Thursday, May 5, 2016

Interview with National Master Jim West

Meeting an Independent Chess Thinker

National Master Jim West
When you want to learn something, like chess, it is often good to follow in the footsteps of those who have achieved what you are aiming for. With that in mind, I asked National Master Jim West, the prolific author of the chess site Jim West on Chess, to share some of his thoughts on chess. 

Jim was very thoughtful and insightful in his answers. His passion for chess was very evident to me and his conviction on certain chess subjects was refreshing. 

Our interview covers a few topics, including Jim's start in chess, progressing to the master level, his chess books, and of course some advice on training and improvement in chess.

On a side note, he has posted on his site every single day since 2007 (and the last few days of 2006). Now that's dedication!

Starting Out in Chess

Jim, how did you learn to play chess and how old are you when you first started?

At approximately age seven, I learned the moves by hanging out at the playground during the summer and watching the older kids play chess in the shade when it became too hot to play baseball.  

At age twenty-one, I joined the U.S. Chess Federation and the Marshall Chess Club in October 1972, in the aftermath of the Spassky-Fischer match.

As you progressed in chess, who were your chess heroes?

Early on, my chess hero was world champion Bobby Fischer.  My prize at the first tournament that I won was two chess books.  I chose My 60 Memorable Games and Bobby Fischer's Chess Games. Both books were studied intensely by me.  

In later years, I became aware of Paul Morphy's brilliance through my researching of the Philidor Counter Gambit which Morphy championed.

Do you have any favorite games from Fischer or Morphy?

My favorite Fischer game is game six against Spassky from their 1972 match.  The film Pawn Sacrifice claims it is the greatest chess game ever played which is a bit of an exaggeration, but it might well be the greatest chess game ever played by Bobby Fischer.  It is like a well choreographed ballet in which Fischer's pieces dance around Spassky's.

Here you can view this wonderful game. Annotations by Bryan Castro with his own analysis as well as analysis and commentary from several sources including Jim West's video on the game. I also adopted material from Yasser Seirawan's annotations from his excellent book Winning Chess Brilliancies. and videos by Life Master AJ Goldsby and kingcrusher.

My favorite Morphy game is his Philidor Counter Gambit win against Thomas Barnes.  I think of it as the French Revolution game because Morphy sends his minor and major pieces to the guillotine while his lowly peasant of a pawn emerges triumphant.  Considering that Philidor called pawns "the soul of chess," this game is the quintessential Philidor Counter Gambit.

Below is that exciting game with annotations by Bryan Castro.

Master Level Chess

What were your most successful chess results?

In 1990, I finished first in a Futurity at Elmwood Park, New Jersey.  This was my best personal result. 

As a team player, my best result happened in 1999 when I played board one on the winning team at the U.S. Amateur Team East tournament in Parsippany, New Jersey.

Do you have a favorite game that you played?

I have two favorites.  Playing as Fischer did in game fifteen against Spassky in 1972, I defeated FIDE master Brian Hartman (who later became an international master) at the 1990 World Open in Philadelphia. It appeared in Informant 50, annotated by FIDE Master Rudy Blumenfeld.  

Below you can examine Jim's battle against Mr. Hartman. Almost all of the annotations are Jim West's (which you can view from his original post on the Jim West on Chess blog) with just a few comments by Bryan Castro. (Bryan: I hesitated to add anything to Jim's excellent annotations, and my additions reflect only my humble attempts to understand the complexities of this game)

My second favorite is my win with the Philidor Counter Gambit against 2300-rated Greg Achonolu at the USATE 1999.

Check out this complex game below. Annotations by Michael Goeller originally posted on the Kenilworth Chess Club site. Morphy would be proud!

Tell us about your books on the Philidor Counter Gambit.

In 1996, the Chess Journalists of America awarded me top prize in the Best Analysis, Openings category for my articles in Atlantic Chess News on the Philidor Counter Gambit.  For a few months in 1994, my first book The Philidor Counter Gambit (Chess Enterprises) was a best seller at the USCF.  

Two years later, I authored The Dynamic Philidor Counter-Gambit (Chess Digest), mainly to include analysis of the 4.exf5 variation which had been omitted from my first book since no one ever played it against Paul Morphy.  

My experience in writing these books is that I received a few positive book reviews but some negative ones as well from critics who, by their own admission, have never played this opening in their lives.  Why these critics would think that an opening system invented by Francois-Andre Danican Philidor (who was a chess immortal) is unsound is something that I still have difficulty in understanding, unless their dislike of Paul Morphy who championed it is the real issue.  

The critics would have it that I must prove the playability of the Philidor Counter Gambit, despite the fact that I have a plus score of better than 250 after more than 900 over the board games with this opening.  

But, in my opinion, the burden of proof is squarely on the shoulders of the critics because the Philidor name brand is strong everywhere else. Philidor's defense to the King's Gambit is highly regarded in opening theory. In the middlegame, Philidor contributed the smothered checkmate known as Philidor's Legacy.  His analysis of the  Philidor drawing position in rook and pawn endings, as well as his analysis of the ending involving rook and bishop versus rook, is definitive.  

Why would the critics think that Philidor was wrong about his Counter Gambit when he was right about all of the above?

Chess Training and Progress

What type of training or study helped you to move from a Class B or Class A player to Expert and eventually to the Master-level rating?

The answer is simple: by playing a lot of games and then studying them, often with the help of my opponent during post mortem analysis. I never took a chess lesson in my life because I could not afford the expense.  But I read as many chess books as I could, often borrowing them from the public library.  

The final litmus test for my attaining the title of national master was thinking for myself.  Most players who never become master are too afraid to think independently.

Please elaborate on independent thinking.

By thinking independently, I am reminded of past conversations with two experts, both of them knowing as much about chess as I do but neither of them ever attaining the title of national master.

The first expert told me that he agreed with my analysis of the line in the Najdorf variation seen in Hartman - West, Philadelphia 1990, but that he would never play the line himself until grandmaster Eduard Gufeld included it in his book on the Sicilian defense.  

The second expert agreed with my opinion that a sharp variation in the Philidor Counter Gambit is playable for Black, but then he immediately contradicted himself by saying that the line must be better for White because that was the opinion of Carl Schlechter.  

Far from being masters, these two experts were slaves to the opinions of other chess players.

Chess Advice

What advice would you give to beginning players to improve?

Try to survive the opening.  I recommend the King's Indian Attack as White, a safe way to reach an equal middlegame.  Devote your study time to middlegame strategy and endgame technique.  Too much time is spent nowadays on opening theory.

Regarding studying the middlegame and endings, are there any particular books you would recommend or that you use with your students?

The middlegame game books that I recommend are Simple Chess by Michael Stean, Modern Chess Strategy by Ludek Pachman, and My System by Aron Nimzovich.  The best endgame books are Endgame Strategy by Mikhail Shereshevsky and Silman's Complete Endgame Course by Jeremy Silman.

Contacting Jim West

I see you also coach chess. What is your teaching philosophy or approach?

My teaching philosophy is to spend as little time as possible in studying opening theory and devoting as much time as possible to studying the middlegame and endgame books mentioned above.

How can potential students contact you?

I offer private lessons and group lessons at residences of students in the northern New Jersey area, as well as on-line lessons at the Internet Chess Club, using Skype for video and audio communication. Interested parties can contact me by e-mail at jimrwest(at) 

You can also contact Jim through his chess site: Jim West on Chess.


Thank you for your interesting responses, Jim. I think chess players of all levels can appreciate the beautiful games you shared as well as benefit from your advice and insight into getting better at chess. 

Here are some of the highlights of Jim's advice:
  • Play a lot of chess and (perhaps just as importantly) study your games afterward.
  • Don't spend too much time learning opening theory. Playing an opening such as the King's Indian Attack will help you achieve a playable middlegame without a lot of theory to learn.
  • Focus your study time on the middlegame and endgame.
  • Learn to think for yourself - don't be a slave to others' opinions.
As a corollary to the final point, chess can often be thought of as creative expression of ourselves. Learn from others, but be yourself. From reading his site and this interview, Mr. West has done just that. 

Your Turn

I hope you enjoyed this interview. Please share it with others if you did. Also, check out my other interviews with chess masters!

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