Pawn Pawn

Robofriven interviews Jeremy Silman

Interviewer: Robert Brunnemer (Robofriven)

International Master Jeremy Silman is one of the few people to ever win the U.S Open, the American Open and the National Open. He is considered to be one of the premier chess writers of his time having written over 36 books including How to Reassess Your Chess, Silman's Complete Endgame Course from Beginner to Master, and The Amateur's Mind. He runs JeremySilman.com a completely free and extremely instructive website with hundreds of articles written by himself, Yassar Seirawan and many others. And he was nice enough to answer my questions. So here is my interview with IM Jeremy Silman, hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

Q: First of all, when did you start playing chess and what made you want to pretty much devote your (professional) life to it?

JS: I got into it at the ripe old age of 12. A friend of mine challenged me to play, and of course he beat me to a pulp. I didn't know most of the game's rules -- in fact, I only knew how the pawn's moved, so I created pretty pawn chains as he took my pieces and mated me.

After that my conqueror joined forces with another kid and they beat me over and over, laughing hysterically as they stomped me into the dirt. However, I hated to lose, and I silently swore that vengeance would be mine. So I continued to get wiped out ("stealing" all their knowledge over time), I studied chess during every moment of every waking hour, and I turned the tables when I hit 14 (both these kids were solid tournament players).

I think I was master strength (or close to it) by 16.

When I got out of high school, I had to decide whether to become an archeologist or a chess player. I went with chess because it seemed very romantic. The idea of traveling the world and visiting strange and exotic places seemed too good to be true. What could be better? And the game itself, which in my mind was a mixture of science and art and sport, was well worth devoting one's life to.

Q: What would you say is your greatest accomplishment -- both in chess and in life?

JS: Tying for first in the three classic American tournaments is way up there. I played in the American Open several times as a child, so actually winning it (along with the U.S. Open and National Open) was a rush. I also won a match against IM Jack Peters 3 1/2-1/2. Jack was an incredibly strong player, easily grandmaster strength, and that period was clearly my chess prime. Since I no longer play in tournaments, it's not going to get better than that.

As for non-chess accomplishments, let's see if I can create some memorable ones in the years to come.

Q: What made you decide you wanted to write chess books?

JS: At first I did Chess Digest books for quick cash. These were not very good, but I needed a way to feed myself. However, as time went by and my teaching experience grew, I realized that the existing chess literature really didn't give chess players under 2000 (classes E though A) much guidance. As a result, I wrote the first edition (by hand, on the floor!) of HOW TO REASSESS YOUR CHESS, which shared the teaching methods I had created for my own students. I didn't expect it to do very well, since everyone seemed to be into opening books. But it somehow caught on and became extremely popular.

Q: There's a lot of humor in your books, quick one-liners and whatnot that I think lighten the mood of looking through game after game after game. Does that come naturally out of your writing style, or do you have to work at it?

JS: It's not conscious. In fact, that's how I talk. I tend to mix useful information (on any subject) with farcical gibberish. This speaking style works well for lectures, since it both informs and entertains. And I also think it works well on the printed page. Where is it written that people reading an instructive book shouldn't have a good time?

Q: In your book SILMAN'S COMPLETE ENDGAME COURSE FROM BEGINNER TO MASTER you categorize endings not by what pieces are left, which is standard, but by rating class. What gave you this idea and how did you decide which ending ideas go where?

JS: I spent 6 months thinking about endgame books, how dry they were, and ultimately how they failed as instructive texts. So I decided that, if I was going to write an endgame book, I would have to come up with a new paradigm. This took a lot of soul searching and planning. I really wanted to do something that had never been done before - something that was not only designed in a completely new manner, but also offered the serious chess student the guidance he/she desperately craved.

When all was said and done, I realized that just tossing a huge mass of endgame material at a chess student and saying, "Here, memorize this!" (Which was pretty much how it was done in the past.) only served to depress and horrify. That's why nobody ever read an endgame book from cover to cover, and very few knew the endgames they should know for their rating class.

The decision on where the material should go was based on my personal observations of students made during many years of teaching. Of course, other teachers might feel differently, and they can easily adjust the sections to suit their own teaching philosophies.

Q: Are you ever going to go back to writing fiction? I'd love to see a chess-based fiction novel by you. Are there any new books in the works?

JS: I already wrote such a novel, but it's so politically incorrect that I don't see it getting published for a long, long time (if ever).

In the past I wrote a fairly successful book on casino gaming titled, ZEN AND THE ART OF CASINO GAMING. That title was grabbed by some guy who did a whole series of highly successful "Zen & the Art" gambling books, and he actually sent me his first one and apologized for absconding with my "Zen in gambling" title idea.

I also wrote a chess-based screenplay, which was bought by a small production company. Very few screenplays ever make it to the screen, and this one is a dramatic period piece, which makes it quite expensive to produce. I'm very proud of it, but I suspect it will linger in limbo forever.

At the moment I'm working on three books. One is a non-chess project. The other two are chess books - a complete rewrite of HOW TO REASSESS YOUR CHESS and something else that I won't discuss at this time. The rewrite of REASSESS will have all new examples. I'll remove the endgame section (which really has nothing to do with the premise of REASSESS), toss out several other chapters, and add new ideas and new chapters and new teaching tools. Again, this final edition of REASSESS will be different in every way from the previous version - more intense, more instruction rich, more detailed guidance, and also more fun (I hope). Those that like the 3rd edition of HOW TO REASSESS YOUR CHESS will love this new, 4th (and final) edition. In fact, those that hated the 3rd edition of REASSESS will take the 4th edition to bed with them every night, holding it tightly to their chest and cooing inanely to it as if it was the soulmate they always longed to find.

Q: Now, on to your website. What made you want to start JeremySilman.com? Most internet sites are very categorical. A chess player/writer's web page is usually ONLY about chess, but on your site you have everything from an interview with Yasser Seirawan to information on Yoga and Magick. What made you want to diversify it so much? Would you say that your site is "Everything Silman?" Does it encapsulate you?

JS: The site, which is and always will be 100% free, was meant to be just about chess. However, I am also a huge movie buff so I thought, why not add some movie material just for fun? Everyone loves movies, right?

The spiritual section was an afterthought. I felt that the American public had little knowledge of non-Christian thought, and that sharing some alternative ideas could only be a good thing.

As for the astrology pages, I'm not really into astrology at all. Nevertheless, my dear friend Joyce Jillson offered to put together a lot of free astrological articles and information and, since she was the world's most famous astrologer, I felt I should do it as a public service. Just because I'm not into astrology doesn't mean others wouldn't enjoy it. When she passed away I left those pages up in her honor.

Oddly, I got a lot of hate mail about all the non-chess sections. Many people felt that I should just offer chess and nothing else. This really annoyed me. The site is actually four separate sites, so if you don't like the non-chess material simply don't go to the other sites! Besides, the site is free. If you hate the material I offer, don't expect a refund!

Q: Do you ever worry that giving so much material for free will make less people need to buy your books?

JS: Not at all. I have a serious desire to teach, and to help people that love chess have as good an experience as possible with the game. The main idea of my site is to offer book reviews. Why? Because there are insane amounts of new chess books pouring out every month, and the poor chess fan has no idea what is or isn't useful. So I felt the book reviews would be very useful and much appreciated by chess book addicts like myself. When I review a chess book, I try to make it a fun read, or at the very least take an honest look at the book's virtues and/or flaws. So many reviewers praise every book just so they can keep getting those free review copies in the mail. But to hell with that! If I praised everything, I would feel that I was ripping people off. So at times I can really trash something. I have no axes to grind, I just want to let people know if the book is worth spending their hard earned dollars on.

Q: What gave you the idea to create the "Raving Chess Celebrities" portion of your site? (One of my personal favorites!) And how do you solicit writers for it? Do they come up to you and ask to rant on your page?

I've noticed in your "Ravings" that you don't pull any punches, often criticizing FIDE and the USCF. What is your full opinion of FIDE and the USCF? Do you think the recent appointing of your friend Susan Polgar as Chairman of the USCF will help to make a difference?

JS: Most chess publications cater to children or are politically correct. This means that if a famous player wants to vent, he will often have trouble finding a proper forum. The RAVINGS section welcomes such venting. At times I don't even agree with the person raving, but I still (usually) respect his/her right to be heard.

I've always had serious issues with the USCF, though it has its ups and downs depending on who is in power at any given time. But in recent years I've really fallen out of touch with what's going on there. In fact, I haven't been a USCF member for many, many years.

I have a very high opinion of Susan Polgar. She's not only a great player, but also a very sweet person who really wants to help chess. But since I don't know the political climate she'll face there, I can't say how effective she will be in effecting some kind of constructive change.

FIDE is another matter. To me, it always seems to be corrupt. They do the dumbest things, and many of their decisions and dictates seem to be based on pure stupidity or avarice. Of course, this is just my opinion; others might see things quite differently (I should add that I have yet to meet any of these hypothetical "others", but I'm sure some FIDE fans must exist).

Q: What was your training schedule like when you were competing the most?

JS: If I played in an international tournament, I would live, eat, and breathe chess. In Hungary, I would prepare for 4 hours in the evening for the next day's game, then another 4 hours in the morning before the game. Then I would repeat that over and over for each game. There were, of course, distractions (women, insane directors or players, money issues, sub-par accommodations, lack of edible food, etc.), but such things are also part of the whole experience of competitive chess. I have to admit that I really miss the intensity of those years!

Q: What would you consider your chess "style" to be?

JS: Dynamic positional chess, mixing safe and sound positional play and the never-ending fantasy of squeezing my opponent to death, with the anal desire to calculate everything out to its end (which, of course, is quite impossible - hence my endless time pressure misadventures).

Q: What do you think is a good training schedule for a current or potential tournament player?

JS: Under 1900 --

Endgame: Read the material in SILMAN'S COMPLETE ENDGAME COURSE up to your rating group. After that, you don't need to look at any other endgames until your rating/strength improves by a class.

Tactical puzzles (found in countless books on the subject): 15% of your study time.

The study of positional concepts (in a book like THE AMATEUR'S MIND or HOW TO REASSESS YOUR CHESS or any other positionally oriented textbook): 15% of your study time.

Analyzing/deconstructing your own games (ideally with the help of a much stronger player): 30% of your study time.

Analyzing master games: 30% of your study time.

Openings: 10% of your study time.

Q: It seems to be very trendy to spend a lot of time studying and memorizing different openings in chess. How important do you think it is to study chess openings?

JS: Learning to play strong chess is far more important than the memorization of opening variations. Though I said that 10% of your study time is adequate (for players under 1900) for opening study, keep in mind that master games also add to your understanding of openings, and analysis of your own games adds greatly to the study of your personal repertoire since this analysis will also take into account how well you played that phase of the game, and how you can improve upon it.