The wizard of writing chess books: In conversation with FIDE Master Carsten Hansen
Carsten Hansen is a FIDE Master (FM) and FIDE Trainer (FT) but what's more impressive is the fact that he has authored close to thirty odd books on chess that have been well received by the audience. Being prone to many name a-likes in his birthplace of Denmark, Carsten gives no importance to such minute errors as he waits for more prestigious opportunities in the large world of chess publishing. In recent interviews, one has spared more thought to players on the expansive chess circuit. However, not much emphasis is placed upon the chess authors. So, I thought to interview one of the most popular writers in the chess scene, so here we go! On to the questions now.
1. Hi thanks for taking the time for this interview. Firstly, can you please introduce yourself in a few lines to the readers?
My name is Carsten Hansen, and I originally hail from Denmark. Now, I live just outside New York in the United States. Despite sharing the last name with several of Denmark's other top players such as Curt Hansen, Lars Bo Hansen, and Sune Berg Hansen, none of us are related. I'm a FIDE Master and FIDE Trainer, but I haven't played much in recent years, although the ambitions are still very much there. I have authored 28 books, and expect to have another three to be published this year and an additional three in the first half of 2020.
2. How did you start playing chess and when did you think of taking the plunge for norms and titles in chess?
My mother taught me the rules when I was 5 years old, but I didn't do anything except playing for fun until I was 10. At that time, my brother won a prize in a tournament, but I didn't win anything. This motivated me to train, and my game improved rapidly. I regularly competed in international tournaments in my teens, and individual games convinced me that I had the potential for more. When I attended business school, I convinced my parents that taking some time to play chess full-time wouldn't just be a good idea for my chess but also my development as a person. Both turned out to be true. Although I didn't gain the desired IM title, I made a lot of friends, had a lot of great experiences, and visited some interesting countries.
3. What has been your most precious moment in your chess career?
There are many precious moments, most of them related to the friends I made and the people I met. On a trip to the Soviet Union, I got to meet Botvinnik which still gives me goosebumps to just think about. The best result I ever had was probably in the Danish championship for U20 players, where I finished shared second behind future grandmaster Delchev but ahead of Topalov, Kulaots (who won this year's Aeroflot Open in Moscow) and several other IMs and future titled holders.
4. When did you decide to start writing books? Did you have any prior experience with writing or publishing?
In 1995, I was approached by my good friend Peter Heine Nielsen, who is now the coach for World Champion Magnus Carlsen (and previously worked with Vishy Anand). He had been offered to write a book about the Accelerated Dragon, a renowned opening in chess, by the well-acclaimed English publisher Batsford. He felt that he wouldn't be able to write it on his own, but as soon as I came aboard the project, we could definitely do it together. We had previously written some articles together for the Danish chess magazine and had known each other since we were 13-14 years old. This got me started on the journey as a chess author that I am still on.
5. Can you explain the process of writing a book? How is a chess book different than any other book, if at all?
In the past, I was very unstructured in my approach to writing, but nowadays I have figured out an approach that works well for me and that allows me to write a lot faster than I did in the past. When I have an idea for a book, I start outlining what I want to have in each chapter, that can be a topic or a specific variation. Once the outline is done, I determine which variations or games are key for the understanding of the topic or variation I discuss in the given chapter. it doesn't necessarily have to be the most recent games nor those by the strongest players but rather those that illustrate the points or variations the best. Then, I analyze the games with an engine. For the books on opening theory, I also add the opening references and finally, I add the words- the annotations to the games. This last part is basically hands-on-keyboard-and-type away. Then, when the manuscript is done, the editing phase comes in. Over the years, I have been lucky to work with some great editors that truly helped my books take the right shape in the end.
6. What role has your education played in making you an author of over 30 books?
My education was from a business school, so it doesn't directly relate to me writing books, but the systematic approach and the thorough analysis could possibly have something to do with the approach of the books on economics I had to read back then, but I suspect it has more to do with my upbringing. My father was very detail-oriented with everything important ,and he tried to install a certain discipline in my approach to chess that I think still lingers in my mindset.
7. How did you go about finding your first publishers? Do you have a printing press yourself?
As mentioned, the first publisher approached Peter Heine Nielsen who then approached me. Thereafter, I worked with Gambit Publications, whose commissioning editor is Graham Burges and was the one who signed the contract with Peter and me. Later through my reputation and the connections I have made over the years, I have been and still am working with multiple other publishers: Russell Enterprises (Hanon Russell founded ChessCafe.com which I wrote a column for), Everyman Chess (one of my former teammates from when I lived in England worked as an editor for them), New In Chess (I had written surveys for their yearbooks on several occasions) and currently I'm also working with Thinkers Publishing on a project. I don't print any books myself but have published several books through Amazon's self-publishing platform.
8. What is your opinion regarding books for the visually impaired? How can the visually impaired chess players get hold of your books in an accessible format?
This is a very interesting question and one I have started working on. Some of my readers have mentioned that the fonts and diagrams in modern chess books are too small to read and while this may be able to be remedied when using an e-reader, it doesn't help those that prefer books. I have looked at preparing large print books and that will happen in 2020. For those with more severe visual impairments, there are currently not many choices, but I have been contemplating making audiobooks for some material where this could make sense, but I'm still trying to work out how to best go about it.
9. What are your near-future goals? Any plans to return to playing professional chess?
My future goals involve getting a Youtube channel going, growing my existing platforms on social media for both my books and puzzles that I share as a coach. In regards to playing, I expect to return to active chess later this year with the goal of achieving the IM title before I turn fifty in 2021. I feel I know and understand more about chess than I ever did. Knocking the rust off the old engine may take a little work, but it's a challenge I'm looking forward to.
10. Finally, any tips for authors who want to follow in your footsteps?
I'm frequently being approached by people wanting to write chess books and my tips are usually: Define who your intended audience is for the book you have in mind. If you can't define it, then the book is not a good idea because you don't know who to sell it to and therefore it is unlikely anybody will buy it. Secondly, outline the book in clear chapters so that you don't stray from what is supposed to go where. If you don't do this, certain chapters will bloat up and become exhausting for the reader and they will quit on the book. Lastly, if you think the book is a good idea, but the publishers are not interested in publishing your book, don't let that deter you, write the book and publish it yourself through one of the self-publishing platforms. However, for those going in that direction, make sure you have somebody proofread the manuscript and invest in a proper cover. Don't do that part yourself, they usually end up looking second rate. You want your book to be taken seriously and that will only happen if you take it seriously too.