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.
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.
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.
After a straight month on the road, complete with four countries, 19 tournament games, one blitz tournament, a problem solving championship, a Bermuda party and an amazing wedding, only Bruno Mars can explain how I feel.