of chess books, I get calls from chess friends, and I even get spiritual leaders, politicians, movie moguls, actors, and prisoners (lots and lots of prisoners) writing me about chess! I don’t devote time to chess, it’s just there, in the air, filling me every time I take a breath.
What is your inner being?
42. (For those who you who may not know, "42" is the answer to "the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe and everything", a famous joke from Douglas Adams´ books "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy")
Who is your inspiration?
Buddha, Emmanuel Lasker, and my Egyptian Mau, Khu.
What is your greatest fear?
That I’ll choose security over the unknowns in life.
Do you prefer blitz, otb tournaments or correspondence style chess?
When I was an active player, I always preferred over-the-board events with slow time controls and strong opposition. Games like this start months before when one prepares their openings, looks for new ideas, and then hones their opening systems while they are soaked in the blood of many battles. The intensity of a slow time control game was positively addictive, with a defeat sometimes leading to deep depression, and a lovely victory raising the skilled chess pro to the realm of artistic greatness. That’s why I always told people that one really beautiful game meant much more to me than winning several whole tournaments.
Describe a perfect day.
I wake up, and suddenly a Zen koan that I had been pondering for a couple years makes perfect sense. The rest of the day is and isn’t.
What is the best game you ever played?
My game against Cyrus Lakadawala, played in Los Angeles in 1989.
A bit about my opponent: Cyrus Lakadawala is an International Master whose USCF rating topped 2600. Known as an extremely strong player and an outrageously powerful blitz player, Cyrus has taken a well-deserved place among America’s finest chess writers. His books: A Ferocious Opening Repertoire, The Caro-Kann: Move by Move, 1…d6: Move by Move, Play the London System, The Slav: Move by Move, The Four Knights: Move by Move, The Modern Defense: Move by Move, and his upcoming title, Capablanca Move by Move.
The following game was played in true Petrosian style (the 9th World Champion was known for depriving his opponents of all counterplay, then using space to constrict and ultimately choke his opponent’s to death).
If you could choose to live one day of any time in the history of mankind, which time would that be and why?
The day, in the Garden of Eden 6,000 years ago, that man realized that he could befriend and ride the dinosaurs. This created a need for saddles and, as a result, led to the founding of the first business in history.
Do you have any favorite hobbies?
I collect Asian films, with an emphasis on Japanese film, followed by Chinese, with some Korean and Thai tossed in.
What is your most treasured possession?
Are you a superstitious person?
Not in the least. (Give me a moment while I make a wish on a falling star, squeeze my four-leaf clover, avoid black cats, make a point to not break my mirror, spin in place and spit, be sure that no doors from different rooms are facing each other, avoid beating someone with a broom unless I want them to have bad luck for several years and, after I leave the wake that I have to go to this evening, I need to remember to avoid going straight home so that the ghost of the dead can’t follow me there.)
What are the most important lessons you’ve learned in chess?
Don’t choke the opponent after a loss and don’t belittle the opponent after you crush him like a bug.
What does your future hold as a chess player?
Looking in my crystal ball, I see myself making a triumphant comeback at the World Senior Championship, earning the World Senior Title and the Grandmaster title in one fell swoop. Sadly, when the FIDE officials realize that I actually drank two cups of coffee in the decisive game instead of the accepted one, I’ll be stripped of my titles and banned from chess for life.
How would you describe yourself to an alien from another planet?
Klaatu Barada Nikto!
Was religion a part of growing up?
We were a Jewish family that never went to Synagogue, and never discussed religion at all. Personally, I only began to think about religion after I read Hermann Hesse’s novel, DEMIAN. Though I was a child, this book influenced me on a very deep level. I began to study Zen Buddhism in my early teens, then moved on to a deep study of Hinduism, and ultimately explored many different forms of mysticism.
What do you think is the primary ingredients in a chess player?
I don’t think there are any “primary ingredients” in the average chess player. Anyone can enjoy the game – rich or poor, genius or average IQ, creative or bland – anyone of any age or gender can fall in love with chess for a lifetime.
As for a titled chess player (IM or GM), most are somewhat anti-social, obsessive, moody, and highly intelligent.
Jeremy Silman (in the middle), IM Saidy (on the left) and GM Tarjan on the right.
Do you think one is born a chess player or can a great player be made by hard practice?
Some players have outrageous natural talent, while others forge their success through hard work and strength of will. The greats have both talent and the ability to work hard on their game.
If you could give a beginner in chess only one piece of advice, what would it be?
Never, ever slap a Hells Angel’s face and kick his motorcycle. I did this once and it turned out rather badly for me.
In an earlier interview GM Alejandro Ramirez said that, “Blitz is the only marketable form of chess”. Do you think the future belongs to rapid chess and blitz?
This is a common viewpoint, but it makes absolutely no sense to me. In my view, the masses (i.e., people who know how the pieces move but don’t take the game seriously and/or only play an offhand game every full moon) don’t know what’s going on even if the game is slow paced with plenty of time to ponder the position’s truth. If you speed the game up (30 minute, 5 minute, or even 1 minute) then they will be completely clueless. A 5-minute game would be unintelligible, and would make as much sense to the spectators as two men clucking, howling, and tossing bits of string back and forth at each other. Yes, fans on chess.com would enjoy a blitz match, but they take their chess seriously. Using quick games to lure the masses to chess would only make them view the game as some unknowable code.
The fact is that chess isn’t marketable. I just don’t see chess ever being a popular sport, especially in the United States. The reasons:
* Physical sports rule this nation, and many of our heroes are baseball, basketball, and football players. Thus far, this nation has idolized very few intellectual giants. Worshipping scientists and chess players would be grand, and would clearly show that the present anti-intellectual climate in the U.S. is receding, but I see nothing to show me that this is the case. Instead we faint in awe at the sight of some guy repeating over and over how he’ll give 110%, or our heart will skip a beat if a hot, very famous young actor/actress crosses our path.
* The masses enjoy sports where the goal is easy to see and understand. In golf, we know that the player is trying to get the ball into a hole. In tennis, all we need to know is that both players are doing their best to hit the ball over the net. Any idiot can follow these sports and enjoy them. But chess? Everyone knows that mate is the ultimate goal, but the knowledge one needs to see how this is going to occur stretches the non-trained mind to the breaking point. When you add quick chess to the equation, where following the rapid movement of the pieces can easily lead to the skull exploding and splattering brain-matter in every direction… well, I just don’t see chess becoming the national pastime.
Having said that, I will admit that those who like chess find blitz to be a fun way to do battle. I know of many famous Hollywood denizens, musicians, lawyers, and bankers who adore online blitz where they can play under an assumed name and relax as they toss their pieces at their opponent’s army. But making chess truly popular will never be an American dream (hmmm… perhaps great popularity would be possible if you could quick-draw and shoot the enemy pieces off the board. I can see it now: the NRA and the USCF joining forces to make chess our new national pastime).
Do you have any thoughts on how chess.com can get even better?
Instead of paying their writers per article, I propose that chess.com pay each professional chess writer in their employ a one-time fee of $2,000,000. This will make their paperwork much easier, and guarantee that the chess writer can’t leave chess.com until his 10-year contract is up.
Silman also has a couple of websites worth checking out: