Who wrote what?

When I write on this blog I try very hard to keep things professional, without making them dull. When I am on my Facebook account I will happily debate things freely, defend controversial points of view or defend dogmatic points of view for that sake, should I agree on them. (An interesting thing is that it is always with the second type of defence that you get into the really difficult discussions with people that are really passionate! It must be like that debating with me at times then!!)

Recently someone tried in private conversation to make a link between the two Worlds, somehow wanting to question the ethics of Quality Chess because of my general views of the moral stand on income tax and ethics in general (views that do not belong here!). The dig was that Quality Chess had somehow a low level of ethics because he felt that Lars Schandorff’s book on the Semi-Slav is being “ghost written”.

This leads to obvious inspiration regarding who writes what on a few projects.

Let us start with Playing the French. It is no secret and has never been a secret that this book is to a great extent written by Nikos, with me advising, helping in choosing lines, finding a few novelties (the best of which was unfortunately played in a Corr. Game before the book was finished) and looking over the finished book. It says as much in the foreword. Nikos did not feel confident enough for the book to have only his name on it. It is the main reason I allowed my name to appear on it. And then the fact that the book was great and I knew it would be great and that Nikos and I work together on openings all the time (that I work on openings). If the book had not been good, I would not have wanted myself associated with the book. As it was, I was centrally involved, just not as the main writer, and I did go over the rest of the book. And we were always very open on this structure of the work with everyone. In the foreword and on the blog.

The book was 2nd in the Chess Publishing Opening Book of the Year Vote.

The winner was another group project. John Shaw’s The King’s Gambit, the ultimate murder weapon (at least if you hit someone with the hardback version). John wrote at least 60% of the book. I wrote maybe 10% and Andrew maybe 25%+. John checked everything over and made sure he was happy with it. Had John been alone on this project the book would never have existed? Now it is a best seller.

Again, we were open about this.

For a number of recent books we are doing something slightly differently. We have a big technical expert and big opening expert among our co-workers in Nikolaos Ntirlis, called Nikos. He is a walking ECO – with added novelties everywhere. What he has done for a few projects is created a starting repertoire with ideas for the authors to work on. This is the case for some parts of John’s 1.e4 books, for Lars Schandorff’s book on the Semi-Slav and to some extent for some of Emanuel Berg’s books on the French and Parimarjan’s book on the 6.Bg5 Najdorf.

The first two cases is a question of Nikos being told what lines to prepare and for John and Lars going through it and seeing if they like it. They will then maybe send it back or they will elaborate/change things themselves. The books are not ghost written, but the writers have a very technical savvy and analytically intelligent helper. They do not let go of their own judgement, they write their words themselves and they take full responsibility for everything written in the book.

Ethically neither I nor Quality Chess has any problem with this. Actually we are rather proud to say that our books are worked through at a level where we are not able to see how they could be any better.

In the case of Emanuel’s and Parimarjan’s books, it has more been a case of discussions where Nikos has offered his opinion on lines and especially on various problems within them. There is no first rough draft repertoire available. You could say that he works more as an editor on those projects.

Finally we come to the only book that is fully ghost written. It is of course Positional Decision Making in Chess by Boris Gelfand, written in collaboration with myself.

The way this book is constructed is that Boris and I have gone through some 120 games of his and selected roughly 30 that we felt were useful for writing about positional decision making – a topic Boris wanted to write about. We have then gone over the games together, with five different topics in mind: Rubinstein and the long plan, the squeeze, space advantage, transformation of advantages and transformation of pawn structures.

I have about 50 hours of Skype recordings where we have gone through the games together with a board between us. Afterwards I take the maybe 2 hours done on a game and write them down. Add some things that are clearly missing, remove some things that are redundant and move things around to where they fit in best.

My function in this process is clearly that of a writer. I ask continued questions from Boris, some which he finds hard to answer, others which he answers brilliantly. I might generate a page worth of pure gold on moves where Boris would have moved on if I had not asked him why he played as he played.

About 85% of the wisdom in the book comes from Boris. 15% of pure drivel comes from the ghost writer.

Boris is just back from his four tournaments in a row and is currently reading the Chapter on Space Advantage over to make sure that he likes everything.

The book is of course a collaboration and it does contain some ideas, expressions and especially analysis from me. But it is a book full of Boris and I think, really great for that reason. There is no doubt that Boris could not have written a book like this. He is a great player and a fantastic human being; but he is not a ballerina and he is not a trainer and he is not a writer.

At the office we have still not decided if I am having a photo on the back. It probably depends on how it looks. What I have focused on these last few months is to make a unique book. I hope people will think that Boris and I have succeeded.

21 thoughts on “Who wrote what?”

  1. Thanks for the description of your process, that was fascinating. I think that one of the main factors behind the quality (no pun intended) of your books is that they are generally team efforts, enabling them to reach levels not achievable easily by a single creator. To note a couple of examples that you didn’t even mention, the editing of books by authors for whom English is a second language has been outstanding, and I can definitely detect the “Marin touch” in Judit Polgar’s books. I also applaud the willingness of your authors to work together with others to create the best possible book.

  2. Greetings GM Aagaard.

    I have to admit that I was slightly (understatement) shocked by your last post. I truly hope that you and your team will not lose a nano-second of sleep over such risible “accusations”.

    Who on earth would believe that all chess books (or product for that matter) are the sole and only result of ONE individual (in your case the name of the person that appears on the book). Where I come from, everybody seems to agree that two heads are better then one… especially when it comes to chess!

    To give an example that is somewhat linked to your “tax argument”, when one writes to the minister of ABC about tax matters, one usually gets a response. A response officially signed by the Minister of ABC. The quasi-totality of these letters (or e-mails in 2014) are prepared by officials, then sent for approval, then sent to the minister’s staff and approved. The response is the official position of that Minister. We all know that the Minister in question did not write a word of it… but the letter would not go anywhere if he did not agree with its content…

    I have over 15 books from QC, including your book Playing the French and several Grandmaster Preparation books. I simply love them. I can assure you that I could not care less whether you actually wrote/analysed 1% or 99% of it. Why? Because I strongly believe that before putting your name on it, you ensured that the book was up to the level of quality you expect, and most importantly, that you agree with its content. The result is a cooperative work among staff members of QC (and the “author” in question) and nothing less than an outstanding product (which makes QC … well QC 🙂 !). (as well put by “dfan”)

    I am most looking forward to more fantastic books from you (espacially 1.d4…) and assure you that even if I heard that GM Avrukh had only worked on 25% of the book, I know that unless he believed that the lines chosen were ALL to his full satisfaction, he would not agree to put his name on it!


    PS. I still cannot believe that some people actually thought that a full-time player of the caliber of Boris Gelfand would sit down for hundreds of hours writing a book…

  3. I love your posts. And as someone who has debated with you privately as well on facebook I can attest to what an honorable human being you are, even when in disagreement with others. It is a pleasure to be able to call you a friend and to be someone lucky enough to own and enjoy the books your wonderful publishing company works hard to put out. Keep on keeping on, Jacob and team!

  4. I couldn’t agree more! And to add tot this: I think the importance of good editing is grossly underestimated. Look e.g. at Sakaev’s books on the Slav. I think everyone would agree he is a great theoreticion, but these books clearly lack a good editor. Keep up the great team work!

  5. I am an admirer of QC books, and I think the product should settle any qualms about who wrote what section of the books. If Gelfand is happy with the result, and puts his name on the book, then I think reading books by such a strong player can only be a good thing. It would be interesting to know how much work Dr Nunn has to do to make Gambit books happen. One of my Christmas wishes is that Marin will get back to being the principal author of some books.

  6. Boris is deeply involved in the books. I am not just putting his name on a book that I wrote. We are planning to release one of the recordings together with an excerpt, if we can find one where we do not have private jokes and stuff in the middle of it! I am sorry to say that our qualities into sound recording are very limited and our time for this is even more limited.

    John Nunn is a great writer and wrote a lot of good books. I especially line his book: Anand: My Best Games…

    Marin is working on a book on his own and has of course written a new chapter for the hardback edition of Learn from the Legends, out next year.

  7. I understand your explanations but in my opinion the cover should include all the authors. You can write “with contributions of” or another way but every author should be mentioned.

  8. When you put a name on a book, you put the principle author, which has the final say. You do this in all genres, with the exception of celebrity stuff, where the agenda is another.

    Gelfand has a final say over his book.

    The only question is if my name should have been on Playing the French. I was not sure. I had played a big part in shaping it and was involved a lot in it, but I still felt to some extent that it was Nikos’ book. In the end Nikos wanted my name on it, as he maybe lacked a bit of confidence. We can all do so at times, even when we should not :-).

  9. @Jacob Aagaard
    Of course not. I’m speaking about the authors. If somebody contributes with a small portion of course it can be omitted but every significant portion of the book (10% for example) should be acknowledged. And the opposite is the same, somebody who contributed with little stuff shouldn’t be mentioned as author.

  10. I am fully in accord with the supportive remarks above by Ravel, Shurlock, Ray, Bartlett, Dfan. To me the only issue would be id someone was doing very helpful work ( as Nikos by your account does) and it isn’t acknowledged in some prefatory remarks of some kind by the author. This is not, imo, an ethical issue between the publisher and the reader, but between the helper and the author. If the helper is happy with anonymity, or insists on it—no problem. Not acknowledging significant help with regard to content as a way of taking credit for work you did not do would ruffle my feathers as an observer of business practices, but not as a reader.

  11. BTW—I am really enjoying Schandorff’s book on the Caro-Kann. It is very well written—witty at times, and easy to follow.

  12. @garryk
    I cannot really see a big difference between the research assistant that puts an outlay of variations and analysis together (Nikos), someone who writes down someone else’s thoughts and ask them questions in order to get them to explain their thoughts (me) and finally, someone who changes words in every paragraph, who adds a few comments here and there if they feel they are missing, who decides to cut paragraphs or chapters, insert references, diagrams and so on (the editors).

    The author of the work is the person who decides what should be the general tone of the book, who created the content and who made the big general decisions.

    Yes, you can choose to see it in other ways, but I do not have a problem with our set-up. Remember that page 2 or the introduction will stipulate clearly who did what.

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