Perverse incentives

Posted by David Smerdon on Aug 12, 2017 in Economics, Non-chess

One of the cool things about studying economics is that it teaches a new and exciting way of thinking about things. This means we can look at all sorts of topics in a whole new light, spot problems that we never knew were even there, and come up with efficient solutions. And THAT means every now and then we come across an everyday, routine situation and say, “Err, what?”

This has happened to me a few times recently, all related to the problem of incentivesOne of the neat areas in the economist’s toolkit is contract theory, which came to public prominence last year when two of its champions were awarded the Nobel prize. Contracts and incentives govern most of the relationships in our everyday lives, both formal (such as with our employer, our bank, the government…) and informal (neighbours, strangers, and of course, partners). And it’s absolutely critical to get the incentives right. Normally, they’ve sorted themselves out over the years, either through social norms or legal obligations. But every now and then, we come across situations where the incentives don’t align with the situation.

One example from earlier this week was when I was investigating customs clearance when moving back to Australia. Shipped goods are inspected by customs officials, and – if they decide the goods don’t meet the test – they can charge you for treatment or destruction of your property. That is, the officials, and only the officials, get to decide whether or not you have to pay them more money. Now in this case, we could assume (probably correctly) that the officials are acting as unbiased members of a government organisation in which there’s no corruption going on, and so the inspection decisions are made on the merits alone. But part of designing good contracts is reducing the potential risks of corruption developing in the future, and here the incentives don’t really line up.

Not that this will affect my shipping decisions. But fast-forward to yesterday when I started investigating buyer’s agents, a whole industry I previously didn’t even know existed. Basically, real estate agents are employed by would-be home buyers to search for property on their behalf, negotiate the price and execute the sale. Sounds good in principle, especially for the busy worker who doesn’t have the time or know-how to search themselves. But the fee structure is truly baffling. Buyer’s agents charge a (quite sizeable) percentage of the sale price – say, 3% of the final amount you pay for the house. That means when they’re searching for property and negotiating with the seller, they make more money if they get a worse deal for you. The incentives are almost exactly aligned in the wrong direction. How does this possibly make sense?!

Granted, I’m new to this field, but the more I’ve searched online the surer I am that the incentive system in this industry is really perverse (to use the economic term). So then I started to think about what sort of contract would actually align the incentives of agent and buyer. There are a couple of better alternatives to the status quo, though it turns out this problem is not as simple as it appears.

A fixed-fee model is the easiest, and a minority of agents do use this. But this means there aren’t any monetary incentives for the agent to really work hard to get you the best deal. (There are some reputational benefits of course, but that’s another story.) For the buyer who’s risk-averse and just wants to avoid getting screwed over, however, let’s see if we can do better. First, the agent searches for properties within the buyer’s strict criteria (price range, location, size etc). Then, when the buyer has agreed on one she likes, she agrees that she will pay in total the listed property price. The agent then gets paid whatever amount lower than the asking price the agent can negotiate. E.g. imagine the listed price is $500,000 and the agent negotiates it down to $490,000. The buyer pays $490,000 to the seller and $10,000 to the agent. The point is that the buyer knows exactly what her total cost will be before the negotiation takes place, reducing the uncertainly, as well as reducing the risks for the agent to act against the buyer’s interests.

It’s not a perfect solution, though. This contract might influence the agent’s selection of properties to present to the buyer; maybe we’ll only get to see properties that the agent thinks are overpriced (and therefore easily negotiated downwards). Can we do better?

The solution I came up with is complicated, but we can outsource most of it to a computer (in theory, anyway). First, the buyer comes up with a list of strict criteria for the perfect property. E.g. up to $700,000, within 4km of the office, near to parks and schools, at least 3 bedrooms, living space of at least 150 square metres, blah blah. Then there’s a second list of “optional extras” that the buyer likes: a garden would be nice, a pool would be amazing, more than one bathroom or more than one car park sounds good, open-plan kitchen, close to cafes, possible to ride a bike to work, and more blah blah. We feed our strict and desired preferences into our fancy computer software, which spits out a score function. Then, every potential home, for a given price, is given a score. If a house just meets the bare minimum criteria with no optional extras, the score is 0, and the agent gets a minimal flat fee. For every point higher in the score, the agent gets paid more. E.g. if the price is negotiated down to $5,000 less than our maximum price, the score goes up, the agent gets paid an extra $2,000, and everybody’s happy. If the location is closer to the office, the score goes up, proportional to the distance or travel time. Extra bedroom? Score goes up. Outdoor pool? You beauty!

The nicer the property and the better the deal is to the buyer, the more the agent earns. The key point is: it’s in the agent’s interests to try harder for the buyer. Incentives are aligned. Everybody wins.

So… Anyone know a good programmer?


All boxed up

Posted by David Smerdon on Aug 1, 2017 in Chess

When you play often enough on an online chess server, you start to see the same usernames popping up as your opponents. It makes for a weird social network. I recall a story where some Australian chess players met the famous Hikaru Nakamura at a tournament. Among them was a shy, timid junior called Moulthun Ly. At the introductions, Hikaru said something along the lines of “Moulthun… like “Molton”, from ICC?” The two had played literally hundreds of blitz and bullet games against each other online, and that sense of respect was transported from the virtual world to the ‘flesh’ (mainly because Moulthun had won quite a few of the games, I suspect).

In the last month I have played 60 games against user “ukchessbomber” on chess.com’s server. We’ve never chatted and I don’t know anything about this person, other than that they play from Wales and their opening repertoire needs a bit of work. Still, after so many games, one can get a strange sense of camaraderie. And now after one more game, I know one more thing: They’re a good sport, allowing me to play through to checkmate in one of the weirdest games I’ve ever been a part of. Black’s queenside pieces are literally boxed into submission, falling over each other in complete uselessness. On Facebook, I called it my “Trump administration” game, but without the political commentary, something like a ‘pieces in a box’ game would be more appropriate.

After 17…a6?? 18.a5!, believe it or not, Black can resign. I guess soon afterwards he or she realised the self-immobilisation. 25.Re8+ was admittedly cheeky, but I couldn’t resist. Ironically, chess.com’s computer analysis tool calls this move “Blunder! Black is winning”, with an evaluation of -4.9.


PS – My opponent’s sportsmanship was rewarded; he beat me soon afterwards.


The strangest dream

Posted by David Smerdon on Jul 29, 2017 in Non-chess

I’m a dreamer. Literally; I dream almost every night, and I recall them vividly. They are often bizarrely creative, including the odd chess dream, though occasionally, during stressful work periods, more boring topics sneak in.

But last night’s has left me with goosebumps all day. It was a hot, moonless night in Milan. I remember waking up during the night to some sounds in our courtyard. My clock said 3.00 am, and there was a cool breeze blowing through my bedroom window. I fell back asleep.

We’re in the jungle. I’m driving a roofless military jeep, frantically, along a dirt path – we’re being chased. My uncle’s in the passenger seat, and my two best friends are in the back. They’re yelling at me to go faster to escape the unknown assailants. Branches crash into the windscreen as I weave and dodge, desperately trying to keep the vehicle straight. I briefly glance up at the dirty rear-view mirror; there are black sedans chasing, but the windows are heavily tinted. I yank the steering wheel hard to the right and we skid on the dirt and fishtail into some sort of rocky opening, a cave. The cave extends deep into a network of tunnels. I can barely see ten metres ahead through the darkness, but we keep careening on, wheels screeching. The sedans follow. The tunnel keeps branching and I randomly take lefts and rights, trying to lose our pursuers. The tunnel floor seems to be sloping upwards. My friends yell at me to keep going; I floor the accelerator, and now there is a definite incline; we’re going up and up, but I still can’t see anything.

Now it’s very steep, and I can’t see anything in front or behind, and as we fly forwards, I’m sitting almost horizontal in my seat, like at the start of a roller-coaster, but faster. Suddenly, we burst out of the tunnel into daylight, and we’re way up in the open air, on some sort of massive, elevated road suspended miles above ground. We’re at the height of a plane when it levels off. The road’s narrow, just about the width of our jeep, just a strip that goes up and down with no supports, and we’re speeding along it. I can see houses like dots below us. My friends in the back yell that we’ve lost the cars behind us, and my uncle shouts at me to slow down, but I can’t – the accelerator is stuck, and the break’s not working. The car’s speeding up and we’re rocketing at top speed, and I’m desperately trying to keep the wheels within the narrow edges of the track, but it’s an impossible task, and now everyone’s screaming at me, and suddenly I realise that it’s inevitable, there’s no other way for this to end.

The front-left tyre slips over the edge and the jeep jolts violently to the left, and my friends in the back are thrown clear into the abyss. Then the whole jeep tilts over and falls, front-first, and I’m looking through the windscreen straight down as we start hurtling towards the ground. I can see my friends below us; they’re falling back-first and I’m staring into their faces. They have their mouths open, screaming, but I can’t hear them, only the whistling of the wind. And the ground’s coming so fast, and all I can wonder is whether I’ll die instantly, or if not, whether I’ll be in pain, even for a second, and I find myself wishing just that there’s no pain, please, let there be no pain. And my uncle’s still next to me, and we’re floating next to each other now, like two sky-divers, and he looks over and says, so calmly and so clearly:

“With the world’s collapse – the brief slowness of time.”

As his last word hangs in the air, I stretch my arms out above my head and I smash into the roof of a house, spread-eagled like a pancake, and everything goes black. For half a second I’m aware that I’m still alive, but dying, and then my vision goes blindingly white, and I feel an incredible numbness in my outstretched arms. As I start to lose consciousness, I feel my shoulders start to tingle, then my biceps, and then my forearms as the spears of pain move their way down to my hands and fingertips, until my whole arms are tingling, burning, and I can’t think anymore. And as I finally slip away from life, I hear a computerised, female voice echoing a single word in the distance: “Reboot”.

I woke up in my bed, lying flat on my stomach, arms outstretched above my head, with pins and needles all the way to my fingertips. I looked up at the clock; it was 3.00 am. There was a cool breeze blowing through my window.


Chess, age and Roger Federer

Posted by David Smerdon on Jul 22, 2017 in Chess, Economics

In the provocatively titled “Can Anand Be The Federer Of Chess?“, Chess.com’s Mike Klein brings up the question of whether chess players can really keep performing at the top level as they age. Proponents of this view typically note that chess is not subject to intense physical stresses, that it depends a lot more on past experience than other competitive sports do, and typically end curtly with “Korchnoi.”

All plausible arguments. On the other hand, opponents like to point out that scientists typically ‘peak’ before they turn 30, judging by the age when the key work for Nobel prizes was conducted (though this age may be increasing). This is supported by a famous Einstein quip:

“A person who has not made his great contribution to science before the age of thirty will never do so.”

All well and good, but it’s perhaps not fair to compare chess to either physical sports or science, as our passion only partly overlaps with either comparison. It’s probably better to look at how chess rankings and ages have changed over time. And here, there’s undeniably been a trend towards the world’s elite becoming younger. Hardly surprising, really, given the exponential increase in availability of chess materials and resources. The more easily dispensable chess knowledge is younger players, the less older players can rely on their experience to their advantage. And that’s the key point: If younger players can more easily (and quickly) pick up the knowledge that took older players years to acquire, then the days of chess veterans dominating the charts are numbered.

A quick aside: Of the world’s top 15 as of the time of writing,  only two are over 40: Former World Champions Vladmir Kramnik and Vishy Anand. Is it a surprise that Kramnik is known as a meticulous opening preparer and innovator, while Anand was one of the very first professional chess players to use computers for chess training? Of the remaining 13 players, three are in their 30s, nine are in their 20s, and the future World Champion Wei Yi is still old enough to play in junior events…

There’s a reason I highlighted some special characteristics about Kramnik and Anand. Statistics that look at the average rating of different age cohorts often make a fundamental error that econometricians like to call ‘selection bias’. The players who drop out of professional chess as they get older are not random, but instead are exactly the types who are ‘feeling their age’ with regard to their chess performance. So when we look at the average of older players who are still competing, we’ll actually be calculating the average of the better players, so we’ll always think age is having less of an effect than it actually is.

This seems like a pretty basic thing to keep in mind, but it’s shocking how often this mistake is made in research. Anyway, some economists have recently shown that once we take care of this bias, the results show that chess players’ performance indeed decreases steadily as we get older. Moreover, this decline happens much earlier than we used to think. They found that the average peak age for chess performance is a remarkably young 21.6 years, with a median around 24 years. One of the most remarkable findings from their study is that the average chess player’s level at 40 will be similar to when he or she was 15 (obviously, this assumes the player was already playing tournaments at 15). I find this very hard to believe from an intuitive standpoint, and I haven’t yet had time to go through their paper in close detail. But from a quick read, it seems like the results are solid.

“Seriously, show some respect.”

As an ageing player myself, I should find this depressing (especially to think that in eight years time, I’ll get beaten by my 15 year old self). But taking a step back, the age we live in is the most exciting of all time to be a chess lover, as I explained in a recent interview. The exponential increase in chess knowledge, playing opportunities and tournament coverage (all thanks to computers) has brought the joy of the game to hundreds of millions. And if that means I have to get beaten up by a couple of kids every now and then, do I really have a right to complain?

Then again, back in my day…


Just winging it

Posted by David Smerdon on Jul 12, 2017 in Chess

These days, the extent of my chess career seems to be the odd blitz game on the net during my lunch break. It’s more virtual escapism than serious training of course, but I get to try out some fun openings. One I’ve been enjoying a lot lately is the Wing Gambit, considered dubious at best (and at worst, complete junk) by almost all strong players. It goes 1.e4 c5 2.b4!?, although White can also use it against the French Defence by playing 1.e4 e6 2.Nf3 d5 3.e5 c5 4.b4!?. I’m kind of addicted to it – it’s like the white version of my audacious Scandinavian –  and every now and then, I play a cool game.

In a game from today, I decided on sacrificial symmetry, giving up first the b-pawn and then the g-pawn to open lines. Black probably had to be brave and try 13…Bxc1!, when it’s really on. Later, there were some cute mates, such as 28…Rg8 29.R(either)f7+!, and after 28…a3? 29.Nxe8! there was 29…Rxe8 30.Ref7#. Instead,  28…Bh5! would have kept the game alive, after which I don’t know what the plan was. Just wing it, I guess.




Why I didn’t write

Posted by David Smerdon on Jun 19, 2017 in Economics, Non-chess

I didn’t plan to stop writing. It just sort of happened; I had a lot of fires to put out in my work, and they kept coming, and after a while it all became too easy to forget about this site. I feel a bit guilty – it was seven years of regular writing without a break – but there you have it.

The main reason for the break – the biggest ‘fire’ – was the job market for economists. The job market is really an amazing concept that only economists could think is a good idea. This is a heavily centralised process that allows (or forces) thousands of newly-minted PhD graduates and other junior academics from every country to compete for hundreds of economist jobs around the world. The astute visitor to this site (if I still have any) may have noticed the ‘Economics’ tab in the website header, which directs to my professional site – an essential for the job market. Besides the regular details that you’d expect on a professional site, it also features a cheesy video CV that was surprisingly popular with potential employers. Filming and directing credits to Sabina, naturally…



The main event in the job market is the annual American Economic Association meeting, which for candidates is basically a massive stress-fest with a lifetime’s worth of interviews crammed into a couple of days. I must admit, there was a moment in early January, where I was literally running on the ice-covered streets of Chicago in my suit, sweating little icicles in -20 degrees C with the icy Lake Michigan wind in my face, desperately trying to make my fifth interview for the day on time, and looking up at the giant, menacing letters on Trump Tower… when I began to wonder if it was all worth it. (My interviewers were also late.)

Almost all economists interested in the world of academia will have to go through this baptism of fire once in their lives. For me, despite my job in Milan and finishing my thesis in Amsterdam, the market proved to be a full-time occupation from November to February. To survive, I had to make sacrifices: chess tournaments (including online!), book reviews, commentary and banter blitz, weekends, Christmas… and blogging. There was light at the end of the tunnel, though. At the end of the wash, I found an exciting position at the University of Queensland, back in my home city, which I’ll begin later this year.

I have a lot more to say about the job market, but I’ll save that for a later (but not too much later!) post. In particular, a lot of PhD students in economics really don’t have a good feel for what the market entails, let alone how best to prepare for it, so I’m going to try and provide some advice. Even though November is still a few months away, early preparation is key – something that I wish I’d known a year ago.

But for now, and particularly for those outside the strange world of academia, I can highly recommend this entertaining description of the job market that pretty much sums it up: Speed Dating for Economists.


Bad tiebreaks

Posted by David Smerdon on Nov 9, 2016 in Chess

The recent strong chess open in the German town of Bad Wiessee was won by my Werder Bremen teammate, the Ukrainian GM Alexander Areshchenko. Areshchenko is perhaps best known as being currently the world’s best expert on playing the Najdorf, though perhaps Maxime might have something to say about that.

Areshchenko finished in a massive seven-player tie for first on 7.5 out of 9, but edged the field on tie-break. And I really mean ‘edged’, because the average rating of his opponents was less than two points higher (2428.9 versus 2427) than that of his nearest rival, Liviu-Dieter “Peanut Man” Nisipeanu.

Unhelpfully, the official website accidentally cut off its table in the final average-rating column. Areshenko's should read 2429 and Nisipeanu's is 2427.

Unhelpfully, the official website accidentally cut off its table in the final average-rating column. Areshchenko’s should read 2429 and Nisipeanu’s is 2427.

I’ve written before about the occasional insanity of tie-break systems (see here, and here). But from this and my subsequent research, two things are certain. First, there’s no clearly best tie-break system in chess. And second, some systems are clearly worse than others.

All methods have basically the same goal: To work out which player performed better, given the same score. (For completeness, the “most-wins” tie-breaks have other goals, namely, incentivising fighting chess.) For example, the point of the average-rating tie-break used in Bad Wiessee was to see which player managed to score their 7.5 points against the strongest opposition. Now in principle, this makes some sense. But given that the tournament didn’t really ‘start’ for the top players until round 4 (13 of the top 14 finishers started with 3/3), it seems a little illogical to me that the precise ratings of the early-round cannon fodder should count for a third of the tie-break score. This is my main argument for why average-rating shouldn’t be used in big Opens, or in fact any event where players can expect a large variance in the ratings of their opponents (for most of the place-getters, the range was around 700 ELO).

But what I really don’t understand is why the individual match between Areshchenko and Nisipeanu was included. The point of a tie-break is to separate players who are otherwise considered equal in ranking. Including matches between said players by definition assumes that the players are not equal. It’s circular reasoning that makes no sense mathematically or logically. In words, the tie-break essentially claims that “Player A and B finished at equal rank, but Player A performed stronger than Player B because we assume that Player B is stronger than Player A.”

Fortunately, in this case the result would be the same: Areshchenko’s average rating without the final round game would be 2396.6, just a fraction ahead of Nisipeanu’s score of 2396.0. So the right result was proclaimed (according to this tie-break system, anyway). On the other hand, if we imagine that the two player’s ratings were reversed, then exactly the wrong result would have eventuated, for the same reasons (although then the pairings would have been affected).

Anyway, I guess the math mistake was not a big deal here, and in general in these Open tournaments the probability of there being a big impact isn’t very high. But there are plenty of worse examples out there in terms of consequences, such as the insanely complicated tie-breaks of the recent chess Olympiad. USA won its first gold medal in 40 years after scoring the same points as Ukraine, but winning on tie-break. The key moment was when another of my Werder Bremen teammates, Matthias Blübaum, profited from a terrible blunder by his Estonian opponent in the match on board 28 (!). If instead he’d drawn, Ukraine would be the champion, hence explaining why Hikaru Nakamura posted this post-victory tweet:

Oh well. Maybe I should pick up working on the Smerdon system?


(Double) Book Review – “Attacking the English/Reti” (Delchev/Semkov) and “Beating Minor Openings” (Mikhalevski)

Posted by David Smerdon on Nov 3, 2016 in Chess


I recently read two opening books that deserve a joint review. Both of the above titles are aimed at providing a black repertoire against the ‘flank’ openings, which is a broad term that usually means anything except for 1.e4 or 1.d4. They made quite interesting reading, not least because, despite being released within a few months of each other, the two books propose almost exactly the same repertoire! If you plan on meeting the English with 1.c4 e5 (arguably the most principled response), then you’re in luck, as this is the backbone of both titles. Moreover, if 1.Nf3 d5 is your cup of tea, you’ll also find either one useful; if you prefer 1.Nf3 Nf6, Mikhalevski still has you covered.

To be honest, it’s not easy to make a direct comparison. Even though the topic is similar the material, audience and style are all quite different. I’ll save you reading the rest of this review with the crudest of contrasts:  Mikhalevski’s book is a serious theoretical work for the professional, principled repertoire, while Delchev and Semkov provide an intuitive, dynamic read as well as an attacking quick-fix for the simple theoretician. Both are excellent.

Too crude? Fair enough. Let’s get into the details!

As it turns out, “Beating Minor Openings” (henceforth BMO) had the advantage of the second move and references the other book on occasion, so it’s a good place to start. There’s no question that Victor Mikhalevski is a brilliant theoretician. His columns on Chesspublishing.com are first-rate, and so teaming up with the Quality Chess team was always going to be a powerful combination. Such teams don’t always work, mind you; readers will know that I’m not the biggest fan of the Kotronias King’s Indian series, for example, which is too dense for my tastes. But this book is good, really good. I would go so far as to call it the highest-level repertoire book against irregular openings that I’ve ever read. This doesn’t help the average club player too much directly, but it does mean that, should you adopt the proposed repertoire, you can be comforted by watching many top grandmasters playing and building on your openings.

One of the reasons I like BMO is the philosophy. Mikhalevski advocates taking the centre with both pawns whenever possible, which in itself is nothing revolutionary. But he sticks to this even if it means playing a main opening with reversed colours a tempo down, and even if the player isn’t familiar with the orthodox system – something that few authors have had the courage to propose. For example, the main anti-English system involves …e5 and …c6, preparing …d5 and transposing to a reversed 2.c3 Sicilian with an extra tempo for White. And even if you’re a 1.e4 player, the book still encourages you not to shy away from reversed 1.d4 variations, such as tackling the Bird’s by transposing to the reversed Dutch with 1…d5. This is not only probably the objectively correct choice, but, as the author notes, isn’t anywhere near as scary as you might think. And it’s good for your chess.

The structure of the book can be broadly described as being three main parts. First, Mikhalevski deals with the real ‘irregular’ openings, such as 1.f4, 1.b3, and, well, literally all the rest! I have no idea why he decided to include 1.h3 and 1.a3, but they’re there. Then comes 1.c4 e5, which is the meat of the book. Finally comes 1.Nf3, in which the author covers 1…d5, 1…Nf6 with 2…b6, and 1…Nf6 with 2…g6 as three distinct repertoires. To understand this, it’s useful to know that BMO was initially borne out of an anti-Grünfeld book idea, and grew from there. So it’s no surprise that the 2…g6 section is the most impressive, and it also mimics Mikhalevski’s personal repertoire. This section is really very impressive. Personally, it would have made more sense to me to focus more deeply on just this proposed repertoire to 1.Nf3. Besides, it’s essentially useless unless you play the Grünfeld, in the same way that 1.Nf3 d5 doesn’t make sense unless you have some 1.d4 d5 system in your pocket. I suppose including the three options targets a wider audience, and it does mean that the book can ‘work’ for you regardless of your main 1.d4 defence. Nonetheless, in my opinion a Grünfeld player is definitely going to get the most of the theoretical goodies in the book.

In terms of the nitty-gritty of the repertoire, Mikhalevski’s suggestions are topical and principled. Against the English, he suggests 2.g3 c6, as does Delchev/Semkov. There’s a slight difference with the recommendation 2.Nc3 Bb4 3.Nd5 Bc5, a favourite of Anand. And Mikhalevski also proposes a more ambitious line against the King’s Indian Attack after 1.Nf3 d5 2.g3. While both authors like a setup with …Bg4 and …c6, BDO contains the immediate 2…Bg4 with ideas of …Nbd7 and …e5. This move-order has its own drawbacks of course, but it’s a nice example of Mikhalevski’s ‘central’ ideology in action.

Like most of Quality’s Grandmaster Repertoire series, the material is quite dense and there is an unretainable deluge of variations. Each release is something of a chess ‘textbook’, which is certainly needed in the modern chess world that grows ever more theoretical. But this style does make for tough reading to the uninitiated. In the attempt to cover such a wide range of openings with a theoretically watertight repertoire, the almost 600 page tome is light on intuition and explanations. This is understandable, and is a familiar warning that should come with this series for players under IM strength. But if you’re up for a challenge and willing to do the work, BMO is the perfect complement to your black 1.e4/d4 defences and promises some rich rewards.

After plowing through BMO, Attacking the English/Reti (Henceforth: AER) reads like a children’s book. I don’t mean that to sound like a criticism. Readers will know that I was a huge fan of Delchev and Semkov’s previous title on the Queen’s Gambit Accepted for its simple, intuitive exposition, and AER follows suit. At a mere 230 pages, this book is light enough – both physically and content-wise – to read on the train.

And, just like the QGA book, it’s a fun read. I really like the three-part structure of each section that first introduces the chapter’s Main Ideas, then gives a Step-by-Step variation guide, and follows up with Annotated Games. This way of breaking down a variation provides intuition and helps the reader retain the key ideas. An example of this is the reversed 2.c3 Sicilian structure I mentioned before, which can arise after (for example) the moves 1.c4 e5 2.g3 c6 3.d4 e4 4.Nc3 d5. In BMO, the reader is assumed to either already know the ideas of this structure or else be more concerned with concrete variations. On the other hand, in AER, Delchev and Semkov go to lengths to explain how Black’s best reaction to White going after the d5 pawn differs depending on whether the knight is on f6 yet, and how to handle the alternative plan of targeting e4 depending on how White times f2-f3.

You might sense that I’m a tad biased towards the latter approach, which is true. This is because I don’t have enough time to spend on chess in order to fully make use of the more theoretical approach of BDO, and so I find that I’m best able to play good moves if I understand the ideas behind them. But that’s a stylistic preference, and a player with the time and drive to fully absorb Mikhalevski’s information should prefer this route to get the maximum results out of the opening.

And of course, the drawback of AER is that it can’t hope to compete theoretically with the massive BDO and so some theory is inevitably going to fall through the cracks. At times it’s a simple omission, perhaps to save space. For example, after 1.c4 e5 2.g3 c6 3.d4 e4 4.Nc3 d5, the reader of AER might be a little shocked to face 5.Qb3!? over the board. One reason is that after 5.cxd5 cxd5 6.Qb3, the book recommends 6…Nc6! as 6…Nf6?! 7.Bg5 is very unpleasant. So what to do? I guess by a process of elimination the reader might be able to come up with the correct novelty 5.Qb5 dxc4!, as recommended by Mikhalevski, but the follow-up 6.Qxc4 b5!? isn’t obvious. Another example is in case White chooses 5.Nh3 h6 6.cxd5 cxd5 7.Nf4 Nf6 8.Qb3. AER gives the strong sacrifice 8…Nc6! and a few more moves of the seminal game Tikkanen-Grandelius 2013, but in fact the recent encounter Akesson-Smith 2016 shows that this line isn’t simple at all. BDO provides several pages of analysis to prove that an equal rook endgame ensues on move 28 with best play; readers of AER would need to muddle through this on their own.

Having said that, I couldn’t find any obvious holes in Delchev and Semkov’s analysis, despite the fact that they advocate exciting gambits in several variations. I must admit that it’s also comforting to know that a theoretical powerhouse like Mikhalevski supports their repertoire recommendations for the most part. In addition to a shallower load, you also won’t find the breadth of the BDO book, as the authors ‘only’ cover 1.c4, 1.Nf3 and 1.g3 (no 1.h3 this time!). But these are by far the most common flank openings, so this isn’t a big restriction. Possibly the major difference in terms of content is the sole focus on 1.Nf3 d5 in AER. There’s no doubt that the book was designed to be a complement to their Queen’s Gambit Accepted work, and the Reti section reflects this, allowing a transposition to 1.d4 d5 2.Nf3. This isn’t a big deal if you instead have the Slav, Queen’s Gambit Declined, Ragozin or Tarrasch in your repertoire, but it means a bit of soul-searching for the KID player, for example.

In summary, the choice here isn’t the same as one often faces when two books come out on the same opening, when it’s typically just a matter of working out which is better. Here it’s more about what suits you best. If you’re at master strength, a dedicated theoretician or just like having the best quality reference text in your library, then BMO is a perfect choice. On the other hand, for club players and enthusiasts, lazy students, or those pressed for either time or budget, I’d opt for AER (it’s about $8 cheaper). Both are excellent books in their own rights and do a fabulous job of combating 1.Nf3 and the dreaded 1.c4, and all authors and editors involved can be proud of their efforts. And hey, you could always get both. As one European parliamentarian said to another: Down with the English!

Both books: four out of five stars.


Boycott Iranian Chess? A reply

Posted by David Smerdon on Oct 4, 2016 in Chess, Gender, Non-chess, Politics

EDIT:  Nigel Short responded with an addendum that “the Iran bid was not mentioned in the FIDE General Assembly Agenda. It was sprung on Delegates as a surprise.” This procedural anomaly is worth mentioning in light of my shielding FIDE from blame in the text below.


Too-long-didn’t-read version:  I don’t support a mass boycott of the upcoming women’s world chess championships in Iran, or removing Iran’s right to host. My reason is that it will hurt, not help, gender equality, particularly in Iran. This will probably make me unpopular.

The chess world has been rocked in the last week by a fresh controversy, this time the awarding of hosting rights for the Women’s World Championship to Iran. The main tinder box was US Women’s Champion Nazi Paikidze issuing a statement that she will boycott the event rather than wear a hijab and acquiesce to sex discrimination, a provocative comment that was irresistible to the mainstream media (see these articles in Fox News, The Telegraph, CNN and of course the Daily Mail). Other notable chess celebrities, such as Nigel Short, Emil Sutovsky, Tatev Abrahamyan and Sabrina Chevannes, have strongly and angrily come out in support of her boycott.


This is a tough issue for me, and I’ve sat in nervous silence for a week while deciding whether to write about it. As many know, I’m a strong defender of equality and women’s rights, particularly in the chess world. And yet try as I might, I cannot support the proposal to withdraw Iran’s hosting rights and move the championship. My main reason for this, as ironic as it may seem, relates to defending and empowering women.


My opinion has landed me on quite an unfamiliar side of the political divide. Across the gorge are friends and others whose beliefs I generally respect, while some of those besides me are traditional ideological foes. This is an uncomfortable position to be in, particularly seeing as this debate seems to have brought out the worst of ad hominem in people, so I will tread carefully.


I’ll start with an obvious clarification. I’m not a supporter of the Iranian governmental regime, and many of its policies that engender the oppression of women are simply indefensible. Neither am I a ‘defender of Islam’, just as I don’t specifically promote any religion. (And let us not forget that almost every major religion, taken at its fundamental level, demands gender discrimination, with the notable exception of Pastafarianism.) Several of the public criticisms of having Iran as host seem to be well-intentioned, but use the guise of “defending women’s rights” to champion an anti-Islam agenda (thereby employing another logical fallacy, that of tying). Opposition to freedom of religion has no place in this debate. Others have argued that FIDE has put women’s lives in danger by awarding the host to an unsafe country, a not unreasonable objection, but also one not supported by precedent.


I do not at all oppose the right of an individual (or team of individuals) to boycott this or any other event, nor their right to publicly state their reasons for doing so. But here we are talking about a mass, organised boycott and potential removal of Iran’s hosting rights, and as such, it’s important not to conflate the issues above. First, many international events (and here I mean world championships for both genders, European championships and world senior, youth and junior events) have been held in countries that are predominantly Muslim, are suffering unrest, face high crime rates, have a historically bad record on human rights or have deep political conflicts with other nations. Players from thirty-four countries were not permitted (by their own nations) to participate in the 1976 Olympiad in Israel. In 1978 at the chess Olympiad in Buenos Aires, some players could allegedly hear the shots of executions of political dissidents by the Argentinian junta as they played their games (it is estimated that between 10,000 and 30,000 citizens were killed during the Dirty War of 1976-1983). At the 2006 World Student Championships in Lagos, participants were not allowed to leave their hotels without armed guards. There are many stories of corruption and human rights abuses carried out by the Aliyev-led government of Azerbaijan, a great supporter of international chess and host of the recent 2016 Olympiad. (Incidentally, former Olympiad champions Armenia could not participate for fear of violence.)


And of course there have been similar moves in other sports: many objections were raised to China’s hosting of the 2008 Summer Olympiads for reasons of its human rights record, while the US famously boycotted the 1980 Olympics in Moscow. My point is that one cannot simply exclude a country as host due to political or religious objections, or because the conditions aren’t favourable to a particular country. That’s not the way of international sport. So let’s turn now to the one viable issue at stake: whether a participant should be forced to wear a hijab.


The hijab is a head covering worn predominantly by Muslim women, originally as a symbol of “modesty and privacy” (Wikipedia). Less than 50% of self-professed Muslim women wear one, though statistics here are unreliable. Iran’s government is somewhat unique in that it follows what is commonly (though inaccurately) called Sharia Law, in that the principles of Shia Islam are hardwired into the Constitution. Practically, this means that citizens can be arrested for breaking those principles, including with regard to dress. Men cannot wear shorts in public places. Women must have their hair covered by a scarf or hijab, though for tourists and foreigners, the punishment for forgetting is usually a request to get one. As with men, legs should be covered, but all the way to the ankles (sandals or bare feet are allowed).


At the championships in Iran, the female players will be required to adhere to the Iranian dress code. This has been the case at all international chess events held in Iran (including the 2016 Women’s Grand Prix, in which 12 of the world’s top female players took part). Many other countries have strong cultural norms that follow these principles, although there may not be legal punishments in play. At two world junior championships in India in which I competed, both foreign boys and girls felt some cultural pressure to dress to cover our legs; in fact, refusal to do so actually led to the male and female events being segregated into different rooms!


After that very long setup, we come to the key point. The main question is whether or not FIDE’s awarding the hosting right to Iran, which means women must wear hijabs during the games, constitutes gender discrimination. First, 165 member nations of FIDE had a chance to vote against Iran’s bid, and none did, so I’m not even sure FIDE or its Commission for Women’s Chess could be blamed in any case. (This issue really does make for strange bedfellows.) Secondly, the wearing of the hijab is an Iranian law, not a rule made by the organisers. And finally, covering the head is by and large a reflection of the cultural values of the host country that are admittedly tied to its religion, in much the same way that a woman would take off shoes before entering a Hindu temple, remove her hat at a Christian church or funeral, or refrain from touching a Buddhist monk. To some individuals, I can understand that a hijab might symbolize oppression, but only if that is one’s stance against Islam; in that case, a personal boycott is the appropriate action. If the players were required to drape themselves in the Iranian flag, that might be another issue. But here, the players aren’t being asked to do anything more than what any other tourist or visitor to Iran is asked.


(As an aside: A good point was raised by IM Elizabeth Paehtz, who wondered how women would be permitted to be alone with their male trainers, which may also defy Iranian principles. This is something that could materially affect the players’ preparations as it has done for Iranian girls competing in events, and I hope a solution is found.)


Finally, why does this issue matter, if at all? The truth is, it matters a whole lot. Iranian chess has seen something of a revolution in the last decade, and the national team at the Olympiad was one of the standouts. The federation has organised several large tournaments and events, including the aforementioned Women’s Grand Prix earlier this year. While women do suffer oppression in everyday life in Iran, as has been well documented, chess is a medium through which they can travel, engage in bilateral cultural exchange with their western counterparts, earn respect and standing among their male peers at home, and potentially even foster an independent career. For girls, it provides a complementary source of education, along with all the associated benefits, as well as rare opportunities to interact and compete with boys on a more even footing.


I’m not the only one who thinks this. GMs Adly and Al-Medaihki, for example, have spoken out strongly on this matter. But on this point, I can’t do better than re-quote the statement of Mitra Hejazipour, a women’s grand master from Iran and winner of the 2015 Asian continental championships. She pleaded:


“This is going to be the biggest sporting event women in Iran have ever seen; we haven’t been able to host any world championship in other sporting fields for women in the past. It’s not right to call for a boycott. These games are important for women in Iran; it’s an opportunity for us to show our strength.”


In an interview with The Guardian, she went on to say that such a move would ‘isolate Iran and ignore progress that Iranian women have made in the country.’


I agree. For me, the key test is to consider: Would the lives of Iranian women and girls be better or worse if all major events were banned in their country? I have carefully weighed the evidence, and I believe it is in the best interests of promoting equality and lifting Iranian women out of oppression for the championships to go ahead. This is probably going to make me unpopular among some of the more opinionated in the chess world, but I can’t compromise my beliefs on this. Individuals such as Paikidze may wish to boycott it, as is their right. But please, let’s keep sight of who the real victims are here, and look at the big picture: supporting equality for women, everywhere.


A guide to the chess Olympiad – Part II

Posted by David Smerdon on Aug 21, 2016 in Chess

For Part 1, click here.



In the last article I described the basics of the chess Olympiad, and mentioned that it used to be dominated – almost tediously so – by the USSR. But the chess world is different now and both the Open and Women’s events are extremely competitive. Let’s take a look at this Olympiad, what you can expect to see, and what you should look out for.


Why doesn’t Russia always win if they’re so good?

It’s a mystery! One argument that is often floated is that they lack team spirit for the big stage. I don’t buy into that. The Russian teammates are for the most part good friends, and nobody can accuse any Russian sporting team of lacking in nationalism. The truth is probably just that all the top countries are quite evenly matched for team events and so there’s an element of luck that just hasn’t gone their way. On the other hand, there’s no denying that the nations with particularly strong team spirits have consistently done well at the Olympiads. The Armenian and Azeri teams, for example, are ferociously patriotic during these events, while many top Chinese players have remarked that winning an Olympiad gold medal would be the absolute crème de la crème of their careers.


Who’s going to win the Open gold this year?

It’s so hard to predict, even during the final rounds of the tournament. The competition is usually extremely close (which is why board points can make all the difference). Russia will again be the top seed on paper, but Azerbaijan is also heavy favoured, buoyed by a home-ground advantage. Of the usual suspects, the US has its best chance to win gold since the glory days of the Fischer era in the 1960’s. This has largely come on the back of talent poaching, with reportedly huge sums of money being paid to transfer Fabiano Caruana and Wesley So, two top-ten players, to the US team from Italy and the Philippines. That puts the top three boards of the US as the strongest in the world, although there’s a significant drop to their young guns on the bottom boards. Despite this, I rate them as a huge chance this year.


India is another country with golden potential given the recent rise of their boards two and three, but a lot will come down to the form of their board one and former World Champion, Vishy Anand. It depends which Vishy shows up at the Olympiad: the one who plays a solid event to limit any individual rating damage, or the one who goes all out for gold. The other country to watch out for is France, led by 2800 superstar Maxime Vachier-Lagrave. The team is made up of good friends, including the non-playing captain, and they have been unlucky not to place higher in past Olympiads and European Championships. I’d love to see them pull off a surprise upset in Baku and upstage the old guard.


Having said all of that: China. They may not seem to have the firepower on paper, but they’ve done it before, and I have a feeling about them again this year.


Player poaching?! What’s that all about?

The eligibility rules for representing a country are relatively lax; with time and money, any transfer is possible. To be fair, So has lived and studied in the US for some years now, and Caruana is part American, so their claims are hardly contentious. Russia boosted its squad considerably by convincing Sergey Karjakin to jump ship from the Ukraine, but for the Crimea-born Karjakin, this could have been motivated by numerous factors. But certainly, recent years have seen an increase in horse-trading in the lead up to Olympiads, and it’s not just among the top teams. For weaker countries that often struggle to field teams, players from other nations with some sort of link sometimes take the chance to get a rare ticket to the Olympiad, in a mutually beneficial arrangement for both sides.


What about in the Women’s?

Russia recently scored a big star from the Ukrainian team, but Ukraine still boasts an impressive lineup. India’s girls have also been improving in leaps and bounds over the past two years and are a serious chance. But China, spearheaded by the undisputed women’s world champion Hou Yifan, is my pick.


Where’s England figure in all this?

England’s got a very decent team in the Open division this year. Nigel Short is in incredible age-defying form at the moment, and Matthew Sadler’s semi-comeback to professional chess has been very impressive. My mate Gawain Jones and his colleague David Howell have seriously kicked on in the past 18 months as well. Still, they lack a bit of the firepower to match the big guns. The English women are also quite strong on paper and have a lot of talent coming through the junior ranks. However, their team – like many national teams, I should add – is often tainted by internal politics that tends to get in the way of their performance.


You haven’t mentioned Carlsen, Topalov or Giri at all!

That’s one thing that really sets Olympiads apart from the regular professional circuit: In team events, one star is not enough! Carlsen is apparently super motivated to help Norway achieve its best at the Olympiad, and there is some serious talent among the current crop of Norwegian juniors. Aryan Tari is one to watch as a future ‘top-tenner’ for sure. But objectively, Norway is a class below the medal favourites. Bulgaria and the Netherlands have relatively stronger team line-ups overall and will be on the top boards, but again, they’re definitely top-heavy. Other strong nations will be seeking to neutralize the stars with rock-solid draws on the top board, counting on winning the match on the lower three boards. This adds a strategic team element that you don’t often see in Olympic sports.


What about drug testing?

Believe it or not, yes! The world chess organization (‘FIDE’) still holds out hope of one day getting chess introduced into the regular Olympics. I’m one of a minority of grandmasters who thinks this is a silly idea, but in any case, that’s one of the main motivations for the drug testing. It’s extremely rare to be tested, and there have even been cases of players refusing them on philosophical grounds and getting away with it.


Of far, far greater concern is cheating through electronic means. Chess computers are so strong these days that even a program on a smartphone can beat a world champion. The players go through rigorous scans and metal detectors before entering the playing hall, but there have been some fabulously (and scarily) creative methods employed by cheats in the past, including famously in Siberia in 2010.



Is there a refugee team, like in the Rio Olympics?

No, which is unfortunate. But players can play under the FIDE ‘team’ if they’ve been left stateless, which is a little similar. Also, there are a few special teams in Olympiads: the visually impaired team, the disabled team and the hearing-impaired team. You may wonder what the performance disadvantage is for the latter two teams, and indeed they are typically quite strong. The legendary German GM Thomas Luther heads the disabled team, while I lost to the Israeli GM Yehuda Gruenfeld in Australia’s match against the hearing-impaired team at the last Olympiad. But for me, watching the ‘blind’ team in action is a sight to see, if you’ll pardon the pun. These guys are absolutely incredible. They typically use a small calculation board during the games, which has slots for the pieces in the squares, and on which they can feel to ‘see’ the position while they’re thinking. But this can only help so much, and for the most part they are playing regular blindfold chess against a sighted opponent at the top level. That their team performs so well at the Olympiads, with some players achieving International Master titles, is nothing short of astonishing, and their matches frequently attract the most spectators outside of the top pairings.


And Australia?

Let’s just say we’re less successful than in the Olympics J We sit in the category of ‘strong amateur’ teams, as we don’t boast a single professional in our squad. Having said that, for the first time ever we’ll be fielding three grandmasters. We’re a fun but hard-working team and typically finish much higher than our seeding; last time we just missed a top-ten spot, despite being ranked outside the top 50 countries on paper. I’m not necessarily the strongest player but I’ll again be sitting on board one, mainly because I’m relatively good at digging in and ‘holding’ against super-GMs. Rating-wise, we have a very flat team, so we’re hoping that our lower boards can step up to help us rack up the 2.5 board points we need to win each match.


Where can I watch?

No live network coverage, unless you live in a chess-crazed nation like Norway! But there’ll be live streaming with commentary on several online sites. The official site is here, while many will prefer to hear their favourite commentators on the big chess servers like chess.com, chess24 or ICC. The good thing about chess is that spectators can follow many games at once without missing out on the action, and all the games in each round will be broadcast live with handy computer evaluations giving a running update on the state of play.


And of course, in addition to the chess news sites, a few chess bloggers will be there ‘on the ground’ and writing our thoughts throughout the event. You can be sure I’ll be one of them: from the tournament hall to the football games and the Bermuda Party, I’ll be there!

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