It’s this time of the year in Amsterdam – when the temperature hovers around zero during both day and night, when the wind slices your face as you cycle through the horizontal, unforgiving rain – that I start my annual pine for Australia. Fortunately, I’ve only got two weeks to wait until I head back for the Australian Open, but I have to say I’d really prefer to be in Melbourne today.
This is not only because it’s my favourite city in the world, and not only because this is my favourite time of the year to be there – and, even, not only because Melbourne has recently been voted the world’s most liveable city for the fourth time. No, this time it’s because I’m very interested in checking out the Australian Masters GM Norm tournament, which begins tomorrow.
Grandmaster norm opportunities are few and far between for Australians. We only have three active grandmasters in the country (two, if you consider me an expatriate), but a huge range of talent at the International Master level. So what gives? Well, there are simply very few tournaments in Australia that fulfil the requirements for a Grandmaster norm, and those that do are realistically implausible on account of being large open events. Generally, Aussies have no choice but to try their luck overseas, typically in Europe, and that isn’t cheap. I basically lived on a shoestring while norm-hunting in Europe in 2007; believe me, a regular diet of canned tuna and rice gets a bit tiresome after a while.
That’s why I’m very happy to see that a targeted GM norm event is happening in Melbourne. The ten-player round-robin format is ideal for norm-hunters, and the three invited, foreign GMs are also the ‘right’ sort for such events: not unbeatable for IMs, but having high enough ratings to keep the required norm scores reasonable. Of course, ‘theoretically beatable’ is quite another matter to beating a GM in practice…
My three compatriots from the Olympiad are at the top of the race of the norm-chasers. Max’s rating has exploded so far that he’s actually the third seed, ahead of Kazakhstan GM Rustam Khusnutdinov. Joining them are IM Bobby Cheng, Kiwi FM Luke Li and the not-for-long-untitled Karl Zelesco. In short, it’s a very impressive talent pool, and I don’t envy the poor grandmasters’ task of preserving ELO on their trip down under. The candidates all need 6.5 points from the nine games, with the exception of ‘poor’ Max – his high rating means he’ll need an extra half point to grab a norm. On the plus side for him, he’s the only player who will manage to avoid playing against the dreaded Max, I suppose.
It’s hard to guess how likely a norm is to emerge – there’s a poll at Australia’s ‘Chess Chat’ forum, but it only answers who is most likely to win the event, which is not so informative. Max is surely favourite to be the best-placed Aussie, but the requirement for him to score seven points means that probably one of the others is slightly more likely to score a norm. This morning it occurred to me that five candidates could theoretically score GM norms, while my far-cleverer-than-I girlfriend pointed out that even six norms are possible, if we exclude Max. I think most of the Australian chess community would be happy even with one, but we’ll see.
The tournament’s being run by Aussie IM Leonid Sandler, who has managed to pull off what so many organisers have tried before. He’s also running an IM-norm event alongside the champagne tournament; all games are apparently going to be streamed on the Box Hill chess club website. That means anyone can watch it from anywhere in the world, be it Auckland, Angola or chilly Amsterdam. Convenient, but I’d still rather be watching with a flat white in my hand from a cafe in Melbourne. Soon.
Posted by David Smerdon on Dec 12, 2014 in Non-chess
Here’s a quick little puzzle that’s kinda cool:
Imagine that someone (or, probably many people) managed to tie a rope around the entire world, lying it on the ground across the equator. You could say that the rope literally hugs the whole earth, kind of like the seam of a cricket ball. The question is: How much extra rope would you need to raise the whole thing a metre off the ground around the entire globe?
What’s your first instinct? If you like, write down your guess in the comments. To hide the answer from you, you’ll have to scroll down. But to make sure you’re not disappointed, here’s a cool little clip of an intersection in a street in Germany, where pedestrians can play ‘Pong’ with the pedestrians on the other side while they wait for the lights.
Okay. The answer is: 6.3 metres of extra rope. The question is mathematically straightforward – the extension of the radius (1 metre) has to be multiplied by two times pi – but far more interesting is how our first instincts are (usually) so far off. What was your first guess? Mine was one kilometre. Whoops.
Check out this new YouTube channel by a mate of mine, “The Best Chess Puzzles”. Each one is quick and pretty, and uses subtitled commentary instead of audio so that you can sneakily watch them at work. Recently, he posted a vid of one of my favourite chess puzzles ever:
I’ve had a reasonable start to my German chess league (“Schachbundesliga”), although not as impressive as my team as a whole. Werder Bremen (the mighty Green-and-White) currently sits equal first on the ladder with the behemoth Baden-Baden on 100%.
For some reason, perhaps because of the novelty of being Australian, I got a small write-up in the German chess press. (One astute reader has noted that the last three photos published in chess reports has featured the same dingy green hoodie, suggesting that it could be time to go shopping. To this, I say: Angus Young hasn’t changed his outfit in 40 years, so I’ve got some way to go…) My German still isn’t good enough to read articles without a handy online translator, but one thing that comes across clearly is a bizarre new nickname: Joker Smerdon. No explanation or context is given for the pristine nomenclature. Am I somehow considered mercurial in Germany? Is my joviality unusual for the Deutsche chess scene? Am I a wildcard for having played on the Sunday but not the Saturday? Am I to be compared to the late Australian actor Heath Ledger, “The Joker” from the batman movies (and, incidentally, a schoolboy chess player)? Does my chess style resemble amateur chess player Novak “The Djoker” Djokovic?
I honestly have no idea. In any case, the report features my comfortable win against German GM Alexander Naumann. Unfortunately, leaving out the background is a little unfair to my opponent. Poor Alexander had played a seven-hour game the day before, and had expected to play one of my teammates from Werder Bremen’s Saturday match. On the other hand, I came to the game fresh and armed with tricky, targeted opening preparation. Here’s the game:
The critical match for our club against Baden-Baden isn’t until February. It’s a shame it isn’t now, seeing as their top two players – Anand and Aronian! – are currently unavailable. On the other hand, at full-strength their line-up also boasts Svidler, Bacrot, Adams, Shirov, Naiditsch and Kazimdzhanov – a team strong enough to beat any national team in the world. No joke.
The build-up for the world championship rematch is reaching fever point. Magnus Carlsen, the undisputed world number one, and reigning classical (as well as blitz and rapid, by the way) world champion. Vishy Anand, the three-times champion, coming off the back of his best six months of tournament chess in several years.
Magnus, the young, hip, fresh new face of modern chess. From oil-rich Norway, the 23 year old has very much been enjoying his crown and all the attention it garners: Taking the celebrity kick-off in a real Madrid match (locker-room photos with Cristiano, Zidane and Gareth Bale); starring one again in a G-Star Raw catalogue; celebrity games with Bill Gates and Stephen Colbert; featured in Cosmopolitan‘s “Sexiest Men of 2013″; starting his own company “Play Magnus”; a very public spat with FIDE, numerous interviews, a couple of biographies and, possibly, an acting cameo in Christopher Nolan’s upcoming epic Interstellar. He’s been busy.
Vishy, the ‘veteran’ at the ripe old age of 44. The husband, the father, the inspiration to tens of millions of aspiring chess players from developing countries, and to hundreds of millions of Indians in general. The unassuming gentleman; the humble champion. Politically neutral, publicly conservative, competitively interminable. A doyen of six(ish) world championship matches, and one of the most accomplished match-players in modern chess.
With such a contrast, coupled with the attention from the last match between these two, it’s no surprise that people are getting excited. Pre-match articles are being written everywhere, with opinions by grandmaster commentators being thrown around all over the place (e.g. see here. By the way, despite the fact that Chessdom is one of the few chess websites I haven’t worked for, I have to say that it is a really excellent website, especially for following live chess with analysis).
The general consensus among grandmasters and other experts seems to be that, although Magnus is to be favoured, we can expect a much closer match than the 6½–3½ drubbing last time around. The theories go like this:
Anand is a better learner from match experience, and will come with more aggressive, smarter opening preparation
Magnus now has the pressure to retain his title, whereas Anand has the luxury of being ‘only’ the challenger
Magnus has had an uncharacteristic form slump (and rating drop) over the past few months; Anand is in superb tournament form
The one sole GM-dissident seems to be Levon Aronian, who thinks that Carlsen will probably win before the full twelve games (as in 2013). He thinks that Magnus is just too strong at pure playing strength and, moreover, has a clear psychological edge over Vishy.
And now for my tip (if this is what you were after in reading this, well done in making it this far). Despite the very fair arguments above, and despite the fact that I highly admire what Vishy has done/is doing for chess in developing countries, I’m firmly of Lev’s opinion. I see Magnus as an overwhelming favourite to win the match. I’m not so sure that the match will be won before round 12, but I feel that Magnus will likely be leading going into rounds 11 and 12.
Having said that, there are plenty of things to get excited about. I agree with the sentiment of others that Vishy is likely to bring some stimulating new opening ideas from his home kitchen, so I’m looking forward to the theoretical goodies. Moreover, a FIDE World Championship match in Sochi (Norwegian and Russian chess federations aren’t on the best of terms these days), between these two great rivals (“I am not his friend” – Vishy) has all the ingredients of a controversy or two. It’s been eight years since the infamous Toiletgate world championship, and the public wants drama. Bring on Saturday!
(…and now some shameless self-promotion. I’ll be doing live video commentary with American GM Larry Christiansen for Game 9 on Thursday 20 November on the Internet Chess Club’s ChessFM. I’ll also be doing one recap show for Chess.com; details to follow. More importantly, perhaps, is that super-GM Hikaru Nakamura will also be commentating for both sites: Game 4 for ICC, and the rest day on November 13 for Chess.com . I can’t wait to see what he’s got to say!)
I wonder if the famous “Pyjama Girls” of 2013 will be supporting again?
When you’re a kid playing chess in Australia, you hear these stories about this magical, mystical place called ‘Europe’. A place where some people’s houses are older than the first Australian colonies, where soccer is actually considered a real sport, and where chess players can frolic freely from country to country, from tournament to tournament, and where chess leagues actually exist.
Chief among these chess fairytales is the legend of the German chess bundasliga, considered the highest, most exclusive chess league in the world. It’s a mystical competition in which the world’s very best chess players fly from around the globe to compete in a super-mega-strong event, with teams sponsored by super-mega-rich German football clubs. As a junior, I always thought of it as the holy grail of chess leagues.
Well, after travelling to forty countries and having lived in Europe for a few years, most of the magic of my childhool dreams of ‘overseas’ has faded somewhat. It seems that people everywhere in the world aren’t really that different, that soccer isn’t such a silly game after all, and that there isn’t a castle to be seen in all of Amsterdam. But the myth of the Bundasliga lives on. And last weekend I finally got my first chance to play in the league.
I am now an official member of the Werder Bremen chess team, which is indeed sponsored by the Werder Bremen football club, one of the biggest in Germany. We play our home matches in the soccer stadium in the town of Bremen (not on the pitch, I was sad to discover), and even have to play our games in the Werder Bremen soccer uniform (which is a rebelliously delicious white-and-green). We may not look like a typical football team, but I must say I feel very cool in my new Nike stripes (see how happy I look, on the far right).
This pic is of our first division team, but there are several other teams in the other divisions, and a strong junior arm of the club as well. The depth of the club is rivalled by its strength at the top, and actually I don’t even make the first team when we have our full-strength lineup (with an average rating around 2650!). This pales in comparison to some of the other clubs, however, with the monstrous behemoth of Baden-Baden sporting an average rating of 2750 in their top team, featuring Anand, Aronian and Svidler. Scary stuff.
I have to say, the only thing I knew about Bremen before I arrived on the weekend was its reference in the famous Brothers Grimm tale of the Bremen town musicials – the donkey, dog, cat and rooster. That’s the reference to the title pic, in case you’re confused. It’s a classic tale, so go read it if you haven’t, and a tourist highlight for the town. Ironically, however, the town of Bremen doesn’t feature at all in the tale. Confused? Read the story! What, you don’t know how to use Google? Fine, I’ll give you a link: http://www.pitt.edu/~dash/grimm027.html
I really enjoyed the comradery of the team, and getting to practice my limited German, and of course the cool sportswear. Did I mention that already? But of course, in my first ever game for the club, I almost suffered from the ‘Werder curse’ and should have lost. How fitting, seeing as the Werder Bremen football team got smashed 6-0 by Bayern Munich at exactly the same time. I got into a hopelessly depressing endgame, and I would have felt even worse had I known at the time that I was playing one of the students of the great modern endgame master, Karsten Mueller. Luckily my talented opponent, playing for Hamburg, let me off the hook with a draw, and I recovered to win my game on the Sunday. Still, the endgame is kinda cool and pretty instructive, so I’ve annotated it below.
Unfortunately, I still don’t know the name of a single player on the Werder Bremen football team, but I’ve decided that I’m morally obliged to follow them in the football Bundasliga. So, go you Green-and-White! Lebenslang Grün-Weiß!
My friend recently showed me the latest edition of the New in Chess magazine. The Olympiad edition. In it is several articles that are highly critical of the Norwegian organisation of the event, and particularly the ‘horrific’ playing venue and ‘appalling’ accommodation conditions. This echoes a couple of other high-profile Olympiad reports that have been floating around on the net since August.
I’m sorry, what? Was I at a different Olympiad?
Was there some rival tournament with a blisteringly hot (or, depending which report you read, freezing cold) playing hall? Was the food inedible? Were we really treated like animals, left to slum it for a fortnight?
Personally, I thought the Olympiad was absolutely fine. Perhaps not the best, and certainly not the worst I’ve been to – and I’ve attended the last six. But, more importantly, this sort of damaging criticism isn’t warranted. I want these enthusiastic Norwegian organisers to keep organising tournaments, so let’s focus on the positives.
First, I thought that the accommodation was superb. The majority of participants were put up in high-class hotels either within walking distance or a short bus ride from the venue. A particularly nice feature was that both the venue and the hotels were in the centre of town (quite a change from Istanbul), meaning that the participants could freely enjoy beautiful Tromso at their leisure. And the food? Supplying three meals a day for thousands of participants is no easy task, but I have to say, a wonderful job was done. There were some complaints that the food tasted repetitive after 15 days. That’s not surprising, and has been the case at every Olympiad or World Youth event I’ve attended. I must confess I was also sick of the food by the end, and I even splurged on the last night and ate out in hyperexpensive Tromso. (I bought the most expensive burger I’ve ever purchased, at 30 euros. It was, well, good.) But it wasn’t like we had a fixed menu – we were offered a large and hugely diverse buffet for each mealtime, one of high quality Scandinavian cuisine. Fresh salmon, caviar, as well as international options including Asian and African foods. The lunch buffet at our hotel, for example, would normally have cost 40 euros.
And secondly, the playing venue. It’s true that it wasn’t the prettiest of buildings. But – we were playing chess, not hosting a gala ball. The portable toilets were probably the worst feature, but after the second day the organisers hugely increased the frequency of the cleaning, which made a big difference. Players were offered free water, soft drinks, juice, tea, coffee and biscuits during the games. The volunteers were plentiful, helpful and extremely friendly. And I really don’t understand the criticisms about the room temperature. I have heard these reports about it being either too hot or too cold, but I can’t say I experienced anything like this – and our team played all over the hall. One special feature was that the second floor contained a fully equipped press studio, where journalists broadcast from the playing hall to the main Norwegian television channels. In fact, at least an hour a night of coverage was broadcast on Norwegian television, with many more updates throughout the day.
Perhaps small things could have been improved, but I hardly feel that the event was organised “not in accordance with the status of an Olympiad” (Evgeny Najer), “far from ideal” (Dirk Jan ten Geuzendam) or “far below what it should be” (Alexandra Kosteniuk). Or perhaps I really was at a different Olympiad, at least in a sense. Still, one thing is for sure: the Norwegian organisers pumped tens of millions of euros into organising the largest chess Olympiad ever held. They helped promote chess to levels never before seen in mainstream European media. I don’t care about the politics, the personal vendettas or the interfederation fights. I just hope that the Norwegians keep organising and promoting chess. And personally, I had a great time.
Posted by David Smerdon on Sep 19, 2014 in Non-chess
A reader asked me about my first attempt at a juice fast, which I mentioned in relation to an upcoming repeat as part of my anti-midlife-crisis. I dug up a Facebook post I wrote about it in 2007, after the second day of the fast. Unfortunately, the fast, which I did with Manuel Weeks, only lasted another two days. After this, we both gave up – him because of insuffereable caffeine-withdrawal migraines (he’d been regularly on seven cups a day before the fast), and me because of ravenous hunger and low self-discipline. In case you aren’t convinced by these excuses, perhaps you’ll find some in my rather colourful description of juice-fasting below.
Dave’s Juice Fast – day 2 – October 6, 2007
In response to the flood of queries regarding my ‘juice fast’ status, I’ve decided to post a note. No, Andy, it is not part of Ramadan; no; it does not involve throwing anything over a cliff; and no, Tony, I am not a Fruitarian, or a Vegetarian, or any other sort of -arian for that matter. (I wish I’d been a barbarian).
The girlfriend of the couple I am staying with in Dublin convinced her boy to try and shed a few pounds, as well as kick his caffeine addiction, by going on a juice-fast. And I am his ‘juice-fast buddy’ (oh yeh, because that sounds cool).
Before I go into my experiences on the first day, I’ll quote Wikipedia. It’s a bit lengthy, so feel free to skip over it.
“Juice fasting is a type of fasting and detox diet in which the practitioner consumes only fruit and vegetable juices. Juice fasts are commonly undergone with the intent of detoxification for greater health, the theory being that less energy is expended on digestion of foods; therefore more energy exists for the rest of the body to expel toxins. As toxins are believed to lie within many of the human body’s eliminative glands and organs, different juice fasts target different sections of the body. For instance, a large portion of juice fasters believe that abstaining from solid food allows the body to recover and heal itself from damage and fatigue caused by the relentless stress of digestion. Others choose fasting because they want to target the liver, the kidneys, the urinary tract, the skin, the gallbladder, the brain, the immune system, etc…
“Additional reasons for undergoing juice fasts include religious reasons, losing weight and attempting to wean oneself from unhealthy habits, i.e., smoking, drinking soda, overeating, caffeine addiction, etc. Some more serious participants use juice fasting as an alternative to conventional medical practices, i.e., as a healing technique for pain, cancer, depression, arthritis, severe infections that failed antibiotics, autoimmune diseases and many other supposedly incurable diseases….”
After one day, all I am is Hungry, Hungry, Hungry. I’ve been craving bread, just one frickin’ slice of bread. Or just a cracker. Ohh man, how much would I murder a cracker right now. I’ve fared better than my friend, though, who usually drinks three cups of coffee a day, minimum. His headache was so bad that he couldn’t drive home from our ‘trip to the Irish countryside’, and I had to take over. In fact, it was SO bad that he cheated with a half-shot of espresso at 10pm. Normally I would have kicked up a fuss, but I was really starting to think he might actually die, which wouldn’t have done my ‘juice-fast buddy’ reputation any good for future clients.
Now, Why Juice Fasts Suck, by David Smerdon. Do not read if you have a weak stomach; it’s a bit gross.
Basically, because you don’t take in any pulp, or fibre, the digesting speeds up, which means you can ‘expel’ a lot faster. But this causes havoc with the bowels. A cringe quote from Wiki that I just can’t help myself but to quote:
“Because pure juice contains little to no fiber, juice fasters often use an enema or an herbal or saltwater laxative during the time of fasting to efficiently expel waste from the intestines and colon”
I haven’t experienced anything yet, but the multiple guides on the topic, as well as the previous experiences of the couple I’m with, suggest one should experience diarrhoea or constipation. Or both. Charming. Oh, and apparently because of all the juice acids, after two days you’re supposed to get ACUTE HALITOSIS.
For those of you wondering, that’s medical for BAD BREATH.
Not only that, but you’re supposed to sleep about 12 hours a day, and basically can’t do anything, as all your energy is going into the toxin-expulsion process. All you’re supposed to do is rest, rest, rest (and try not to think about food, presumably. I watched a cooking show this morning. Torture.)
Woot woo, my first weekend in Dublin and I’m stuck on a couch with bowel problems watching TV with a caffeine addict on detox.
But EVEN WORSE than all the hunger, the sleeping, the bad breath, the bowel adventures, is:
I’m in Dublin, basically the closest city to England where you can still hate the English, on the weekend Australia plays England in the Rugby world cup,
And I can’t even have a beer.
The healthiest fridge I have ever been privy to. I hate it.
As I rapidly approach – *gasp!* – thirty, it appears I’ve been going through some sort of premature midlife crisis. I’ve been aggressively travelling to new countries (three this Summer), flirting with various new hobbies and pursuits, will soon embark to improve on my shameful attempt at a juice fast…and, recently, I got contact lenses.
“What?!”, I hear you ask with surprise. “I didn’t even know you wore glasses!”
Indeed; the glasses were in themselves a recent addition. My eyesight was never a problem until I began the Tinbergen masters programme three years ago, which precipitated a remarkably rapid decline in my vision. I decided that the best way to deal with the problem of not being able to read the lecture board was not, in fact, wearing my new glasses, but simply avoiding lectures. It worked, to an extent, but eventually nature took its course and I became one step closer to my Brainy Smurf avatar.
Dave says no to midlife crises.
Right before Sabina and I left for Portugal, I got myself measured for contact lenses, and took my trial pair along with me for the holiday. For those of you who don’t know anything about lenses (as I didn’t), here’s a brief synopsis. They are, literally, tiny, malleable lenses that one must stick to the front of one’s eyeballs. It takes a little getting used to, this process; keeping one’s eye open while a finger literally pokes the eyeball isn’t exactly an innate action. Moreover, the wearer is strictly instructed by the optician that hygiene is a must; lenses must be thoroughly sanitised (definitely NOT with any water) both before and after each wear. I was told not to have them in for more than four hours a day at the beginning, so that my eyes could get used to the product. This was good advice: in the early days for a new wearer, it literally feels like a couple of sand granules are permanently stuck in your eye. Uh-uh – no scratching.
This sensation is supposed to go away after a week or so. I say ‘supposedly’, however, because I didn’t get that far. I had the lenses in while I drove our rental car from Galicia (awesome) to Famalicão (less so), but my right eye was becoming more and more irritated, and I became my own windscreen-wiper as I regularly brushed the tears out of the optical culprit. Eventually, I couldn’t take it any more, so we pulled over in a small town so I could take the lenses out.
Into a cafe bathroom, and – pop! – out slides the left contact. Now for the right miscreant…and, what do you know? He’s not there.
At first, I thought that I just couldn’t see it, so I kept trying to pinch the translucent lens on my iris – which, in reality, just meant that I kept pinching my iris. Try it some time; it’s really not fun. After a while, and checking all around my eyeball, I came to the conclusion that the little bugger was missing.
Well, there goes my lens trial for Portugal, I thought, and off we drove again (reequipped with my regular classes). My eye was still in some pain, but I concluded that when the lens fell out, it must have scratched my cornea in the process (I was warned that the edges of lenses can become rough, which can severely irritate your eye. The fun never ends!). I hoped the eye would repair itself in a day or two, but the sand-in-the-eye feeling persisted.
We were actually in Famalicão for a small chess tournament, so the eye condition played havoc with my preparations. During the first two games, I found it hard to focus in general, let alone on the board, and spent most of my thinking time with my eyes closed. But the worst was in the evenings, when I simply couldn’t sleep due to the constant irritation of my closed eyelids on my damaged eyeball.
(Grossed out? There’s not much more, so read on – but, I warn you, it’s going to get worse before it gets better.)
Finally, by the third night, I couldn’t take it any more. I got up from the bed, went to the bathroom mirror and stretched my eyelids apart as much as I dared. In the very innermost corner of my eye, surrounded with masses of tiny, irritated red arteries, I spotted the glint of something blue. A tiny speck, but the colour gave it away as foreign. Prising my eyelids open with both hands, I carefully tried to drag it out using the fingernail of my pinkie. It threatened to retreat back beyond my eyeball’s visible curvature into the unknown abyss behind my eye, but, after some painstakingly delicate manoeuvring, it began to move centrally. However, I soon noticed that the speck wasn’t coming alone – in fact, it was more of a small piece. No, wait – is it a shard? Eventually, enough became exposed that I could grip it and pull, and out, covered in creamy, sticky eyeball fluid, came my lost contact lens. The whole thing.
More than meets the eye.
Needless to say, it was all glasses-wearing on the holiday after that.
Today, I recounted my story to the opticians. They were (to my relief, I must admit) suitably shocked and appalled. A freak occurrence, they said. Nevertheless, they’ve given me another trial pack to try. (Interestingly, they offered no advice on how to prevent this from happening again. Lightning doesn’t strike twice, after all. Oh, actually…)
Perhaps this was a sign that I should just accept my ageing gracefully, baldness, glasses and all, rather than risking my sight. Besides, they say the eyes are the windows to the soul. And what’s a window without glass?
The following is more of a diary entry of my thoughts about the Australian team’s performance. If you have no interest in Australia’s performance at the Olympiad, or the Olympiad, or chess, or my writing in general…Well, there are some photos at the bottom.
Australian Olympiad Debrief
Well, another Olympiad done and dusted. But this time, Australia really has something to brag about. The performance of our team definitely exceeded expectations: seeded 60th, we finished 31st on tiebreak, and claimed silver in our rating category. Had we scored just a half point more in our final match against Germany, our final standing would unquestionably be the best by an Australian team at an Olympiad; alas, 2-2 was the final score.
For such a young and inexperienced team, with two debutants, this was an unexpected highlight, which seems to indicate that Australian chess probably has a lot to look forward to. The star of the show was undoubtedly our boy wonder, 13 year old IM Anton Smirnov. He didn’t lose a game on his way to a 2570 performance rating, and was our ‘points machine’ on the bottom board. My other three teammates – Moulthun Ly, Max Illingworth and Junta Ikeda – have only just graduated from their teens themselves, and so, for the two rounds I rested, the Australian team had an average age below 20!
These three – with only two prior Olympiad appearances between them – certainly distinguished themselves. Junta was solid, and picked up a big win with black against the Mexican GM Hernandez Guerrero. Moulthun was probably hoping to perform closer to GM level, but still picked up an impressive win against GM Leon Hoyos (also in the Mexican match) and a fine draw against GM Filippov. Max had a sluggish and dare I say it unlucky start, but his final round win against GM Nisipeanu was ample compensation
But more importantly, in my opinion, was the exemplary team attitude of these four ‘youngsters’. For the first time that I can remember, I really felt that we (along with our captain) were participating and competing as a team. This was definitely helped by the group training sessions in the months prior to the Olympiad, as well as a warm-up tournament in Denmark that most of us participated in. In addition, we ate, relaxed, prepared, and passed the free time together, going for walks, playing cards, handball or hacky sack, or just messing around. I’ve always believed that team spirit makes a big difference even in ‘individualistic’ endeavours such as chess, and at least our experience this year seemed to bear this out. I almost felt like one of the many ‘professional’ teams at the Olympiad: the top guys, and even some teams below us, who get paid to play. I don’t want to get too carried away, but who knows, in two years from now, we might even get…team jerseys.
Of course, team spirit can only get you so far. In team events, you need luck, both in your own games and for the team score. Two matches of 2.5-1.5 is a much better sequence than 4-0, 2-2, for example. My own performance was unflattering, scoring -1 and a below-par performance rating, but I was lucky in that my losses never made a difference to our match result. In a couple of cases, the match situation worked against me on a personal level – after we had scored 2.5-0.5 against both Portugal and the ICCD (“deaf”) team, I, relieved that we’d won each match, went a little crazy in my attempts to win and promptly lost. But at Olympiads, it’s my conviction that it’s ‘all about the team’, and so I was happy (and relieved!) that my teammates won the day on both occasions.
I’ve read a couple of Olympiad team ‘post-mortems’ online from various countries. The Danish and English teams are two examples that come to mind where the “what could we have done better?” debates have already begun in public forums, and I’m sure there’s a thorough examination of the Russian performance on some Cyrillic website as well. But I think it’s equally useful to deconstruct the performance when things go right. In our case, the focus on team-building was a key ingredient to the success. We helped each other both during preparation before the game and in support afterwards, and moreover, in every match, each player played for the magic 2.5 points, rather than for himself.
The tournament also seems to suggest that the “exuberance of youth” can be equally as important as past experience, as the Australian selectors’ decision to select a young team reaped dividends. And the pre-Olympiad team training sessions (which, surprisingly, the Australian team hasn’t done before in recent memory) were hugely beneficial. These factors may seem small, but they can add up to a significant boost to a team’s performance in a match competition. I hope that before the next Olympiad, the team prepares in a similar manner, in terms of chess preparation but also in terms of motivational factors. It would be very useful for the women’s team to follow this lead in future, too, and perhaps even more so with certain elements. Once we get the basics of a professional chess team right, who knows where things might lead for Australian chess.
We might even get our own jerseys.
Junta, Max, and our mascot, Sheila the Koala (in the background, you might be able to spot Anton chasing Moulthun)
“Anton, Moulthun, get back here!”
The Chinese men’s team were exuberant about winning gold.
The Russian women’s team were somewhat less expressive.
Post-Olympiad wedding: Australian men’s captain Manuel Weeks and his wife, Brigitta