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A guide to the chess Olympiad – Part II

Posted by David Smerdon on Aug 21, 2016 in Chess

For Part 1, click here.

 

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

Player poaching?! What’s that all about?

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

 

What about in the Women’s?

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

 

Where’s England figure in all this?

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

 

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

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

 

What about drug testing?

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

 

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

 

 

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

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

 

And Australia?

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

 

Where can I watch?

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

 

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

 
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A guide to the chess Olympiad – Part I

Posted by David Smerdon on Aug 19, 2016 in Chess

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

So, what’s it all about?

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

 

Wait… Women’s and Open?!

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

 

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

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

 

How many players in a team?

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

 

How does the tournament work?

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

 

How are the pairings decided?

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

 

What about ties?

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

 

What’s the schedule like?

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 
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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.

 
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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

 
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German gems

Posted by David Smerdon on Apr 26, 2016 in Chess

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

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

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

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

 
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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.

 
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The rhythm of the knight

Posted by David Smerdon on Apr 11, 2016 in Chess

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

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

A strange chess curiosity!

 
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Candidates Wrap: Top 5 moments of the final day

Posted by David Smerdon on Mar 29, 2016 in Chess

The World Chess Candidates tournament was awesome. Action-packed, drama-filled, and suspense-ridden right up until the end. I’ve read a lot of reports from the chess side, and naturally about Karjakin’s fabulous win. But I haven’t read anything about the more human moments from the final day, which is a shame because they’re rare gems in the chess world and worth spreading. So here are the top five moments from yesterday that shed a more personal light on the tournament and its participants.

5. What j’adoube?

Aronian and Nakamura, two of the pre-tournament favourites, played out a hard-fought draw to both finish on 50%. Usually both these guys like to put up a bit of a wall in interviews during an event, masked by just a touch of bravado and indifference. But the wall broke down after their final game, and the last-round press conference with the two was refreshingly open and, to be honest, quite emotive. Hikaru was composed and philosophical about his tournament, humble about his second-half recovery, and very gracious towards Aronian. There was no sign of ill-feeling between the two after their earlier round six controversy, which was exactly what the chess world needed to see. For me, the most touching moment was Aronian’s answer to the stock question of how he was feeling. “Honestly, I’m heartbroken,” he replied, which was a nice invitation to chess fans into the pressure and tension that these sorts of events demand. It was perhaps the single most endearing phrase he could have uttered.

4. He ain’t half bad

Poor Anish. You’d think the youngest competitor in the event would receive heaped praise for also being the only undefeated player, but alas. Instead, the Dutchman received his own hashtag: #girijokes. And some of them were, to put it plainly, awful. I’m sure there were no ill intentions, but the constant barrage of online and even in-person interview jabs at his drawing record would have grated on even the most thick-skinned of competitor. But Giri took it all in his stride. His reply to yet another irritating draw-related question in the final press conference was apt: “The subject is fine, but please, make them funny.” He followed this up with the perfect Twitter comeback: “Missed far too many chances, now time to draw(?!) some conclusions.” What a good sport.

3. A graceful fall from the Top

Beside Giri in the press conference was Veselin Topalov. The former world champion has suffered a tough fall from 2800 this year and finished the candidates dead last. But he was calm and pragmatic as he answered the obvious questions after the game. Topa reflected on Karpov’s declining strength as he aged, and mentioned other greats (“Lubo”), and humbly conceded that he should not have expected anything different to happen to him. After what must have been a rough fortnight for the former champ, it was refreshing to see him relaxed and humorous. I also think he was being even a bit too dismissive of his form slide; his analysis in the post-game interviews was absolutely superb and hinted to me that he’s still much, much stronger than his score in this tournament suggests. I wouldn’t be surprised if the remarkable Topa story has another chapter left in it.

2. At least there’s still cricket

All four press conferences on the final day were well-tempered and relaxed, but perhaps none more so than Svidler and Anand. The two chatted like old pals in a pub, which is how we’ve come to expect these guys to be. But the round before was a different story, with both players extremely fatigued and straining to keep their emotions in check in their respective interviews. Svidler had just had to defend a gruelling seven-hour endgame against Fabi and Anand had signed away all chances of first place with a tough draw against Giri, and the stress and lack of sleep was clearly evident. But yesterday was a different story, and it was nice to see, because it left fans with a cheerful and good-natured final impression of both players, which is fairer. And with India destroying Australia in the quarter final of the cricket world cup, there’s still something for both players to look forward to this week.

1. Cool as a Caruana

While Karjakin deservedly ended up winning the tournament by a full point, the score is a little flattering. Caruana had to take unnecessary risks in the final round due to what most chess fans (Sergey included) believed to be an unfair tie-break system. You’d think this fact, combined with the raw truth that yesterday’s game cost him half a million dollars, would leave Caruana just a tad upset. But he somehow maintained his pleasant, imperturbable demeanour right until the end. Unbelievable! Caruana played incredible chess throughout the tournament and showed remarkable composure despite some painful setbacks (twice missed wins against Topalov, a crucial missed RB v R win against Svidler, and yesterday’s blunder). He was as cool as a cucumber during the games, immediately afterwards, and in all interviews. Humble, pragmatic and collected, Caruana was an outstanding example of professionalism and sportsmanship throughout such a high-stakes event.

Overall, not only did the candidates tournament end up a success for the organisers and us spectators, but the ‘fateful eight’ did a good job of endearing themselves to chess fans. Can’t we do another one next week?

 
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Live Blog! – 2016 World Chess Candidates, Final Round

Posted by David Smerdon on Mar 28, 2016 in Chess

Having preemptively decided that I’m not going to get any work done today while the chess is on, I’m going to do a live blog again. It worked pretty well last time. Tune in below to hear my random thoughts (and perhaps those of another GM or two) about the fourteenth and final round of the World Chess Candidates match. Or for the official broadcast, go to World Chess.

 

 
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Book Review: Playing 1.e4 e5

Posted by David Smerdon on Mar 19, 2016 in Chess

 

Book Review: “Playing 1.e4 e5 – A Classical Repertoire”(Nikolaos Ntirlis, Quality)

You’ve probably not heard of Nikolaos Ntirlis. But you should! Ntirlis may not have a FIDE rating (at least as far as I could tell), but he has quietly built up a strong reputation as one of the most thorough opening researchers around. His credentials include a strong correspondence rating and opening consulting gigs for several grandmasters and the Danish Olympiad team. This is a good sign, but it’s his collaborations with Jacob Aagaard that have impressed me, and particularly 2011’s The Tarrasch Defence. It was a class work, and their 2013 book on the French Defence was also well received.

I know from my friends and colleagues that there has been a lot of anticipation for this solo work by Ntirlis, which is a complete 1.e4 e5 repertoire for Black. This ambitious project has been undertaken by several authors over the years (e.g. Bologan, Davies…) so I was curious and also a little skeptical about seeing how Ntirlis would handle things. Could a correspondence player really offer a practical over-the-board repertoire for the club player?

The short answer is yes – for the most part. Ntirlis often advises against the strongest theoretical continuation (as championed in correspondence chess) in his repertoire, instead taking sensible practical considerations into account. A good example is the King’s Gambit. Instead of ‘taking it on’ with 1.e4 e5 2.f4 exf4 3.Nf3 g5, Ntirlis suggests an easy fix with 3…Nf6, the Schallop Defence. This is a really good idea in my opinion! As a KG player, I can assure you that use aficionados of the romantic gambit learn 3…g5 inside and out, which leaves little time to focus on the rarer, but still eminently decent, alternatives. Another example is in what Ntirlis calls the Improved Morphy Attack, 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bc4 Nf6 4.d4 exd4 5.0-0. Despite having played this myself for two decades, I’d never even heard of his recommendation: 5…Nxe4 6.Re1 d5 7.Bxd5 Qxd5 8.Nc3 Qd7!?. This has only been played a handful of times before, but after analyzing it myself, I concur that it’s simpler and no worse than the main lines, and equalizes with little difficulty.

Ntirlis sticks quite close to his promise of a ‘classical repertoire’. He proposes 3.Bc4 Nf6, as I mentioned, and doesn’t shy away from the main lines here. The backbone of the repertoire, however, is the Breyer, perhaps the most ‘classical’ of Black’s Spanish options. I think this is an excellent choice. The reader gets the impression that in these chapters Ntirlis seems most at home, and indeed the author offers a lot deeper positional and strategic insights than in the non-Spanish sections. I was especially impressed to see Ntirlis dress Anand’s 8.a3! with an exclamation mark, as I believe this is one of White’s most promising routes to an advantage against the Breyer. He handles this topical and complex variation with distinction, although I don’t know how often most club players will face it, if at all. It’s more the sort of thing played by Anand, Svidler, Caruana, and even Wei Yi:

 

Of course, as the Breyer is a topical battleground even among the world’s elite, the theory will continue to develop. However, as opposed to sharper variations where the computers have more of a say, the Breyer is a defence where ideas and understanding is more important than being up to date with the latest theoretical novelties, and Ntirlis does a great job of preparing the club player to wield this weapon with confidence. For someone looking to build a solid, high quality 1…e5 repertoire with black, these chapters in particular are an excellent place to start.

I have to say, however, that Ntirlis does fall into one of the most common opening author traps in some of his non-Spanish chapters: He is too optimistic about Black’s chances. In fact, reading the seven chapters of the open games, one gets the impression that White is struggling to achieve equality if he doesn’t venture 3.Bb5, given how often one sees the evaluation “slight advantage for Black” at the end of a main variation. To be fair, Ntirlis’ assessments are usually very accurate; it’s just that one sometimes has to dig back through the sidelines to find White’s best continuations. In my opinion, it should be a cardinal rule of chess opening authorship that the best moves for both sides be given as the main line in a variation. As you can tell, this sin of variation ‘window-dressing’ is a bit of a pet hate of mine when reading opening books, so bear in mind that it may not bother you. And given that this is a repertoire book for the second player, it’s quite reasonable to allow some literary licence for the author to put a positive spin on Black’s positions, up to a point. But just keep this in mind as you go through the first half of the book.

For example, a first read of the 3.Bc4 King’s Gambit, the Four Knights with 11.Na4, and even the (Spanish) Exchange Variation chapters gives the impression that Black is better in the main lines. This could potentially be true for the KG, but even here, buried in a small note to move 10, Ntirlis gives an improvement for White that secures equality. And it’s surely not true for the other lines! Like I said, this is not a big drawback for the book (and a very common one for chess in general), but make sure you read the chapters thoroughly and don’t skip over the notes.

 

The repertoire is pitched at a high level, but perhaps not quite at the aloof levels of the Negi/Kotronias books. That will be welcome news to many readers, including the majority of those from chess.com . Having said that, it’s a guide that is both practical and theoretically robust, and it will be of interest to grandmaster readers as well as amateurs.

Overall, I found the book to be thorough, high-quality and surprisingly easy to read. I say ‘surprisingly’ because, as I mentioned, I half-expected Ntirlis’ correspondence background to hamper his efforts to recommend a practical repertoire, but he’s really done a good job. Despite having read several books on 1…e5, this is the first that almost convinced me to take it up myself. And who knows…!

Four stars.

 

 

 

Contents

Key to Symbols used 4

Foreword by Parimarjan Negi 5

Bibliography 7

Introduction 9

Summary of Recommendations 11

Open Games

1 Early Deviations and Gambits 13

2 Bishop’s Opening and Vienna Game 45

3 Four Knights – Introduction 63

4 Four Knights – 4.d4 and 4.Bb5 87

5 Scotch Game 110

6 Two Knights – 4.d4 and 4.d3 142

7 Two Knights with 4.Ng5 167

Spanish

8 Exchange Variations 203

9 On the Road to the Main Line 238

10 The Trendy d2-d3 261

11 Breyer – 10.d3 and Sidelines after 10.d4 285

12 Breyer – Alternatives to 13.Nf1 309

13 Breyer Main Lines 341

Index of Main Games 375

Variation Index 377

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