Magic chess

Posted by David Smerdon on Jul 30, 2015 in Chess

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

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

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

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


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



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

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

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

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

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


Book Review: Sergey Kasparov’s Swamp

Posted by David Smerdon on Jul 28, 2015 in Chess

“A Cunning Chess Opening For Black” – Sergey Kasparov

New in Chess


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



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


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


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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

…and my personal favourite:

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


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


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


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


A quick morning puzzle

Posted by David Smerdon on Jul 2, 2015 in Chess

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

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

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

I’ll post the solution tomorrow!


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

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


A Chess Dispute

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

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





How to prove you’re not a chess cheater

Posted by David Smerdon on Jun 1, 2015 in Chess

The recent ‘cheating’ scandal at the European women’s chess championship is incredibly sad. This story stands apart from the recent ‘Georgian GM’ and Indian ‘phone legs’ incidents in that the accused, Mihaela Sandu, is almost certainly innocent. In the cold, hard light of day (or ‘ex post’, as us economists might say), the evidence clearly suggests that no computer assistance was used in her wins. This is not to say that the fifteen participants who accused her mid-tournament didn’t genuinely believe Sandu was cheating; I’m sure that at least some, and possibly all of them, did to some extent. But the facts remain thus: the 37-year old chess teacher was having her best ever tournament when she was publicly accused by some of her peers and subsequently collapsed, despite post-tournament analysis of her games by grandmasters and other professionals revealing no sign whatsoever of foul play.

It wasn’t always this way in the chess world, that a player could be publicly shamed as a cheater without evidence. With super-GM smartphones and pea-sized transmitters, today’s age breeds mistrust. So how does one ensure that he or she can avoid the scorn of such allegations? Let’s take a quick trip down the Hall of Shame of the cheating world to see what lessons we can learn.

We start our sordid journey all the way back in 1993 with the infamous “von Neumann” case. This player (probably using a pseudonym) was on his way to producing a remarkable performance in the lucrative World Open when things started to go awry. Never mind the fact that he wore headphones during his games, attached to a large bulging object in his pocket that regularly buzzed. Von Neumann’s real undoing game when transmission errors occurred between him and his accomplice, which led to him literally sitting at the board in the opening until his time ran out. That’s right; he couldn’t play a single move on his own. Subsequent interrogation by the arbiters revealed that von Neumann hadn’t the least rudimentary chess ability besides (presumably) being able to read the coordinates. For the honest chessplayers of those pre-smartphone days, there was a very simple moral from this as to how to prove you weren’t a cheat.


Lesson 1: Know how to play chess.


Of course, as time and technology progressed, so did the know-how needed to avoid detection – and accusation. Tracking all the way forward to 2006, the infamous Kramnik-Topalov world championship match showed that cheating scandals could permeate the very top echelons of the chess world. While the players still refuse to shake hands to this day, the record shows a match victory to Kramnik, even despite having forfeited a game in protest of the ‘Toiletgate’ allegations. No evidence was ever forthcoming against Kramnik, but clearly the stakes for rising above false accusations had been raised.


Lesson 2: Don’t go to the toilet too often.


So now being able to prove your chess abilities was no longer a sure way to dodge a scandal; bladder control had made it to the list. Rationing one’s liquids and ensuring at least one neighbouring urinal was also occupied became a player’s safest in-game innocence aids. Too bad if you were a woman with a thirst, or – heaven forbid! – someone with a bladder problem. But things were just getting started.

At the 2010 Olympiad, French GM Sebastien Feller was found to have been cheating, with the assistance of another French GM and IM. The elaborate scheme made use of text messages to send computer-aided moves. Bizarrely, the plot would probably never have been uncovered, were it not for the fact that the phone they were using was paid for by the vice-president of the French chess federation, who had access to the phone records and saw one of the cheating SMSs.


Lesson 3: Make sure your phone records are publicly available; after all, there’s no room for personal privacy in modern chess.


The most notable cheating case in recent years was Borislav Ivanov, a Bulgarian computer programmer who caused a big stir in 2012-13 with his outrageous tournament results. Similar to the recent case at the European women’s championship, in April 2013 more than 20 grandmasters and international masters signed a petition for special anti-cheating measures to be installed in tournament in which Ivanov participated. Unlike the recent incident, however, these masters waited until six months of convincing evidence of cheating had been accumulated against the accused. (Ironically, Topalov is quoted as having publicly supported Ivanov during this period.)

The game was eventually up for our villain when he asked to be searched by the arbiters and his opponent GM Dlugy during a tournament in October 2013. Ivanov complied up until a point, but refused to remove his shoes, claiming that he had smelly feet. (Suspicious to that point had strongly indicated that a cheating device was hidden within his shoes.) Ivanov was defaulted and subsequently retired from tournament chess.


Lesson 4: Be prepared to be physically searched to the fullest extent in order to exonerate one’s name from one’s accusers. Hold nothing back!


Perhaps this last lesson may seem a little harsh, but if the Ivanov case proved anything, it was that modern-day cheating measures were reaching new levels of sophistication. In fact, voluntary stripping to the bare essentials had perhaps become one of the surest ways of proving one’s innocence – and yes, the burden of proof had by now well and truly shifted to the innocent. Of course, shameless nudity may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but I myself had resolved to take such measures, had I ever been accused of anything indiscrete – chess-wise, that is. (On the other, I’ve never been one to shy away from baring all in the name of a good cause.)

But I have never, ever faced any accusations of cheating, I am happy to report, and there’s a good reason for this. I doubt whether even a Sandu-searching would have dispelled the witch-hunt embarked upon by her accusers, but fortunately there is an absolute, fail-safe way to ensure one is completely immune from suspicion. In fact, I employ it almost exclusively in every tournament. It’s a lesson that not only Sandu could learn from, but also the strong Russian GM Igor Kurnosov [Edit: Chris Rice pointed out that Kurnosov was tragically killed in a car accident in 2013 – see here.].

In case you aren’t aware, in 2009 Kurnosov defeated GM Shakriyar Mamedyarov in an absolutely brilliant game from the Moscow Open. After being crushed in just 21 moves with the white pieces, Mamedyarov took it upon himself to publicly accuse Kurnosov of computer cheating, and subsequently withdrew from the tournament in protest. It was later demonstrated that no foul play was involved whatsoever, and that Kurnosov had just played a magnificent game – as GMs are occasionally prone to do. However, the complete lack of remorse or ramifications of Mamedyarov’s accusation sent a signal around the chess world that McCarthyism had finally arrived – and the Sandu case shows that, apparently, it’s here to stay.

But I’ve teased you long enough. No longer are lessons 1-4 sufficient to protect one from the wrath of an accuser (or sore loser, for that matter). I encourage everyone concerned with his or her integral reputation to take a leaf out of my book and adopt the final, and ultimate, lesson on how to prove that one is not a cheater. It seems to me, the way things are going, that this is pretty much the only way to ensure this.


Lesson 5: Don’t ever, ever have an amazing result.


Fortunately for me at least, this comes easily.



Book reviews: “Liquidation on the chessboard” and “Taimanov: The English Attack”

Posted by David Smerdon on May 25, 2015 in Chess

That title is pretty horrible, but I’m told it’s very “googleable”. Let’s go with that.

I recently received three books from New in Chess. Two of them are your run-of-the-mill chess books: well written, somewhat typical and, simply, good books. No real surprises. The third, GM Sergey Kasparov’s ‘Swamp Book’, is really something different. I don’t think I’ve ever read an openings book quite like it. It is on the one hand addictively entertaining and yet, on the other, practically useless. A real conundrum, and I haven’t quite decided whether the book’s worth one star or five! So until I have, that review will have to wait.

(Man, I really built you up for nothing there, huh? Psych! Oh well; here are my opinions of the other two.)


“Liquidation on the chess board” – Joel Benjamin (New in Chess)

I have to admit that when I think of ‘fun’ chess topics, pawn endgames isn’t the first to come to mind. So I was a bit apprehensive when I first opening GM Benjamin’s new book. The focus is exclusively on this transition within the endgame and its consequences, with the blurb promising a journey into “the fascinating world of tempo play, breakthroughs, king activity, passed pawn dynamics…Exercises will test your growing skills.” Yuck! It sounded far too much like those dry endgame homework exercises I did as a kid for me to really get excited.

Nevertheless, I was very happy to be proved wrong when I started reading. The book is anything but dry, providing an enjoyable read as well as a fine instructive guide. It’s a little in the same vein as Van Perlo’s masterpiece Endgame Tactics, only smaller and perhaps not quite as entertaining. Still, Liquidation is undoubtedly a useful asset for an educational chess library. The transition into pawn endgames is an underexplored topic, but in modern times, when tournaments are less and less likely to have a second time control, being able to grasp endgame subtleties can earn a player many valuable points.

The book’s chapters are broken up in accordance with the material imbalances just prior to liquidation into king and pawn endgames. Benjamin starts with pure queen, rook, bishop and knight endgames before moving into the different combinations of pieces, but the important endgame themes are scattered throughout every chapter. Indeed, it’s these sections on thematic positions and strategic ideas that I enjoyed (and learned from) the most. Benjamin is excellent at explaining not only the intricacies of specific positions, but also useful practical guidance for general endgame play. He carefully dictates the ideas to watch out for when such common themes as breakthroughs, tempo play and pawn races appear on the board, and I felt that I gained a lot from these instructions.

For example, Benjamin discusses his game with Hikaru Nakamura in which Hikaru initiated a neat exchange of queens to reach the following position with Black to move:

I always thought that the common a+c versus a ending was drawn if Black could keep his pawn on a7, but lost if the pawn had moved (imagine, say, the black pawn on a6 and white pawn on a5 – and learn this endgame!). However, Benjamin clearly shows that the position is winning with either side to move, as the extra tempi available to White with a2-a3-a4 allow a favourable triangulation in due course. If you need any more evidence that this book is useful, just imagine reaching this position with White and only, say, ten seconds a move as increment. Do you think you could win it? Well, thanks to Joel, now I can!

In singing these praises, however, I have one major gripe about the book, made even more irritating by the fact that the issues were easily avoidable. There are lots of diagrams, which I like, but from the very first chapter, a number of them are incorrect. There are extra pieces appearing on the board, existing pieces moving around and even a bizarre old-school ‘Wingdings font’ typo. Once I got past a dozen such typesetting errors, I stopped counting. It doesn’t really affect the quality of the material in terms of substance, but it’s sloppy.

[EDIT: After being contacted by the NiC editors, I should clarify that I stopped counting after more than a dozen total errors, including typos and typesetting, etc. Of these, only half a dozen were to do with the diagrams.]

Each chapter includes a whole lot of relevant examples divided by theme, and then ends with around fifteen or so exercises for the reader. I have to admit, these exercises were kind of fun, and there are hints provided in case you get stuck. I also really liked the last chapter, a shorter section entitled ‘Thematic Positions’ that summarises the key themes of liquidation and reminds the reader of the relevant key examples of earlier chapters. After going through all of these sections, I even began to feel like I could better identify when and how to transition in the endgame, as the booked promised I would! If it wasn’t for the typesetting errors, this one could even be a candidate for one of the books of the year – or perhaps I just need to get over my inner perfectionist-grammarian. Overall, I would recommend Liquidation both as a nice, gentle train-ride read and a study book.


The English Attack against the Taimanov Sicilian – Zaven Andriasyan (New in Chess)

Every now and then I see the topic of a new book and I wonder to myself, “Man, what was this guy thinking?!”. That was the case when I heard about the new Andriasyan book on the white side of the Taimanov, one of the most topical Sicilian variations today. In fact, as one of the key theoretical battlefields among many of the world’s elite, the English Attack is really quite a mammoth undertaking for an author.


The theory on this variation has been (and is still) rapidly developing in recent years, and it has become increasingly difficult to keep up with the latest trends, subtleties and improvements for both sides. So I find it particularly impressive that Andriasyan has done such a good job of covering it in what is quite a high-level product. The material is up to date and well analysed, adequately detailing (for the most part) critical sidelines and unplayed novelties as well as the more popular main lines.

While the focus is definitely on keeping up with the latest theoretical consensus for the variation, I was pleasantly surprised to find that Andriasyan frequently spends a couple of sentences to explain his evaluations and suggestions in terms of general chess understanding. This, coupled with a pleasing density of diagrams, makes the book suitable for lower club levels as well, although the mass of theory that needs to be memorized to master the opening could be a bit off-putting. In any case, I found the regular explanations of the themes and ideas to be very useful, as well as breaking up the monotony of the subvariations.

(Speaking of which, I really think there needs to be some publisher’s rule about the depth that authors are allowed to go with subvariations. Once I got to the final chapter’s line “A1222222”, I felt like my head was about to explode. Why not just break things up into another small chapter? But I digress.)

Another element of this book that I appreciate is that Andriasyan doesn’t just recommend one white move at every fork, but offers a brief (and sometimes not so brief) analysis of promising alternatives. In this way, the book is somewhere in between a repertoire book and a general coverage of the variation. For the English Attack, in which the theory is fluid and constantly being refined, these ‘back-ups’ are quite useful. For example, in the main line with 8…Bb4



, Andriasyan covers 11.Bd4, 11.Qf2, 11.Kb1 and 11.Qe1 within two chapters. I learned a lot from this extra coverage, though in general the structure of the 8…Bb4 section (the ‘old’ main line) was at times a little puzzling. Andriasyan covers 9…Na5?!, 9…Ne7 and the main line 9…Ne5, but omits the topical 9…0-0 (second most popular overall, and the most common today) as well as 9…d5. The latter is perhaps not important, but the former is a rather obvious omission, particularly as it is also Black’s best scoring move. For interest, you could consider checking out Karjakin-Polgar, 2014 World Blitz, as a model way to play (at least the opening) for White after 9…0-0.

In any case, it has to be said that these days, 8…Bb4 has basically been superseded by 8…Be7 at the top level. This is what Andriasyan covers in the final third of the book. I’m sure fans of this opening are desperate to know whether the author has any big, groundbreaking blows for White in the modern main line, but here I have to disappoint you. Andriasyan writes that “9…b5…is not very realistic. Black has few attacking chances, with half of his pieces on the kingside, and it is not easy to imagine how they can be included in the attack. …Here, too, White is better.” Well! Bold statements, but I’m not sure Giri, Svidler or Morozevich would agree. And indeed, in Andriasyan’s main line after 10.g4 Nxd4 11.Bxd4 Bb7 12.g5 Nh5 13.Be5 Qxe5 14.Qxd7+ Kf8 15.Qxb7

, I’m not convinced that White has any advantage whatsoever. Still, this could just be because the Taimanov is holding up remarkably well these days in all lines, as evidenced by the fact that members of the world’s elite are happy to play it regularly. And if these sort of positions appeal to you with White, then there’s no reason to shy away.

In summary, the task Andriasyan took on was a big one, but I think overall he did very well. If you play or are interested in playing the English Attack against the Taimanov, this is definitely the best, most up-to-date work out there. If you’re on the black side of things, on the other hand, it’s an open question as to whether you need this book. It’s definitely a useful addition to the library and, as I mentioned, the explanation of the themes and motifs for both sides is definitely a huge plus for a book on such a complicated opening. Still, word on the street is that GM Robin van Kampen (who you might better know as the second half of the Eric Hansen vlog series) will be coming out with a DVD for Chess24 on the whole of the Taimanov later this year. Stay tuned for future reviews – including from the Swamp!




Micro movie review: ‘Jupiter Ascending’

Posted by David Smerdon on Apr 29, 2015 in Non-chess

My ten-word review of the much-hyped Wachowski brothers’ sci-fi flick Jupiter Ascending:


Expectation:  The Matrix meets Star Wars.

Reality:  Sharknado meets Frozen.


Men, Women and Nigel Short 2: An academic response

Posted by David Smerdon on Apr 24, 2015 in Chess, Gender, Non-chess


  • Short’s article was not as controversial as it has been made out to be
  • Short based his claims on two recent academic contributions – one statistical comment and one study on FIDE data – that suggested that gender gaps cannot be explained away by participation rates
  • There are several technical issues with these papers that cast doubt on their conclusions, particularly for the majority of the population
  • Overall, the scientific evidence does not suggest a biological basis for the gender gap for the vast majority of the population
  • There is some evidence of a gap at the very highest professional levels; an open question is whether this is due to maternal reasons


I have gotten a lot of feedback on my recent post about GM Nigel Short’s NiC article about gender differences in chess. My previous post was meant to be informal and light on technical analysis, so as to put the gender debate more in the light of what is and isn’t important for us as a community to talk about. Still, the feedback I have received has indicated that there is at least some demand for an explanation of my views from a more scientific perspective. Also, given the amount of unsubstantiated rubbish reported in the media about Short’s article, there’s probably good cause for an objective academic review of his claims as well. What follows will be a little more technical than my regular posts, so for an easier read on the issue, refer back to my original response.


But let’s take a step back for a minute. In my opinion, the main powder keg for the surfeit of angry reactions that this story has incited is the lack of a well-defined question. What’s really the issue being discussed here? Here are some of the different angles that various media reports have claimed is Short’s main point:

  • Women are worse at chess than men
  • Women’s brains are naturally less suited to chess
  • Women shouldn’t play chess
  • Women aren’t smart enough for chess

…and some other things about driving.


Reading these reports, it became very clear to me that almost none of the journalists actually read Short’s article (you can see it in full here, if you like). Some journalists even went so far as to ascribe blatantly sexist but entirely fabricated quotes to Short in their reports – the most cardinal sin of Journalism 101.


In fact, Short says nothing about intelligence in his article, nor makes any normative claims saying that women shouldn’t play chess. In fact, his final sentence begins, “It would be wonderful to see more girls playing chess, and at a high level.” The two claims that do come out are as:

  1. There is a gender gap in chess
  2. This gap cannot be explained by participation rates


To back his claims, Short quotes a recent academic study by Robert Howard, an Australian psychologist and leading expert on chess research. (Actually, Short quotes Howard’s synopsis in a ChessBase article, which has several important differences to the original published study – see below.) Up until Howard’s study, the gender debate had pretty much been put to bed in the academic community thanks to the widely accepted ‘participation hypothesis’: that the gap in performance disappears once one accounts for the fact that far less females play tournament chess than men. The definitive article is Bilalic et al., 2009, which found that 96 per cent of observed performance differences between men and women at the top levels of chess can be explained by participation rates.


Short is highly critical of the participation hypothesis, elegantly lambasting the authors:

Only a bunch of academics could come up with such a preposterous conclusion which flies in the face of observation, common sense and an enormous amount of empirical evidence too.”


While the vast majority of academic literature, and hence ‘observation’ and ‘empirical evidence’ on the topic, supports the participation hypothesis, there are two studies since 2009 that back up Short’s rebuttal: Howard’s 2014 work, and an academic comment by Michael Knapp that criticised the statistical reliability of Bilalic et al.’s study. Yes, only a bunch of academics! Semantics aside, though, it’s time to directly address these articles.


The Knapp comment, despite Short’s claims, can hardly be said to be backed by ‘common sense’. Instead of assuming that the population of chess players follows a normal distribution (as is the case for IQ, height and many other natural phenomenon), Knapp adopts a ranking-preference approach that employs a negative hypergeometric distribution.


This doesn’t sound very logical to me. Knapp’s motivation is that the original Bilalic et al. model has a lot of problems forecasting ratings at the tails of the distribution; that is, the model’s accuracy at predicting the strength of the very best players is dubious. This is true, but the same can be said for almost any population where a normal distribution is assumed; IQ tests, for example, are notoriously unreliable for extremely smart (or vice-versa) people.


Moreover, it seems to me that a ranking mechanism, as Knapp suggests, faces similar problems at the tails. Ordinal ranking mechanisms don’t distinguish strength differences between ranking positions, so essentially a lot of information that we have via ELO ratings is being ignored. For example, the difference in strength between Carlsen (ELO 2870 as of April 24) and Caruana (2800) is assumed to be the same as between Caruana and the current world number 3, Nakamura (2799). I can’t say for sure that one approach is necessarily better than the other at the extremes – my knowledge of the negative hypergeometric distribution is a little shaky – but for investigating performance gaps for the average population, I don’t find Knapp’s rebuttal very convincing.


It’s a similar story with the Howard study, which I found very interesting. The study itself makes only modest claims: At the very top levels, the difference in performance cannot be fully explained by the participation hypothesis. Short seems to exaggerate this result:


“Howard debunks [the participation hypothesis] by showing that in countries like Georgia, where female participation is substantially higher than average, the gender gap actually increases – which is, of course, the exact opposite of what one would expect were the participatory hypothesis true.”


I don’t know what Short is referring to here, because there is nothing in the Howard article that suggests this. Figure 1 of the study shows that the gender gap is, and has always been, lower in Georgia than in the rest of the world for the subsamples tested (top 10 and top 50). Short may be referring to Figure 2, which, to be fair, probably shouldn’t have been included in the final paper. It looks at the gender gap as the number of games increases, but on the previous page of the article, Howard himself acknowledges that accounting for number of games played supports the participation hypothesis at all levels except the very extreme (Chabris and Glickman, 2006). If anything, this figure seems to suggest that the often-quoted statistic of a gender gap of 250 ELO points is vastly inflated. (There is also a third figure in the paper, showing that the career progression of Judit Polgar was similar to that of Gary Kasparov. I have no idea what this is meant to demonstrate.)



There are a couple of issues with the Howard study. The first is that it uses only FIDE ratings data, which does not account for drop-out rates and is statistically biased towards the top of the distribution. The serious problems of using only FIDE data to make inferences about the population are highlighted in an excellent (but rather dry) paper by Vaci, Gula and Bilalic in 2014. In short, the bottom line is that analysis based on FIDE data messes up performance differences with the question “Which gender is more likely to drop out of a chess career?”, which introduces a whole new set of explanations.


The second issue I have is that Howard restricts his sample to players who have played at least 650 FIDE-rated games. That is a heck of a lot of games! Howard has good reasons for doing this from a statistical perspective (see above), but it casts some doubt on the representativeness of the sample. Once we move into this range, we are beginning to talk about gender differences between people who play chess as their profession, rather than just general ability differences among the broader population.


Judit Polgar, the most successful (and famous) female chess player in history, suffered uncharacteristic rating slumps in the period immediately following the birth of each of her children. Professional chess in the open category is a full-time commitment, requiring a rigorous and demanding training regime. Peak performance is usually registered in the age range of 30-40. Should we be terribly surprised that there is a small but persistent gender gap among this extreme subset of chess professionals? I wouldn’t expect anything less.


The final issue I have with the Howard study is in regard to the Georgian data. Howard’s claim is that the very high percentage of female players (around 30 per cent) gives us a good opportunity to test his theory. Unfortunately, as he himself mentions, the sample here is extremely small. There are only 12 Georgian women that met the criteria of 650+ games during the period, and so the power of the comparisons is very weak. (Note that the majority of these women are/were also professionals, and thus subject to the maternal pressures mentioned above.)


However, the data is useful to answer a different question: Given that the chess culture in Georgia has historically been much more supportive of female players than other countries, how does the gender gap compare to the rest of the world? One would assume that if there is a large social component to the gender performance gap, then the most successful country for producing professional female chess players should have less of a gap than the average. Figure 1 of Howard’s paper shows that this is indeed the case. This supports a nurture argument to the gender gap, but again, the sample size is too small for anything definitive to be concluded.


In saying all of the above, let me finish by stating that I quite like the approach taken by Howard and Knapp in their analyses. I think that it is all too easy for people to approach gender issues from a resolute emotive or philosophical base, rather than being open to new scientific arguments. The participation hypothesis has certainly not been debunked, but neither can one say for certainty that neurological differences don’t play a role, particularly at the highest level. It seems to me on the basis of the current evidence that if we took a newborn boy and girl and asked the question, “Which is most likely to become world chess champion?”, the boy’s chances are slightly higher. But we are talking about minute differences to incredibly minute probabilities to being with. As to the much more significant question of which would be more likely to beat the other in the future, cultural effects excluded, nothing to date has managed to convince me that there should be a difference at all.


Men, Women and Nigel Short

Posted by David Smerdon on Apr 21, 2015 in Chess, Gender, Non-chess

(See also the second, more technical follow-up: Men, Women and Nigel Short 2: An academic response)


Much to my amazement, chess has hit the front pages of the mainstream media for the third time in a fortnight. This time, however, it’s more a case of old wine in a new bottle. The always controversial English GM Nigel Short has come under the spotlight for claiming that male and female brains are differently hardwired when it comes to chess. Never mind that the article for New in Chess magazine was published three weeks ago; today was the day, for whatever reason, that the story went viral.

As you might expect, the English tabloids had a field day, covering angles from claims that Nigel said that women shouldn’t play chess at all, to claims that women have lower IQs than men, as well as branching out to the issue of general sexism in chess. While Nigel’s article didn’t hint at any of these claims, there are admittedly several strong players who believe the first two of these points, while the third – a male-dominated chess culture – is undoubtedly true.

I don’t want to get into these issues too much. I’m an academic, and for anyone familiar with scientific publications on gender in chess, the issue has really been done to death: After accounting for sample size – the fact that far fewer women play tournament chess than men – there is no significant evidence whatsoever that men are better than women. This has been shown in countless academic studies (although not a single one was quoted in any of the media reports today). I don’t claim that there aren’t relevant gender differences to professional chess – for one, men have been found to be on average more competitive than women – but this specific question, at least, has been answered some time ago.

If one really wanted to definitively test nature effects, the ideal hypothetical experiment would go something like this:

  1. Get some twins – one male, one female – and whisk them off to a desert island
  2. Raise them in identical conditions with no exposure whatsoever to gender influences
  3. Teach them both chess in identical training environments
  4. Test their chess strength
  5. Repeat steps 1-4 with a thousand other sets of boy-girl twins

Not such a convenient experiment to run. But for many people, this is not the real question anyway. For most parents, what they really want to know is whether the answer to “Should I teach my daughter chess?” differs from “Should I teach my son chess?” Many parents are likely worried that the environment for success in chess is more difficult for girls than for boys – and to some extent, this is true. On the one hand, there are fantastic opportunities for female players in today’s chess society, with many more lucrative female-only competitions than there used to be. On the other hand, there remains a lot of sexism within the world of chess, as there seems to be in many gender-homogenous communities.

I’m not a parent, and I’m not qualified to give any advice on this. All I can say is that my future children will be given the chance to take up chess as soon as they are able, regardless of whether I sire little Smurfs or Smurfettes.

One final remark on the issue, specifically related to the common human fallacy of underestimating ‘non representative samples’. It sounds like a lot of techno mumbo-jumbo, but bear with me. I heard a comment with regard to today’s gender issue that “Of course men have higher IQs than women. If you saw a man and wife walking down the street and someone offered you a 50-50 bet for $100 over which one had a higher IQ, would you bet for the man or the woman?”

Interesting bet, but it’s crucial to realise that this is not the same question as if we had randomly chosen a man and a woman from the broader population, say the national census. We’ve been given extra information that restricts our sample: the man and woman in question are a couple. Why does this matter? Well, social scientists have well established that women traditionally value intelligence highly in a mate (either directly, or because they value wealth, which is strongly correlated with IQ). That’s not to say that men don’t like intelligent women; on average, however, men place higher priority on…other factors. So our man and woman are not representative of the broader population.

Of course, it would be possible to work this out if one really wanted, just as it would be possible to study whether male ballet dancers have lower IQs than female ballet dancers, or whether a gay hairdresser is better at parking cars than a straight hairdresser. But honestly, at some point the question we really need to ask is: who cares?


So what?

Posted by David Smerdon on Apr 18, 2015 in Chess

For the past week, the chess world has been abuzz with reports of GM Wesley So’s involuntary forfeit at the recent US Chess Championships. For the non-chess readers of my blog, the short version of the story basically goes like this: So, the number 8 player in the world, was essentially disqualified during his game against GM Varuzhan Akobian for a technical breach of the rules. The unusual infringement was for the use of notes during play; Wesley often writes motivational advice to himself (“Check your moves twice”, “Don’t get low on time”, etc). However, ANY use of notes during a game is considered illegal under the FIDE international chess rules, and he had been warned many times over the past few years (and twice before in the same tournament) not to do so. After Akobian (who Wesley later referred to as a “former friend”) brought the matter to the arbiter’s attention, Wesley was forfeited, meaning an automatic loss.

To be honest, I was quite surprised that this story became such a big deal. For one thing, unintentional technical forfeits aren’t that uncommon in chess, though note-taking is one of the more unusual reasons (one’s mobile phone ringing or coming late to the game are the most common). Furthermore, in the same week there was a significant incident in the strong Dubai Open in which a grandmaster was actually kicked out of the tournament for using a mobile phone in the toilets to cheat during the games. This is a far more noteworthy event in my opinion, and is likely to have widespread repercussions for the chess world. But I digress. Comments about the So forfeit flooded my Facebook feed for days, with the remarkable feature that the incident completely polarised the chess community, including my grandmaster colleagues. Some threads would be filled with the opinions of some of the world’s strongest players that So was a victim of a petulant complaint by his conniving opponent and a gross overreaction by a draconian chess arbiter. Others would unanimously support the view that So was a narcissistic rule-breaker whose disregard for the laws of chess could no longer be tolerated. There seemed to be none of my chess friends with any opinion in the middle.

I’m not going to take a stance here, but I will recount my own story of the time I was caught ‘note-taking’. Many years ago, I was playing against the Australian club player Jason Hu. With a rating of 2100 or so, Jason is not a bad player, but I would normally be expected to win roughly nine games out of ten and was clearly better in this particular encounter, so much so that I was often wandering around the hall watching the other games during our match. This is pretty common among chess players when one’s opponent is to move, but it is quite unprofessional when it is your own move and your time is ticking. In fact, as a reminder to myself, I used to note down on my scoresheet the amount of time I had ‘wasted’ by walking around while my clock was going. For example, say I made a move when my clock had an hour left, and went for a walk. If I came back to the board and it was my move with my clock reading 58 minutes, I would note down a “2” to remind myself that I had wasted two minutes of my own thinking time. If I noticed too many of these numbers, it was a signal that I needed to really start concentrating on the game and on remaining in my seat.

This practice had never proved contentious before, but in this particular game, Jason went up to the arbiter and made a complaint. We had one of Australia’s most prestigious arbiters, Charles Zworestine – incidentally, a very good friend of mine – officiating. Charles did the right thing, and told me that I was technically breaking the rules, and that he had no choice but to tell me to stop. I – younger, rasher and more arrogant back in those days – was furious. In my mind, it was ridiculous that I should be practically accused of cheating for making notes about move times, especially as recording the clock times after each move is in itself legal. I was mad that the arbiter, a friend, would implement such a stance, and I was even madder at my opponent – a professional poker player – who, I was sure, had deliberately made the complaint to put me off. I played my next few moves quickly, slamming down the pieces at each turn. A dozen moves later, I blundered and soon lost, recording perhaps my worst defeat ever in terms of rating in Australia.

There was one significant consequence of this incident, at least for me. Although I still record my ‘wasted time’ on my scoresheet, and have never had any other complaints made about it, I did take a good, hard look at my reaction after the loss to Jason. In chess, players can find a plethora of ways to distract you before or during a game – some intentional, but oftentimes not. I don’t know what Jason intended by the complaint, but does it really matter? And certainly Charles could hardly be berated for following the rules, given that this is the job of the arbiter. As a player, it really doesn’t pay to take offence, both from a professional and a personal standpoint. What does it say about my mental toughness that being told not to write a number could cause me to completely lose the threads of a chess game? After this tournament, my new motto became “Don’t sweat the small stuff”, as my old trainer Manuel used to say. I’ve tried to adopt that attitude to my play ever since – sometimes unsuccessfully, but overall my results have certainly improved as a result.

I don’t recount this story with any particular moral in mind, so don’t read it as such. It’s just a story. So what?


POSTSCRIPT: Since the forfeit, Wesley So won his next three games against three strong grandmasters, including against former World Championship Candidate Gata Kamsky and yesterday against current top-ten player Anish Giri. He is currently slightly better in his game against former World Champion Vladimir Kramnik as I write this.


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