Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Spotlight on Dave Levin

image courtesy of Stock Exchange

I'm pleased to welcome DAVE LEVIN to join me for an interview today. Dave is one of the co-winners of my recent WORST QUERY LETTER EVER contest. His hilarious entry:

To Whom It May Concern:

I have like a totally great book idea that I’m positive will be a bustblocker. I know this for sure because my mother-in-law said so and she’s such a good writer that at the supermarket where she works the boss always asks her to do the signs that say tomato’s on sale and stuff like that.

But before I spill the beers, I want to know if your one of those sleazeball publishers because if you are I don’t want you to make lots of money and me not.

Assuming you’re legit, my story is kind of a combination of the best parts of The Godmother Part L and The Even Couple. I can’t tell you more because it’s not written yet. But all I need to write this fantastic book is for you to get me a laptop, a room at a nice hotel with a pool because I do my best thinking when my head’s underwater, and a full-time personal assistant so that I can devote a full four hours a day to the book. And it would be nice if the assistant was attractive so that I’m not bored the rest of the time.

You need to replay right away because I can easily find someone else to publish it if you’re to dumb too.

David H. Levin

p.s. - This is the first query letter I’ve written. I hope it lowers the bar.

Ugh, just leaves a horrid taste in your mouth, doesn't it? Thanks, Dave, and I have just a few questions for you.

LL: You write in a rather interesting and unique "genre." Care to tell us a bit about your books?

DL: Sure. The first two titles, dealing with chess, were written and self-published during my self-financed sabbatical from the telecommunications industry, where I worked as a systems engineer. During that three-year break, I pursued chess pretty seriously--doing the books, giving lessons, playing in tournaments, and writing a column for the monthly publication of the NJ State Chess Federation. In retrospect, I'm very glad to have done this, else I might never have gotten it out of my system!

The first book, Position and Pawn Tension in Chess, is an instructional work on the middlegame, intended for tournament players of above-average strength. Its basic message is that the way the pawns are arranged dictates what a player should be trying to accomplish. Where the pawns give you more territory than the opponent, you should exploit that by placing your pieces optimally (which a territorial advantage usually allows you to do more effectively than the opponent) and then exchanging at least one pair of pawns to open things up so that your pieces can dominate. Conversely, where the pawns give the opponent a territorial advantage, you should resist the opponent's efforts to open lines and penetrate your position.

I feel that properly approached, chess really isn't that hard to understand. But based on my experience watching tournament play, only a relative handful of players seem to understand what I tried to convey in my book, which is what possessed me to write it.

The second book, Chess Puzzles for Children, came about because of my technique of resolving squabbles in one of the chess classes I taught. I would separate the two players, send them to neutral corners (or at least different desks), and give each a chess puzzle that I'd composed basically on the spot. One of those students happened to suggest that I should do a book of those puzzles, and I realized that was a fine idea.

LL: You have a rather impressive list of achievements in chess, including National and World Chess Federation Master. How long have you been playing, and are you still actively competing?

DL: Thank you. I started playing in tournaments in 1972, at age 13. I became earnest about studying the game at age 12 as a direct result of a relative and her husband giving me a Bar Mitzvah present of membership in the US Chess Federation, two instructional works, and a magnetic set. You can imagine the impact on a 12-year-old to discover that organized chess exists. Before then, I wasn't especially interested in the game, although I first learned the moves at around age 8 and occasionally played with friends and grandparents.

I haven't played much in the last dozen years, mainly because I reached the point where the biggest thing inhibiting me from realizing my potential in chess (or at least what I believe it to be) was inadequate opening preparation. Here's some background: For about the last 150 years, various ways of playing the early phase of a chess game (i.e., the "opening") have been gathered from tournament games, cataloged, and evaluated, to where this body of published knowledge encompasses probably millions of positions.

Although a player need master only a fraction of this knowledge in order to reach the highest levels, it's still a lot of stuff. Moreover, it becomes important to be familiar with the repertoire of likely opponents, because if you can find a weakness or hole, you can try to exploit it if that position happens to arise when you are playing against an unsuspecting opponent. The availability of inexpensive commercial databases that contain oodles of master games makes proper preparation even more of a challenge.

As a result, I became more interested in bridge, where I feel a competitor can go further before being limited by the unwillingness to spend copious time on preparation. But I haven't played much bridge lately either, mainly because I'm at least two hours from the standard of competition I like. This didn't impede me for the first few years after moving to western NC in 1999, but it's become more problematic for various reasons.

LL: How did you get started with writing about games?

I started my chess website around 2003, mainly because I had several opening "novelties" that I wanted to share. Given that my participation in tournaments was already tapering off, I realized that the odds of getting to spring those ideas on opponents was not very great, thus publishing them wouldn't be putting me at a disadvantage in tournaments.

LL: What's the biggest challenge you've faced in your career, and your greatest joy?

DL: I'd say that the first book would qualify as both. When I started, I didn't know anything about the publishing industry, the PC operating system I was using, or how to design layout of books. I did know chess and how to write clearly, but the set of unknowns in self-publishing a book was staggering. I had to keep telling myself that surely people less able than I had self-published successfully and that there was no reason I couldn't also. But realizing this intellectually is a far cry from being internally convinced of it. So, when I finished the book after about a year's toil, it felt ineffably empowering.

LL: What else do you do when you're not whipping up your latest book? Hobbies? Job? Family?

Shortly after my last systems engineering gig ended in late 2003, I did my third book, Bridge Puzzles for Children, which is designed for youngsters to go through without any outside help. After that was wrapped up in mid-2004, I started a freelance editing practice, which continues. I do nonfiction only, as that's where all of my writing experience lies. I got the idea because around 1990, a work associate said only in partial jest that I should charge for the feedback I provide on drafts my colleagues have written. I feel lucky to have this way of supporting myself while living out in the country and not having to commute.

LL: If you could change one thing about the publishing industry right now, what would it be?

DL: I find disturbing how the industry has become dominated by a very small number of players. For example, I read that amazon had been trying to coerce publishers into using its manufacturing arm, which I find beyond outrageous. Enforcement of the antitrust laws seems to have become a lost art.

LL: Where all can folks find you on the web? MySpace? Twitter? etc.

DL: I built a website,, where I add material very occasionally. But I often post at the Freelance Forum of, which is where I learned of the contest at the Romance Junkies blog. I also frequent the "Openings for Amateurs" chess site that's run by Pete Tamburro, whom I often saw at tournaments when I lived in NJ.

You may be wondering why I never built a website for publicizing my editing service. That makes two of us. 8^) Actually, I decided on other methods for that, and they seem to have worked reasonably well.

LL: Thank you for joining me in my Wildest Dreams.

DL: It's been a pleasure, thank you.

There you have it...the words of a master chess player AND worst query writer. If the puzzle market ever runs dry, Dave can no doubt enjoy a lucrative career as a humorist.


©Hotbutton Press said...

It's a mystery to me why this man doesn't write more humour. He can be hysterical!

Penny Dreadful

groovyoldlady said...

If Dave can succesfully publish books about chess, then I'm sure to get my dustbunny comics out and in the hands of the public.