Rapid fire

Posted by David Smerdon on Oct 3, 2015 in Chess

I’ve had the opportunity to play a couple of rapid tournaments recently, in a weak attempt to shake off the rust before the European league season starts. There was a nice ‘holiday’ rapid in Luxembourg, whose chess community is super fun and social, as well as the eighth edition of the Amstelveen Brainwave Rapid. Both tournaments were run by really friendly and genial people and it was nice to push a bit of wood around for a change.

Unfortunately, like the Tin Man before me, I could have done with some oiling; no placings in either event. There were only really two chess highlights from my perspective. The first was winning the bughouse tournament in Luxembourg with Vlad Hamitevici under the moniker of our mutual friend “Casper”. And in Amstelveen, I managed to beat Dutch GM Dennis De Vreugt with black in 14 moves using my Scandinavian. I confess that I only just managed to hide a smug smile when some kibitzers came up to my opponent after the game and said in Dutch, “Haven’t you read his book?!”


A couple of snapshots from the trip, including a small vid of the bughouse. Luxembourg rules are a bit weird: there’s no dropping for mate, and you can only promote to pieces in your current ‘stock’ of spares. But you quickly get used to it!


Bughouse in Luxembourg. Team Casper for the win!


The Amstelveen rapid tournament is always held in conjunction with the Dutch Rubik’s Cube championships. I was almost tempted to buy one of their clothing accessories, but I couldn’t quite think of an occasion where I’d wear it…

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Eventual tournament winner (and Luxembourg chess legend) Alberto David in a crucial round against recently redeemed French GM Sebastien Feller

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Those chess playing Luxembourgers really were a social lot…as was demonstrated in the post-tournament celebrations, which went on long after the prize giving. Bottles of home-made honey liqueur were produced, containing anything from between one and a dozen hot red chills. Want to see how that tastes?





The new Luxembourg university opened while we were in town. It has been built literally around an old, derelict steel refinery, which makes for an amazing architectural contrast.

The new Luxembourg university opened while we were in town. It has been built literally around an old, derelict steel refinery, which makes for an amazing architectural contrast.

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Old stuff can be beautiful, too. Get it?


Uptown Funk in 100 Movies

Posted by David Smerdon on Sep 23, 2015 in Non-chess

The fact that I knew every single movie reference does suggest I should be spending more time on my studies…



Posted by David Smerdon on Sep 9, 2015 in Chess, Non-chess

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Pirate Week

Posted by David Smerdon on Aug 27, 2015 in Chess, Non-chess, Politics

Three strange pirate-related things happened to me last week.

Now there’s a sentence you don’t see every day. Admittedly, some of the links to buccaneering are a little tenuous, but it still makes for an unusual theme.

It started when I found out about some trouble one of my German friends had gotten into. Having just started university, he, like many freshers, soon discovered the shady world of movie downloading – or ‘online piracy’ as it’s more commonly known. He’d downloaded a grand total of 12 movies before he got sent a letter from a law firm representing a media corporations demanding almost a thousand euros for one particular movie. Another demand following on behalf of a different corporation, for a similarly jawdropping fee.  If he pays the fines, it’ll have cost him roughly 150 euros on average per movie he watched. And that’s assuming no more fines follow.

Now, I have lots of friends. And some of them illegally download media from controversial ‘activist’ sites like The Pirate Bay. Some of them have been doing it for years. My old college’s intranet literally had terabytes of material (…at which point the law gets a litle fuzzy. If a pirate buys you a drink with his stolen loot, are you also culpable?).

But in all these years and of all these people, I’ve never heard of anyone having to answer. At first I thought my friend was particularly unlucky, but then I googled anti-piracy laws in Germany. It turns out Germany is the Stockfish of online piracy: no mistake goes unpunished. Literally millions of letters are sent to perpetrators, and the law allows little leeway. (Not that I’m bagging out Germany’s techno laws in general, mind you; their mobile phone services are so impressive that it’s actually cheaper to call within the Netherlands on my girlfriend’s German phone than my Dutch one.)

A full post about online piracy will have to wait for another day, however, because it’s time to move on to pirate event number two. We’ve recently moved apartments to the north-east side of Amsterdam, and by coincidence we look out over the Ij (“Eye”) harbour where last week the Amsterdam Sail Festival took place. Held once every five years (or “quinquenially”, if you’re feeling fancy), it’s one of the largest maritime festivals in the world.

“Honey, what’s that outside our window?”

I’m not really a ‘boat’ person, but this festival was phenomenal. About two million tourists crammed into tiny Amsterdam to check out the ships, which were, I have to admit, stunning. They came from all over the world, these huge sail boats from various centuries, including a small Aussie one that had sailed all the way from Down Under with most of its crew barely out of high school. But it was the collection of older boats that really stood out in my opinion. Some of them were huge. Some, such as the Russian, French and South American vessels, were immaculate, with the crew dressed in exquisite, colourful garb. Other crews were literally dressed as pirates, for no good reason that I could discern. My favourite was the Nao Victoria, a replica of one of Ferdinand Magellan’s ships from the early sixteenth century, and the first to circumnavigate the world.

Hanging out near the Aussie boat “The Young Endeavour”

On the final night of the festival, my girlfriend surprised me with tickets to a screening of Pirates of the Carribean ‘in concert’. But not just any screening; it was set up in a huge open-air marina, and you could either have grandstand tickets or ‘ship tickets’, whereby you just moor your boat next to the screen. Most importantly, however, there was a large Dutch orchestra playing all the music from the movie live – and if you know the Hans Zimmer soundtrack, you’ll know that’s quite a big deal. The movie/concert finished with a bang, literally, as we had front-row seats to the huge final fireworks show. By the end of the festival, I’d been transformed from a non-boaty person to someone who perhaps could finally understand the romantic appeal of a life at sea. After the movie, I kept coming back to the cheesy words of Johnny Depp’s pirate character, Captain Jack Sparrow:


“Wherever we want to go, we’ll go. That’s what a ship is, you know. It’s not just a keel and a hull and a deck and sails; that’s what a ship needs, but what a ship is, what a ship really is, is freedom.”

And then, the next day, I was called a pirate.

Really. I mean, fair-dinkum, life-goal-achieved, called a pirate. Twice, and in print, no less, by the UK’s The Times.

So, as I recently mentioned, I’ve just finished writing my first book. This post wasn’t really meant to be a plug for it, but there you go. And GM Raymond Keene, a widely read chess journalist, has started publishing reviews of it. This is surprising for two reasons. Firstly, I have no idea how he got a hold of it, seeing as even I haven’t seen a copy of the book yet! But secondly, Keene’s gone for a pirate-themed approach to colouring the ‘swashbucklingly’ exciting style of the gambits I cover. Here I get called a pirate, and here, a buccaneer. Keene then branches out in his other column in The Spectator by going for a viking comparison, before reverting to more pirate-related descriptions the following week. This final column is so colourful that I can’t help but reprint my favourite snippet in full:


“In my mind’s eye, I visualise Smerdon as some swashbuckling buccaneer of the chessboard, complete with eyepatch, wooden leg, tricorn hat and probably a parrot.”

My parents must be so proud.


At least he was right about the parrot


Before Thirty…One.

Posted by David Smerdon on Aug 14, 2015 in Chess

Two years ago, I wrote a post entitled “Before Thirty” in which I detailed plans to complete some of my life goals. One of them was to publish a book before my thirtieth birthday (by the way, I got to that handstand in the end). The book was to be a chess openings book, a guide to the Portuguese Gambit in the Scandinavian and a particular favourite of mine. Unfortunately, ‘life and stuff’ got in the way and it didn’t happen.

However, the project slowly but surely progressed and, as I was reminded last week, it’s going to come out while I’m still thirty. This doesn’t really count, but better late than never, huh?

I’ll write something more detailed once the book’s available, but here’s a sneak peak at the publisher’s page just to prove I’m not lying.

After all, thirty-one is the new thirty, right?


Book review: Gelfand’s “Positional Decision-Making”

Posted by David Smerdon on Aug 7, 2015 in Chess

“Positional Decision-Making in Chess” – Boris Gelfand (and Jacob Aagaard)

Quality Chess 


It’s rare that a chess book holds my attention well enough that I finish it in one sitting. It’s rarer still that I have the opportunity to review two such books in a row (see my last ‘Swamp’ review). This collaborative work between Boris Gelfand and Jacob Aagaard had perhaps an unfair advantage, though, as I started reading it on an eight-hour ferry ride from Athens to the Greek island of Ikaria. Still, I’d wager that I would have finished it even in the presence of tempting alternatives, because it’s truly a superb work.

At first, I must admit to being a little sceptical, as I usually am about ‘reflective’ books towards the twilight of a great player’s career. (It’s a little unfair to suggest that Gelfand’s career has peaked, actually, but forgive me – he is, after all, the oldest player in the top fifty. Still, I hope to be proved wrong when he wins the World Cup!) Occasionally, these books can just be an excuse to make a bit of easy money, in a same vein as so many autobiographies by sports stars. My fears weren’t exactly dissuaded in the first few pages, in which both Gelfand and Aagaard had already referenced their other books, and soon after made mention that this was just one book in a multi-volume series. I must also confess to having had some small concerns that an autobiographical work ghost-written by Aagaard would prove to be a little too much of a self-congratulatory memoir about an admittedly successful collaborative team, and less of an instructive work for the reader.

But these fears were quickly dispelled. This is an outstanding book, probably the best I’ve read this year. Gelfand and Aagaard have worked together often in private, and their experience in collaborating comes through in the text. There is an ‘official’ theme of using the games of Akiba Rubenstein, Gelfand’s favourite player and an often-neglected legend of chess history, in illustrating the positional lessons. However, with the exception of the first chapter (‘Playing in the style of Akiba Rubenstein’), the structure of the book focuses closely on what Gelfand believes are important positional themes from his own style of play, as reflected in the chapter titles: ‘The Squeeze’, ‘Space Advantage’, ‘Transformation of Pawn Structures’ and ‘Transformation of Advantages’.

Gelfand has an outstanding positional mind and a top-level ability to make sound, practical decisions over-the-board. But like many geniuses, it would most probably have been close to useless to have him try to describe this on his own – often, I would imagine, his inclination would have been to write things like “I just felt it was the right move.” This is where having Aagaard as co-author really makes its presence felt. Aagaard, so it seems, has the invaluable ability to tease out from the genius his detailed thought processes in coming to his positionally intuitive decisions, which Aagaard then describes to the reader in instructional fashion. Aagaard is the articulate professor, carefully and skilfully taking the theories of the great genius and transforming them into elucidative, didactic material. And we, the students, reap the benefits.

When discussing this book, a fellow reviewer had the comment that they didn’t much care for the ambivalence of some of Gelfand’s annotations, and indeed phrases such as “I’m not sure” and “I don’t know” crop up a lot more in the text than you might expect, and particularly of a Quality Chess publication. There is certainly some evasion when it comes to the evaluation of many lines, something that no doubt an engine and a couple of extra hours could have solved. But to be honest, I don’t mind this equivocation; in fact, it fits in perfectly with Gelfand’s general style of encouraging practical decision-making, rather than a search for the absolute truth à la Kotov. Quite often Gelfand’s message seems to be to strive for what he calls “best practice”, rather than the best move. And for anyone who has bungled a complicated win after brushing off a simple one, this rings loud and clear.

As in the ‘swamp-book’ I reviewed earlier, one gets a sense of being allowed into Gelfand’s analysis office, getting to hear the great player describe his thoughts almost in real-time. This, I feel, is the real value of the book: we begin to understand how he thinks, what processes he uses to make his practical decisions, and in turn, how we can better make decision at the board. Moreover, it’s clear that a lot of deep analysis has gone into the book, as is evidenced by some deep computer-assisted lines in the analyses. One particular comment in Gelfand’s game with Grischuk is a good example of the book’s overall philosophy in this regard:

“The following piece of analysis is quite fascinating, but I want to underline that it is unlikely that we would see such moves played in a game. Maybe the odds are 1% that a top player would find all of this! But as these are the best moves, it would be strange not to include them.”

However, typically we find that longer variations are included only when they serve some instructional purpose that fits into the rest of each chapter’s lessons.

I have to admit, from a personal perspective, that I found this book to be the most useful decision-making chess guide I have ever read. It’s jam-packed full of useful gems, little pieces of positional advice that probably just come naturally to Gelfand, but need to be dictated to and learned by the rest of us. For example, here’s one that makes perfect sense, but that I had never thought about before:

“When you have managed to squeeze your opponent into only two or three ranks, you want to exchange the rooks and queens, but not minor pieces.”

The emphasis on practical chess is a welcome change from many books these days, which typically focus on concrete computer evaluations. In fact, Gelfand eschews using evaluations like “0.00”, preferring to give more verbose, pragmatic assessments.  A good example of this is the following comment after a strong move:

“White will continue to look for ways to improve his position…Will it be enough for a win? Again, this sort of speculation is of course interesting for people watching the games with a beer in their hand, but for the competitive player, it has no relevance during the game. Play the best moves and see where it leads.”

This is one of the key lessons from the book. Even if a position remains defensible, Gelfand is highly critical of moves that make one’s practical defensive task more difficult. Conversely, he strongly praises attempts to increase the chances of an opponent erring; indeed, it almost seems as if improving one’s position, and making that of the opponent’s more difficult, is Gelfand’s number one objective when making each move.

There are too many quotes, and too many great pieces of advice, to mention here in the review. But perhaps the highest praise I can heap on the book is that when I got off the ferry in Ikaria, I had decided to play the first games of the tournament in the practical, positional style of Boris Gelfand. For a coffeehouse maniac such as myself, this was a compliment of the highest order! I have to admit that I was surprised at how often little proverbs from the text popped into my head as I was sitting at the board mulling over each decision.

My only criticism of the book, if you can call it that, is that it seemed perhaps a little short for a ‘series’. 275 pages is still a lot, but compared to many of Quality Chess’s products (e.g. the Negi series, or John Shaw’s 680 page epic on the King’s Gambit), I felt that the second volume could have been squeezed in as well. But this is a business rather than chess decision (perhaps the best practical move?), and besides, at 30 euros, the book as it stands is definitely worth the money. I would not be surprised to see it highly decorated when the chess book award season begins. Five stars.


Magic chess

Posted by David Smerdon on Jul 30, 2015 in Chess

There’s so much chess going on at the moment that it’s hard to keep up. I’m not talking about Biel – for the most part, with the exception of the incredible Navara-Wojtaszek clash, it’s been pretty lacklustre – but rather the Politiken Cup and the British Championships. These are two huge European Opens and, most impressively for the chess spectator, have a massive number of live DGT boards. Being able to watch literally hundreds of games live with analysis is mesmerising – and terrible for my work productivity!

As one might imagine with such a mass of games, there have been a bunch of hidden gems. Here are three ‘missed opportunities’ by GMs I’ve noticed in the last 48 hours alone, although I can’t be too critical; the entertainment value has been golden.

The first is an unfortunately ‘tragicomedy’ that befell Tiger Hillarp Persson. Tiger is generally an excellent calculator, but sadly the finish to his top-board game is surely going to repeated in endgame books everywhere:

After defending well, Tiger blundered in the worst possible way:


Unfortunately, the position is drawn, and quite trivially so. But to Tiger’s credit, two psychological forces were working against him. Firstly, his higher-rated GM opponent also apparently didn’t spot the draw and so was appearing for all purposes to be confident of the win. But secondly, and perhaps most importantly, like all good GMs Tiger was no doubt familiar with the classic king-and-pawn endgame Cohn-Rubinstein, 1909. It’s a textbook example of a winning endgame, and the final position, in which White (justifiably) resigned, looks like this:



Every top player has this finish ingrained into their memories, so I’m perhaps less surprised than most that Tiger’s subconscious told him he was lost. Anyway, quite a tragedy, and I hope he bounces back in the rest of the tournament.

The second gem is an immensely entertaining tragicomedy on behalf of both players; in fact, I joked afterwards that I wasn’t sure if both players would feel as if they stole or lost half a point. Well, they’re both super nice people, so I’ll assume an optimistic outcome. White was completely winning from move 33 to 43 until Glenn saw a really beautiful – but sadly flawed – combination to finish off the game. The position was objectively drawn on move 44, then Black wass completely winning from her brilliant 45th move until move 50, when she missed a way to end the game with 50…b5!. Instead, Glenn escaped with a well-deserved (or not?) draw. What a fight!

But the last game is one you’ve really got to check out. It’s absolutely incredible. Howell-Gormally was the all-GM clash on the top board of the British Championships yesterday, and it ended in an epic 120-move draw after Danny defended like a tiger. Danny was up against it for the entire struggle but put in a titanic defensive effort, made even more impressive by the fact that both players played 80 moves running on only 30-second increments.

But it’s the finish that is really worth your attention. So relieved was Danny to steal half a point that he quickly repeated moves and signed the scoresheet. Both players must have been shocked to their cores to discover that Black could actually let White get an extra queen, and then checkmate with his last few forces. I find it particularly ironic that Black’s dark-squared bishop, his number one problem piece for the first half the game, became so powerful that it could literally have been stronger than White’s extra queen in the spectacular variation. Also quite cool is the drawing line in the note to White’s 115th (!) move. Check it out!

I can’t wait for the rounds to start today!


Book Review: Sergey Kasparov’s Swamp

Posted by David Smerdon on Jul 28, 2015 in Chess

“A Cunning Chess Opening For Black” – Sergey Kasparov

New in Chess


“Lure your opponent into the Philidor swamp!” promises the subheading on the book’s cover, accompanied by a ghastly green-and-brown photo of – literally – a swamp. A non-chess themed cover is already an unorthodox start for a chess book, but Sergey’s just getting warmed up. This is definitely no ordinary opening text.



What do I mean by this? Well, this is the first opening book I’ve reviewed that could easily have earned any rating from one to five stars out of five. It’s all a matter of perspective, and perhaps more importantly, of what you want out of your purchase. For example, I started reading the book with a real interest in learning the Philidor’s Defence – an opening that has increasingly become incorporated into the repertoires of top grandmasters, although usually as a surprise weapon. You’d think this wasn’t such a strange expectation to have in reading what purports to be an opening book. However, I have to admit that in terms of teaching the Philidor to a new adoptee, the book doesn’t do a very good job. The variation structure is a bit confusing, concrete lines are pushed aside in favour of endless illustrative games and, after my first full read, I honestly had no idea of exactly what repertoire Sergey was proposing for Black. Uncanny.


However, something else had happened by the time I reached the final page. I had become convincingly, embarrassingly addicted to Sergey’s writing. The book is engaging, humorous, mercurial and ‘unputdownable’, an imaginary adjective I reserve only for those books that bait me into a full read in one sitting. One’s first inkling comes at the start of the introduction. “Hello, dear reader!” chimes Sergey, in a (most likely unintentional) throwback to the opening lines of the great Broadway musical “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.” (Incidentally, dear reader, your present author uttered these words on stage in the 2004 production of this musical at Melbourne University.)


But I digress. Sergey continues the introduction in an engaging, conversational matter, a tone that he maintains throughout the text. At this point, he introduces that the book is a ‘family work’, with wife Tatiana on the technical front and daughter Eva in charge of the translation from Russian to English. The latter’s contribution cannot be understated, because the quality of the English is excellent, both in terms of error-free and interest-sparking prose.


But it’s Sergey’s writing style that is the true highlight. Honestly, to spend a day inside his thoughts… Sergey’s introduction includes definitions of different types of swamps (again: literal swamps!), descriptions of ancient and modern warfare strategy, references to news anchormen, a grisly narration of getting sucked into a swamp and a bizarre cartoon of an ogre, given without reference or context. An entertaining and unpredictable introduction, despite being surprisingly light on the chess! The best way to give an idea of the type of delightfully unorthodox exposition is by way of a few examples:

“Water flowing out of swamps has a characteristic brown colour, which comes from dissolved peat tannins.”

“His legs are growing sluggish because they get stuck in the slime…his breathing gets heavy and rapid, and then a thick green mass closes over his head…”

“Have I managed to convince you to buy the book? If yes, then hurry, for it may be the last copy on the shelf!”


The latter quote is a nice segue into the zone of ‘breaking the fourth wall’, an unusual technique for a chess book (well, any book) whereby Sergey often engages with the reader as if in real time. This is often seen when going through the comments to his illustrated games. For example, in introducing a game in which he suffered a painful defeat,

“The [next] encounter is commented in detail, so let me leave you for a while; I don’t want to feel the sadness again.”

And in the notes to other games, you’ll find other examples of breaking down the author-reader ‘wall’ such as:

“Please play through the rest of the moves yourself. I also need a break sometimes…”

…and my personal favourite:

“While I take a short break (I have to answer a phone call), please think: how would you play here?”


One really gets the impression that Sergey is sitting down opposite the board, speaking directly to the reader. And indeed, this one-on-one training is perhaps the key advantage of the book. What the book lacks as a clear opening guide is more than made up for as a general work of chess instruction. Sergey is a chess trainer, and his coaching skills really come out when one plays through his annotations. Notes about general principles, tips for practical chess and interesting positional and endgame analyses abound. There are 156 (!) illustrated games in the book, and I don’t think there was a single one in which I didn’t read at least one comment I found useful and instructional. And this from a guy with a rating slightly lower than my own! Impressive.


There is a downside to having so many illustrated games, of course, and this falls in line with what I said at the outset: the book could have done with more emphasis on explaining the opening lines and ideas outside of just the commented games. But overall, the entertaining style and instructional comments were enough to tempt me into a second, and then a third, full read of the book. And surprisingly (given that I was reading the book for review purposes rather than learning), after three full reads, I began to notice that my understanding of the opening was (unintentionally?) growing as well. I began to get a feel for the positions of the Philidor. I’m still at a bit of a loss when it comes to the theory – there’s no reference to how to deal with any of Negi’s anti-Philidor recommendations, for instance! – but, just like Seasame Street’s popularity with children, the entertainment does come with a nice ‘learning’ side-effect.


For a fun read in an entertaining style, I find myself heartily recommending this book. Moreover, as there are very few good modern texts on the Philidor, Sergey’s work probably also sneaks to the top of the pile in that category as well, despite my cynicism. Given all of this, and the fact that I keep carrying it with me to cafés, I feel I have no choice but to recommend wading into the Sergey swamp for everyone. I predict that you’ll get sucked in, but in a good way. Four stars.


A quick morning puzzle

Posted by David Smerdon on Jul 2, 2015 in Chess

A couple of months ago, I had a rare occasion to play against a fellow Australian in the 4NCL league match weekend in England. The Aussie in question is IM Justin Tan, an extremely talented young player who probably hasn’t received the attention he deserves for two reasons: (1) He shares exactly the same name as one of Australia’s former chess prodigies (leading to all sorts of database confusion!), and (2) He comes from an astoundingly vibrant generation of chess talents in my country, including the phenomenal 14-year-old IM Anton Smirnov and former World Under 12 Champion IM Bobby Cheng.

For these reasons, and having recently moved to England for a stint, poor Justin is relatively unknown in the Australian chess community. However, I’ve respected his talent ever since he very nearly blew me off the board way back in 2011. Justin’s chess results have shown a remarkable climb in the last few years and he recently gained the IM title, which led to a nice write-up in the British press. This perhaps inspired him to take a gap year to focus exclusively on chess, and so now we wait to see just how far his talents can go. I suspect we will be surprised!

But enough chat; I did after all promise a ‘quick’ puzzle. In our encounter, I once again managed to slime my way to a second victory in a long queen endgame, but also once again it was somewhat undeserved. After almost seven hours and two cancelled dinner reservations, we reached the position after my confidently-played 83…Kf1. Justin played 84.g4 and resigned a move later, and that was all she wrote, as we say. Or was it?

I’ll post the solution tomorrow!


My 83rd move was a huge blunder; Black could still win by sending his king to the other side of the board. The very cute draw begins with 84.Qb1+!!. The key point is that if Black promotes to a queen, White either forces a draw by perpetual check, or checkmates the black king!

That’s not entirely the end of the story, though. Black can still play for a win with 84…e1=N!. The ending QNvQ is a book draw, but Black has one final trick up his sleeve. Check out the variations to see more.


A Chess Dispute

Posted by David Smerdon on Jun 15, 2015 in Chess, Non-chess

I can’t believe I haven’t come across this before. Over a century old, a minute’s worth of chess-related slapstick, and now I really want to buy a hat.




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