39

Boycott Iranian Chess? A reply

Posted by David Smerdon on Oct 4, 2016 in Chess, Gender, Non-chess, Politics

EDIT:  Nigel Short responded with an addendum that “the Iran bid was not mentioned in the FIDE General Assembly Agenda. It was sprung on Delegates as a surprise.” This procedural anomaly is worth mentioning in light of my shielding FIDE from blame in the text below.

 

Too-long-didn’t-read version:  I don’t support a mass boycott of the upcoming women’s world chess championships in Iran, or removing Iran’s right to host. My reason is that it will hurt, not help, gender equality, particularly in Iran. This will probably make me unpopular.

The chess world has been rocked in the last week by a fresh controversy, this time the awarding of hosting rights for the Women’s World Championship to Iran. The main tinder box was US Women’s Champion Nazi Paikidze issuing a statement that she will boycott the event rather than wear a hijab and acquiesce to sex discrimination, a provocative comment that was irresistible to the mainstream media (see these articles in Fox News, The Telegraph, CNN and of course the Daily Mail). Other notable chess celebrities, such as Nigel Short, Emil Sutovsky, Tatev Abrahamyan and Sabrina Chevannes, have strongly and angrily come out in support of her boycott.

 

This is a tough issue for me, and I’ve sat in nervous silence for a week while deciding whether to write about it. As many know, I’m a strong defender of equality and women’s rights, particularly in the chess world. And yet try as I might, I cannot support the proposal to withdraw Iran’s hosting rights and move the championship. My main reason for this, as ironic as it may seem, relates to defending and empowering women.

 

My opinion has landed me on quite an unfamiliar side of the political divide. Across the gorge are friends and others whose beliefs I generally respect, while some of those besides me are traditional ideological foes. This is an uncomfortable position to be in, particularly seeing as this debate seems to have brought out the worst of ad hominem in people, so I will tread carefully.

 

I’ll start with an obvious clarification. I’m not a supporter of the Iranian governmental regime, and many of its policies that engender the oppression of women are simply indefensible. Neither am I a ‘defender of Islam’, just as I don’t specifically promote any religion. (And let us not forget that almost every major religion, taken at its fundamental level, demands gender discrimination, with the notable exception of Pastafarianism.) Several of the public criticisms of having Iran as host seem to be well-intentioned, but use the guise of “defending women’s rights” to champion an anti-Islam agenda (thereby employing another logical fallacy, that of tying). Opposition to freedom of religion has no place in this debate. Others have argued that FIDE has put women’s lives in danger by awarding the host to an unsafe country, a not unreasonable objection, but also one not supported by precedent.

 

I do not at all oppose the right of an individual (or team of individuals) to boycott this or any other event, nor their right to publicly state their reasons for doing so. But here we are talking about a mass, organised boycott and potential removal of Iran’s hosting rights, and as such, it’s important not to conflate the issues above. First, many international events (and here I mean world championships for both genders, European championships and world senior, youth and junior events) have been held in countries that are predominantly Muslim, are suffering unrest, face high crime rates, have a historically bad record on human rights or have deep political conflicts with other nations. Players from thirty-four countries were not permitted (by their own nations) to participate in the 1976 Olympiad in Israel. In 1978 at the chess Olympiad in Buenos Aires, some players could allegedly hear the shots of executions of political dissidents by the Argentinian junta as they played their games (it is estimated that between 10,000 and 30,000 citizens were killed during the Dirty War of 1976-1983). At the 2006 World Student Championships in Lagos, participants were not allowed to leave their hotels without armed guards. There are many stories of corruption and human rights abuses carried out by the Aliyev-led government of Azerbaijan, a great supporter of international chess and host of the recent 2016 Olympiad. (Incidentally, former Olympiad champions Armenia could not participate for fear of violence.)

 

And of course there have been similar moves in other sports: many objections were raised to China’s hosting of the 2008 Summer Olympiads for reasons of its human rights record, while the US famously boycotted the 1980 Olympics in Moscow. My point is that one cannot simply exclude a country as host due to political or religious objections, or because the conditions aren’t favourable to a particular country. That’s not the way of international sport. So let’s turn now to the one viable issue at stake: whether a participant should be forced to wear a hijab.

 

The hijab is a head covering worn predominantly by Muslim women, originally as a symbol of “modesty and privacy” (Wikipedia). Less than 50% of self-professed Muslim women wear one, though statistics here are unreliable. Iran’s government is somewhat unique in that it follows what is commonly (though inaccurately) called Sharia Law, in that the principles of Shia Islam are hardwired into the Constitution. Practically, this means that citizens can be arrested for breaking those principles, including with regard to dress. Men cannot wear shorts in public places. Women must have their hair covered by a scarf or hijab, though for tourists and foreigners, the punishment for forgetting is usually a request to get one. As with men, legs should be covered, but all the way to the ankles (sandals or bare feet are allowed).

 

At the championships in Iran, the female players will be required to adhere to the Iranian dress code. This has been the case at all international chess events held in Iran (including the 2016 Women’s Grand Prix, in which 12 of the world’s top female players took part). Many other countries have strong cultural norms that follow these principles, although there may not be legal punishments in play. At two world junior championships in India in which I competed, both foreign boys and girls felt some cultural pressure to dress to cover our legs; in fact, refusal to do so actually led to the male and female events being segregated into different rooms!

 

After that very long setup, we come to the key point. The main question is whether or not FIDE’s awarding the hosting right to Iran, which means women must wear hijabs during the games, constitutes gender discrimination. First, 165 member nations of FIDE had a chance to vote against Iran’s bid, and none did, so I’m not even sure FIDE or its Commission for Women’s Chess could be blamed in any case. (This issue really does make for strange bedfellows.) Secondly, the wearing of the hijab is an Iranian law, not a rule made by the organisers. And finally, covering the head is by and large a reflection of the cultural values of the host country that are admittedly tied to its religion, in much the same way that a woman would take off shoes before entering a Hindu temple, remove her hat at a Christian church or funeral, or refrain from touching a Buddhist monk. To some individuals, I can understand that a hijab might symbolize oppression, but only if that is one’s stance against Islam; in that case, a personal boycott is the appropriate action. If the players were required to drape themselves in the Iranian flag, that might be another issue. But here, the players aren’t being asked to do anything more than what any other tourist or visitor to Iran is asked.

 

(As an aside: A good point was raised by IM Elizabeth Paehtz, who wondered how women would be permitted to be alone with their male trainers, which may also defy Iranian principles. This is something that could materially affect the players’ preparations as it has done for Iranian girls competing in events, and I hope a solution is found.)

 

Finally, why does this issue matter, if at all? The truth is, it matters a whole lot. Iranian chess has seen something of a revolution in the last decade, and the national team at the Olympiad was one of the standouts. The federation has organised several large tournaments and events, including the aforementioned Women’s Grand Prix earlier this year. While women do suffer oppression in everyday life in Iran, as has been well documented, chess is a medium through which they can travel, engage in bilateral cultural exchange with their western counterparts, earn respect and standing among their male peers at home, and potentially even foster an independent career. For girls, it provides a complementary source of education, along with all the associated benefits, as well as rare opportunities to interact and compete with boys on a more even footing.

 

I’m not the only one who thinks this. GMs Adly and Al-Medaihki, for example, have spoken out strongly on this matter. But on this point, I can’t do better than re-quote the statement of Mitra Hejazipour, a women’s grand master from Iran and winner of the 2015 Asian continental championships. She pleaded:

 

“This is going to be the biggest sporting event women in Iran have ever seen; we haven’t been able to host any world championship in other sporting fields for women in the past. It’s not right to call for a boycott. These games are important for women in Iran; it’s an opportunity for us to show our strength.”

 

In an interview with The Guardian, she went on to say that such a move would ‘isolate Iran and ignore progress that Iranian women have made in the country.’

 

I agree. For me, the key test is to consider: Would the lives of Iranian women and girls be better or worse if all major events were banned in their country? I have carefully weighed the evidence, and I believe it is in the best interests of promoting equality and lifting Iranian women out of oppression for the championships to go ahead. This is probably going to make me unpopular among some of the more opinionated in the chess world, but I can’t compromise my beliefs on this. Individuals such as Paikidze may wish to boycott it, as is their right. But please, let’s keep sight of who the real victims are here, and look at the big picture: supporting equality for women, everywhere.

 
3

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.

 
3

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

 
7

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.

 
11

Do women play less beautiful chess? A rebuttal

Posted by David Smerdon on Feb 28, 2016 in Chess, Economics, Gender, Non-chess

I generally try to avoid the Chessbase news site, as experience has demonstrated that reading its articles generally leads to me hitting my own head more than is considered healthy. But this morning I stumbled across what on the surface seemed an incredible article. Azlan Iqbal, a senior lecturer at the Universiti Tenaga Nasional in Malaysia, wrote an article claiming to have found evidence that women play less beautiful chess than men. He recently presented his scientific findings, based on his own advanced computer software, at the reputable International Congress on Interdisciplinary Behavior and Social Science.

 

Readers will know that I’ve previously weighed in on the “gender in chess” debate (see here, and in a more academic sense here). But I like to keep an open mind about things, especially if they are backed by scientific evidence, and so I made myself a coffee and sat down to dissect the groundbreaking research of “Azlan Iqbal, PhD”, as he himself writes under the title.

 

Despite my general rule of distrust for anything written by someone who feels the need to write “PhD” after their name, the fact that his paper was accepted at an international conference was heartening, and Iqbal also provided the slides from the conference and the academic paper for reference. The Chessbase article summarized the main findings, which seemed to conclusively demonstrate that women play less aesthetically than men in his exhaustive analysis of Chessbase’s “Big Database 2015”. It seems somehow absurd on the surface that this result could even be measured, let alone whether it has any truth, but I pressed on, eager to see the real analysis. As the coffee slowly made its way into my system, I decided to start with the conference slides and then move on to the more technical scientific article.

 

The introduction of the presentation starts with the smiling photos of Magnus Carlsen and Mariya Muzychuk, together with their ELO ratings and the comment that “Statistically, a player rated 2882 has an 88% chance of defeating a player rated 2530 in a game.” Of course, every chess rating system only gives the expected score in a game, and says nothing at all about the chances of winning. Not a great start, but an easy mistake to make and so, excuses made, I moved on. The next slide started with the bold statement “Research suggests that men are better at chess than women.” Ugh! As I (and many others) wrote about extensively, this is certainly not the academic consensus. But everyone’s entitled to their own opinion –  even though in this case it was hardly framed as one. I quickly moved on, and – ah! – the next slides have actual chess diagrams in them! Iqbal presents a simple example of a famous mate-in-three:

 

Screen Shot 2016-02-27 at 13.48.38

 

Seen this before? Of course; it’s a beautiful and famous chess puzzle. Unfortunately, Iqbal’s next slide, purporting to show the solution, begins “1.Nxh6+”. This doesn’t exactly inspire confidence. Naturally we can excuse this as a simple double-typo, although the little errors by now were beginning to accrue.

 

I hastily moved on to the real analysis. Iqbal describes his methodology as follows: He wanted to compare all mate-in-three sequences by men and women in the Chessbase database of games, ranking them with his patented software ‘Chesthetica’ for aestheticism. Now you might immediately be struck by one obvious questions here, as I was. What evidence is there that executed mate-in-threes can reflect general beauty in playing chess? Unfortunately, the only justification given is that three-move mates give the most consistent testing results from his software. The natural follow-up question is then to ask: how do we know Chesthetica is really measuring chess beauty? Ah, but here Iqbal preemptively counters with that often-used and curiously vague ‘get out of jail free’ card: Chesthica has been “experimentally validated”!

 

Confused? Never fear; now we get to the real data. Of the 6.3 million games in Big Database 2015, Iqbal extracted a sample of 1069 games by women and 115 games by men. Wait, what? Less than 1200 games out of over six million, and only 115 games by men? What’s going on?! There’s nothing in the slides to explain this inconceivably small sample, so I finally delved in to the full academic paper. And that’s when things got strange.

 

The first incomprehensible feature of the data collection is that Iqbal extracted only the games where White checkmated Black. This shortcut immediately threw out half the sample. The only reason I can possibly think of for this is that he didn’t want to have to modify his Chesthetica software to be able to flip the colours when it analyzed the Black-checkmating-White games – although given that Iqbal’s profession is computer science, this seems highly unlikely. I honestly have no idea why half the games would be discarded in this way, especially as Iqbal goes on to make the excuse many times in his paper that the analysis suffers from too few suitable games.

 

But how is it possible that he ended up with fewer male games? Well, the second baffling component is that the sample was split by gender using an incredibly rudimentary method: by filtering for tournaments with “women” or “men” in the game data. And surprise surprise, there were very few men-only events. I have to say that this seems like an astonishingly lazy way to filter the data. Why not just cross-reference the sample against any standard database of female players? Or hey, even just sort manually over a day or two? After all, I guess this is what Iqbal next had to do anyway, because he goes on to write that his team “managed to identify enough additional games between males to bring the 115 set to 1,069 as well.”

 

I found the term ‘managed’ a bit comical, seeing as he would have had literally tens of thousands of candidate games to choose from. How did they select the games? Were they random? And why limit this to exactly 1,069? Any basic statistical comparison can handle uneven numbers in the samples, and practically always in science, ‘more data is better’ from an academic perspective. It it very strange to say the least to limit one’s sample to an identical match (and highly unlikely that this came about by chance).

 

The eagle-eyed observer, however, will have noticed an even stranger term in Iqbal’s last sentence: “between males”. And indeed, closer inspection reveals that the database includes games by males only against other males, and games by females only against other females. Why?! Is Iqbal testing whether women play more beautifully against other women, perhaps as an extension of the famous Maass, d’Ettole and Cadinu paper of 2008? Well, no, and in any case, this would still require a sample of checkmates by women against male players.

 

I can think of no sensible explanation for this restriction, except that perhaps this was what came out of the primitive “women” and “men” tournament search. The result of this piece of academic lethargy is a bit more serious than just reducing the size of the data sample, as in the above cases. It adds an extra potential bias to the data, which is most likely a serious one given that – as Iqbal himself quotes in the paper – research has shown that women play differently against men than they do against other women.

 

By now I was on to my second coffee and getting slightly worried: I hadn’t yet reached the main results of the analysis and already the data set was (a) unnecessarily small and (b) most likely corrupt. With more than a degree of trepidation, I turned to the slide with the chief experimental results, and breathed a sigh of relief:

 

Screen Shot 2016-02-27 at 14.26.45

 

“Elo & Age Independent”! Yes! That was a huge relief to see; after all, the average Elo, a crucial component to aesthetic chess, is most certainly different between the male and female samples, and there’s almost certainly an age difference as well (although how relevant age is to chess beauty is debatable). But the fact that these factors had been excluded was absolutely necessary for the results to have any worth at all.

 

But I did begin to wonder how Iqbal had done this. After all, it would have required a reasonable (though not infeasible) amount of work to extract these variables from the Chessbase dataset, and all evidence so far had suggested that he was against excessive effort if it could be avoided. I turned back to the academic paper to find out the details. I took a sip of coffee, turned back to the paper, and almost spat it out as I read in black and white:

 

“There was no filtering based on age or playing strength as this study is concerned more with gender differences and aesthetic quality of play…” 

 

Well.

 

At this point, I considered whether I should even bother to read the rest of the article. It was of course possible that Iqbal had run multiple econometric regressions to try to control for the influence of age and Elo. But this would have run into all sorts of technical problems, such as the relationships between gender, Elo and age, as well as what we call ‘endogeneity’ – for example, one would have to prove that trying to play ‘beautiful chess’ in all your games doesn’t affect your rating. There are econometric techniques to deal at least in part with many of these concerns. None are mentioned. In fact, the explanation about Elo and age independence is curiously missing entirely from the scientific paper.

 

Not to worry; we shall persevere! I continued reading. Iqbal’s next result is to show that checkmates by strong players (Elo 2500 and above) are statistically more beautiful than average, according to his software. I doubt this surprises anyone. A major problem with this analysis is that checkmates that actually appear on the board in games are far more likely to occur in much weaker level games. It is very well ingrained chess etiquette for GMs to resign before checkmate is delivered, especially if it is forced (and forced checkmates are the only types Iqbal considers – don’t get me started about this).

 

So when might a forced checkmate actually be seen in a GM game? You guessed it: when it’s exceptionally beautiful. That’s the only time chess etiquette dictates that a player shouldn’t resign but allow the mate to be played out, if he or she wants. So this means that testing the relationship between Elo and checkmating beauty is inherently, inseparably flawed. GMs allow other GMs to deliver mate only when the checkmates are already beautiful – unless of course it happens during blitz, but no sensible study would include those games.

 

Well…it turns out Iqbal’s sample does include blitz games. And rapid, and exhibition games, and also – wait for it – games from simultaneous exhibitions.

 

I could go on, but you are probably already at the limits of your endurance. But allow me to leave you with just a few pearls of wisdom that can be found buried within the discussion in the paper. Iqbal is obviously proud of his main finding that females play less beautifully than males, as he extrapolates this to an insight into the psychological preferences of women, writing:

 

“Do the results then imply that women have less artistic appreciation of the game? Perhaps.”

 

He also suggests some keen intuition into the depths of – you’ll like this – the psychology of computers.

 

“This suggests that computers, regardless of their playing strength or ‘experience’ (if any), …perhaps [have] just no conscious or unconscious appreciation of art…”

 

All I can say to such shrewd perceptions is: thank God we have men.

 

It is not all bad news for females. Iqbal does, in a rare concession for the paper, offer the following caveat to his analysis:

 

“Logically, it would also follow that there are likely domains where women fare better aesthetically than men.” 

 

One or two do come to mind.

 

Reading over what I’ve written above, I feel a little guilty for the harsh and dismissive way I’ve criticized Iqbal’s work. So let me conclude with a positive note: In general, I am optimistic and supportive of scientific efforts to use chess as a tool to analyze different questions. There have been several interesting academic works in recent years that have done this, and I genuinely think that Iqbal’s Chesthetica software has its role to play in the future of chess research. But such research has to be conducted in a thorough, industrious and attentive manner, especially if it purports to lofty claims in areas such as gender. If not, the methodology is prone to stern aspersion or, even worse, outright dismissal.

 

I finished my second coffee just as I came to the concluding paragraphs of Iqbal’s paper. And here, finally, I agreed wholeheartedly with one of his generalized statements, and so it’s a good note on which to finish this rebuttal:

 

“In general, what we have demonstrated should not be taken too seriously…”

 

With that, I shut down my computer.

 

 

 
4

Facebook Chess

Posted by David Smerdon on Feb 4, 2016 in Chess, Non-chess

Towards the end of one of my recent economics tutorials at university, I asked my students if there were any questions. There was a brief discussion (in Dutch) among three boys in the front row and then one shot up his hand and said, “Sir, can you help us?” while waving his iPhone with the other hand. It’s not unusual for my students to have the lecture notes or even textbook on their phones, so I wandered forward to see what was up. To my surprise I saw that he had the Chess.com app open on the screen, and as I came closer he continued, “I’m playing a game against my Dad, and we googled you and saw that you’re a grandmaster, so we thought…”

The rise of the smartphone has given chess players a new lease on life when it comes to the chess world, with a whole raft of apps available for following tournaments, learning and playing. And quite a few of my friends outside of the chess world use apps to play ‘correspondence’ games with their friends or family, usually playing at most one move per day. I had a similar thing set up in my old share house where my housemate would write his move every day on a scoresheet we stuck on the fridge, and I’d reply in kind when I got home. And recently we set up a board in the living room of my new place and Sabina and I played a similar game (a surprisingly high quality one, too) over the course of a month.

And now there’s a new way to play while virtually ‘hanging out’ with your friends: Facebook Chess. There are over a billion people connected to Facebook and personally I use it for short messages to my friends far more often than email, text or even WhatsApp. The clever people at Facebook have now added an ‘easter egg’ – a tech term for a hidden computer function – to their messenger program. And despite it being pretty basic, it’s totally cool.

Using it is very simple: Just type  @fbchess play  to one of your friends as a Facebook message. That will automatically start a game in your personal chat thread with them (the computer will work out the colours, but if you want to get ahead, type instead  @fbchess play white ). After that, it’s just like one of those old-school command-based chess programs from the nineties. Just write the commands using algebraic notation, and don’t forget that they’re case sensitive too. So for example,  @fbchess e4  works, and so does @fbchess Bg7 , but not  @fbchess bg7 . Each move appears on the board in the messenger window so you can see where you’re up to.

Screen Shot 2016-02-04 at 21.58.32

Anyway, if you make a mistake, it’ll tell you, and you can always type  @fbchess help  if you want a list of commands. Useful other ones include  @fbchess undo  (but your opponent has to accept the takeback, naturally!)  and – let’s hope not –  @fbchess resign .

You’ve probably already worked it out, but every chess-based command starts with  @fbchess ; if you want to just write a normal message (like “Ha, didn’t see that coming, didya?!”), just write it as you normally would.

Okay, it’s no Fritz, but I still think it’s kind of a cool hidden feature of something I probably use about thirty times a day. And you know those awkward Facebook chats where you can’t think of anything to say and are desperately looking for a suitable yet harmless emoticon because it’s your turn to write? Well. Now you can just play a move.

 
1

Hottest 100: My top ten

Posted by David Smerdon on Jan 24, 2016 in Non-chess

“You know, you’ve only got a day to go to write a certain annual post, mate.”

So said my mate Fitzy at breakfast this morning. I’m on the Sunshine Coast in Queensland, a serenely picturesque region that encompasses glorious surf beaches, wildlife-filled swamplands and spectacular rainforests. I’m only here for three days (it is a work trip, after all), so why would I think about sitting on my computer to write a blog post?

But Fitzy was right: Every year before Australia Day I religiously get in my votes for Triple J’s Hottest 100. Triple J is Australia’s premier commercial-free radio station and at the start of each year it hosts the world’s largest music voting poll, ranking the top 100 songs of the last twelve months as chosen by its listeners. Then on January 26 (“Australia Day”), it plays the countdown starting from number 100 at midday through to the grand unveiling of number one. The countdown’s an integral part of an Australia Day experience, and I – an avid Triple J listener even from Amsterdam – never miss it.

It’s also the one day each year that I write with my ‘pretentious music critic’ hat on.

This year, for no good reason, my entries have taken on a decidedly more electronic flavour than in previous editions. I’m not sure why, as the bulk of my 2015 listening stuck firmly in the indie rock genre, as per usual. But somehow the cream that rose to the top had a bit more bass and beat than your typical glass-and-a-half alternative. Perhaps it’s because last year I finally tried my hand at music creation, and EDM (electronic dance music) is certainly the easiest genre to produce on a computer. Or perhaps it’s because I spent last summer in Greece, the mecca for deep house and annoyingly boppy dance tunes. Or perhaps – most likely – it was just the luck of the draw. Anyway, let’s get into it, starting with a couple of your more bread-and-butter indie ballads.

 

10:       SAFIA – Embracing Me

Readers of previous years’ editions will know that I’m not against voting for a track largely due to an exceptional video clip. This one is no OK Go (if you haven’t seen an Ok Go clip, click on this one immediately. And then block out the next half hour from your schedule as you find yourself on a whirlwind YouTube adventure of pure magic), but it’s encapsulating nonetheless. The song itself is nice in itself, though it probably wouldn’t have made my list if it wasn’t for the heart-warming video romance between two Amish youths. For that reason, I don’t imagine it to feature highly or even at all in the final countdown, but it’s a nice change for a bit of emotional depth in a charting song these days.

 

9:         The Meeting Tree – I Pay My Tax (I Hate Myself)

‘The Meeting Tree’ is made up of a bunch of Sydney boys who first got noticed last year with their debut urban EP entitled ‘r u a cop’. In general I loathe song titles that deliberately misspell words, so seeing that sin in an entire album title really made me shiver. But I have to admit, the deliciously quirky self-loathing of the lyrics in I Pay My Tax (I Hate Myself) is unexpectedly catchy. I didn’t recognize the lyricist Janet English so I was surprised to discover that she’s better known as a member of Spiderbait, while Seamus from Sticky Fingers also has a hand (ha!) in producing the track. Despite the chorus sounding almost like a somewhat depressing school camp fire, the roaring, heavy synths somehow manage to turn that title’s frown upside-down. And in a year where I had to fill out two tax returns in two countries, I had to giggle a little. You’ll end up singing along whether you like it or not.

 

8:         Jai Wolf – Indian Summer

I love all things Indian, and music is no exception. The oriental theme runs strongly through the entire piece, but meets an interesting musical fusion with massive synth chords and spliced vocals. This track begins with charming finger clicking and basic piano synths to accompany the beautiful pitched-up vocal melodies, but when the slow beat is dropped, the track morphs into a more euphoric piece that almost musically defines “feel-good”. It wouldn’t at all feel out of place on the wonderful Slumdog Millionaire soundtrack, one of my favourite film-based albums, but the young New York producer has given the genre an electronic twist of his own. This is, incredibly, his very first musical release, although the backing of the Foreign Family label is already a strong indication of his musical talent. When I first listened to Indian Summer, I found my imagination reaching for the long train montage from Slumdog, and I can definitely see the track being sampled in future films. Definitely watch out for more from this guy.

 

7:         The Cat Empire – Wolves

From one type of wolf to another; but I must confess to being biased in next this choice. I’ve loved the Empire since they rose from the depths of Melbourne’s Fitzroy to take the international stage by storm, perhaps due in part to the fact that lead singer Felix liked to frequent the same café on Brunswick St as me. Blending a mix of South American street carnival vibes with grungy Aussie hip-hop, these guys are just the bomb. I’ve seen them live a bunch of times now, most recently a few months back in Amsterdam when their manager gave me some free tickets to celebrate our engagement. Seriously, how awesome is that?! But personal biases for the band aside, Wolves is an awesome track that sends a strong signal for their upcoming new album, which will have to do well to beat the outstanding Steal the Light from 2014. Having listened to a couple more tracks in the concerts that I assume will make the final record, I can tell you that the whole thing’s probably worth adding it to your wish-list already.

 

6:         Foals – Give It All

Moving away from electronic fusion for just a moment, Foals are a band that capture the lyrically deep indie vibe that is desperately lacking from the popular charts these days. Give It All is soft, dark and compelling. Both the lyrics and the moving video clip tell the story of a man suffering the deep aftereffects of a breakup, so pick your mood wisely when deciding to go all-in on this one. And particularly if you end up stumbling upon the music video director Nabil’s ‘Director’s Cut’, which has a somewhat more ‘intense’ finale. It’s probably not a song to get the party started, but like all good art, you’ll think, and you’ll feel.

 

5:         Set Mo – White Dress {Ft. Deutsch Duke}

Ok, so that last description was too pretentious even for me. Let’s lighten the mood somewhat with some classic summer house: Heavy bass, deep male baritone vocalist, simple harmonies, basic lyrics, and a couple of earthy synths thrown in for good measure. Think sandy beaches and cocktails, late nights and Mediterranean cuisine, sun, sea and summer romance. Get your deep house on.

 

4:         Vallis Alps – Young

The opening bars of Young sound suspiciously like Gooey by Glass Animals, the #12 hit in last year’s countdown. The high-pitched riffs are soon replaced by the sultry whispers of lead vocalist Parissa Tosif. Parissa is a good old fashioned Canberran, and she paired up with Seattle-based musician David Ansari to work on their breakout EP that took Triple J Unearthed by storm last year. Since then they’ve decided to work together out of Sydney and I’m really excited to see what they manage to come up with in the future. Take a listen to their flagship track and you’ll soon be, too.

 

3:         RÜFÜS – Innerbloom

RÜFÜS has been a real find this year, and the Sydney group’s alternative dance style has really endeared themselves to my eclectic music tastes. Their debut album Atlas reached number one in Australia featured a whole bunch of classy alternative-dance tunes of a similar style. But the released singles of their very recent second album Bloom, cleverly marketed to hit the virtual shelves just in time to get some heavy airtime during the countdown voting, are amazing. I expect all three of You Were Right, Like an Animal and Innerbloom to make the final 100, but even though the latter is supposedly the weakest on other popular metrics, it is definitely my favourite. It reminds me a little of Flight Facilities’ Clair de Lune (#17, 2012 Hottest 100) in that it’s a long, epic piece that hits the smooth notes and keeps a steady emotional grab. In fact, at almost 10 minutes long, Innerbloom will almost certainly be the longest song to enter the final countdown – and it’s worth every minute.

 

2:         Major Lazer – Lean On {Ft. MØ/DJ Snake}

What’s to be said about this track that hasn’t been said already? Major Lazer continues to impress in both the mainstream and indie charts, giving the guys wide airtime across multiple genres and earning them many fans from different backgrounds. By their own admission, their styles mixes EDM with features of reggae, dancehall, electronic, reggaetron, house and ‘moombahton’. No, I don’t know what it is either. In any case, their 2013 hit Get Free was a classic dance-chill track that also got a sniff into the Hottest 100 of that year, but they’ve outdone themselves with Lean On. The oriental harmonies are coupled with a similarly themed video clip, but for me it’s the the huge synthed beat drop in the chorus that wins the day. Expect to see Lean On finish in the top three on Australia Day, and possibly even take out first prize.

 

1:         Jamie xx – Loud Places

Although Lean On will almost certainly finish the highest of my votes, it would be disingenuous of me to claim it as my favourite track of the year. That honour goes to a song that’s slower, sultrier and sexier. I’ve been partial to the dulcet tones of the enigmatically named ‘Jamie xx’ since his remix of “Islands”, the huge 2009 track by – wait for it – ‘The xx’. Confused? Don’t be; The xx is made up of Jamie’s schoolmates, and the lead vocalist, Romy Madley Croft, is the voice behind this classic. She features a few times on Jamie xx’s album In Colour, which is all-round gold in terms of mood and background music. But the beat behind this track, coupled with groovy percussion bells and well-crafted lyrics, turns Loud Places into much more than just a chill-out track. It was even voted the UK’s ‘Anthem of the Summer’, and with good reason. Press play, hit repeat. You won’t be disappointed.

 

If you want to see how my picks end up faring in the countdown, you want to feel some Aussie love this Australia day, or you’re just a fan of good music, tune into Triple J on January 26. The countdown starts at midday Australian Eastern Standard Time.

 

 
1

Leaping into 2016

Posted by David Smerdon on Jan 21, 2016 in Non-chess

The worst thing about taking a long hiatus from a blog is all the spam.

That aside, I’m back, and looking forward to a big year. It’s always nice when the chess and regular olympics coincide, and in a leap year no less. I was trying to find something more mathematically special about the number 2016 than the simple fact that we get an extra day in a few weeks. I struggled. It looks similar to the supremely addictive “2048” game (click the link at your peril – hours will be wasted!). But it’s not. The best I could come up with was that if you add its square to its cube, you get a number that contains every digit from 0 to 9 exactly once. Hardly dinner-party conversation.  [EDIT:  We can do better. Get your math geek on below.]

So instead, I’m finishing my Triple J Hottest 100 votes. Forthcoming.

Happy 2016!

 

(…turns out 2016 is quite cool after all. It’s triangular: 1+2+3+…+63=2016. And if you take the square root of the triangle of these cubes, √(1³ + 2³ + 3³ + • • • +63³), we’re also back in 2016-land. But the coolest is probably its binary representation:  2016 = 11111100000)

 
0

Uptown Funk in 100 Movies

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

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

 
5

Finally!

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

2015-09-09 13.03.35

Copyright © 2017 davidsmerdon.com All rights reserved. Theme by Laptop Geek.