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How to survive the economics job market

Posted by David Smerdon on Sep 5, 2017 in Economics, Non-chess

As I’ve previously mentioned, last year I went to the economics job market. The job market is an incredible annual event that sees thousands of newly-minted PhDs and young researchers from around the world pitted against each other in a global battle for careers at hundreds of universities, government agencies, international NGOs, banks, start-ups and other multinationals such as Facebook and Microsoft. It’s huge. It’s stressful. And, for a young economist about to leave the safety of the student nest, it’s incredibly confusing.

One of the things that really struck me on the market is that not every candidate is on an equal footing when it comes to understanding the process. I found myself playing catch-up once the market opened, whereas for some of my (largely US-based) peers, their universities start training them for years before they were even applying.

So I’ve put together some tips for surviving the market for this and future year’s candidates, based on my experiences. There are plenty of very good advice articles online, especially:

These articles are invaluable, not least to help ease the stress of what can be an especially trying experience for a young researcher. To these, I’m adding some advice from my recent experience as a Europe-based applicant. I’ll be giving a seminar to prospective job-market candidates from my alma mater on Wednesday, and I’ve expanded the presentation so that the slides can stand alone. Hopefully some readers find them useful. Comments/suggestions are very welcome.

(Note: If your browser doesn’t let you see the embedded pdf, there’s a download link below.)

Download (PDF, Unknown)

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Charlie Changes Everything

Posted by David Smerdon on Sep 1, 2017 in Non-chess

I don’t know how I ended up becoming a chess book reviewer in my spare time, but it’s certainly a fun hobby. It’s gotten to the point that every now and then, I randomly receive a new chess book in the mail to take a look at – which, as any chess addict can appreciate, is awesome. And then, just recently, I got this letter:

“Dear Dr Smerdon,

I’m a big fan of your blog and noticed that you like reviewing things every now and then. So just on spec I’m sending you a free copy of my novel. It’s meant to be a funny book to make you think so I reckon you’ll enjoy it.

Yours sincerely,

Robert Cregan”

Enclosed was a thin novel with an intriguing title: Charlie Changes Everything.

Usually I don’t have time to read novels, but several aspects of this random gift were appealing. First, I like getting free stuff. Second, this is the first time anyone’s ever addressed me as “Dr” in a letter, and my ego is easily stoked. Third, the lingo in the letter strongly hinted at an Australian background (a fact soon confirmed). Fourth, it’s a kids’ book, and I hadn’t read one of those in ages. And fifth, the cover has a pretty picture with a rainbow on it. And who doesn’t like rainbows?

It was a really nice letter to receive. And reading the author’s motivations for this labour of love was also quite interesting:

My daughter wanted a story and it got me thinking about all the things I should’ve learned when I was growing up. I thought about the values and ideas I wanted to teach my children and this is the story I told her: a funny book for kids to help make their world a better place…

So, I read it. And then I gave it to my wife, and she read it. And guess what? It’s pretty cool.

I’ve got no experience at reviewing novels at all, but here goes. There’s Billy, who’s having a tough time in primary school because his teacher’s a super mean lady, and the girl he’s got a crush on doesn’t notice him. We can all associate with that. Then along comes Charlie, a renegade orphan with the sophistication and savviness of a British secret serviceman. Then there’s a war with the rival school, forbidden romances between the teaching staff, and a twisted web of intrigue in the ensuing battle between children and adults, culminating in a predictable yet delicious twist. Ta-dum.

Ok, summarising the plot wasn’t so hard. But more importantly, Robert did a great job at setting out to do what he intended. Not only is it a very nice, smooth read, but the values imbedded throughout the book are subtle enough not to overpower the story but strong enough to leave a clear message. And these aren’t just sugary meanings of the Aesop’s Tales garden variety, mind you. Climate change, religion, gender roles, child-rearing and the politics of war and conflict all see some light as both children and adult characters learn their respective lessons. All for just a couple of bucks for the Kindle edition. I don’t know what else to say about the book other than to say that I’d be very happy for my (future) children to read it. That’s a pretty good recommendation, right?

 
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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?

 
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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.

 
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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.

 
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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.

 
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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

gorm

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.

 
3

Arbitrary achievements

Posted by David Smerdon on May 27, 2016 in Economics, Non-chess

How many seconds have you been alive in your life?

Seriously, take a guess. Just pick the closest number that feels right. What did you think? One million? Ten million? A hundred million?!

This question is hard. As humans, we’re not used to calculating or even guessing big numbers. We’re not programmed for it; after all, it wouldn’t have been much use to our ancestors. Really big numbers, really little numbers, and probabilities: these are things at which humans, quite frankly, are rubbish.

Behavioural economists and psychologists use this as an explanation for why many people take part in lotteries. Their models might show that it’s mathematically rational to take part in the lottery if the first prize is $100 million but not if it’s under $80 million, for example. While the math works, personally I doubt many people are thinking this way when they buy a ticket – “Oo, I’ll only win $80 million; might wait til it gets a bit higher…”. Actually I think the real reason many people take part is not because they’re ignorant that it’s irrational (this fact gets shoved down our throats in high school math class), but rather because there’s some extra enjoyment from being part of something, some big social event, that connects us in an abstract way.

But before I digress too far, let’s get back to the question at hand. If you guessed 1 million, or even 10 million, I’m afraid you passed that milestone long before your first birthday. And unless you’re an extremely bright three-year-old reading this, 100 million was also off. It turns out that 1 billion is quite a close ballpark estimate for the number of seconds in one’s life, a milestone which a person hits before their 32nd birthday.

(Incidentally, one of my friends guessed a trillion, which would make him former chums with the first homo sapiens around 30,000 BC.)

I brought up this topic because, as many of you know, I hate birthdays. But I love symbolism, and silly math. I’m the sort of person who, on my friend’s recent 27th birthday, wished her “a long and happy life well beyond your next cubic birthday.” And so it was that, having bugged my mum to dig up the timestamp on my birth certificate, I was (I presume) one of the few people consciously aware of the milestone when I ticked on to my one billionth second on earth.

(Want to work out when’s your billionth second, or your own arbitrary milestones? You can find a calculator here.)

Someone, breaking time down into its smallest practical unit adds a weird perspective on things. As in, we can physically note the passing of time if we count the seconds – you are getting older now, and now, and now. Depressing. A cheerier question is: What was the most memorable second in your life to date? Not moment, or event (though it’s likely part of one), but second. What was the scariest? The happiest? Can you remember your angriest second? Which of your seconds had the most impact on another person’s life?

Perhaps I’m just in a philosophical mood. After all, I hit the big ten-digits yesterday. Unfortunately, the moment was during a seminar at work so I couldn’t whoop for joy or interrupt the invited speaker to pronounce my new-found ancientry. (Cool word, huh? You learn these things when you get to my age.)

But I look forward to discussing all of these questions over coffee in half an hour, when I am forcing my colleagues to celebrate the landmark with me. I’ve copied the invitation email below.

 

From: David Smerdon

To: CREED mailing list

Subject: Cookies

Abstract:  There will be some cookies (of dubious quality, but free consumption) available in the kitchen at 11:00.

Keywords:  Minimum effort; Public goods game; Free-riding; Reference dependence; Hyperbolic discounting

At the beginning of Alexander’s seminar yesterday afternoon, I must confess I was watching the clock. Only briefly, mind you; I was watching it until exactly 16:05.40, and then I turned back to the speaker (“What about guns?”, you may recall I asked, in a desperate attempt to cover my distraction).

Why this exact time? Well, as many of you know, I have limited enthusiasm for birthdays, and I abhor my own. But at this moment, I passed a milestone that we each get to achieve only once in our lives: I had been alive for one billion seconds.

Unfortunately, as I discovered last night, with great wisdom does not come great baking prowess and my efforts to replicate the Anzac biscuits of last month were a bit of a disaster. They look like the earwax of a giant with dandruff. But I offer them to you anyway, along with an invitation to a short coffee break at 11:00.

Now I know some of you will question this achievement. You may want to ask how I exactly know the precise second I was born. You may also protest that the issue is more a philosophical one about when life begins, or quip with glee that one billion is itself quite arbitrary – “After all, we get to achieve each new second only once in our lives!” 

You, my friend, will not get a cookie.

– David

 
7

When I’m not playing chess…

Posted by David Smerdon on Apr 16, 2016 in Economics, Non-chess

Recently someone asked me what I did “when you’re not playing chess.” I found the question quite comical because I’m not playing chess the vast majority of the time. Still, occasionally I get mistaken for a professional player (albeit a weak one).

Those who’ve read my blog before won’t be surprised to read that I’m a researcher. I’m currently finishing a PhD in economics, with a focus on social and psychological topics. Recently I got the chance to present my current project at the General Sir John Monash symposium, held in Oxford. My work’s about finding the best ways to resettle refugees smoothly and efficiently into the community.

The presentation was pecha kucha style, which was weird but fun: 20 slides, 20 seconds each, no control over the speed. The organisers have made the presentations available online, so if you want a quick glimpse at what I do when I’m “not playing chess”, check out the video below.

 
11

Do women play less beautiful chess? A rebuttal

Posted by David Smerdon on Feb 28, 2016 in Chess, Economics, Gender, Non-chess

I generally try to avoid the Chessbase news site, as experience has demonstrated that reading its articles generally leads to me hitting my own head more than is considered healthy. But this morning I stumbled across what on the surface seemed an incredible article. Azlan Iqbal, a senior lecturer at the Universiti Tenaga Nasional in Malaysia, wrote an article claiming to have found evidence that women play less beautiful chess than men. He recently presented his scientific findings, based on his own advanced computer software, at the reputable International Congress on Interdisciplinary Behavior and Social Science.

 

Readers will know that I’ve previously weighed in on the “gender in chess” debate (see here, and in a more academic sense here). But I like to keep an open mind about things, especially if they are backed by scientific evidence, and so I made myself a coffee and sat down to dissect the groundbreaking research of “Azlan Iqbal, PhD”, as he himself writes under the title.

 

Despite my general rule of distrust for anything written by someone who feels the need to write “PhD” after their name, the fact that his paper was accepted at an international conference was heartening, and Iqbal also provided the slides from the conference and the academic paper for reference. The Chessbase article summarized the main findings, which seemed to conclusively demonstrate that women play less aesthetically than men in his exhaustive analysis of Chessbase’s “Big Database 2015”. It seems somehow absurd on the surface that this result could even be measured, let alone whether it has any truth, but I pressed on, eager to see the real analysis. As the coffee slowly made its way into my system, I decided to start with the conference slides and then move on to the more technical scientific article.

 

The introduction of the presentation starts with the smiling photos of Magnus Carlsen and Mariya Muzychuk, together with their ELO ratings and the comment that “Statistically, a player rated 2882 has an 88% chance of defeating a player rated 2530 in a game.” Of course, every chess rating system only gives the expected score in a game, and says nothing at all about the chances of winning. Not a great start, but an easy mistake to make and so, excuses made, I moved on. The next slide started with the bold statement “Research suggests that men are better at chess than women.” Ugh! As I (and many others) wrote about extensively, this is certainly not the academic consensus. But everyone’s entitled to their own opinion –  even though in this case it was hardly framed as one. I quickly moved on, and – ah! – the next slides have actual chess diagrams in them! Iqbal presents a simple example of a famous mate-in-three:

 

Screen Shot 2016-02-27 at 13.48.38

 

Seen this before? Of course; it’s a beautiful and famous chess puzzle. Unfortunately, Iqbal’s next slide, purporting to show the solution, begins “1.Nxh6+”. This doesn’t exactly inspire confidence. Naturally we can excuse this as a simple double-typo, although the little errors by now were beginning to accrue.

 

I hastily moved on to the real analysis. Iqbal describes his methodology as follows: He wanted to compare all mate-in-three sequences by men and women in the Chessbase database of games, ranking them with his patented software ‘Chesthetica’ for aestheticism. Now you might immediately be struck by one obvious questions here, as I was. What evidence is there that executed mate-in-threes can reflect general beauty in playing chess? Unfortunately, the only justification given is that three-move mates give the most consistent testing results from his software. The natural follow-up question is then to ask: how do we know Chesthetica is really measuring chess beauty? Ah, but here Iqbal preemptively counters with that often-used and curiously vague ‘get out of jail free’ card: Chesthica has been “experimentally validated”!

 

Confused? Never fear; now we get to the real data. Of the 6.3 million games in Big Database 2015, Iqbal extracted a sample of 1069 games by women and 115 games by men. Wait, what? Less than 1200 games out of over six million, and only 115 games by men? What’s going on?! There’s nothing in the slides to explain this inconceivably small sample, so I finally delved in to the full academic paper. And that’s when things got strange.

 

The first incomprehensible feature of the data collection is that Iqbal extracted only the games where White checkmated Black. This shortcut immediately threw out half the sample. The only reason I can possibly think of for this is that he didn’t want to have to modify his Chesthetica software to be able to flip the colours when it analyzed the Black-checkmating-White games – although given that Iqbal’s profession is computer science, this seems highly unlikely. I honestly have no idea why half the games would be discarded in this way, especially as Iqbal goes on to make the excuse many times in his paper that the analysis suffers from too few suitable games.

 

But how is it possible that he ended up with fewer male games? Well, the second baffling component is that the sample was split by gender using an incredibly rudimentary method: by filtering for tournaments with “women” or “men” in the game data. And surprise surprise, there were very few men-only events. I have to say that this seems like an astonishingly lazy way to filter the data. Why not just cross-reference the sample against any standard database of female players? Or hey, even just sort manually over a day or two? After all, I guess this is what Iqbal next had to do anyway, because he goes on to write that his team “managed to identify enough additional games between males to bring the 115 set to 1,069 as well.”

 

I found the term ‘managed’ a bit comical, seeing as he would have had literally tens of thousands of candidate games to choose from. How did they select the games? Were they random? And why limit this to exactly 1,069? Any basic statistical comparison can handle uneven numbers in the samples, and practically always in science, ‘more data is better’ from an academic perspective. It it very strange to say the least to limit one’s sample to an identical match (and highly unlikely that this came about by chance).

 

The eagle-eyed observer, however, will have noticed an even stranger term in Iqbal’s last sentence: “between males”. And indeed, closer inspection reveals that the database includes games by males only against other males, and games by females only against other females. Why?! Is Iqbal testing whether women play more beautifully against other women, perhaps as an extension of the famous Maass, d’Ettole and Cadinu paper of 2008? Well, no, and in any case, this would still require a sample of checkmates by women against male players.

 

I can think of no sensible explanation for this restriction, except that perhaps this was what came out of the primitive “women” and “men” tournament search. The result of this piece of academic lethargy is a bit more serious than just reducing the size of the data sample, as in the above cases. It adds an extra potential bias to the data, which is most likely a serious one given that – as Iqbal himself quotes in the paper – research has shown that women play differently against men than they do against other women.

 

By now I was on to my second coffee and getting slightly worried: I hadn’t yet reached the main results of the analysis and already the data set was (a) unnecessarily small and (b) most likely corrupt. With more than a degree of trepidation, I turned to the slide with the chief experimental results, and breathed a sigh of relief:

 

Screen Shot 2016-02-27 at 14.26.45

 

“Elo & Age Independent”! Yes! That was a huge relief to see; after all, the average Elo, a crucial component to aesthetic chess, is most certainly different between the male and female samples, and there’s almost certainly an age difference as well (although how relevant age is to chess beauty is debatable). But the fact that these factors had been excluded was absolutely necessary for the results to have any worth at all.

 

But I did begin to wonder how Iqbal had done this. After all, it would have required a reasonable (though not infeasible) amount of work to extract these variables from the Chessbase dataset, and all evidence so far had suggested that he was against excessive effort if it could be avoided. I turned back to the academic paper to find out the details. I took a sip of coffee, turned back to the paper, and almost spat it out as I read in black and white:

 

“There was no filtering based on age or playing strength as this study is concerned more with gender differences and aesthetic quality of play…” 

 

Well.

 

At this point, I considered whether I should even bother to read the rest of the article. It was of course possible that Iqbal had run multiple econometric regressions to try to control for the influence of age and Elo. But this would have run into all sorts of technical problems, such as the relationships between gender, Elo and age, as well as what we call ‘endogeneity’ – for example, one would have to prove that trying to play ‘beautiful chess’ in all your games doesn’t affect your rating. There are econometric techniques to deal at least in part with many of these concerns. None are mentioned. In fact, the explanation about Elo and age independence is curiously missing entirely from the scientific paper.

 

Not to worry; we shall persevere! I continued reading. Iqbal’s next result is to show that checkmates by strong players (Elo 2500 and above) are statistically more beautiful than average, according to his software. I doubt this surprises anyone. A major problem with this analysis is that checkmates that actually appear on the board in games are far more likely to occur in much weaker level games. It is very well ingrained chess etiquette for GMs to resign before checkmate is delivered, especially if it is forced (and forced checkmates are the only types Iqbal considers – don’t get me started about this).

 

So when might a forced checkmate actually be seen in a GM game? You guessed it: when it’s exceptionally beautiful. That’s the only time chess etiquette dictates that a player shouldn’t resign but allow the mate to be played out, if he or she wants. So this means that testing the relationship between Elo and checkmating beauty is inherently, inseparably flawed. GMs allow other GMs to deliver mate only when the checkmates are already beautiful – unless of course it happens during blitz, but no sensible study would include those games.

 

Well…it turns out Iqbal’s sample does include blitz games. And rapid, and exhibition games, and also – wait for it – games from simultaneous exhibitions.

 

I could go on, but you are probably already at the limits of your endurance. But allow me to leave you with just a few pearls of wisdom that can be found buried within the discussion in the paper. Iqbal is obviously proud of his main finding that females play less beautifully than males, as he extrapolates this to an insight into the psychological preferences of women, writing:

 

“Do the results then imply that women have less artistic appreciation of the game? Perhaps.”

 

He also suggests some keen intuition into the depths of – you’ll like this – the psychology of computers.

 

“This suggests that computers, regardless of their playing strength or ‘experience’ (if any), …perhaps [have] just no conscious or unconscious appreciation of art…”

 

All I can say to such shrewd perceptions is: thank God we have men.

 

It is not all bad news for females. Iqbal does, in a rare concession for the paper, offer the following caveat to his analysis:

 

“Logically, it would also follow that there are likely domains where women fare better aesthetically than men.” 

 

One or two do come to mind.

 

Reading over what I’ve written above, I feel a little guilty for the harsh and dismissive way I’ve criticized Iqbal’s work. So let me conclude with a positive note: In general, I am optimistic and supportive of scientific efforts to use chess as a tool to analyze different questions. There have been several interesting academic works in recent years that have done this, and I genuinely think that Iqbal’s Chesthetica software has its role to play in the future of chess research. But such research has to be conducted in a thorough, industrious and attentive manner, especially if it purports to lofty claims in areas such as gender. If not, the methodology is prone to stern aspersion or, even worse, outright dismissal.

 

I finished my second coffee just as I came to the concluding paragraphs of Iqbal’s paper. And here, finally, I agreed wholeheartedly with one of his generalized statements, and so it’s a good note on which to finish this rebuttal:

 

“In general, what we have demonstrated should not be taken too seriously…”

 

With that, I shut down my computer.

 

 

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