Love Letters to a Chess Writer!

Love Letters to a Chess Writer!

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Reader Comments To Articles – Love Letters to a Chess Writer!

Ah, time to revisit all my previous articles and mention a few of the many comments that appear under them. I’m sure they will all be positive … perhaps offering me riches and praise and eternal love and … what’s this? Attacks? Disagreements? Gibbering raves as chess fans wave their fists at me in defiance? Okay, fair enough! Let’s see what the cat brought in.

robotronic [Commenting on an article about explanatory opening books] wrote:

“I actually bought FCO, and I have to say that it’s a really drawn-out read. The book can’t decide if it wants to be a start-to-finish read or an encyclopedia, which really gets confusing when the author tries to explain the opening with a narrative (often going off on a tangent), then digresses a few pages later.”

Silman responds:

This actually surprised me since I never imagined anyone would view FCO (Fundamental Chess Openings by Paul van der Sterren) as a book to be read from cover to cover. I guess you could, if you have an endless amount of study time. However, for those that want to learn things that are pertinent to their own needs, the book should be used in two ways:

1) Look at several lines that interest you and see if they are to your taste.

2) Read the chapters on the openings you already play.

After that, put the book (which I’m very high on – for players under 1500) away until you have a need to explore a new opening.


dgmisal [Commenting on an article about explanatory opening books] wrote:

“Seirawan also wrote a great series that includes books on getting started, tactics, strategy, brilliancies, openings, and endgames. The openings book does not do much for memorizing lines, but it walks through opening ideas very well, almost move by move. They are grouped logically, and laid out very well. Definitely worth a look, anyway.”

Silman responds:

I actually know about these books because I wrote a few of them with Yaz (Play Winning Chess, Winning Chess Strategy, and Winning Chess Tactics)! Yasser does indeed write in a very user friendly, clear manner. All these books (including the ones I had nothing to do with) are excellent.


Jontsef [Commenting on an article about the imbalances] wrote:

“Am I alone in getting the impression that Silman is basically saying we don’t have the ‘talent’ to be able to calculate deeply like IMs/GMs and thus our only hope is to have enough positional understanding and tactical knowledge to compensate? It sounds a bit disheartening.”

Silman responds:

I have no idea if you have talent or not. You might be a calculating genius, but haven’t reached your full potential due to a complete lack of positional skills. Or you might already have a full armament of positional skills, but can’t calculate more than one move ahead.

If you can’t naturally calculate fairly deeply at this point, then you will never be able to match the calculation abilities of Tal, Kasparov, or Alekhine. It doesn’t mean you won’t be a good player, it just means that you don’t have that particular (and rare) talent. If that depresses you, so be it.

I play golf once a week and can’t hit the ball more than 150 feet (even with a wood). I don’t have any idea what I’m doing, and my swing looks like I’m performing a spastic “Dancing With the Stars” impersonation. However, I enjoy playing. Using your logic, I am now deeply depressed because I will never reach the level of Tiger Woods. In fact, I might perform ritualistic seppuku at this very moment, using a 5 iron instead of a sword.


Master_in_panama [Commenting on an article about the Budapest Gambit revisited] wrote (I’ve shortened his rant, which claims that the Latvian is sound and the Budapest isn’t - JS):

“I’m sorry, IM Silman, but I find it exactly the other way around. In OTB, I’ve won about 10 games against the Budapest, and lost only 3 or 4. While with the Latvian, I won about 30 games, and lost 10 games. It’s just my opinion, and I’m just an amateur, but that’s what I think.”

Gambitking added (ah, they like to pile on when you’ve been tackled - JS):

“You’re right, master_in_panama. Not only is Silman completely ignorant of many of the new developments which now make the Latvian more playable than ever, but he doesn’t even want to learn! He wants to remain in his little dream world where ‘unsound’ counterattacks on the second move are ‘doomed’ to fail.

“Well, well ... excuse me, Princess! Anyway, actions speak louder than words, and it’d really be cool if Silman would take on Alejandro Melchor in a game ... not gonna happen though, probably. Anyways, long live the Latvian!”

Silman responds:

I admire your candor and love for the Latvian, but not your rudeness.

Unfortunately, fans of various openings have this false view that liking an opening makes it sound by dint of personal desire. However, the truth of the matter is that all black openings undergo moments of crisis after a good line or lines appear that threaten it. And, though these setbacks are almost always repelled after endless hours of grandmaster analysis and grandmaster tournament practice that proves the systems’ viability (until the next threat appears), the same can’t be said for certain (not all!) gambits that are clearly doomed for the theoretical trash bin. [See my comments to Bluebird1964, below, for more on this subject].

On the other hand, there’s no reason not to play an opening you love even if it is highly dubious. If it’s fun and effective against the people you play, then by all means use it! But don’t scream to the skies, “I use it and beat weak players with it so it’s completely sound!”

Finally, let’s briefly discuss Mr. Melchor: Alejandro Melchor has been mentioned time and again as one of THE authorities on the Latvian. However, if you look at his postings carefully, you'll realize that he feels the Latvian is in serious trouble (and, in a personal correspondence with Mr. Melchor, he freely said that it was probably refuted by several different systems).

So much for master_in_panama’s comment about me being completely ignorant “of many of the new developments which now make the Latvian more playable than ever.” If you still stand by your statement, please send these 'new developments' to Mr. Melchor or myself. We both would honestly love to see them.


PrideNSorrow [In response to the many people who go crazy when I “ignore” their questions] said:

“To everyone bugging Mr. Silman to answer their questions, be patient.  I’m sure he’s a very busy man and it’s exceedingly rude to post your complaints in the comments sections of his articles.”

Silman responds:

Ah, thank you PrideNSorrow, for bring up this important topic!

Here’s the scoop: I get lots of people that feel I’m deliberately ignoring them. This isn’t the case. I have dozens and dozens of questions in front of me, and I really want to answer every one. But I only do one article a week, so it might take ages for me to get to your query. On top of that, I do many articles ahead of time (I was in Laos and Vietnam for 5 weeks recently and wouldn’t have been able to answer anyone), and I have no say whatsoever about which order they are posted (that’s up to Mr. Pruess).

The best way to ensure that I get your question is to send it to Mr. Pruess, or send it to me via the mailing system. Keep your question as short as possible since really long ones scare me and are shunted to the back of the pile. Also, I try to answer older questions first, so if you just sent something, you might get lucky, or you might be way back on the waiting list.

Rest assured that I’m doing my very best to address all of your questions. I should add that, if you asked a question long ago and it was never answered, a polite reminder (with the question enclosed) would be appreciated.


Jmarinjoa commented:


Silman responds: Next time you write a letter like this, wear gloves and cut out individual letters from newspapers and magazines. Splice them onto a piece of generic paper, use a generic envelope with a fake return address, and drive a long distance from your actual location before mailing it. That way nobody can trace it back to the real sender.

Seriously sir, I have no idea what you’re talking about. I wish I could give you a proper answer and make you feel better, but I’m not able to do it. If you write me using whatever contact they have on, or if you write Mr. Pruess, please explain what the problem is and I’ll do my best to help.


Bluebird1964 [Commenting on an article about the French Wing Gambit] wrote:

“The French Wing Gambit is far from suspect. Watson is only an IM (I’m an FM, FIDE 2300), and both this and the wing gambit in the Sicilian is worth a poke.

“Yes, it’s not played much at the highest level, but with more emphasis now on speed chess, if you know your stuff and these lines will certainly rack you up a shed load of points.

“Sorry Watson, but you are WRONG!”

Silman responds:

John Watson is known to be one of the world’s greatest experts on the French Defense, and his views on theory are highly thought of by amateurs and grandmasters alike. He’s light years ahead of you as both a theorist and as a player, so show a bit of respect.

I made it clear that this gambit (which I always had a soft spot for) was effective in blitz and against weak opposition. However, the truth of the matter is that it doesn’t hold up to serious scrutiny (and I really want it to hold up since I like the thing!). Just because you can use it to win 1-minute games (or 3 minute, or 5) doesn’t mean anything at all. In fact, many players use 1.f3 e5 2.Kf2 in 1-minute and win over and over. Does that mean the opening is good?

You, and many others, tend to mix taste, personal attraction, and results with an honest theoretical discussion. Again, if you like an opening, and if you’re successful with it, then by all means play it and enjoy it. But don’t claim that it’s good.

If you wish to hold a civil discussion about this, look at Watson’s lines, refute them, and send me the refutations. Putting his analysis down while offering nothing but the fact that you’ve won blitz games with it is pure hubris – very compelling if you’re trying to impress an innocent young lady on a chess date, but it makes you look more than foolish in my eyes.


Gbidari [Commenting on an article about blindfold chess] wrote:

“Grandmaster George Koltanowski refutes your claim that blindfold chess will not cure blunders! In ‘Adventures of a Chess Master,’ page 185, Kolty has this to say on playing blindfold chess, ‘As you go along, you will discover that your ability to handle over-the-board positions is increasing. Your ability to concentrate will become more highly developed. Most important of all, you will find, as many of my pupils have reported, that you will have ceased making simple blunders. No longer will you put your pieces on squares where they can be captured. No longer will you be the target for simple little traps.’

Silman responds:

The word “refute” means to prove something wrong. Just because Kolty (who I knew … in fact, he was instrumental in making me the lone American competitor in a very strong international event in Mexico City. He was very kind to do that for me.) gave his opinion, it doesn’t mean it’s any more valid than my opinion. Thus you/he didn’t refute anything.

I’m not sold on the superiority of blindfold chess over other improvement methods. There is absolutely no doubt that it might be an effective training tool for some players, but it never did anything for me, and was more or less distained by the vast majority of IMs and GMs I’ve known over the years.

Players like Reti and Koltanowski were two of the greatest blindfold masters of all time, thus their view was naturally skewed towards making it as important as possible. And, perhaps they were right. I don’t know, and I’ve never seen any scientific study to make a point in either direction. If you (or anyone else) know of such a study, could you please forward it to me?


Bodhi [Commenting on an article about creating a study program] wrote:

“A question I have about this article, though, is Silman mentioning in his last sentence: ‘After you do all this (it could take anywhere from 2 months to 2 years), start to look at master games.’ I thought I read somewhere that in Russia, the chess teachers have their students do nothing but study master games for two years before they undertake any other study of the game. Yet Silman mentions master game study as an afterthought.”

Silman responds:

Quite right! Though I did highlight the study of master games, I didn’t properly integrate it with the other topics (opening, tactic, positional, and endgame study). This was simply a slip up on my part, no doubt caused by the distraction and exasperation of my seeking a mongoose (Ponti failed to point out how difficult this would be – see next question).

I’ve mentioned the enormous importance of studying master games in many other articles, and I stand by that view. I feel a player should look over master games every chance he gets, though the so-called Russian “just do master games for two years before looking at anything else” concept is a bit strange. But, to be honest, going over lots and lots of master games is absolutely one of the best things you can do if you wish to make serious improvement in your overall playing strength.

You can read a lot more about this critical topic in my article: More on the Study of Master Games.


Ponti [Commenting on an article about food in chess events] wrote:

“I find that if you boil the blood of a fresh mongoose and sprinkle some crushed walnuts and lemon rinds into the concoction, the opponents faint 5% of the time, throw up 7.5% of the time, and it helps produce enough gas to knock him out for a good 20 min.

“The key is to stir it until mildly thick for 2 minutes 14 seconds (doing this while it is you or your opponents first move gives a 68 win percentage for white, 52 % win when black, and a 15% draw for both colors).”

Silman responds:

This caught my attention, and after collecting the necessary ingredients, I gave it a try at a local club blitz event. Sure enough, Ponti was completely correct! One opponent did indeed faint (sadly, face down on the Bishop – it took hours to dislodge the thing from his left nostril), another threw up over the board and clock (I claimed an immediate forfeit!), and the promised gas made all my other opponents simply refuse to play me. I won the event without making one move!


Yawmoght [Commenting on an article about food in chess events after I attacked FIDE’s drug testing policy] wrote:

“I don’t agree with the author. Nonsensical, using substances to increase the body’s performance? Ok, tell that to other sports, and see their opinion. Of course, ‘I do what I want and to hell with the others’ is always THE best policy, right?”

Silman responds:

Your argument is based on emotion, but lacks logic and common sense.

I have no problem with testing for drugs that, in the long term, harm the body while also giving the imbiber a huge edge over the competition. However, banning things that do no harm is silly. Would you ban vitamins? How about broccoli?

So, let’s deal with the “substances that ultimately do a person harm while simultaneously giving a competitive edge” scenario – namely steroids, of course. Taking this stuff has been shown to be, in many cases, deadly. However, its effects are so pronounced that it gives you an enormous advantage (usually in physical strength) over other contestants. Thus, a person that wants to be competitive would also need to take this substance, and that’s the whole point of banning it.

Sadly, mankind’s proclivity for hysteria has soured the whole process. During the Olympics (quite a while ago), a young female gymnast won gold, but her medal was stripped when the powers that be discovered she had taken cough syrup (or some such thing) beforehand. They admitted that this over-the-counter drug was in no way beneficial for anyone in her sport (in fact, it was most likely a hindrance), and they admitted that she had no way of knowing that traces of a Olympic banned but harmless substance was in it. But the rules were the rules, so they destroyed her life. Well done!

As far as chess goes, there is no known substance that has been proven to be beneficial to chess pros. Yes, a great diet might help give a player an edge over a destitute adversary who could only afford to eat potatoes and minced rat. But does that mean that everyone has to eat the finest foods, or that everyone should eat slop? And, if a pill is found that increases brain capacity with absolutely no negative effects, wouldn’t a person be foolish not to take it? As for steroids, do I care if my opponent has huge muscles? Steroids have absolutely nothing to do with chess.

Olympic style testing for chess is moronic. Period. Keep in mind that laws should protect people and make sense. If a law actually harms people and does no good whatsoever, then why retain it?


Mr. ElDude56 [Commenting on an article on picking an opening by style] wrote:

“Thank you for the article. Several years ago you were a contributor (or editor?) of the PCN. I came across these newsletters/broadsheets in 1984 during the Thessaloniki Olympiad and was amazed at the level of analysis – which I used frequently and to good effect! I understand that the PCN has long ceased production. What publication/periodical do you consider as a worthy successor of the PCN?”

Silman responds:

Wow, that was far more than “several years ago.” We’re talking over 20 years ago! I had a memory and weighed 400 pounds less then. The PCN (Players Chess News) has long since gone the way of all things.

I was one of the last editors, and certainly the longest lasting (there was a shockingly high “hire and quit” ratio). Other brave souls who took the job were US Champion (and IM) John Grefe, Grandmaster James Tarjan, International Master Vince McCambridge, International Master John Donaldson, and Grandmaster Larry Christiansen.

PCN was all about chess news. However, we came out with a sister magazine called “T & A” (seriously) – perhaps a poor choice of name in retrospect. Of course, T & A stood for “Theory and Analysis”, but instead the name caused universal hysteria in the chess world.

My favorite modern chess magazine (and, in my view, the finest chess magazine of all time) is New in Chess. And, of course, you can get most important chess news right here on If you’re after serious theory, the best option is


Rexbo [Commenting on an article about random attacks against innocent pieces] wrote:

“Just as a note. You posted the Sveshnikov line in the wrong order. It’s supposed to go 1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 e5 6.Ndb5 d6 7.Bg5 a6 8.Na3 b5 9.Bxf6 gxf6.

“The reason being is that after 8.Bxf6 gxf6 9.Na3 f5! is the best move for Black.”

Silman responds:

H.Nakamura (2708) - A.Shirov (2723), Corus A Wijk aan Zee, 2010

1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 e5 6.Ndb5 d6 7.Bg5 a6 8.Bxf6 gxf6 9.Na3 f5 10.Nc4 Nd4 11.exf5 Bxf5 12.Ne3 Bg6 13.Ncd5 Bh6 14.c3 Ne6 15.Bd3 Bxe3 16.Nxe3 Qb6 17.0-0 Nf4 18.Be2 Rg8 19.Bf3 Nh3+ 20.Kh1 Nxf2+ 21.Rxf2 Qxe3 22.Bxb7 Rb8 23.Re2 Qb6 24.Bd5 Rg7 25.Qd2 f5 26.Rf1 Kd7 27.b4 f4 28.a4 a5 29.b5 Rd8 30.g3 fxg3 31.hxg3 Kc8 32.c4 Kb8 33.Rf6 Re7 34.Kh2 e4 35.Qc3 Rc8 36.Re3 Ka7 37.Bc6 Rd8 38.c5 dxc5 39.Bxe4 Rd6 40.Rxd6 Qxd6 41.Qxa5+, 1-0.

Mr. Rexbo, I just sent your letter to Mr. Nakamura, letting him know that he doesn’t have a proper grasp of theory. If he hires you as his opening trainer, I want a cut of your salary!

By the way, Jobava (2650) played 8.Bxf6 twice in 2007 (I sent your comment to him too). Yes, 8.Na3 is far more popular, but 8.Bxf6 is fine. Anyway, my article wasn’t about theory, it was trying to make a point about a completely different matter, and I thought that the position after 8.Bxf6 helped make that point.


obregon26 [Commenting on an article about the study of master games] wrote:

"Going over a thousand games is ridiculous."

Silman responds:

I think a lot of people would agree with you, but I doubt that any of those people would be the best of the best in their chosen fields.

I have a friend that is the most terrifying fighter I've ever seen. When he was young, he would start every day with 500 kicks with his right leg, and another 500 with his left. Every morning, like clockwork, for years and years.

How do the finest physicists master their profession? Do they spend all non-working hours watching TV and chugging a beer, or do they read everything possible on physics and think about the subject day and night?

How about world class long distance runners? Think they go for a jog now and then (between bites of ice-cream) when in the mood? Federer ... does he practice a bit, but for the most part hopes to get by on his enormous talent? No, Federer trains like a maniac -- when he stops doing this, his results will go downhill.

So many people dream of being the best at something, but very few are willing to make the sacrifices needed to succeed. And, in my world, looking at a thousand games (which I view as a relatively small amount) isn't a sacrifice at all, it's a pleasure. Thus, top-level success at anything = a love of one's profession (it has to be your passion), talent, and an almost unmatched work ethic.

Please, don't sneer at those that work harder than you do.

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