Q: I have been enjoying your book, written jointly with Pal Benko, about the life, games and studies of the Hungarian/American GM. How are the sales going? Is it a best seller? (It should be!).
JS: Benko’s Life, Games, and Compositions is the only book I know of to win all three major chess book awards in the same year (2004): the British Chess Federation Book of the Year, the ChessCafe Book of the Year, and the Cramer Book of the Year. Sadly, this kind of tome never sells well since players tend to ignore chess history and instead go for opening books and “how to”/instructive books.
Fortunately, I was well aware of this fact before I started the project, and it didn’t matter. I very much wanted to do something different than my instructive books, and the wealth of material that was at Benko’s fingertips made my decision a no-brainer. Yes, it took five years to write the thing, but I was delighted with the final product.
One thing I liked about Benko’s Life, Games, and Compositions is that it’s not just about Benko. Instead, it takes a serious look at most of the greats from his era. Lots of photos made it more human, Susan Polgar kindly wrote a very nice foreword, John Watson wrote a large section on Benko’s openings, Ron Gross (a close friend of Benko) and the late Larry Evans were interviewed and offered up some eye-opening insights, I didn’t let Benko shy away from very personal information, and (of course) all the games are deeply annotated. As you can see, this project went beyond Benko and myself, it was a real team effort with everyone offering key information.
For me, though, there were two mind-boggling highlights (from a book filled with highlights):
Chapter 4 – Fall From Grace (The Dark Years) has Benko losing everything. He was arrested and imprisoned (ostensibly for life!) in a tall, dark building where he was left to starve along with the many other unfortunate “convicts.” This is gritty, toe curling reading!
The other highlight was the “out of nowhere” appearance of Dr. R. Cantwell, who gave us his photos of Fischer visiting Tal in his hospital room during the legendary Curacao event. Most of these had never been published before, and the full collection told a moving story that demonstrated the friendship between these two chess giants.
In the end, the book wasn’t close to being a best seller – it wasn’t meant to be. It was a few things: an autobiography of a great player, a study of chess during that time period, a work of art, and an illustration that a chess player’s life doesn’t have to be boring or inconsequential. I’m extremely happy – in fact honored – to have done it.
Q: But let’s start again. You are 58 I read but have played little for (what?) ten or twelve years? Too busy writing and coaching?
JS: Actually I hardly teach at all. I am working on several things, though. My novel about San Francisco’s famous Haight-Ashbury in the early 1970s is done, but I’ll edit it for a while until it’s just right. This has quite a few chess and backgammon references in it, but it’s also filled with the three tenets of that time and place, namely sex, drugs, and rock & roll. Quite simply, if graphic sex, drugs, cursing, mysticism, and general insanity offend you, then avoid the book. I should add that the real premise of the book is a time-honored one: a guy goes to incredible lengths to get rid of his wife, who is completely bonkers.
I’m also working with the e+chess App company (from New Zealand) to make my own books available for the iPad, iPhone, and iPod touch. So far I did Silman’s Complete Endgame Course, which is available on the iTunes App store (look for e+chess). You get all 500+ pages, plus an additional 87 audio clips that feature me driving home key points throughout the book. Next up is my latest book, How to Reassess Your Chess 4th edition, which is a total rewrite from other Reassess versions. My intention is to add around 200 audio clips to the 658-page book, which should be epic (of course, this will take a while to create). I chose e+chess since its technology is light years ahead of all the other chess Apps out there. It’s not even close. You can check it out on their site, here: http://www.eplusbooks.com/.
Other than that, I write a weekly column for chess.com, do chess book reviews for my website (jeremysilman.com), and review Asian films on my other website (silmansasianmoviereviews.com). One look at that site and you’ll realise that Asian cinema (mainly Japanese, Chinese, and Korean, though there’s also some really good stuff coming out of Thailand) is my passion.
I should add that the rest of my time is taken up by travel. In the last 3 or 4 years I’ve hit Japan (several times!), China, Vietnam, Thailand, Laos, Sri Lanka, India (all over), Italy, Spain, Portugal, the Netherlands, Austria, Greece, and even jolly old England.
Concerning me playing again, I retired from competitive chess when I realized that both my eyesight and memory were fading fast. The former hit me like a brick when I looked at my scoresheet and couldn’t read the numbers. Now when I lecture, I often reach for a Bishop and end up moving a Rook diagonally across the board. Fortunately, the laughter from the audience lets me know that I’ve done something insane. If I go to the movies, I sometimes find myself claiming an “empty” seat, only to find that I’m sitting on some poor soul!
The memory problem first struck when I spent hours preparing an opening line against a grandmaster opponent, only to forget everything I studied by deviating on move 5. These two problems were strong indicators that it was time to give up, or else I might have found myself drooling on my opponents in the future.
Q: We in the UK know you’re busy because your books wing their way across the Atlantic. Silman’s Complete Endgame Course has, for example, something for everybody, but, to get down to specifics, talks of trebuchet and something called Fox in Chicken Soup. Fox in where…?
JS: Actually, I did something odd (as in perhaps stupid) when coming up with the name, Fox in the Chicken Coup. A normal, illustrative name would be Fox in the Chicken Coop (which was my original intention). However, it stuck me that using the word “coup” would blend together two important points that would fully describe the King’s operation – my transposition of coop to coup allowed me to present the fox in the coop image, while also making it clear (with “coup”) that we’re looking at a successful (almost militaristic) act or move by the King. In a nutshell: Fox in the Chicken Coup refers to a situation where the stronger side’s King (the “fox”) rushes to the other side of the board to feast on helpless enemy pawns (“chickens”) while the defending King is busy dealing with a pawn on the other wing.
After the book was published, I realized that all I managed to do was make things more cryptic, and that if I could do it over again, I’d settle with the easy to understand “coop” version. My usual teaching philosophy is “simple is best.” Sadly, I failed to follow that philosophy here. I’m really happy that I didn’t think of Fox in the Chicken Soup since I might well have gone with that!
I should add that I always find fault with all sorts of decisions once a book is published. So I try not to hit myself over the head too often.
Q: Are these the titles you’d like to be remembered for?
JS: The book that I’m most famous for is How to Reassess Your Chess, which was the first time my imbalance concept was offered to the masses. Since my name is always associated with this title, I wanted it to be something I was proud of. However, I was never satisfied with the earlier editions. As a result, I did a fourth edition, which was a complete rewrite. I took the old editions and tossed them in the garbage, and wrote the new edition from scratch (all 658 oversize pages of it). And now I AM very satisfied (I should add that the 4th edition won the 2011 Guardian Chess Book of the Year award.). It’s now out in German (thanks to New in Chess), and will soon be out in French.
I’m also pleased with The Amateur’s Mind 2nd edition, though it could be improved with some editing and computer testing. But it’s an old book (1999) and I’ve decided to let it be (every old book can be improved by editing and computer testing!). It’s a very, very instructive book for players in the 1200 to 1700 range. Naturally, Silman’s Complete Endgame Course and Benko’s Life, Games, and Compositions are also on my “happy” list.
Q: I think you show empathy for the weaker player. That’s unusual for a master. Am I correct?
JS: Yes, I do have a lot of empathy for non-masters. My first rating (age 12) was 1057 and I admit to being overrated at that time. In fact, I didn’t know anything. I got that initial rating when, after going 0 – 5 in my first tournament, my final opponent overlooked a one move backrank mate with my Rook. I stared at the position and didn’t know a mate from a stalemate. After a while (I guess he had to go somewhere) he grabbed my Rook, screamed, “Idiot! It’s mate! Mate!” and then mated himself. 400 was probably a more appropriate rating for me, but I was really proud of the 1057 rating when I got it!
When I teach someone (and for many years I taught a lot), it’s really important for me to help him/her reach their potential (or at the very least enjoy chess more via the new tools I give them). Some of my students went on to be masters, some just made small strides since they couldn’t put much time into the game. As anyone in the know will tell you, a player gets good by absorbing thousands of chess patterns. This is done by going over countless games. However, most people just don’t have that kind of time to devote to chess. This is why I came up with my imbalance system – imbalances plus basic tactical study is an artificial, humanistic, and fast way to create basic pattern recognition in just about anyone, with a minimal expenditure of time.
IMBALANCE LIST (from How to Reassess Your Chess 4th Edition)
Superior minor piece
Control of a key file
Control of a hole/weak square
Lead in development
Initiative (which I usually refer to as “pushing your own agenda”)
Statics vs. dynamics
Q: As a player, you reached IM. You won the American Open, National Open and US Open. Any special memories to share here, please?
JS: I was IM strength when I was 19 (though I didn’t get the title until my mid 30s), but the all-important 20s was a black hole due to my immersion into certain areas of San Francisco culture, which was tremendous fun, but not conducive to gaining chess titles.
Winning those events was wonderful, but such victories always depend on some measure of luck. In the U.S. Open my IM opponent’s scoresheet showed that he had just made the time control, while my scoresheet showed he still had one move to go. We knew each other well, and always bragged that our scoresheets were perfect. Though he could force a perpetual check (either that or lose), he refused to move as an act of defiance, saying, “My scoresheet, as always, is perfect, but yours is clearly incorrect.” So he sat there for 3 minutes until his flag fell, whereupon I showed him where he had written a move down twice. His reaction was extremely loud and unpleasant.
I came close to winning the National Open on a couple of occasions (eventually I did indeed win the thing). One of those had me playing a famous American grandmaster for (potentially) first place (though it turned out to be second). He was polite at first (he always was when things were going his way), but when he starting losing, he began kicking me under the table. I asked him to stop, but it just made him kick me harder! I ignored his “attack” (he was well loved by everyone, so hitting him didn’t seem like a good idea) and eventually reeled in the point.
Q: And – staying with your playing days – you were a great Sicilian man. Like Browne, like Fischer, you were a fan of 1…c5! But, unlike Fischer, you were a strong 1d4 advocate.
JS: I played 1 e4 until I was around 25 years old. Then I realized that I was in a rut and needed to expand my positional understanding. I switched to 1.d4 with that in mind. Regarding the Black side of the Sicilian, Fischer and Browne were Najdorf players (1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 a6), while I was in love with the Accelerated Dragon (1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 g6). Those two Sicilian systems are very different animals.
Q: We have been enjoying your website www.jeremysilman.com. Are you glued to a computer each day now? (We are).
JS: I think most people are glued to their computers or devices. I’m usually writing articles on my computer, checking out world news, or looking up the latest chess results in international events. I sit in front of the machine for approximately 8 hours a day (though if I’m finishing up a project I might well do a 12 hour computer shift). Then off I go to bed, where I prop myself up into a very comfortable position and fire up my iPad! Sleep usually hits me around 5 or 6AM.
I gave up paper magazines a while ago and now get all my science and travel magazines in electronic form (this makes for weightless airline reading). I also read novels in this manner. I polished off the whole 8 million page Girl With the Dragon Tattoo series on my iPhone while relaxing in the Nam Hai resort in Vietnam (a magnificent place – highly recommended!).
Q: Finally, a question you may already be bored with. What on earth is this about you and Harry Potter? (JK Rowling is too popular to need a plug hereabouts!)
JS: I was asked to design the chess scene for the first Potter movie. It took a lot of time, and I came up with something really cool, but in the end it was a bit of a fiasco since they shortened the scene to just one move. You can get the full story here: http://js.rhinoserverone.com/shop/pc/Creating-the-Harry-Potter-Chess-Position-87p3692.htm
I’ve also done a lot of chess scenes for TV shows, and in just about every case we will do countless takes to get the scene perfect, and then the editor will grab the quickest, worst rendition and use that. It’s painful! TV shows tend to offer low pay, very hard work (you get there at 5:30 AM and work late into the night), and ultimately humiliation.