Thursday, January 29, 2009

thoughts about writing

two kinds:

1. My job tonight is to compile the 318 Secret Openings Book for 2008-2009. Every year I leave this task inexplicably late. The 318 Secret Openings Book is a collection of all my opening handouts (or at least the ones currently in circulation). Because I know my students can realistically learn about 2-3 pages of information, I condense each opening (that they are allowed to play) into what I consider the fundamental important stuff to know. Depending on the opening, that might be variations, lists of ideas, model games, or rules to follow. (really, the format depends mostly on my mood at the time I wrote it.) Then the copy lady (who hates me and for some reason thinks I steal tape) makes them into spiral bound books. They are about 100 pages long and she makes about 70 books.

It's half an enjoyable, self-congratulatory, memory lane stroll through the teaching materials I've produced in the last year, half insanely boring, cutting, pasting and reformatting drudgery.

But it's very important and so I'm doing it.
I'm just writing to you as a break.

2. honestly, I wasn't a big fan of the first part of my recent US chess school article on chess life online. I thought I made one decent point that Yury was good at making comparisons to classic games, but the rest of the article was superficial, flat and mostly worthless.

The second part I haven't reread online at all. I'm really nervous to do so-- I feel like I started on this resolutely human interest angle with the grade nationals/bird story (which I thought honestly was quite good) and then it grew into some weird obsession with people's inner thoughts. I started asking questions like 'how has chess changed you?' 'compare playing basketball/cello/judo to playing chess?!' and I'm scared I will feel creeped out that the article seems so centered around showcasing the inner thoughts of 13 year olds.

And, please don't get me wrong, I'm actually never really scared that I'm a creepy person, it's just that I get so bored writing chess articles, the genre is so unbearably narrow, the range of things you can say is so miniscule. it's very frustrating. add to that the fact that people seem to praise what I write no matter what, and I actually don't get paid for the USCS articles, so I feel no obligation. but maybe I'm getting a little too creative with genre-invention.

also, can I say that I feel like a lot of people do a very bad job of tournament reporting? It's one thing if you are asked to write a blog, but it's annoying when people are supposed to write about a tournament and the winner of the tournament and they write about themselves instead. it's not even annoying because I don't care about the person, it's annoying that the person is so lazy.

really I'm just sick of writing about chess, especially scholastics. When I write scholastic articles, I just feel such temptation to go off about some ridiculous theory. (I do this in april's article about grade nationals.) I think it's because I think adults are all 100% bored by scholastic chess and so I overcompensate. but no more. I'm just saying no next time.

sorry if this post seems absolutely self obsessed. I feel like it's my blog, sometimes I can do that.

ps I wouldn't normally pick such an easy target, but I have to draw your attention to the news item Disgraced pastor Haggard admits second relationship with man, just because I find the beginning of the second sentence utterly hilarious.

Evangelical pastor Ted Haggard described Thursday as "fundamentally true" an assertion that he engaged in an inappropriate relationship with a 20-year-old male volunteer in 2006.

The incident occurred when the two men were in bed together, Grant Haas said in a videotaped interview played on CNN's "Larry King Live."


Anonymous said...

A few suggestions:
1. A lot of chess players would love to have a "playbook" like your 318 Opening Book - consider selling last year's version as a fund raiser. Football coaches do that with their playbooks. It isn't giving away any deep analysis (like say Anand-Kramnik) and would be a great set of sound openings leading to playable middle games.
2. I agree that writing about an event should focus on the event and not become an extended excursion into what the author ate, how the author played, and so forth - some articles in Chess Life unfortunately are like this. To help remedy this, perhaps a few basic features of journalism (who, what, where, when) should be part of any event or tournament article:
a. A crosstable if it is a round robin, or a list of the top 10 or so if it is a Swiss or the top 3 or 4 section winners in a multiple section event - it would be informative and also helpful later to people looking up the results.
b. Try to have a representative game by the winners or players who did well (e.g. biggest upset, best game prize)
c. Note who sponsored the event if there were any.
d. Note who organized and was chief arbiter.
e. Please put somewhere the date of the event and the location. I realize for veterans of the Northeast circuit, Foxwoods is well known but other people, it would be helpful to readers unfamiliar to the locale.
3. It could be there you are in a bit of a rut, so don't let it get you down. Because your writing is not a means of earning a living, don't feel obligated to only write in the just-the-facts reportage style listed in part 2. Why not do something different? Write about what chess players do on the "off days" at a big tourneys? Do restaurant reviews of places near major tournament sites. Write about what you'd like to read or just take a break and not write about chess for while. Write about what it is like shepherding your team about.

You are a good writer so don't get discouraged.

Anonymous said...

This might be an interesting opportunity to talk about what's working and what isn't in chess journalism, and how the form might be tweaked to energize it.

Anonymous said...

I liked Part One because it was accessible to those who aren't really interested in kids but can still relate to chess.

Another solution to the Knights and Knaves question in part two is (not much of a spoiler all things considered so I will skimp on the spoiler space)...

...ask either advisor "what would you say were I to ask which door conceals the treasure" (or the tiger, either way).

Anonymous said...

For crying out loud, give back the tape.

Anonymous said...

Elizabeth: Maybe your jadedness with regard to written tournament articles is a sign that you should try video reportage.

That may be anathema to someone who, like yourself, knows how to write strong, entertaining prose. And it would probably take some training to be able to put together a video report that has high enough production values. But other chess journalists are doing it with respectable results.

Anyhoo, just an idea.

Ivan said...

I asked Conrad a few questions back in October 2008.

Holt, Conrad

Anonymous said...

I just read part 2 of your article and I liked it a lot. Maybe it's because I'm a chess dad of an 11 year old who is not even close to their level that I found it fascinating to read about their inner thoughts. It is a nice balance from just reading about games, positions and tactics. Thanks.

es_trick said...

Human interest stories are great.

And I'd also be in line for your 318 opening book. Selling it as a fund raiser seems like a good idea.

Anonymous said...

I also liked this article. In general, I like your writing about scholastics because I never feel like you are condescending or patronizing to the kids as some other adult writers can be. (Other than your articles, I tend to like the first person "you are there" narratives by players like Abby Marshall and Jonathan Hilton.) Like the previous poster, I have a not-so-strong 11-year-old player and I showed her the article as a way of helping her to understand that there are many paths to improvement and taking time off from chess, like Steven Zierk, is also an option. As a parent of a tween, of course I liked Kevin Zhang's line that "often teenagers are impulsive about things, but chess has helped me look harder for the consequences of my actions" and also cracked up when reading Gregory Young's comment about solving a tough puzzle while talking to his mother on the phone!

Anonymous said...

I also liked David Adelberg's comment about "being impressed by Yury's resourcefulness and optimism in bad positions." An important lesson for chess and life.

Elizabeth Vicary said...


but I can't possibly sell the opening book. my kids would never forgive me.

Anonymous said...

Keep the faith. You are a winsome writer. And like all writers you'd much rather push towards genuine reflection than stock report. Your vent is not self-indulgent. You just feel boxed in by your audience; there aren't that many of us who feel equally excited on the page as on the board. Someday I wouldn't be surprised to read you doing for chess what Stefan Fatsis does for the likes of scrabble or handball or football.
Case in point, I, too, was excited about the Fischer symposium. Until I queried Frank Brady with what I felt was a really cool piece I wrote years ago in graduate school exploring implications of the significant revisions he made in his two biographies of Fischer. But the good Doctor didn't think it would fit. He seemed to want not stuff that recognizes Fischer as a cultural cipher but rather more pedestrian and literal takes--if not hagiographic ones--on the man. Oh well. My suggestion is that you broaden your repetoire and trust more in the far freer conventions of creative nonfiction. Either way, I will continue to enjoy the heck out of your blog. Gosh I'd have loved to actually have a chess teacher back when my high school basketball coach threw a chair at me when he found out that I'd skipped a game to play in the Ohio High School Chess Championship!

Anonymous said...

Yes, scholastic chess is boring beyond words.
And irritating, too. Most children are underrated and can clobber one's rating. Well, that comes with the territory.
But what is inexcusable is the lack of chess manners these kids show in tournaments. I have had kid opponents freaking out because my board doesn't have algebraic notation along the sides -- necessitating them asking me during a game how to record their moves.
Then there are the clock bashers, who seem to have learned this rather unseemly practice from SEARCHING FOR BOBBY FISCHER, a great film that teaches how to play chess in the most annoying way possible.
I am glad that you are fed up with this, Liz. You do write extremely well, but I am afraid that, aside from the clippings that Chess Mom or Chess dad will surely save for junior or miss's college application, jounrlaims about scholastic chess is a waste of time.
As for "Rev." Haggard, you should see his unctious exchange with one of my heroes, Richard Dawkins, on Dawkins's great DVD, ROOT OF ALL EVIL? (just goggle The Richard Dawkins Foundation to buy it.) Why our new president insisted on imposing another representative of the great fraud on us for his inauguration is beyond me. Particularly since the last time I saw people acting on behalf of their faith, planes were crashing into the Twin Towers.

Anonymous said...

Is Brenan's post supposed to be satire like Swift's A Modest Proposal? If so, it doesn't go quite far enough. Let's eat all the scholastic chess players, shall we, that way you might have a chance at getting to that elusive 1400 rating that you dream of. It's funny because I've seen adults engage in the very similar behavior to the behavior he complains of by children. Adult player with analog clock gives scholastic player with digital clock (and black pieces) hard time about using digital even though digital is preferred by USCF rules. Adult player slams hand on clock after scholastic player takes important piece and, after repeating behavior several times, gets kicked out of chess club.

Anonymous said...

Yes, analog clock lovers can be annoying. I have heard that a well-known NY GM once protested having to use a digital, and Carol Jarecki supported his claim.
I do not disagree that adults can behave like uncouth yokels...look at Korchnoi, a model of unsportsmanliek conduct if there ever was one.
But it is a lot harder to run to a TD over a kid's misconduct thatn it is to protest an adult's. In the child's case, one does not (contray to what Mr. or Ms. Anon thinks) want to make their early chess experience a negative one. I tend to give kids more leeway, however irritating they might be. (I may have to change this approach.) I like to be on good terms with my opponent; it's a game, after all, and hopefully something we can both enjoy. But the lack of preparation on the part of some parents and teachers is not good. That is my point; and I would have hoped that someone who knew who Swift was would have the ability to tell this, instead of making an ad hominem attack upon my rather low rating. I thought that chess is supposed to teach one to think rationally. Obviously, it does not at least in one anonymous case.

Anonymous said...

I too am amazed at the rudeness of kids in chess tournaments. From the incredibly obnoxious constant draw offering while sticking out their hand, to actually dancing behind their seat, with Dad standing right there saying nothing; among many other egregious actions.

Elizabeth, I hope you take some time with your kids to teach a little "chess etiquette."


Anonymous said...

Yes, I neglected to mention the draw offers. In my last ournament, I had two games with children that featured three draw offers -- all by by opponents, and all when he had a worse position (I never offer draws, on principle, unless the position is a dead draw; and even then, it has to be as dead as Kelsey's...well, you get the idea.).
This behavior is actually more understandable and excusable than the behavior I complained about before. No one likes to lose; and one the first things that one confronts in chess is the fear of losing. This is doubtless compounded by parents and coaches who take the results of their chaarges too seriously; I know of one chess mom who actually wants her chuild to play weaker players so he wins more trophies. The fact that her son will not improve unless he plays stronger players is besides the point; what counts is the number of trophies on Junior's dresser.
All too little attention is paid to the way that many chess parents act like the proverbial Little League overachievers who seem to be afflicted with a kind of raod rage whenever the umpire rules against their small fry. And the reception with which my earlier comments was met is indicative of the fact that I have most likely hit a sore spot and a tender conscience. Typically, my anonymous critic focused on my rating. This is a big thing with the tuna fish sandwich crowd, since the rating of Junior inevitably reflects somehow on the gene pool from which he or she was launched forth on their perilous journey into the world. Chess ratings are therefore the chess equivalent of genitalia size in the world of erotica; (that many women chessplayers will not consider dating a players with a lower rating should tell us something; even Bobby had to brag about the size of his feet {sic.] ("in case anyone thinks I'm not a dreamboat"!}).
The point is that it begins, if not ends, with the parents and coaches. They can raise children to be great chessplayers who act in a manner worthy of the game, or little monsters who lower the experience of every tournament.

Anonymous said...

I don't care what your rating is and I fully admit that there are bratty kids and overbearing parents in chess but your initial post -- "scholastic chess is boring beyond words" was, to use your phrase "irritating." I admit that I used to be put off by some of the more colorful adult chess players my kid would play but now, as long as they are not clock throwers, we take it in stride. As for abusive draw offers, I have a kid who has played in almost 100 tournaments and he's never been a victim of this from other kids and he certainly has never done it (his coach would kill him). I have heard about one scholastic coach in the NYC area whose kids do this but the other scholastic players and coaches that I know frown on it. So I don't know where you play but I haven't seen it. Meanwhile, interestingly, Polly Wright has a recent blog post about adults abusing draw offers against kids.

Anonymous said...

This was in DC, at the Eastern Open Quads. Not NYC.
I read the link, and that adult's behavior in repeatedly offering draws is appalling and, in my view, abusive of his opponent (this would be the case even if the opponent were an adult, which he or she was not).
Scholastic chess IS indeed boring -- especially when we who get CHESS LIFE have to endure its rather extensive coverage in the magazine. You can go to back issues to see the difference in quality: Gligoric, Keres, Benko,. etc. Now it's one or two good regular features, maybe a decent feature artcile; but the rest -- much of it scholastic chess -- is utter junk. Someday I should do a spoof of a Jerry Hanken interview...start off with a joke about how some pint-sized whiz wiped me off the board, ask about his chess heroes and get a "huh" look, ask about his favorite [food, color, movie actress/actor] and predict a shining future in chess...snooooze

Anonymous said...

To be honest, I don't think I've ever read anything written by Hanken. I like Elizabeth's writing because I feel it is fresh, clear, intellectually honest and funny. I also happen to admire the writing of some of the older scholastic/collegiate players like Abby Marshall, Jonathan Hilton, Josh Friedel and Evan Rosenberg.

Elizabeth Vicary said...

'abusive draw offer" ... that's a strange phrase.

The problem is that chess etiquette is sometimes, but not always, intuitive. Weren't you surprised the first time someone told you that you shouldn't offer a draw to a higher rated player in an even position? Or that you can only offer one draw per time control unless it's returned?

I recently was told a story by a player who was offended when his opponent offered him a draw in time pressure because he felt it was intentionally distracting. I was kinda surprised. So I understand why kids seem to behave rudely. Also, you have to understand that most kids get fairly constant supervision and correction/instruction in behavior from an adult. Kids are not usually by themselves for hours, *ever*. So you have to forgive them for acting out a little: it's all new to them.

Thanks for everyone's compliments! I love praise more than anything in the world.

Want to hear my favorite Hanken interview story? I was drinking at the bar with Wojt and Miton at the world open a few years ago, when miton gets called away by Jerry Hanken to do an interview. He comes back half an hour later looking like he'd encountered a serious buzz-kill. So I asked him what Hanken's best question was and he said "He asked me if I could spend an evening with any famous chessplayer, who would it be? I told him it was none of his goddamn business."

Miton said this in a voice that sounded angry, but then I came to think (still not 100%) that he was joking.

Anonymous said...

I hope it's not too late to leave my own fulsome praise. I really appreciate the originality of your writing--who else has such a unique blend of human interest, analysis and humor! Please don't hang it up.
But also--don't feel guilty about "phoning it in" occasionally if you must; it happens to everyone. The important thing is to keep producing for your adoring public...