Istanbul 2012 – Turkish Anklebiters

Posted by David Smerdon on Jun 21, 2012 in Chess, Politics

The host team of the chess Olympiad is traditionally allowed to field a couple of extra teams (originally this was aimed to prevent a bye in case of an odd number of teams, but these days it’s a more general right).  For instance, in 2010, hosts Russia fielded a phenomenal second team that was seeded fourth with an average rating of 2702 (!), and a third team with an average of 2616.  That’s right, the average of Russia’s third team was still higher than Australia’s strongest player.

But this year, Turkey’s taken a different track, and one that’s sure to raise a few eyebrows.  Their first team is, predictably, the strongest on paper (bar the usual disagreement with Grandmaster Atalik).  But their second, nicknamed “Turkey 2016”, consists of five talented boys with an average age under 16.  The concept is, of course, talent-development in anticipation of future success a few Olympiads from now.

But the biggest surprise is the third team, nicknamed “Turkey 2023″in honour of the upcoming national centenary, with an average age of… 8.2

Yes, eight-point-two.

(Pictures of the young whippersnappers and a full report from Lizzie Paehtz can be found here: http://chessbase.com/newsdetail.asp?newsid=8260)

The same approach has been taken in the women’s division as welll, with average ages of 16 and 10 for the second and third teams, respectively.

No doubt this move will find some critics, with arguments of degreding the event, disrespecting countries who travel to the Olympiad and end up playing the kids, as well as taking away places from other Turkish players who could perhaps claim to have earned a spot.  And these are fair criticisms.

But overall, I don’t mind the plan.  Despite my previous post, in general I think the Turkish chess federation has done a fantastic job promoting national and particularly junior chess over the past decade.  They’ve done from a non-starter to a genuine chess country on the world map, with particular long-sighted focus.  They’ve previously made some brave moves, including offering large sums of money to “the next Turkish GM”, etc, but these moves have paid off.  I’m also impressed by how they’ve evenly shared their focus towards both men’s and women’s chess.  This latest move is similarly brave, but it’s the sign of a federation prepared to take a few risks to pursue its chess goals.  Not bad.

If we were hosting the Olympiad (not that I think I’ll see it in my lifetime), I’d hope we’d do the same.  Perhaps not with eight year olds, but a second “youth” team would be something to be proud of, and would provide our kiddies with some invaluable international experience that we Australians naturally lack.

I’d pick something like:

  • Bobby Cheng
  • Anton Smirnov
  • Yi Liu
  • Justin Tan
  • Emma Guo

Average age:  13.6.  Average rating:  Over 2200.

It’d be a team to be proud of, a team that wouldn’t embarrass itself, and a team that reflects well the future of Australian chess.

I’m still not sure how I feel about the eight-year-old Turkish team, but I can respect the gutsiness of the decision, and in my opinion, it’s better for a federation to err on the side of idealism than conservatism.  I just hope the games don’t go past their bedtime.


Istanbul 2012 – The First Controversy

Posted by David Smerdon on Jun 8, 2012 in Chess, Politics

We’re still a couple of months away, and already the first drama for the 2012 Chess Olympiad has begun.  And it promises to be a real doozy.

The Turkish Chess Federation has written an open letter refusing the applications of arbiters from a bunch of countries, on the basis that these federations have in the past either launched or supported legal action against FIDE (the world chess federation).

The countries under the ban include:

  • England
  • France
  • Georgia
  • Germany
  • Switzerland
  • Ukraine
  • …and the United States of America.

This is a big deal.  These chess federations comprise some of the heavyweights of the chess world, encompass a third of all registered chess players worldwide, and, of course, represent some very high quality arbiters.

The letter, written by the president of the Turkish Chess Federation, Ali Nihat Yazici, argues that federations who sue FIDE are hurting the development of chess by diverting funds from chess projects to FIDE’s legal defence.  Verbatim:

“Some federations launched or supported court cases against FIDE and thus created financial problems for FIDE and a loss of distributable income for worldwide chess development.”

This, as a consequence, is undoubtably true.  But the real questions are whether the legal action was justified, whether FIDE bears any fault, and perhaps most importantly of all, whether national chess federations have the right to hold the world chess federation, to which they must contribute a sizeable financial amount every year, to account when allegations of corruption arise.

I, like most chess fans, never want to see the global governing body of my sport spending chess development funds to defend itself in court.  I also never want it to act in such a way that it needs to do so.  But certainly, I don’t want any authority to place itself above accountability, be it in sport, government or society.  There always has to be a system of checks and balances, especially for an organisation as rumour-rife as FIDE.

Scaring off federations from doing so will lead to either a breakaway organisation of disenfranchised countries, or perverse incentives for FIDE to act above the law – or both.  I’m not accusing FIDE of anything – I have no leaning in the world of chess politics – but surely these consequences are far worse for chess than those cited in Mr Yazici’s letter.

One final little factoid on which I’ll offer no comment.  The largest ongoing case against FIDE was brought forward by the English and Georgian chess federations, claiming that the appointment of five FIDE Vice-Presidents violates FIDE’s constitution (which allows the FIDE President to appoint only two).  The five nominated VPs are: Chu Bo, Israel Gelfer, Ilya Levito, Boris Kutin… and Ali Nihat Yazici.


Small feet and less meat

Posted by David Smerdon on Apr 6, 2012 in Non-chess, Politics

As many of you know, I’ve been channeling my inner hippy for the last twelve months, with remarkable success.  Of course, that depends on your definition of success; an aversion to shaving, repetitive lounge music and ownership of a solitary pair of shoes are hardly new attributes that will endear myself to everyone.  But this bohemian transition has largely been driven by something of a little more substance: a fervent passion for tackling climate change.

I don’t really know from where this zeal sprouted; I’ve never been particularly environmentally minded, to be honest, and my main love in the academic sphere has of course been behavioural economics.  But I became so convinced that climate change is the single most dangerous modern challenge facing humanity that I up-and-left Australia for Amsterdam to put my studies (and, I hope, my career) to use in the great greenie fight.

So far, unfortunately, it’s a fight mankind is definitely losing.  Behavioural economics hasn’t come far enough to pave the way for applying effective policies to tackle the problem and global politics on climate change mitigation is a joke (and not a particularly funny one).  The situation is becoming so dire that the conversation has seriously moved towards some outrageous geoengineering solutions, ranging from placing mirrors in the sky to pumping artificial filters into the atmosphere to scattering iron in the oceans.  It sounds a bit like trying to season a soup with a random sample of household cleaning products to me, but desperate times, as they say, call for desperate mirrors.  Or something like that.

Enter the latest bright idea: Human Engineering.

Yep, you heard right.  Three distinguished academics from Oxford and New York University have come up with a completely bizarre but compellingly intriguing idea.  Seeing as climate change is anthropogenic (fancy scientist speak for “Man-made”), why not strike at the root of the problem, and just change humans?

The main argument is that one of the biggest ways we’ve altered the global ecosystem is through our insatiable desire to eat meat – and lots of it.  The authors cite facts to support that over 51% of greenhouse emissions come from livestock production; I find this hard to believe, but if the figure is even a third of this figure, it’s food for thought (ha!).  In any case, I know it’s now widely known that most of our climate worries would be over if the whole world went vegetarian, but this is one behavioural trait that’s incredibly difficult to influence.

(I should mention that our meat-fetish is largely centred in rich first-world countries: the average American or Australian eats  over 120 kilos of meat a year, compared to around 15 kilos in Africa and 3(!) kilos in India.  China’s risen to around 50 kilos in the last couple of years, but they’re still a far cry from us carnivorous fatties.)

I don’t want to sound like I’m casting judgement on meat-eaters.  Despite being borderline manic about climate change, living with two vegetarians and having recently dated one, I’ve made no such sacrifices myself (and in fact I’m writing this after just enjoying a delicious chicken curry.  Can you spell “hypocrite”?).  Just like giving up smoking, it’s incredibly difficult it is for humans to alter their taste behaviour – which makes the authors’ suggestions all the more relevant.

So, how do you engineer people to stop eating meat?  There are a bunch of ideas put forward by the authors, my favourite being something of a “meat-patch” you stick on your arm that makes you mildly intolerant to meat (and, presumably, reduces your cravings for it).  Unlikely to take off, but a neat concept, and it’s at least a little saner than the idea of poisoning our meat so that we vomit after eating it.  Really, guys?  Who would buy it?

What would Lisa do?


The other human engineering suggestion in the paper is even more controversial:  If humans are leaving too big a carbon footprint…why not just shrink their feet?

Yep.  Shrinking humans.

The concept may sound ridiculous, but it’s surprisingly defensible (at least a little).  Again back to the livestock argument, smaller humans eat less, use up less petrol in car trips, and use less resources (such as clothing).  It seems to somehow retard human evolution, but perhaps we’ve evolved to the point where being physically bigger is no longer really an edge.  We live in the age of the geeks, after all.  (Despite this, I don’t suggest telling the next big gym-junkie you encounter how evoluntionary superior us chess players are.)

Check out how small those carbon footprints are.


One way the authors suggest for achieving this is through preimplantation genetic diagnosis, whereby parents can choose smaller children before birth; another is through post-birth hormonal treatment.  Think parents won’t go for it?  Never fear; the authors suggest governments offer incentives to encourage voluntary participation in genetic programs to reduce the height and weight of our offsprings, in one of the most unusual baby-bonus schemes I’ve heard.

I… Well.  I don’t even want to begin pointing holes in the economic analysys, because the authors mean well, and I think their main point, that we need to start looking at drastic solutions to an increasingly critical global problem, is entirely valid.

However, I think probably the way to go is to keep investigating more subtle approaches to persuading people to change their behaviour.  I’ve got my own novel idea.  If human engineering really is the best we’ve got, perhaps, instead of genetic modification, we should instead alter evolution by changing perceptions of beauty and thus encouraging men to find short vegetarians attractive. Hey, as opposed to sacrificing chicken curries, at least in this regard I can claim to lead by example.

I wonder if they’ll publish me?



American Credit for Dummies

Posted by David Smerdon on Aug 21, 2011 in Economics, Non-chess, Politics

It’s been a wild and woolly couple of weeks for international markets and economies ever since the surprise downgrade by S&P of the US credit rating to AA+ on August 5.

Whoa.  Does anything in that sentence make sense to you?

If not, read on.  There’s been a lot of economic-jargon thrown around since then, a lot of it unintelligible to most of us despite its importance.  A lot of my friends have asked me to explain what’s going on in simple terms, assuming, somewhat naively, that working at Treasury means I have a clue what’s going on in the global economy.  That said, I am quite good at dumbing things down (insert punny anti-intellect jibe here), so here we go.

What’s that?  Oh, you want puns, do you?

The US economy: Putting downward pressure on Peruvian yoga classes since 2009.



What is a credit rating?

If you lend me $100, you’d want to first know what the chances are of me paying you back.  If you think I’m trustworthy and not at all dodgy, you might ask me to buy you a coffee when I pay you back, as a little token of thanks.  The dodgier you think I am, the more ‘interest’ you might want to charge me – maybe you’ll ask me to pay you back $110.  If you think there’s a very high chance I’ll blow the cash on tequila shots or novelty chess pieces, you might even ask for $150, to compensate you for the risk.

Instead of ‘trustworthy’, ‘dodgy’ and ‘scum’ as measures of my ability to repay, though, it’s more useful to have some sort of general rating that everybody can understand, and use to compare to other people.  That’s basically what a credit rating is – it’s a measure of how likely it is I’ll be able to pay you back, or worded another way, it’s the chance that I go bankrupt and default on the loan.  The worse my credit rating, the higher the interest, or risk premium, that you’ll charge me – and so it becomes more expensive for me to borrow money.  If I’m in a bit of a financial pickle, this is very bad news indeed.

But instead of rating people like me, a credit rating agency usually rates companies and large borrowers – including countries.

The US credit rating: a dangerous see-saw



What is a credit rating agency?

A credit rating agency (or CRA) is a company that assigns credit ratings.  There are lots of them around the world, but you really only need to know about the big three:  Standard and Poor’s (or S&P, the biggest), Moody’s, and Fitch.  Unfortunately, and really annoyingly, these three don’t have the same ranking system for ratings (the Bank for International Settlements has a comparison table here, if you’re interested).  In general, though, S&P’s is the standard reported, but all you really need to know is:  A’s are better than B’s, more A’s are better than less A’s, and pluses are better than minuses.  So, for instance, AAA is the best; AA+ beats AA; and A- beats BBB+.  Each rating can also get a little qualifier after it, such as “with a negative outlook” or “with a positive outlook”, to give you an idea which way it’s leaning.

The ratings can be applied to products, such as a corporate bond offer (basically, when a company wants to borrow money from the market), a corporation itself, or a state or country.  And given that the rating measures a risk of default, or bankruptcy, you’d be safe in assuming that most large sovereign nations would have pretty good ratings – after all, what are the chances of a first-world COUNTRY going bankrupt?

CRAs copped a lot of criticism in the wake of the ’08/’09 financial crisis, largely due to their failure to properly rate securitised derivatives (the financial products, most based on the US sub-prime mortgage market, that caused all the drama).   A lot of these ‘junk bonds’ were given AAA ratings, despite being incredibly risky in the event of a housing collapse.

(Consequently, the international financial organisations and the G20, largely led by the big European powers, attacked the CRAs with all sorts of regulatory measures.  There was probably a bit of revenge underlying this, as the big three CRAs are American, and the US (particularly Wall Street) was generally considered to blame for the global turmoil that followed.  Australia mainly held off on flaying the CRAs alive, largely because we believed that (a) we all got caught out in the crisis, and none of us realised just how overblown the US housing market was, and (b) in general, we came out of the whole crash relatively unscathed.)

The US debt crisis - Up a certain creek without a certain paddle.



So what happened?

On August 5, S&P (an American company, remember) downgraded the US sovereign rating from the top rank of AAA to AA+, with a negative outlook.  Not a big jump, you might think – but, remember, this is a concrete fall that says the US Government is now more likely to go bankrupt.  And this is the first time the US hasn’t been rated AAA since it was first assigned a rating in 1917.

The rating wasn’t downgraded because of any one feature.  For instance, this was certainly not the first time in US history that Congress was forced to pass a deficit reduction plan due to worries over repaying its loans.  And it’s not the first time the US economy has looked a little shaky – unemployment and inflation fears may be high, but they’re certainly not unheard of.

But it was the combination of these fears, as well as grave concerns over the US policy process in general after the last-day deal was clinched, that really spooked S&P into dropping the rating.  The downgrade really signals a lack of faith in the whole congressional system, which is a far trickier political reality that will have to be fixed separately to economic concerns.

The US economy - hanging by a thread.

Now what?

I don’t pretend to know anything about politics (I barely pretend to know anything about economics), so I’ll steer clear of that debate.  But going back to our $100 example at the start, the US has now become ‘dodgier’ as a borrower, meaning lenders are going to demand more interest before they agree to lending the US money.  That means it’s going to be more expensive for the US to patch up its debts – a lot more expensive.  And because the US Government is going to have to pay more to borrow money, this makes borrowing money more expensive for other borrowers, such as US companies wanting to expand or innovate.  In effect, money just got a whole lot more expensive for everyone.  And while the US Government has no choice but to borrow, whatever the cost, private companies may just choose to put the brakes on operations for a while until things recover.  The Government may inadvertently start ‘crowding out’ its private borrowers, slowing down the whole economy.

And a slowing economy is a very, very bad thing right now.  That was the driving fear behind the controversial (but successful) Australian stimulus package, which basically saw the Government handing out ‘free’ money to try and keep the economy moving forwards.  A slowing economy puts upward pressure on unemployment, it makes it harder for a Government to build its revenue, and it sends investors looking overseas for places to put their money.  In short, it starts what you may have heard of a ‘downward spiral’, where every falling domino moves a country closer and closer to the brink.

Still, I don’t want to get you too excited by all this.  For one, the US is the biggest economy in the world, and they have a lot more wriggle room than smaller nations (say, Greece).  What’s more, Moody’s and Fitch both decided to hold off on downgrading the US sovereign rating, showing that there’s a little bit of debate even among the experts as to just how bad things are.

And besides, a lot of the impact of credit rating movements are relative.  If you have lots of investment options at AAA, then me having a AA+ rating is a real issue – but if all our friends are also at AA+, then I’m suddenly not so worried that I can’t find someone to give me a reasonable loan.  And right now, the economic turmoil and widespread panic at fears of a double-dip recession seem to be universal.

Ultimately, the US is not going to go bust.  But this latest incident could well accelerate the inevitable transition in the global order from the US to China as the world’s economic superpower.  It’ll still take a few decades, but perhaps we’re a little further along the path to the US dollar taking the silver medal in terms of world currencies.  (I took great pleasure in teasing my American housemates in Peru that my smoothies cost “less than one of MY dollars, but more than one of yours!”)

US Credit - a scary monster.

There, did any of that make any sense?  I should write some sort of disclaimer on all this, but surely you trust me, right?  Here, how about I show you:  Give me $100, and I’ll show you exactly how the US economy works…


A riotous affair

Posted by David Smerdon on May 22, 2011 in Chess, Non-chess, Politics

Like the irresistible mistress she is, chess found a way to draw me back in, even in these unfamiliar territories.

I’m back in Santiago, and last night Tristan and I visited the Chilean Chess Club for their weekly blitz tournament.  It was something of a relief to be surrounded by chess players, I have to admit; while my Spanish has improved remarkably, talking here is a constant effort, and I get frustrated with being unable to really communicate with all the amazing new people I’m meeting.

Enter chess, the universal language for us hopeless romantics of the sixty-four squares.  While my Spanish is still far too basic to meaningfully communicate with the locals here on almost any subject, analysing a chess game is a story we can both share, language difficulties aside.  It was refreshing to feel a little bit at home for an evening.

Although, not everything was quite like home.

The chess club is located on the third floor of a corner building that overlooks a large square near the major university in Santiago.  The square is frequented by students and often used for student protests – and occasionally, it would transpire, major protests by the general populace.

After round one of the blitz, a huge crowd began marching and chanting in the square.  Protesting the proposed construction of a hydro-electric plant, it seemed, and peacefully (though certainly passionately) at first.

(I won’t try to pretend I have any real understanding of Chilean politics.  However, I’ll mention the apparent irony of a protest against one of the greenest forms of power in electricity-starved Santiago, one of the most polluted cities I’ve ever visited.)

By round two, the organised march had been broken up by a small group of police.  By round three, the police had dispatched a riot squad with tanks.  Yes, tanks.  By round four, water cannons were used to spray the frenzied crowd, which had taken to hiding behind trees and rubbish bins and hurling projectiles at the cops and massive tanks.  All the while, the protesters maintained their vengeful chanting.  By the penultimate round, rocks started hitting the windows of the chess club, and it became a little hard to focus on the middlegame of my main-line Petroff Defence.  Outside, the protesters were losing a very one-sided endgame.

Not your typical Friday night chess tournament.

For the record, I won my six games to take the fourteen dollars (!) first prize, while Tristan played well enough to tie for third in a field featuring a few local FIDE masters.  Outside, the solid defences of the authorities easily soaked up the sacrificed artillery of the protesters, before launching a devastating counter attack along the open watercannon files; 0-1.


Cambodian dreaming

Posted by David Smerdon on Sep 11, 2010 in Non-chess, Politics

Cambodia is a little different from any country I’ve been to before.  I’ve visited several developing countries, but each has been on the way up, so to speak.  The locals recognise that their standard of living has been improving over their lifetime, and those I’ve spoken to have always been full of promise for the future.

Cambodia is a different story, simply because of how recent the horrors of the Pl Pot regime are in people’s minds.  Every Cambodian has been directly affected by the shockingly murderous period of the Khmer Rouge, which, in addition to carrying out ethnic and even ‘intellectual cleansing’ at a mass level, has retarded the country’s development for generations.  And so every local graphically recognises that Cambodia has, in effect, been sent back to year zero, dramatically worsening their quality of life in the process.

In addition to the poverty, the other thing that strikes the visitor is the warped demography as a result of the events thirty years ago.  Over fourty per cent of Cambodia’s population is under eighteen, many orphaned.  Sadly, and perhaps as a result of the poverty and defenseless children, Cambodia has also found itself in recent years as a hub for child sex trafficking.

Yet, despite all of this hardship and injustice, I’ve found the locals to be remarkably friendly and helpful.  I’m sure part of this is due to the plethora of caucasian tourists who are easy with their money here – taxis and meals both cost around US$1, which is about the average daily wage for a Cambodian.  But even in situations where there’s no money changing hands, the Cambodians we’ve met have been open and willing to assist, and have made our trip a memorable experience.

In Phnom Penh, we splashed out and stayed at the Bougainvillier Hotel on the main street.  After a long tournament in Malaysia, we felt justified in spending $73 a night for the two of us in what was extravagant luxury – until we realised that the neighbouring hotels cost between $5 and $20 a night!  To be fair, the riverside hotel was very nice indeed and perfectly located next to the Royal Palace and National Museum, and of course we didn’t pay a massive amount by Australian standards – but we still did feel a little aristocratic.

Speaking of splashing out, our most expensive meal during the trip was at the celebrated “Friends” restaurant, run by the organisation of the same name that supports Cambodian street children (see here).  US$5 a meal was very luxurious by local standards, but the cooking and waitering staff are all Cambodian youths who have been trained in hospitality by the organisation and reached the final level of their training.  While the clientele is predictably all white, the atmosphere and food were both amazing, and the restaurant was a great place to recharge before visiting the National Museum next door.  You can also buy all sorts of clothes, bags and jewellery in the connecting shop, again all made by local youths.

From Phnom Penh, we again showed our financial extravagance by flying to Siem Reap ($60, but a six hour bus ride will only set you back $20).  I’m glad we did, though, as we only have two nights here and there seems to be far more to see and do (even aside from the famous temples of Angkor Wat) than the nation’s capital.  It’s also more tourist-centric, demonstrated by the number of WiFi cafes (such as this one) and nightlife establishments. 

One unfortunately byproduct of this is the number of cries of “Tuk-tuk Sir?  Massage for the lady?  You buy postcard?” as we walk down the street.  There is also a lot more aggressive and persistent begging, but the visitor should remember that the children are only doing what their parents have ordered of them.  Still, most visitors’ guides recommend supporting institutions like the Friends Restaurant as a better means of helping out.

The temples of Angkor Wat are truly amazing, but what’s even more amazing is the history of this fascinating civilisation.  My first history lesson on this actually came in Malaysia from James Morris, who did a school project on it.  While his recollection was at time ambiguous, he was surprisingly on the money with his descriptions, and gave a nice flavour and background to the trip. 

James failed to mention that the most popular of the temples, Ta Prom, was used in the filming of Angelina Jolie’s Tomb Raider, which I found incredibly awesome and Fi found ridiculously childish.  However, it was the little temples and structures off the beaten track that really made the trip.  If you come, try and hire some bikes or get a tuk-tuk driver who’s willing to help you explore at your leisure.  There are literally hundreds of structures, each with their own personalities and hidden treasures. 

One thing we really lucked out on in this regard was a guide, but through our struck-up conversations (read: interrogations) of the other tourists we met, we got a much better picture of what we were looking at.  For instance, did you know that, although the temples were constructed between the eighth and fourteenth centuries, one of the temples has a drawing depicting a human and a dinosaur?!

I’m just about to head off now to the jewel in the crown of the Angkor temples, ‘Angkor Wat’ itself, so I’ll cut this short.  First of all I will have to find and kidnap Fi, who has discovered the enormous array of cosy little boutique shops that Siem Reap has to offer.  Unfortunately, this is our last day before we head off to Vietnam.  We’ve thoroughly enjoyed our time here as ‘normal’ tourists, and feel that we’ve learned something along the way.

I should mention that the trip hasn’t been entirely chess-free, however.  Fi and I played a game over breakfast on the second day, which she won convincingly.  Plus, I also ran into a couple of bored tuk-tuk drivers playing on the sidewalk with pieces of rock and bark on a scratched-our grid.  I took a couple of phone snaps and will upload them when I find a cable.  It seems even when we’re taking a break from chess, the game finds a way to follow us.

Next stop: Vietnam, and perhaps a post on behavioural economics and tourists…


Voting for least-worst

Posted by David Smerdon on Aug 18, 2010 in Non-chess, Politics

I’ve vehemently tried to avoid commenting on the federal election, primarily because it’s just so uninspiring.  A tepid, usually negative campaign has disappointed all but the most desperate political junkies, and the only sign of passion was when Mark Latham decided to have a go at everything and everyone in sight.

I happened to be seated behind the former Labor leader on a Friday night flight to Brisbane two weeks ago.  Had I known he was about to assault Julia Gillard the following morning at the Brisbane Ekka show, I would have kicked the back of his seat a little harder. 

But I digress. While I’ve become more and more disinterested in this election campaign, I’m far more concerned about (and, sadistically, entertained by) the upcoming FIDE elections.  The incumbent president of the world chess federation, Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, has quite a bizarre resume.  Besides all the usual corruption and bribery rumours that seem to perennially circulate the FIDE presidency, Kirsan doubles as the President of a Russian state called Kalmykia, claims to have been abducted by aliens, and is reportedly linked to the violent murder of an opposition newspaper journalist, Larisa Yudina, in 1998.

Meanwhile, his chief electoral opponent is former world chess champion Anatoly Karpov, who, quite surprisingly, is primarily supported by his most famous adversary, Gary Kasparov.

What makes this election race so fascinating is that Russia can only officially endorse one presidential candidate under the FIDE election rules, meaning that, technically, one of Kirsan’s and Karpov’s campaigns could be invalid.  The vote to elect the Russian candidate was itself marred by controversy, with the Kremlin injecting itself into the debate.  Things really fired up on 21 May this year, as the online newspaper True/Slant reports:

“Today, at around 2:15 Moscow time, black suited men from the private security firm “Peper” arrived at the [Russian chess] Federation’s offices, and presented Federation president Aleksandr Bakh with a diktat signed by [the president’s deputy, Arkady] Dvorkovich saying that Peper was now in charge. They then kicked out the regular security guards and sealed off some rooms in the building as a helpless Bakh called the police.”

Now, wouldn’t THAT make our federal election more exciting!  Anyone got Latham’s number?


Uruguay exploits touch-piece move; Karma finally found

Posted by David Smerdon on Jul 7, 2010 in Non-chess, Politics

So the debate continues to rage over Uruguay’s deliberate handball on the goal line to snatch a remarkable, controversial and unexpected victory against Ghana.  News forums and blogs have shown quite a split consensus over whether such a foul brands the culprit, Luis Suarez, an unsportsmanlike villan, or a national hero.  Even former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan has weighed in, calling Ghana the true winners of the match.

Personally, I don’t know what all the fuss is about.  It seems simply logical that in such circumstances, when a goal would have surely been scored, a penalty goal should be awarded.  Rugby has the penalty try; in tennis, a successful challenge to a call wins the point if the umpire declares it would have been so.  And it’s not as if they don’t have the video technology to do it; heck, if the video ref had been introduced, perhaps Englishman Frank Lampard’s incorrectly disallowed goal would have boosted England to, well, a 4-2 loss instead.

In chess, of course, we have it easy.  If you touch a piece, you have to move it.  If you make an illegal move, the players go back to when the move was made, thus taking the game back to ‘what would have happened’.  Not that our sport isn’t without its controversy as well, of course: our cheating scandals have to be much more imaginative, as the infamous ‘Toiletgate’ episode demonstrates.

Well, at least justice was served to some extent, with Uruguay going down to the fancied Oranje of the Netherlands in the semi-finals.  Karma?  In South Africa?

Ah, so that’s where she got to!


Bubble, Bubble, Soil and Rubble

Posted by David Smerdon on Apr 15, 2010 in Economics, Non-chess, Politics

What is up with Australia’s house prices? Everything, it seems.

I of course have some personal bias in the matter, being one of many potential Australian first-home buyers ‘in the market.’ But even leaving aside my personal gripes, it must be said that Australian housing prices are ridiculously inflated.

There are a number of possible causes propping up Australia’s bubble, such as ludicrous tax breaks for negatively geared speculators, the Government’s recent theoretically-dubious first home owner’s grant, and an overly optimistic level of consumer sentiment. But regardless of the root cause(s), the bubble is ominously, undeniably there.

Don’t believe me? Just ask Professor Stephen Keen.

In October 2008, Professor Keen bet Macquarie banker Rory Robertson that Australian house prices would fall by more than 40 percent over the course of 2009, with the loser having to walk the 224 kilometres from Canberra to Mount Kosciuszko. To Keen’s credit, he took his loss not as a failure, but as an opportunity to raise awareness about Australia’s housing crisis and the possible coming double-dip in our nation’s remarkable economic recovery. Kicking off this afternoon from Parliament House, the University of Western Sydney Professor of Economics will run and walk up to 30 kilometres every day, accompanied by dozens of loyal (and somewhat eccentric) followers brandishing shirts with graphs and slogans such as “I was hopelessly wrong on house pieces. Ask me how!”

While the bet was made and is being carried out in good spirit and cheer, and raising a fair bit of dough for charity on the side, the whole saga underlies some fundamental questions about the Australian economy. For one, does Rory (who is obviously quite a cluey guy) really believe that we aren’t in a real estate bubble, or did he simply correctly predict that it wouldn’t pop in 2009?

I, for one, am inclined to believe the latter. In fact, modern behavioural finance theory suggests that it can actually be rational for a sharp investor to invest in an asset bubble, even if she realises that prices are over-inflated above and beyond their true levels. Why? Because irrationality breeds irrationality, over-exuberance breeds over-exuberance, and consumer sentiment follows the herd. Of course, if you believe the bubble is going to pop at some point, you’ll have to time it to get out of your investment before the crash. But, just like haggling at a street market, you can push it a far way to grab a bargain before knowing when to quit. Besides which, Australia is facing a massive housing shortage, which will continue to bolster these ridiculous prices.

Still, the prospect of a housing collapse has scared the financier in me, and I’ve stopped looking at real estate for now. Such a deflation would resonate throughout other areas of the Australian economy, and would more than likely trigger a double-dipping effect of the global crisis. Even the Governor of the Reserve Bank of Australia, Glenn Stevens, warned last month of the risks of taking out large loans in order to jump on the housing bandwagon, implying that the current housing growth rate was unsustainable.

Perhaps I should head up to Parliament House this afternoon and join Keen for the first leg of his trek. Whether he’s right or wrong, it’d be useful to hear the insights of a man who has been nominated, along with ten other notable economists, for the Revere Award for Economics –which is awarded to the three economists “…who first and most clearly saw the Gobal Financial Collapse coming and whose work is most likely to prevent another GFC in the future.”

Maybe I’ll be able to get some tips on when he thinks things might start to turn, and what I should be doing to prepare for the calamity. At the very least, the exercise will do me good in the future.

Particularly if I have to sell my car to pay the mortgage.


World Not-So-Naked Bike Ride

Posted by David Smerdon on Mar 31, 2010 in Gender, Non-chess, Politics

Helmets, naturally, were compulsory.

I received a few comments following my bike posts on the site, most rebuking my apparently anti-bipodean sentiments (not to mention my apparently anti-environmental ones).  

“You’re not giving cycling a fair go!” cried one. 

“Don’t you care about global warming? One less car!” argued another, with blissfully ignorant mathematical precision. 

“Cycling is the most liberating form of transport, and you don’t need to be a hippy to enjoy it! Give us a go!” proffered a very hippy-like third. 

Right, I thought, let’s indeed “give us (sic) a go.” Heck, I’m a liberal-minded fellow with a newly acquired speed machine. If only I had the perfect medium to express both my  love  like  vague fondness for cyclists, as well as my admiration  deep respect  diligent acceptance of liberal hippies. If only… 

And that, my friends, is how my picture got published in the Canberra RiotAct in an article on the Canberra leg of the World Naked Bike Ride. 

You can see the article and pictures here, which has been stumbled on by the Closet Grandmaster, as well as numerous work colleagues. (A brief warning: the slideshow of pictures contains some mild nudity – not mine, I assure you! – but for the large part, is simply hilarious.) 

While I enjoyed the experience and hope to have dispelled the above assertions on my character in one fell swoop, I can’t help but feel that I still didn’t quite fit in with some of my more opinionated co-riders. For instance, we were supposed to paint protest slogans across our bodies for the ride, but I really couldn’t think of a cause. It’s not that I don’t believe in saving the whales and reducing greenhouse gas emissions, of course. It’s just that I was really just along for the ride (so to speak), and didn’t feel that passionately about any one single cause (besides chess, of course) that I felt obliged to graffiti it on my person. In the end, under whithering peer pressure from the other riders, I compromised with a picture of a black knight and a somewhat ambiguous “CHECKMATE FOR CARBON” strewn across my back, and an Amsterdam flag for a tie on my chest. Representations of knights and the Dutch, both of which are dear to my heart, seemed a fair result, given that my preferred “The Sicilian Dragon Forever!” was vetoed. 

In addition to my lack of protestation, while most of the participants were quite critical of the Australian Federal Police’s order that genetalia must be covered either in body paint or underwear, I saw it as a blessing. First of all, getting any sort of environmental message (or otherwise) across is surely far more likely to succeed if spectators aren’t forced to avert their (and their children’s) eyes before they even see the slogans. Secondly, it gave me a chance to both show off my Amsterdam boxers and keep my Government job. But possibly most importantly of all, I really can’t imagine riding a bike completely starkers would be particularly comfortable, or even safe. Especially for a guy. 

My ostracism aside, I did very much enjoy the ride, which took in both of Canberra’s city bridges, Parliament House, the National Library, and even straight through the Canberra Motor Show. Furthermore, I have to say that the chess picture/text received more comments than the vast majority of the homogenously pro-environmental slogans, so perhaps I can claim to have raised the profile of chess in an unashamedly no-frills fashion. 

In fact, one of the most common questions from my co-riders (many of whom included members of the ACT Nudists Association) was whether strip chess was a common variation on the game. While I had nothing substantive to say, this may be something for chess organisers and the Australian Chess Federation to think about in the future; at least, it might help kick-start the Olympiad Appeal which I believe currently stands at $0. There was a proposal a couple of years ago to create an Australian Chess Players Nude Calendar to raise Olympiad funds ala the Australian Womens Soccer Team. Unfortunately, of the 12 of us asked (6 girls and 6 boys – perfect for an annual spread!), the vote was 11 to 1 against. Guess who the one was? 

Anyway, I’m glad I did it, but I’m also glad it’s over, for this year at least. Canberra gets mighty cold in the Winter.

 I realise the risk that people may think I feel strongly about the Black Knights’ Tango. Horrible opening.

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