12 Questions for an American Chess Icon
John Watson with Hikaru Nakamura.

12 Questions for an American Chess Icon

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Greetings everyone, I'm honored that during these tough times amidst COVID-19, I was presented the golden opportunity to interview IM John Watson.

John Watson

International Master John Watson is a world renowned author whose famous works include his series on the English opening and Play the French. Watson is an established authority on the theory of chess strategy and this is embodied in two books World-Champion Carlsen studied, Secrets of Modern Chess Strategy and Modern Chess Strategy in Action. He's also highly knowledgeable about unorthodox openings and in his early days often played  1.Na3!?, even beating the legendary Danish GM Bent Larsen in a blitz game. He co-authored one of my favorite chess books: Taming Wild Chess Openings. Watson studied at Harvard University and the University of California at San Diego, and subsequently worked as an electrical engineer, specializing in error-correction. Apart from being an IM, he's a longtime chess coach, and mentored the 1997 World Junior Champion, Tal Shaked, as well as other talents. Today, I shall be bombarding him with questions about books, chess theory, his chess challenges, and his best game.

Watson in Chess Life

Watson also wrote the only chess comic in the world, Chess Man!

The Interview

Q1: John, how did you begin studying chess and improving your game before becoming an IM?

"I learned the moves from my father and began to play with others at age 14 in my newly-formed high school club. For the most part, however, I was the rare player who mainly learned from books, studying everything I could find in the public library and bookstores of Omaha, Nebraska. We had few serious tournaments in those days, but there was an active chess club and casual games were the way one gained playing experience. The most advanced player in the area was John Tomas, from whom I learned a lot."

Q2: What first interested you in writing about chess?

"I submitted games and articles to State chess magazines for many years, and edited the Colorado Chess Informant for a few years. I also wrote for Chess Life. Then in the late 1970s I decided that I would thoroughly research the English Opening and write a book about it, since there was almost nothing available on the subject."

Q3: How did you  balance chess and school?

"Like most young players at the time, I played a fair amount in high school but very little at college. There were team matches in the Boston area, which were easy to get to without making a large time investment, so I managed to get some games in."

Q4: Would you like to present your best game?

"I won’t show you a ‘best’ game, which would be one of several lengthy technical affairs, but rather, here’s a more entertaining dynamic one. It has the advantage of being played in recent years, when I’ve become a weaker player and seldom get to have such fun."

Q5: What are some of the merits of playing irregular chess openings now in the computer age? Do you think as chess progresses that more players will venture to less trodden paths?

"It seems that stronger players aren’t willing to commit to the crazier lines in TWCO (ed- Taming Wild Chess Openings) ; but they are also avoiding the most critical main lines in major openings and instead creating new theory and a large set of practical examples in variations that were formerly thought to be fairly nondescript, such as the Reti, irregular English Openings, 1 b3, and ultra-slow 1 d4 openings as White. Or, with Black we see a lot of early …b6s, …b5s, and …g6s and …h5s in position where they weren’t played before. As theory becomes exhausted, we will see more games with openings in which there are many equally good choices at numerous junctures."

Q6: What inspired you to write Taming Wild Chess Openings? 

"Eric Schiller and I had spent a lifetime of looking at and writing about these offbeat lines. We decided to make one more attempt to put them out there for a public that may not have been exposed to the fact that there are so many fun and original ways to play the game."

Q7: What is white's most unpleasant response to the French defense?

"To me, 3 Nc3 is the most principled move and definitely the hardest to play against. It’s what I myself played as White when I was a 1 e4 player."

Q8: For a young improving player do you recommend they memorize main lines or strive merely to get a playable game?

I think you need a mix. Even if you absolutely hate memorizing complicated theoretical lines, it’s extremely healthy to at least understand and get experience with the ideas and themes those main lines produce, which tend to be the most profound illustrations of what top-level chess means. On the other hand, you want to have a number of less theoretical openings in your repertoire, ideally ones where both you and your opponent are forced to play ‘on your own’ at a fairly early stage.

Q9: Did you have any chess idols growing up in Nebraska?

"Funny you mention that, because a forthcoming article in Chess Life deals with Reverend Howard Ohman from Omaha, who was my tutor during my teen years. He was in a sense my role model. As for idols in the sense of ‘heroes’, I worshipped Steinitz, Nimzowitsch, Alekhine, and Tal."

Q10: What are your passions outside of chess?

"I listen to music and read a lot in various areas, particularly economics, science, and literature. In recent years, my wife and I have become addicted to the world of streaming movies and TV shows."

Q11: What were important chess challenges you overcame in order to improve?

"I did get stuck for a while, and there were some clear reasons. The first is that I was very impatient and always wanted to do something brilliant, instead of admit that I was in an ordinary position and needed to just play normally. My openings were too aggressive and good players punished them. Finally, I became an over-thinker and time pressure addict; that never fully went away, but I became better at leaving myself time to handle critical positions."

Q12: You are a contributor to chess publishing, and occasionally play yourself, what else are you up to these days?

"I’m not as involved in chess as much as previously, but I still teach, and I just became the book review columnist for Chess Life. Of course, I’m also a fan who follows major tournaments, and I talk and correspond with a number of chess friends."

Thank you so much John for taking your time to answer my queries, best of luck to you!