Chess.com Player Profiles: National Master Dan Heisman
This week's featured subject is quite an eclectic person. NM Dan Heisman has written numerous chess books and he authors the award-winning Novice Nook column, and he has lived professionally from chess the last 16 and a half years. He is also a software engineer, a registered investment adviser and he worked at both Deep Blue vs. Kasparov matches. Read on to hear Dan tell you one of the biggest secrets in chess...
Name: Dan Heisman
Title: National Master
Date of birth: July 8th 1950
Fide rating: 2285
How are you?
Well, for 62 I´m ok, I guess! I have a heal injury, but other than that, I´m fine.
What, if push comes to shove, is your all-time favorite movie?
It Happens Every Spring. It´s a fantasy-baseball movie. I´m a member of the Society for American baseball research.
And your favorite TV-series?
Right now I like Family Guy, ´cause I like that kind of humor. I like The Mentalist, he´s clever, and I like The Big Bang Theory. For non-fiction I like Through the Wormhole on the Science Channel. My all-time favorites are The Bilko Show, sort of like Seinfeld for its day. I like Taxi, light stuff. For more drama I watched The Man From U.N.C.L.E. in the 1960´s. Actually, I have all this stuff on Facebook, so if anybody want to they can find this stuff on my Facebook –page. I don´t watch a lot of drama, but I will tell you something: You know Game of Thrones? The guy who wrote Game of Thrones is a 1900 player in chess, George R. R. Martin. He wrote one of the greatest chess short stories of all time, called "Unsound Variations". It´s about a chess tournament that I really played in, the Pan American in 1970 I think, and it starts there and it becomes a science fiction-story, a time travel story, a great great story, and he wrote that 20 years before he wrote Game of Thrones. It was in a chess book called "Pawn to Infinity".
"...and he took my hand and he placed it up
against his heart. What a great moment
What is your best chess memory?
I have some highlights and I have some lows, I really don´t have like a "best chess memory". When I won the Philadelphia Championship, that was a highlight because nobody thought I was good enough to do that. I came in second among a hundred players. After that people started noticing who I was. Working at the Deep Blue-matches was a highlight, and when I was a nobody rated 1700 where almost all the best players in Philadelphia was playing and I won my first five games and I was the only one in the tournament with 5-0, this young kid knocking down players round after round after round, that was a great highlight of my career. It was a great highlight when I got to teach Howard Stern, and when my first book got published.... Certainly getting to talk to Donald Byrne (Byrne was the man who played against a 13 year old Bobby Fischer in what is known as The Game of the Century) as my coach and teacher in college. Donald Byrne was just a great guy and he was wonderful to work with. It was also nice to write my Novice Nook-column and it started to win all these awards, because I always knew I had things I could help people with. Another highlight was when I met Bobby Fischer´s trainer John Collins, who was also the trainer of Donald Byrne. He was in a wheelchair most of his life and when I met him, it was right before he died, he was old and he could not speak and John Collins did not know me from a hole in his head and I walked up to him at the US Amateur Team Championship and I said: "Excuse me master Collins but I´m Dan Heisman, I played for Donald Byrne at Penn State and he and I were friends and I just wanted to tell you how much I appreciate what you did for everybody", and he took my hand and he placed it up against his heart... What a great moment that was, I was so touched.
What kind of food and drink do you prefer?
I like smoothies, virgin piña coladas and stuff like that. I also like lemonade and ice tea, I´m not a big fan of alcohol. The only time I drink alcoholic is when my wife says: "Taste this wine or taste this beer, it´s good!" and I take a taste. I guess my favorite food is lobster, there´s only a few foods that I don´t like.
What is your favorite book?
As a mathematician I like Gödel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid. It's a tour de force about mathematics and logics, and it was written by Douglas Hofstadter. Of course, Gödel is the famous mathematician, Escher is the famous guy who makes all this crazy paintings, and Bach of course is the famous musician. But I mostly read science fiction, I´ve read about 500 science fiction-books. My son really like Enders Game, and I like The Foundation Trilogy. Right now I´m reading a book called The Drunkards Walk, which is all about the enormous role that randomness has in all our lives.
What music are you currently grooving to?
I´m very wide, I go back to The Beatles and 1950´s music, but I also like classical music. Every solstice when the sun starts coming back I play Fire Music by Wagner. I like show music a lot, like stuff by Rodgers & Hammerstein, or Leonard Bernstein or more modern musicals like Phantom of the Opera and the musical Chess by Abba. I used to sing in the high school choir, so occasionally I sing for my wife.
Tell me a chess secret?
Well, the one that I´m trying to get out to the world is counting, which for 200 years for some reason, no-one has written about. And yet it´s like, if you watch any beginner play, they´re going to make all this counting errors and not be able to calculate sequences of captures and see if the pieces are safe. I´ve written about this extensively and still it´s a big secret! If you buy any beginners book they´re gonna skip right from how to move the pieces to basic tactics and all the tactics are gonna be pins and forks and double attacks, but they´re not gonna talk about the fact that a beginner is gonna make a move and they´ll have a piece that is attacked twice and it´s gonna be guarded once and they´re gonna lose material... Counting can become very complicated, there could be captures on multiple squares, but to find out what is safe is a counting issue. How could we have 200 years of chess without people teaching people that they need to figure out capturing sequences? It´s really almost like a secret, no-one realizes that they should teach people this. I sent an e-mail to Dr. John Nunn (the famous GM) and said that some of the chess problems in his tactic books I´ve been calling that counting, what do you think of that name? And he said "Well, that´s as good a name as any", so I have been calling it counting ever since.
"The one secret that I´m trying to get
out to the world is counting, which for
200 years for some reason, no-one has
What chess hero had the most influence on your chess development?
It probably was Bobby Fischer. My other chess heroes – Emanuel Lasker, Paul Keres, certainly Donald Byrne, and Bent Larsen I´ve learned something from.
Are you self taught in chess or did you get lessons from a master?
Well I never had formal lessons but when I was a weak player I went to the Germantown Chessclub and the stronger players there were very friendly and would let me analyze games with them, so... When I got to college I was already an expert and got to analyze games with Donald Byrne, he was not giving me lessons but I learned a lot from going over games with him, too.
If you were to live 100 years in the future, what do you think the game of chess would look like?
Well I had the guy who solved checkers on my radio show and he was talking about using similar methods to solve chess based on how much faster the computers would be going, and he said he didn´t think chess would be solved until about 2080. But of course once chess gets solved, that´s gonna be a whole different ballgame. A hundred years is a long time from now so if I was around in a hundred years I guess that chess would already be solved. They will prove that chess is a draw if you play it perfectly.
"They asked Karpov "What´s your style?",
Karpov gave a good answer. He said: "Style?
I have no style"
Do you have an idea of some kind of “ideal chess style”?
Well if you watch computers that are rated 3200 play, they really don´t have a style, they just figure out the strongest moves, and sometimes it looks like they are playing wonderful tactical chess and sometimes it looks like they are playing wonderful positional chess, and other times it looks like they are playing crazy moves... So they are as close to an ideal style, but if you´re asking in terms of fun, well then we like people like Shirov and Kasparov who play imbalanced chess because that´s more fun to watch. If you are a fan of Adolf Anderssen or Karpov who would play 80 moves where they would maneuver back and forth, that´s a whole different style... On the other hand when they asked Karpov "What´s your style?", Karpov gave a good answer. He said: "Style? I have no style."
How old were you when you began to play chess?
I learned the moves when I was seven, but I didn´t start playing seriously until I was 16.
Do you have a family?
I do, I have a wife and a son. And now two dogs, a cardigan welsh corgi and a jack russel terrier. I also have a sister, Eileen.
Dan Heisman and his sister Eileen.
Is the Internet a big part of your life?
Absolutely. If it wasn´t for the Internet I wouldn´t be able to teach for a living.
What was your childhood like?
I was generally pretty happy. I graduated first of my high school, I liked playing sports and following sports, and I liked playing games – not just chess, and I liked mathematics, astronomy. I was one of those kids – my parents never told me what to do or where to go, because I was a good kid, I was getting all A´s and what could they do? They let me do whatever I wanted to do, basically. I have a funny story about that: One of my friends was a little bit wild, he was a little bit younger than me, and when I got my drivers license I would pick him up and we went to the Germantown Chessclub, and we would stay there to the middle of the morning, like 3:00 AM or something. So my parents were sleeping and the phone rang and it was the parents of the other kid wondering where we were, it´s 3:00 AM and this is terrible, and my mother said: "If Dan says they´re at the Germantown Chessclub, you can bet your life they´re at the Germantown Chessclub". And that was true, I never got into any trouble, I just did my own thing. When I got into college I was more sociable, I read a lot of books like How to win friends and influence people and all the dynamics of social interaction, because my parents didn´t teach me that stuff very well. So even though I had lots of friends I didn´t have lots of dates or anything like that, but things got better.
What is the best advice your parents gave you?
My parents were big on keeping an open mind and listening to people. They didn´t bring us up to say "This guy is wrong, and this guy is right" you know. They brought us up to say "We believe in this and we believe in listening to everybody and hear what they have to say, to listen to their side of the story. You want to know where people are coming from and things like that. We were brought up to be tolerant and to be understanding, everybody had their own understanding and their strengths and weaknesses.
What is your favorite chess game?
One of my favorite games is the sixth game of the Fischer – Spassky match. And I like the game between Szabo and Lloyd, played in Hastings in 1960, where Lloyd got as much positional compensation for material as you´ll see in any chess game, ever.
What is chess to you – a game of combat or of art?
I wrote a Novice Nook called "Luck in the game of chess". Chess doesn´t have to be just one thing – from Lasker´s definition it´s more of a mental fight, so I would say that is as bad as it is good. Obviously it is a game, it´s a mental sport. When Bobby Fischer wrote is famous article about how Soviet had fixed world chess it was published in United States in the Sports Illustrated Magazine. So it´s a sport, it´s a fight, it´s a game. If I had to pick one it´s a mental fight, but a friendly mental fight.
How much time do you devote to chess?
It depends on whether I´m writing a book. Then it´s about a hundred hours a week, but as soon as I stop, I´m down to about 20. I´m employed by Chess Café, I´m employed by Chess.com and I´m employed by ICC. But my books take up a lot more time than the other stuff – teaching, writing articles and so on.
What is your inner being?
That´s a hard one. If I had a fast version of that I´d start my own religion! Hopefully I´m a helpful, friendly human being.
What is the one thing you’d most like to change about the chess world?
Hiding the rating system! The rating system has done more harm than it´s done good. I think the rating system is wonderful, but the average person spends more time worrying about their rating than they do worrying about getting better. I would hide the ratings, and I would fix it so that you would only get class titles, GM and so on. You wouldn´t lose your titles, once you get to be a C-player you´re a C-player and once you get to be a B-player you´re a B-player, and you could only go up, you can´t go down, but its still done very scientifically with the ratings in the background but you wouldn´t publish all the ratings so people wouldn´t know. So you wouldn´t say to a person "You´re currently 1655" but instead "You´re a B-player, try to do as many A-results as you can and you will someday get to be an A-player", but don´t tell them what their rating is because then people go crazy over their ratings. So that´s the one thing I´d like to change about the chess world.
"The rating system has done more harm
than it´s done good"
Do you think one is born a chess player or can a great player be made by hard practice?
There´s definitely been some chess players that are made by hard practice who had less talent than the great ones. Tests show that grandmasters are a little bit smarter than the average people, I think their average IQ is about 110, but that doesn´t mean that Fischer and Kasparov don´t have genius IQ´s. I mean grandmasters are good at certain things that help them in chess, but that doesn´t mean that a grandmaster can build a wood cabinet or become a chemist, you know.
Who is your inspiration?
My father is an inspiration, and the author and professor of biochemistry Isaac Asimov is an inspiration. I would also like to mention Albert Einstein, Gandhi and Carl Friedrich Gauss, the mathematician.
What is your greatest fear?
I fear being misunderstood, and I fear when people don´t give you a chance. One thing that is true about writers is that they fear not being remembered - that´s why they write.
If you could give a beginner in chess only one piece of advice, what would it be?
Only do what is fun. And never worry about your rating. If you worry about your rating that´s crazy, because your rating is only a reflection of your playing strength. So if you worry about getting better, your rating will eventually go up. If you play a hundred games and your rating goes down but you´ve learned something, you´re actually a better player than before you lost those hundred games in a row. Don´t be worried about losing, be worried about playing a game and not learning anything. Becoming a better chess player is all about finding better moves, and if you are playing fast 15 or 20 minute games and not even looking for better moves, then how do you expect to get better by reading a book and then going out playing a fast game? It doesn´t make sense to me.
"Only do what is fun. And never worry
about your rating"
Do you prefer blitz, otb tournaments or correspondence style chess?
I prefer regular tournaments where you get the chance to think about your games. Blitz certainly has it place, and correspondence chess never was my thing.
Who is your most difficult opponent?
Maybe somebody like International Master Bruce Rind, who was a very, very good positional player.
Is there any chess book that has had a deep and lasting influence on you?
The chess book that was most fun was Chess Curiosities by Tim Krabbé. There is a new book out called The Joys of Chess by Christian Hesse, it is very esoteric. A book that helped me was The most instructive games ever played by Irving Chernev, and Pawn Power in Chess by Hans Kmoch.
If you could choose to live one day of any time in the history of mankind, which time would that be and why?
If I could go anywhere I want with my time machine it would be fun to go to some famous chess event that happened in the past, or you could go to something controversial like the day Christ was supposed to born and see what happened. Or maybe I could go back and talk with Aristotle. Of course I wouldn´t be able to talk to him, because he speaks Greek and I don´t, so...
Do you have any favorite hobbies?
Besides chess I play backgammon, I read science fiction, and when I want to relax I play Heroes of Might and Magic. And I play golf, so yeah, I have a lot of hobbies.
Dan Heisman - player of chess, backgammon, golf and among other things Heroes of Might and Magic.
Are you a superstitious person?
Just very mildly. If I am doing an exercise and I´ve done 12 times and I want to do a couple more, I won´t stop at 13. But you know, I step on cracks all the time when I´m walking down the sidewalk, it doesn´t bother me.
What is the most important lesson you’ve learned in chess?
If you do what you like you can be successful. I worked really, really hard on my chess. I became a Master even though I didn´t start until I was 16, but that´s because I worked hard at it. The work was fun, so that made it easy.
How would you describe yourself to an alien from another planet?
I like to think that I´m a friendly, helpful person who tries to look on peoples side of things.
Do you think the future belongs to rapid chess and blitz?
They say that chess like love and music has the power to make men happy, but if you want to market chess and put it on television, it would only be interesting to the people who understand chess well enough to play the game. You can try to dumb it down for the audience, but if there´s two Grandmasters playing, you just can´t dumb it down enough to really make them appreciate what the Grandmasters are doing to 1700 players. In chess you can´t like with music appreciate what they are doing as a non-strong player.
"On the ICC when you go over the games
they have time-stamping. I would really like
to see time stamping on Chess.com games"
Do you have any thoughts on how Chess.com can get even better?
Well, I would like to see a better learning environment. On ICC you have a library where you can save positions so you can teach people and you can say: "Pull up library game 333" and you could say "Solve this puzzle", and on Chess.com you can´t do that. Secondly on the ICC when you go over the games they have time-stamping. So when you review the games you can say: "Look you have 45 minutes left and you took six seconds on this move." Because I always say to my students "A bad move played in ten seconds is a lot different than the same move played in ten minutes". It helps me tell my students: "Well the reason that you didn´t play a better move is because you didn´t even try." But when I see a game on Chess.com I can´t tell how much time they have used, they could have played the whole game really slow, they could have played the whole game really fast, I don´t know... So I can´t help them as much. It would be nice with a games and puzzles-library and time stamping on the games. Outside of live chess Chess.com has a very wide range of products, so I´m happy with that.
Here´s a link to all of Dan Heisman´s Novice Nook articles.