Forward Chess sat down with legendary author, player, and coach, Grandmaster Efstratios Grivas to speak about all things chess. 

He tells us about his years-long process of writing a chess book, how strategy is the most important element to improvement, and how readers can know which chess books to read.

*This interview has been edited for clarity and length

Do you have a favorite chess book or do you have a must-read book list that you would recommend?

Well, very good question, because, you know, every author loves their own children so it will not be fair. But, I can recommend which authors to read – you should read authors who know what they are writing about.

Nowadays it is very easy to write a book knowing nothing about the subject. Authors can collect things around or get information and have some special knowledge then try to create something out of nothing, which could also be nothing. But at the end of the day, it is not easily recognizable by the readers. I cannot stand when I see the same author writing similar books in a row. For example, writing an opening book and then another book about beating that system. 

As a reader, you should try to understand your author. What you read will mark your chess life and because of this, you should be very careful about what you read. There are many many books in the market, and many ideas, sure there is food for everybody but not all food is tasty. 

Which type of books would you recommend? 

Chess, most of all is a strategic game. The problematic situation that we have, is that most players in general understand nothing about strategy. They understand something about tactics which is why the games between players rated 2000 and under are decided by small tactics. Also, coaches are focused on tactics as if chess is a mathematical problem and has nothing to do with critical thinking or creating plans and strategic ideas.

 And that’s actually what I have noticed in good students – the one who improves is the one who tries to understand strategy.

Everybody is going to make their own choices, but there are things you cannot ignore. There are things that we have already known for years about how it’s working. For example, when you’ve got the bishop pair, you have to open up the center. These are basic strategical elements and you cannot change them. It’s against the nature of chess. So you cannot base your whole game just on tactics – you have to tell the student how to do the job. Because chess is not about talent, there is no talent in chess, in my opinion.

So hard work instead of talent brings success?

Not hard work. I don’t believe in hard work either. I believe in smart work.

 If you have a good coach who understands how to do the job, he can teach you very simple work.  You know, you have to be smart. Smart means learning with less effort but trying to understand what you are doing. There is no secret here. Of course, if you have nobody to teach you or no books to read then you will never learn.

Which book would you suggest in that sense, even if it’s one of your books? 

Well, instead of some titles, I can tell you how I am writing my books. There are different categories – openings, middlegames, endgames, and general things. What does it mean when I learn an opening or study an opening?

It means that I know not only the move-by-move procedure, which is very hard. Nobody remembers everything, and I don’t even remember writing them. So I cannot ask readers to memorize moves, this is insane. Instead, I start with the basics, ideas, plans, why we do this, structures, etc. Then I proceed with a chapter I always call “Middlegame Praxis“. We have to understand how this opening is being played by good players in the middlegame – what are they aiming for? What are their plans? Then there is the endgame section because according to the pawn structure, we have very typical endgames. Then we go to the typical tactics that come out of this opening since not all tactics can come out from all openings. So already you have a full understanding of what I call an opening tutorial. You don’t only learn the moves, but you understand the opening fully. So how can you teach that opening if you have never played it?

You try to understand the ideas and plans and relay that?

That is not easy. For example, I see Forward Chess has my latest book on the Grivas Sicilian and the Anti-Sicilian Bible. Before I write these huge books, which are maybe 500 pages each, I spend around 40 years playing the opening. So that means inside there is experience of over 40 years against a big majority of Grandmasters. 

Of course, nowadays we have a very good system and assistance with chess engines which can help us save time and identify mistakes that we wouldn’t have noticed in the books. So in my opinion, the book industry is quite well-helped by this. And unfortunately, I would say every book written in 2005 and before is a little outdated. I want to be polite. For example, I see great endgame books by Paul Keres. I agree, he was an incredible player and wrote incredible books for his era. But simply, this book should now be out of the market. If a good doctor of our era works with material and suggestions from 100 years ago, would you ever go to this doctor? But in the same way, you would take a book written 50 years ago? 

I have a lot of books because I am a collector and I have noticed so many changes over the years. The endgame book by Reuben Fine called “Basic Chess Endings” (Published in 1941) is an incredible book for his time, but the mistakes in his book were corrected by Pal Benko in 2003 which made approximately 75% of the book stronger. It is interesting to see how the book has developed. 

Reuben Fine’s 1971 cover of Basic Chess Endings.

The revised edition by Pal Benko.

What about Chess Fundamentals? Do you think it is outdated or timeless?

We have to separate the book into two things. This book, like many others, has two parts. The strategic part and the analysis of the sole procedure which is valuable, and the real part in the games where one focuses on analysis and openings and such, which is a waste of time. My point is that one should know how to read a chess book to benefit from it. The same applies to Chess Fundamentals and most other books. 

Is this the smart way of learning?

Everybody talks about hard work or talent, I believe you don’t need both. In 2013, I wrote a book called “Grandmaster Program” which I think was my best book – but it never got published. The problem was that no publishing house accepted to publish it. I managed to publish the book myself because I do believe it is one of my best works. 

You have written 119 books, what makes this book the best?

Well, I cannot write books on demand. What I do is, I collect material every day and I store them in my files. Once I have enough material, I would ask the publisher if they would be interested in the given subject. Once I have the green light, then comes the period of creativity. I will work usually for a month on creating the book non-stop because I feel like it. I feel it is important to enjoy what you are doing – and this is the main reason I choose subjects myself.

It’s part of the creative process, I can tell that you love what you do and you are not writing for the sake of it. Do you have a book you are writing currently?

Right now, no. But I have a contract of 6 books on specific titles that I chose which are about strategy. Some topics include the “Power of the Bishop” and “Passed Pawns”. I am trying to include everything so that once the reader has gone through it they play like a machine gun. These days chess games have become extremely short in comparison to older times and it is not possible to discover chess in two hours. Many people have gone through similar situations as you so the material is already there, if you want it – go get it. Of course, you have to suffer a bit. 

You need to suffer a bit to become great, right?

Why do you have to suffer? Chess is a very nice game and you must enjoy it. If there was no fear of losing, we would never enjoy winning as much. We need to have this in mind that we can lose the game.

I am not playing so much these days anymore, which is normal. However, I played in the UAE men’s championship and won it. I won three titles this year in the open championship, the blitz championship, and the team event with my team. I scored 7.5/9, losing one game and I was so upset. I didn’t care about the 7 games that I won, but I was only caring about the one I lost. People asked me why am I caring about the one game I lost if I won the tournament. Because I blundered a piece in one move and this is not acceptable to me. It is suffering, but it is part of getting older. Chess is a sport. If you are healthy and have a healthy body, you will play better. You cannot change this fact. 

A nice game played by GM Grivas at the UAE Open Championship:

What do you think about the future of chess books?

I think it is difficult to say, but the younger generations do not like to read printed books, so books will be in more digital forms. This is easier for the publishers and easier for the readers who grew up with technology, and it’s normal. There is no reason to be against it, it is simply the procedure of our times. So books will still exist. The problematic situation, which I don’t see good, is that everybody can write a book, which was not happening at least when I was young. 

Nowadays, publishers are ready to publish any book from anybody. Doesn’t matter what is the subject of what they’re doing just to get books in the market? This is confusing the reader because they get a lot of different information and don’t know what to choose and what to read. This takes me back to my point, that it is a matter of luck. But it shouldn’t be a matter of luck. Unfortunately, this will be the biggest problem in the coming years. I don’t see anything that can be changed. Too much information is not the best you can hope for. Filtered information you should look for.

You have to strategically choose your books and your way of learning. 

Yes, but this is also the job of the player’s coach or mentor, or it should be at least. Then he will have better chances to understand things. 

So you think it’s up to the coach to filter out the kind of content for the student?

I believe in the systematic procedure of learning and following a school/university style of process. This means that the teacher (coach) should know the subject, and the books cannot be chosen by the student. Coaches are very big in our world today, especially because the pandemic created a need to find other incomes instead of just playing, so many professional players became coaches. That is fine, but they don’t have any idea about how to do things and their only weapon is that they have a good title and a good rating. But this does not mean you can teach in the same good way.

Of course, you should also choose your coach according to your level as each level needs a different coach. I remember around 2003/2004 my wife asked me why I don’t teach my two children how to play chess. I said, If I try to teach them, they will not understand anything, and they will start crying. I would not understand what they understand. I mean, it would be a disaster for everybody. 

So I prepared to get them to the school where they have a coach that would make them understand. A coach should go down to the level of his students to make them understand what he wants to tell them. But most coaches don’t understand how much to go down. 

Do you think that in these times you need a chess coach or you can self-study?

I think it is possible to get to around 1800 without a coach, you have to work smart and try to make up for the time you will lose. But on the other hand, I would come back to the point of educational procedure – can you complete your school course without a teacher?

Well, if you have the correct material, you can perhaps?

Probably you can, but maybe in the primary classes. As the classes become more difficult and more demanding you would not be able to do it. I think you can learn chess from scratch to Grandmaster level, but you will need about a thousand years. So the main question is not how to learn chess but how to live a thousand years. 

What do you think about Forward Chess? 

I think what you are doing trying to connect with the authors and get their opinion of the books is nice. It doesn’t happen often on selling platforms. The only problem is that all authors love their own children. You know, it’s quite difficult for me to choose my favorite books. 

It’s hard work. It is your children, so you have every right! 

 It is. I was lucky enough in my life to study at the Botvinnik School in Moscow when I was young. I can’t say that I learned a vast amount of chess knowledge, but I learned one important thing; how to work. I use this method that I learned at the Botvinnik School in my teaching, and in my books, and I think it works well. 

It’s about the method. They call it the Soviet School Method, which I believe personally is the best. It is a very scientific one and doesn’t contain too many tactics. It conveys the understanding of chess with strategy, plans, and focus. 

What is your favorite chess game that you’ve played? 

I don’t have a direct answer to this, a player’s favorite game can be based on meanings such as a specific tournament or title wins, even if it isn’t the best game. It is like asking who is the best World Champion of all time, it is relative. People try to compare different people, with different knowledge, from different eras. 

Like how people compare Capablanca and Carlsen quite a lot? 

Right, nowadays, Capablanca and Lasker might not have been better than average Grandmasters. But it is not their fault, they learned from their predecessors and that was the best they learned. That’s it – we accept them as the best players in their eras because they were the best. The best player in the world is always the new World Champion because he knows more things than the previous champion, and he put them into practice. If you were to ask me who was the most successful world champion of all time, it is Anand. 


Because he won the World Championship 5 times under different time controls which nobody else had done in the past. He was very active, and he was always playing – for example, Lasker held the record for 27 years because he was avoiding the good players. If Anand refused to play Carlsen, maybe he would be the World Champion for 20 years, but he is still playing after losing the title and is at an excellent level of 2750 GM. He can just play and enjoy the game, where he knows he doesn’t have the power or the willingness to be a World Champion again. This is also why Carlsen gave up and seems to not care about the title anymore, the pressure is too much. He doesn’t want any more pressure, he wants to enjoy and play his things, like how he likes to play Ke2 on the second move.

That’s a good example for chess players, just enjoy the game. 

You have to enjoy the game. All Grandmasters enjoy the game, but none of them thought that they would be a professional. Professional came with the procedure because they realize it is possible to live and survive off of their favorite thing. You have to love what you are doing. Love is important. 

Do you have a message for up-and-coming trainers or coaches? What would your advice be? 

The best thing that they have to understand and accept is that they are not coaches when they start. The first thing to do is to identify your bad position, otherwise, you cannot improve it.  Nobody was born a chess player, and nobody was born a coach.

I had the same problem when I stopped playing and I decided to become a coach. I had to understand that I was nobody in the coaching world. I had a good rating and the title of Grandmaster, so people would probably hire me, but I wasn’t feeling I was doing anything good. So the first thing I did was read and research to understand how to coach. There are many books on coaching methods. Then I started writing the method of my training. It took me quite a lot of time, maybe six months to collect the material as I wanted to create some personalized teaching guides. I collected more than a thousand pages of examples and material. But that was the starting point. Then I used it to make books and lessons.

I still use this method today, and when I have enough material on a specialized subject a book is created. I only have to polish and connect the material, which could take only a month, but behind it is a story of years of work and collection. You will find something every day if you simply search for it and have your eyes open.

What is your advice for aspiring chess professionals? 

Professional chess is a little bit tricky, the playing part at least. But by teaching and writing, it’s much easier and more secure. A professional player is like a hunter – he goes to the forest to hunt, maybe he eats, maybe he doesn’t. But he will not eat regularly. So most people, especially when they get families, they don’t want to deal with professional chess anymore. For me, if you are in the top twenty then you can make a good income. Other than that, you are only biting. Prize money in tournaments can be very little. This is why cheating has become so much more common.

I never really played in online tournaments. I think it is not good, for me at least because if I don’t play well then okay that can be normal, I have nothing to win. But if I play well then everyone will accuse me of cheating so I prefer to stay out and play with my friends. 

With regards to cheating, what is your opinion of the Carlsen-Nieman drama?

Every accusation needs proof. This is the base of the law everywhere. I’m not sure if Hans cheated or not, this is something very few people can know and say. But as far as they see, there is no evidence. This doesn’t make him innocent, but you cannot say he is guilty without any evidence. 

The internet is the ideal place for cheating in today’s time. So we must play online for fun. A smart cheater doesn’t always play the best moves. A Grandmaster only needs advice 2-3 times in a game in critical positions. That’s it, then he will play like a machine and you will not even understand or feel it. We cannot do anything about cheating, so the best is to accept it and just play online for fun, and everyone is happy. Over-the-board tournaments are of course a different story.

As a tournament organizer, I have caught maybe 4-5 cheaters in the last few years. As a Grandmaster, I can understand how to cheat and who is cheating. Then I wait for the right moment to catch him. But not all arbiters can do this. 

So you are in Sharjah right now? How is that?

Yes, I have been living here for the last 4-5 years. I am the director of the Sharjah International Chess Academy and coordinator of the biggest club in the world. 

Sharjah Chess Club

So chess in UAE in general is quite big, right? With so many prestigious tournaments, even the World Championship Match. What’s your role there? 

Sharjah Club is the biggest club in the world, it goes up to 32000 square meters. It is a castle made in the middle of the desert. There are a lot of people, and we have a lot of activities. We have two sections; one is the club and one is the Academy. I’m the director of the Academy and also the coordinator of all of the things for the club, tournaments, etc. We have many programs like Alzheimer’s programs, prison programs, school programs, and whatever you can imagine. We are a government organization, with about 10 coaches, drivers, and cooks.

Annually we host a strong event, the Sharjah masters. Last year the average of the A group was 2551, with about 80 players. It was the second-strongest open tournament in history. But I have promised to make the next one, in May 2023, the strongest.

Efstratios Grivas is a Greek Grandmaster, FIDE Senior Trainer, International Arbiter, and FIDE International Organizer, and author of multiple best-selling books. Some of his biggest achievements as a player include Silver Individual Medal (board 3) at the 33rd Chess Olympiad in 1998, Gold Individual Medal (board 3) at the European Team Championship in 1989, 4th place at the World Junior Championships in 1985, and many other international accolades. As an author, he has published 119 books and is a recipient of the Boleslavsky Medal for the best author for 2009.

What do you think? Leave us a comment down below!

Latest posts by Charlize (see all)

Leave a Reply