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 c4 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.




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!


A guide to the chess Olympiad – Part I

Posted by David Smerdon on Aug 19, 2016 in Chess

NOTE:  This was supposed to be a small note, but once I assembled all the questions I’ve been asked over the years, it quickly turned into quite a long article. So I’ve broken it up into two parts, vaguely along the lines of (1) the Olympiad in general, and (2) my thoughts on the upcoming one in Baku.


I can’t get enough of the Olympics. I could be glued to the screen for hours on end, regardless of the sport or even whether there’s an Aussie in it. From swimming to sprinting, table-tennis to trampolining, gymnastics to judo, I love it all. Except equestrian. Don’t talk to me about equestrian.


And every four years, I and many other chess players invariably get hit with the same question by other sports fans: Is there a chess Olympics?


It’s often asked with a playful smile, but the answer is a resounding ‘Yes’. The chess Olympiad is held every two years, and while not the extravaganza of the sports Olympics, it’s still an incredible event with its own charm, flair and drama. In fact, the next edition begins in Azerbaijan within a fortnight of the closing ceremony in Rio.


I often find myself explaining the basics of the chess Olympiad to my friends, so I’ve decided to list the most common questions and their answers to provide a sort of guide and preview to the event. At least it’ll give you something to read while the Dressage is on.


So, what’s it all about?

The Olympiad is the premier chess event for countries around the world. Held every two years, it lasts around three weeks and sees teams from roughly 200 countries compete for medals in the Women’s and Open competitions.


Wait… Women’s and Open?!

Yes. Women can choose to play for their country’s Open team if selected, but as for many other events such as individual world, national and junior championships, there is a separate category for females. Usually around a dozen countries have a female player in their Open team.


But why do they separate the genders at all? It’s only chess.

This is a very popular question, and goes to a much broader debate about the sexes in chess. If you’re interested in finding out more, I’ve written on this before, e.g. here, here and here – but be warned, it’s a touchy subject to say the least. An extra element is the recent ruling that transgendered women can compete in Women’s teams at the Olympiad, which has now occurred a couple of times. This is different to the Olympics, where at present only intersex women can compete.


How many players in a team?

A team is made up of five players, although only four play in each match. Most countries tend to rotate their lineup pretty evenly throughout the tournament, but some of the very strong countries stick with their top four and only substitute in their fifth player if necessary, for example because of illness.


How does the tournament work?

Countries get points for winning their match in every round. It depends from year to year, but usually there are thirteen rounds. In each round, every country is matched (‘paired’) with another country, and their top four players (‘boards’) play their respective opposite numbers from the opposition. A score of 2.5 or better from their four games will mean the country wins the match and earns two ‘match points’; if the match is tied at 2-2, each country earns one point. The country with the most match points at the end of all the rounds is the winner.


How are the pairings decided?

The Olympiad uses a Swiss pairing system, just like in most regular chess tournaments. The basic idea is that as the competition goes on, teams will be matched with other teams on a similar score: the top teams will compete against each other, and likewise for the bottom. This does mean that in the early rounds there can be some wildly lopsided match-ups, and typically most matches in the first round will end in a score of 4-0.


What about ties?

Countries with tied match points at the end of the tournament are sorted on ‘board points’, by tallying the total individual points from all the matches. And because ties are relatively common, it’s important for the big countries to try to close out 4-0 scores against weaker teams – every game matters!


So who are these ‘big teams’? The Russians, right?

On paper, yes. But in practice… The Russian (and previously USSR) team has been the top seeded team in the Open division ever since the tournament began, and indeed they dominated the Olympiads prior to the breakup of the Soviet Union. Since then, however, they’ve accumulated something of a reputation as Olympiad chokers. Winners in recent decades include Armenia, Ukraine and the recent chess powerhouse of China. The other powerhouses include Azerbaijan, India and the United States. But on paper, the Russians are still clearly the rating favourites.


These same countries are typically also the big names in the Women’s competition, although the Armenia and Azerbaijan teams are relatively weaker than their Open equivalents, while the Indian and US teams are arguably relatively stronger.


Is there, like, opening and closing ceremonies, and an athletes’ village?

Yes and yes. The ceremonies are nowhere near as lavish as in the Olympics, but given the incredible ceremonies put on by Azerbaijan for last year’s Asian Games, I’m expecting big things this year. Teams are typically housed in a large hotel complex (or complexes), and we do hang out when we’re not competing. (In the 2006 Olympiad in Turin, we stayed in the actual athletes’ village that was used in the 2004 Winter Olympics.) Meals are all eaten together in the same dining halls, and it usually takes only a couple of rounds for the thousands of players to organically decide on the unofficial bar for the tournament. It’s also pretty standard for football games and other sports to develop, and again, players of all countries join in.



What’s the schedule like?

We play one match a day for thirteen days. Add in an arrival day, the two ceremonies and a couple of rest days and the event stretches out for about two and a half weeks. Each game can last roughly six hours, so when you factor in a couple of hours of targeted preparation for the opponents in the morning, the days can be quite grueling, so the rest days are typically used for their namesake.


Having said that, there is one special event that has become so popular it has now made it on to the official Olympiad schedule. Many years ago, the Bermudan team, which is basically made up of several wealthy, friendly businessmen, started sponsoring a huge party on the night before one of the rest days. It’s usually held in one of the biggest nightclubs in the host city, with the traditional rule that men get two drink vouchers with their ticket, and women get free entry. You may well scoff at this, but given how unusual the world of professional chess is, it’s probably no surprise that chess players tend to dominate each other’s social networks. And yes, this can extend to romance, particularly at the world’s largest gathering of players with the rarity of a relatively even proportion of men and women!


But enough about that, for now at least. In Part II, we’ll talk about this year’s Olympiad, the favourites, player poaching, drug testing and more.




BOOK REVIEW:  “Insanity, Passion and Addiction: A year inside the chess world” (Danny Gormally)

Posted by David Smerdon on Jul 21, 2016 in Chess, Non-chess


Most chess books are more or less the same. An opening treatise, an instructional book on endgames or middlegames, a training book on tactics. Of course there are differences in quality and exposition, but in a general sense the subject matter is homogenous, and the message consistent: The author tries to shove instructions down our throats to help us become better players, and we, in turn, try to swallow it. These days I find the majority of books to be too doctrinal, often pontifical, and generally predictable. Don’t get me wrong: I still enjoy reading chess books (why else would I review them?). But it’s hard to get really enthusiastic about a new release.


But every once in a while, there’s an exception. Something fresh, something different.  And there’s one book I’ve been looking forward to reading in 2016: “Insanity, Passion and Addiction: A year inside the chess world.”


“Insanity” is essentially the autobiography of a year in the life of Danny Gormally. You’ve probably heard of ‘the Gorm’ before, and likely for not the most flattering of reasons. The English grandmaster is a controversial figure in the chess world, with his reputation forever tainted by a regrettable incident at the 2006 Olympiad. I don’t know Danny well, but it’s perhaps unfortunate that one alcohol-fuelled moment of madness can define a man’s reputation in the way that it has (by the way, yes, he does discuss it in the book). Danny certainly continues to have his detractors, but from observations at many tournaments we’ve both attended, I’ve noticed that most English chess players treat him with a certain fondness. Perhaps this is because Danny has a combination of two traits that are relatively rare among the grandmaster community. He is blindingly humble (to the point of extreme self-deprecation) and painfully open about his personal life. Such a personality can be awkward at dinners. It also makes for the ideal autobiography. “Underneath this brash South London exterior I’m this very insecure, shy kind of person”, and “I’m a washed-up drunk”, and “Failure’s an emotion I’m used to, that I’ve grown comfortable with.” That sort of thing.


Life as a sub-2600 grandmaster is a paradox. On the one hand, we are revered, admired, often envied within the chess world. On the other, it’s hard to justify such veneration for ‘journeymen’ who don’t even figure in the top 250 for their narrow profession, and this is reflected in how hard it is to make a living from chess. The juxtaposition between the proud GM façade and the quality of life day-to-day is something that is rarely revealed, like the unmasking of a ruined aristocrat. Danny’s book promised to pull aside the curtain and expose the brutal struggle of life as a chess professional for what it really is. Combine that promise with Danny’s heart-on-sleeve personality, interesting personal predilections and lack of a literary filter, and you can understand why my expectations were high. I could hardly wait to get my hands on what vowed to be a cracking read.


Unfortunately, it missed.


But before I explain my disappointment, I should state at the outset that, paradoxically, I thoroughly enjoyed reading the book. I expected “Insanity” to be a blend of indecorous anecdotes, chess analysis and personal philosophy, and the book ticks all these boxes. It’s an easy, light read while being quite informative at times, and the way it shines a light into the mind of one of the most atypical and intriguing chess personalities is fascinating. I think that many chess fans (but over the age of 16, if you please) will greatly enjoy this book as a unique chess publication that’s hard to put down.


As far as a literary product goes, however, it’s a disaster. The book reads as a 12-month extract of a personal diary, which is probably true to some extent as it seems to be based on Danny’s blogs over this period. This is fine as a literary style and is a popular mode for novels, but it should be just that: a style, and not an exact representation. There seems to have been barely any editing, polishing and dare I say planning in translating Danny’s thoughts from mind via blog to the final book.


For one, “Insanity” is littered with typos and grammatical errors. But perhaps more significantly, there’s no structure to the chapters and overall work. There are interesting themes of chess improvement, relationships, making ends meet etc., but they are not only jumbled in amongst each chapter, but also follow no consistency throughout the book. It reads like Danny’s just written down a running transcript of his thoughts at any given point in time, which, while intriguing in its own way, doesn’t make for a cohesive story.


And that’s a real shame, because the thoughts are hugely entertaining, and his explanations and descriptions, whether about chess improvements, computer cheats, girls, Carlsen, drugs, alcohol or general life choices, are compelling. I particularly enjoyed his occasional monologues about sport psychology, a topic he seems to know quite a bit about. Each chapter is made up of a collation of mini-chapters that typically (but not always!) follow some consistent theme. Reading these bite-sized pieces in isolation is the best way to approach the book, as one would a blog. Scattered throughout each chapter are a bunch of annotated games Danny played around the time of the events he recounts. Sometimes they are relevant to the story and sometimes not, but they’re all worth playing through. Surprisingly, I learned a lot. Just like with every other topic, Danny’s chess commentary is a real window into the inner workings of his mind, and one thing that comes through is that he is quite a gifted player. One might point to several factors to explain why he never ‘made it’ as a top grandmaster, and Danny himself highlights several of them repeatedly (motivation, health, work ethic, alcohol…), but talent doesn’t seem to be one of them.


I found this out first-hand a few weeks after I read “Insanity”, when Danny wiped me off the board in the British league.  Fortunately, that game was played too late to make it into his book; on the other hand, Danny does include my victory over him a year earlier. It’s natural that others won’t find this chapter as fascinating as I did, but for me one of the most surprising moments was to discover that Danny had been horribly hungover during out game. I remember him looking downcast, but that’s his go-to expression while playing chess; I never suspected he was “very bleeping far from ok”, as he puts it.


The end of this mini-chapter is a good example of the way that Danny’s thoughts can jump from topic to topic without warning, though in this case I must admit that it actually reads surprisingly well. After a few paragraphs about his thoughts during and immediately after the game, he writes about his pep-talk to himself that evening:


I need to start again and cut out all the silly games and terrible chess. Start with a clean slate.

That night I had a few strange dreams. In one I was walking in the Alps, near the Matterhorn. I ran into this beautiful American girl and she said something about how ‘the mountains are much nicer in Crombie’ whatever that means…


And then the chapter ends. Random, huh? That’s quite typical for the book, but as this excerpt shows, sometimes Danny’s disjunctive style makes for pleasurable prose. There are plenty of examples of this, but perhaps the more entertaining of them aren’t appropriate to be recounted here for a wider audience. That leads me to repeat my comment above by offering a rare age-restriction warning for a chess book: This one’s not for the kids!


I could highlight my favourite anecdotes in the book, or perhaps try to delicately skirt around describing some of the more risqué topics Danny covers. But perhaps the best way to give you an overall taste of the book, and whether or not it might be for you, is to list the following peculiar questions to which you can expect to find the answers in “Insanity”:


  • Why shouldn’t you put a grandmaster who has never driven before in the driving seat of a car in the French Alps?
  • What is a grandmaster’s “inner chimp”?
  • Why shouldn’t you bet on sports during a chess tournament?
  • How much does the average grandmaster make a year, at 2550, 2600, 2650 and 2700+?
  • Was Capablanca rubbish?
  • How did Danny catch a pedophile in Amsterdam?
  • Should the Berlin defense be banned?
  • How do you tell if you’re playing a computer cheat?
  • What did Danny do to a fellow hotel guest to “scar her mentally for years to come”?
  • How does a player avoid the “chess yips”?
  • What makes the Chinese players so strong?
  • Do drugs and chess mix?
  • What’s the meaning of life?



Danny even recounts –  in excruciating detail –  his fantasy of what the world would look like if chess became as popular a sport as baseball or tennis. Suffice to say, it involves cameos by Carlsen, Kasparov, President Obama, David Letterman, Tania Sachdev and black sheer pantyhose. His stories are more often than not harmless, but occasionally the narrative drifts into inappropriate and borderline offensive territory. Remarkably though, the vast majority of the time the main victim of his derision is himself: there is this putrid self-loathing that at times is uncannily captivating. One can’t help but admire the honestly and bravery required to put these thoughts to print, and just like with many antiheros from books and films (Deadpool comes to mind), the reader finds an unconscious empathy with the protagonist. “Insanity” is definitely not going to be shelved in the motivational section of the bookstore. Thus, given the dark humour that permeates the pages, the final lines of the book are almost laughably upbeat. But I won’t spoil it for you.


I’m not sure how well this book will go in the market. It’s unlikely to find fans in readers whose sensibilities are easily offended, nor in those who demand good writing and quality editing, and it’s certainly not for children. And even if you don’t fall into one of those categories, you might be disappointed in the knowledge that the book really could have been better, given the quality of the subject matter available. Having said that, “Insanity” is undoubtedly one of most unusual chess works I’ve read in a long time, and I had no lack of motivation to read it cover to cover – perhaps this was some schadenfreude at work. If you’re looking for something fresh, interesting and more than a tad offensive in your next chess book, this might be the one for you.


2.5 stars.


German gems

Posted by David Smerdon on Apr 26, 2016 in Chess

No, I’m not talking about my girlfriend (though she also counts). Last weekend was the final installment of the German chess league, which is the strongest in the world. After each weekend I can’t resist quickly going through the 64 games (which is where I found that weird endgame coincidence I blogged about recently). Sometimes, thanks to my engine, I stumble across some really cool games that I otherwise wouldn’t read about.

There were actually a few little beauties that either occurred or could have occurred in the games. But two pretty ones came from the same match, with a Polish connection. In Dresden-Hamburger, the all-Pole clash on board one was instrumental to the match result. Both these guys are super creative players, and Gajewski’s pawn sacrifice on move 18 was inspired. He can’t really be blamed for missing 28.g6!, which he would have had to see in advance!

This turned out to be a decisive game as Hamburg scraped through to win the match 4.5-3.5. On board three, age comprehensively beat youth in Rasmus-Socko, with the Pole again showing very good technique. However, there was one moment right at the end when young Svane could have tried a remarkably unlikely swindle:

It’s weird that I’ve never seen that fortress before. A hidden gem, but one I’m going to remember.


The rhythm of the knight

Posted by David Smerdon on Apr 11, 2016 in Chess

Here’s a quick little chess coincidence from the weekend. As I was strolling around to look at the other games in the German Bundesliga matches in Mulheim, I noticed a cute endgame finish in the Dortmund-Emsdetten clash. Black seemed to be holding the position for a while, but unwisely swapped off into a knight-and-two versus bishop-and-one endgame that’s lost. White dominates the light squares and his knight runs rings around the black pieces.

When I got home, I decided to check some of the other Bundesliga match results. It turns out that at exactly the same time that this endgame was being played, a few hours away in Griesheim my friend Jean-Pierre Le Roux was suffering on the black side of a remarkably similar ending…

A strange chess curiosity!

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