Working with GM Igor Smirnov on His New Book

I mentioned in my end of month report how August was my most productive writing month in years. I wrote over 50,000 words, and roughly half of that wasn’t for this blog. Rather, I was working with GM Igor Smirnov on his new book.

My chess coach, GM Igor Smirnov.

I should supply the background information now. Back in mid July, GM Smirnov announced his plan to write a new book. His first one, Champion Psychology, had good reviews, and frequent questions from his students led him to the idea of writing another book. During the same announcement he said he needed a book editor, someone to help shape the text into readable English.

I applied that day, and so did a dozen other people. I needed to supply a writing sample, and because of this blog I had many to choose from. Smirnov asked me many questions and we communicated over several days, so I figured I was close to the final cut. In the end, I just missed it. He sent me an email saying how he appreciated my time but he would go with another candidate. Oh well. As I wrote to him in response, if he could find a better editor than me than his book would be that much better.

Now, if this were the end, this would be a fairly uninteresting story. Indeed, things changed quickly. A week later I received another email from Smirnov. His book project was far bigger than he first envisioned, and he wanted another editor to help speed the process along. In short, he asked if I were still interested in helping. I of course said yes.

This is what the inside of my head looked like.

This was huge for me. Many people dream about working with famous celebrities. Imagine acting alongside Leonardo DiCaprio or kicking a ball around with Lionel Messi. For me, my chess equivalent would be playing and talking chess with Igor Smirnov. I have read countless chess material, and he was the first person to really give me results. Playing chess with him would be a dream come true, like meeting a childhood idol.

Well, playing with Kasparov or Carlsen would be pretty awesome as well, but that’s beside the point. I’m not picky with playing against chess greats. Also, I never actually played with Smirnov, and our only communication was related to the project at hand, but still, I’m working with my chess hero!

My job was relatively simple. Smirnov shared with me a number of files, some video and some as strict audio. I needed to turn this material into writing. This doesn’t sound too hard, but it actually becomes very tricky. Writing is a very different medium from speaking. As an easy example, look at any standup comedian. Some of the best ones can have you laughing at virtually everything they say. If you were to simply read what they said, though, if you were to write their words down and then read it back, much of the comedy is lost. Rhythm, enunciation, even body language, all of this plays a part in adding to the overall performance. It is very difficult to capture that in writing, or to be more accurate, you need to work hard to adapt the material into written form to have the same effect.

I used comedy as a deliberate example. If you watched any of GM Smirnov’s videos, you will notice a certain lightheartedness in his approach. Yes, he takes his chess seriously, but he also uses witticisms and jokes to keep the mood light. In one file I had to transcribe, he made a clever joke about a chess move. I laughed when I heard it, but when I proofread the chapter later, it came across very flat. A direct word for word transcription lost all humour. I had to rewrite that paragraph three or four times to get it right.

With a smile like that, you just know he has a small devilish side, and that comes out in his wit.

Here’s a more relevant example. Go look at your favourite chess video. This is very different than reading a chess book. A book is a static page, no movement. It may have two or three diagrams, but that’s it. Compare that to the video, which has a constantly evolving chess board, often with arrows and highlights and possible variations drawn in real time. Frequently the presenter will talk as he is displaying the moves, whereas in books the discussion happens after a certain set of moves. Converting a video into text needs to account for all of these factors.

Finally, some things sound better when spoken than when written down, and vice versa. This is similar to the humour example but more general. For example, using repetition when speaking is a very common and effective rhetorical device. Repeating an idea or concept keeps the listener engaged and can really drive home the point. In writing, such repetition often appears as redundancy. Repeating a word two or three times in a paragraph feels clunky, whereas doing so in speech feels natural.

This was by far the hardest part of this project. GM Smirnov would say something that makes complete sense, but when written down it looks like bad writing. I needed to correct this, and this is where the bulk of my attention and effort went into. Sometimes I only needed to change one word, to use a synonym and everything would be fine. Other times I had to completely rewrite entire paragraphs. This proved challenging for other reasons, mainly because I couldn’t change the tone of the book. That is, I need to make sure it was still Smirnov’s ideas, not my interpretation of Smirnov’s ideas. I spent a lot of time on this.

On to the book itself, there are basically two types of chapters.  Obviously I can’t give away the actual content, but I can discuss the overall form.  First would be the largely biographical chapters, ones that predominantly focus on non-chess things. Here Smirnov discusses how he prepared for tournaments or how he met coaches or how he went to university to study psychology to further enhance his own game, those sorts of things. These were the easiest chapters to work on, as they were presented as a simple story. They had logical beginnings and endings, and my job was mostly to write it down and get out of the way. Most of these chapters wrote themselves.

The harder chapters included the detailed chess content. I remember one chapter in particular, as this was the first chess chapter I worked on. Here Smirnov recounts how one of his chess coaches taught him the importance of planning. The chapter thus starts with a little bit of biographical information and then proceeds into concrete chess examples.  The following video is the first half of this chapter as a teaser:

This was hard for two reasons. First, this chapter completely blew me away. It captivated me. I watched the video two or three times just for my own education. It was that good. I then needed to write this stuff down, and that proved hard. Mostly, I put pressure on myself. I needed to make my text of his lesson just as powerful as his video. As I mentioned in the above paragraphs, this is a real challenge in converting video into writing, and I had to work very carefully to do this.

I also needed to provide diagrams at various points. Technically, this was quite easy. Smirnov provided all games in a .PGN file, so I could easily use Chessbase to produce the desired diagrams. What made it hard, rather, was finding the exact right time to put in a diagram. Perhaps you’ve read chess books in the past in which you wished they had more diagrams. Others have so many diagrams that you almost ignore them, as so little changes from one position to the next. I needed to find that happy medium between the two, and I discussed this with Smirnov, trying to make sure I was doing a good enough job.

Despite all the challenges I listed so far, much of this project was quite easy. With writing, the hardest part is the content, figuring out what to write about. Igor Smirnov already did that part. He provided all the content, and all I had to do was write it down in a readable way. This meant putting things in proper English, and it also meant proper punctuation and grammar. I have a lot of experience in this area, so it went smoothly. The hardest part was spelling. Many chess players have foreign sounding names, or at least foreign for a North American. I had to communicate with Smirnov regularly to figure out how to spell some of these names. Most I simply had no chance on, such as the Russian coaches he studied under. Others I was able to google and find correct spelling that way.

Also, spelling proved extra difficult for another reason. I used my voice to text software for this project. This makes sense, as it drastically speeds things up.  Rather than having to write down what Smirnov says in his videos, I just repeat what he says and the text appears on screen. On the downside, it is not perfect, and it can substitute words that look right on first glance but have completely different meaning than what you mean. For example, my software would often write ‘chest training’ instead of ‘chess training,’ or ‘set some girls’ instead of ‘set some goals.’ The sounds funny, but a mistake like that slipping through proofreading would be terrible.

While hilarious, I’d never forgive myself if I let this happen.

Fortunately, the software I use, from a company called Dragon, has a ‘read text’ option. Basically, it will read my entire chapter back to me, and hearing such misplaced words is a heck of a lot easier than trying to scan with your eye. On the downside, the software does not recognize chess notation, so it would try to pronounce strings of text like ‘Ng7 Bxf3,’ which of course just produced nonsense noise.

Even with all the challenges I’ve highlighted here, I truly enjoyed my time working on this project. Yes, I got paid for my time, but it goes beyond that. I learned a lot about chess doing this. I interacted with a Grandmaster to discuss some of the finer points of his chapters, to make sure everything met his approval. Indeed, I got a behind the scenes look of how such projects operate. We often see other people making books or videos and only see the end result. It’s easy to assume that, since the end product is so polished, everything must’ve been so easy. I got a chance to see how much hard work and research goes into everything. There was a lot of back-and-forth between me and Smirnov the entire time. We had a constant discussion going on. My email says I have over 40 messages relating to this book in my inbox. That’s a lot, just under one a day.

Also, it got me really excited about the end book. I have never had my work published before, at least nothing beyond a brief spot in the high school yearbook. With this book, my words will be published. Yes, you can debate how much of this writing is ‘mine,’ as Smirnov composed the chapters and created the content will I merely organized it and set it to print, but I still played a part. That thrills me, and it really drove me to do the best I could possibly do with each and every chapter.

Again, I was only one of two editors. I thus worked on only half the book, but if that’s any indication then this book is going to absolutely rock. The biographical content was entertaining and the chess advice was rock solid. Once again, Igor Smirnov does not disappoint. The book is set to be released soon, so stay tuned at RCA. Even though I worked on it and thus know what it’s about and what it contains, it will still be a day one buy from me.

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