Geek night

Posted by David Smerdon on May 23, 2014 in Non-chess

Today was a good day. The sun was not only shining but actually warm, which is a rarity for the solar mass that usually takes an aesthetic-only approach to the Amsterdam sky. In fact, shorts and flip-flops were the order of the day, for the first time in the Netherlands since, well, about a year.

More importantly from my perspective, however, I could actually ride around and enjoy the rare good weather. Today was the first day in a fortnight I’ve gone without a crutch, after a nasty ankle injury at touch football. For the ignorant, touch football is the non-violent version of rugby union – basically, the form of the game that is supposed to prevent injury. Oh, the irony.


A fat ankle, pictured next to another injured patient

Anyway, that’s not the point of the story, although it does explain why I decided to take the afternoon off and go cycling around the nearby forest. I sat on the grass soaking up pretty much Amsterdam’s yearly quota of rays while practising some card tricks. Say what now? I may not have mentioned this before, but one of my 2014 New Years resolutions was to learn some amateur magic. Readers will know how seriously I take my resolutions – for example, see here, here and here. I’ve always been fascinated with magic, but I should mention that I have absolutely no idea what I’m doing, having never so much as attempted to guess a card before a couple of months ago. Nevertheless, in what will no doubt prove to be an incredibly stupid move, I’m signed up to perform at the annual Tinbergen Institute variety show next week. What could go wrong?

This, also, is not the point. But we’re getting there. As part of my ‘magic research’, I stumbled on a fantastic little YouTube channel called ‘Scam School’. As the name suggests, it’s made up of a bunch of videos about how to play little tricks on people, “at the bar or on the street”, all ostensibly in order to meet people and score free beer. Well, you can check it out for yourselves, but it is pretty cool, I have to admit.

But then I came across the following sneaky little card trick, apparently based on probability theory…


Basically, the idea is that you flip over a deck of cards one at a time, each time asking your victim to guess the value of the face. If they get it wrong – a one-in-thirteen chance – they get to move on to the next card; if they get it right and hit a match, they lose. The video suggests you can give them pretty good odds (in the video, they give odds of “$30 if you win, a beer if I win”) and still be confident of winning. The reason for this, as any mathematician will smugly inform you, is that this ‘one in thirteen’ probability multiplies, so that the chances of your victim not getting a match if they randomly call out cards is (1/13)^52, or roughly 1.6%. Over 98% of the time, you’ll win a beer!

But then, tonight, I got to thinking: just guessing random cards isn’t a very good strategy at all. At the very least, our poor sucker should name the card that got shown on the last flip. Imagine the guy guesses that the first card is a 10, and we flip over a 6. He should definitely guess 6 on his next go, because, compared with every other choice, there are only three sixes left in the deck on which he could potentially lose, compared to four of every other card. That seemed like a much better strategy.

Unfortunately, with such a strategy, it becomes incredibly difficult to calculate the probabilities. And so I decided to spend the evening of my sun-filled day writing a small computer program to simulate the trick. Geek night had begun! And indeed, after  half a million simulations of a virtual victim playing our ‘go with the last revealed card’ strategy, it turns out that our odds of winning that beer drop to 95.7%. This still seems pretty good, but think of it this way: our victim’s chances of winning have tripled, just by adopting the simplest technique possible.

But he can do much, much better than this. For example, if he knows that three of the queens have come out, and then a 10 is flipped over, he’s three times better off guessing ‘queen’ than ’10′. And, of course, once all FOUR of one card value are flipped over, one just has to say that card over and over again until all the cards are dealt out, with a guaranteed win.

It seems to me that the best possible strategy for guessing goes something like this:

  1. Guess a random card on the first go (and hope you don’t get it right!)
  2. On the second go, say the value of whichever card was flipped over first
  3. From then on, guess the value of the card that has been flipped over MOST up to that point. If there are more than one value that has been flipped most (say, three kings and three queens), choose one of them randomly.

That’s it. It’s clear that this strategy is much better than the two rudimental approaches mentioned above – but just how much better? Is it worth the “$30 versus a beer” bet? For that, I went back to the computer code and got my virtual guesser to try out the strategy.

The result? A staggering improvement in the odds. The clever victim has a 27.1% chance of making it through all 52 cards without a match – incredibly, almost 20 times more likely to win than just by random guessing. In fact, unless our beer is worth more than $11, we’re expected to lose money on the bet. What sort of trick is that?!

For those of you who watched the original Scam School video until the end, you’ll notice that the host, Brian Brushwood, is aware of this little tick, and even asks viewers to calculate the exact odds of the trick’s success and send it to him. Unfortunately, seeing that the video was posted in 2011, I guess I’ve missed the boat there. Anyway, at the end of the video Brian has some suggestions to try and make it difficult for the scamee to remember all the cards that have come before. But even so, the chances of a clever volunteer ‘beating’ the trick are a little too high for my tastes. I’ll stick to the classics.

(For those with any morbid geeky interest, I’ve copied my code for the simulations below. It uses Matlab, but the structure will of course work in any language, even Microsoft Excel.)

Speaking of classics, check out Scam School’s sneaky Stanford chess scam. Not bad.



clear all;clc;

c=13; %number of card types

t=4; %number of cards in a type

n=c*t; %number of cards

s=500000; %number of simulations

results=ones(1,s); %results of simulations. A one means a win.

g1=1; %let the first guess be one



    deck=b*a; %creates a deck of all the cards

for k=1:s


    guesses=g1; %vector of executed guesses


if g1==shuffled(1)



for i=1:n

            g=mode(shuffled(1:i-1));   %Use this for the optimal strategy.

           %g=shuffled(i-1);   %Use this line for the “use the last card” strategy

            guesses=[guesses; g];

if g==shuffled(i)


                sprintf(‘On turn number %d the guess was %d and the card was %d’,i,g,shuffled(i))




 if i==n

disp(‘You win!’);




disp(‘Proportion of wins:’);





A long ride home

Posted by David Smerdon on May 12, 2014 in Non-chess

One of my former schoolmates, Jonathan Ringrose, is going to cycle home.  ‘Home’ is Brisbane, Queensland. His current location? Stockholm, Sweden.

"Sorry, Google says no."

“Sorry, Google says no.”

The Jonathan I remember was a quiet, friendly, well-liked kid at Churchie, who was pretty talented at chess as well. I’d lost touch with him since high school until his quiet, friendly, and bearded (!) face popped up on my Facebook feed, announcing day 1 of his adventure. In case you want to know what it’s all about, or more likely, want to know why the heck someone would want to attempt this, check out his first video post at his blog, http://www.mylongridehome.com .



GM norm for Mighty Molton

Posted by David Smerdon on Apr 30, 2014 in Chess

Congratulations to Aussie (and Queensland!) IM Moulthun Ly for winning the very strong Sydney International Chess Open, and at the same time picking up a valuable Grandmaster norm. After this performance, and given his past history, I’m betting Australia isn’t that far away from getting its fifth chess Grandmaster. Finally!

Oh what, you haven’t heard of Moulthun? Really? Well then perhaps you’ve heard of ‘Molton’, his handle on both Chess.com and the Internet Chess Club. On both servers, he’s got a reputation as being an incredibly strong blitz and bullet player. When he came on the scene while I was still living in Queensland, I got to know him as ‘this quiet kid who’s a demon at 1-minute chess’. My opinion hasn’t chanced, except that I could probably scrap the ’1-minute’ and just call him GOOD.

Moulthun intimidating your author at the 2012 Chess Olympiad

Moulthun intimidating your author at the 2012 Chess Olympiad

For those of you unfamiliar with chess jargon such as ‘bullet’ and ’1-minute’, I’m talking about a form of extreme speed chess in which each player has (usually) exactly one minute to make ALL their moves. If you run out of your sixty seconds, you lose. So, for a regular 40-move game, that’s less than two seconds thinking (and moving!) time per move. If you play an 80 or a 100 move game…. well, you can do the math. On Chess.com, for example, Mighty Molton has the 15th highest all-time bullet rating (out of nine million players), one of the very few non-GMs on the list. Well, that won’t last for long.

But in recent years, Moulthun’s chess has really started to mature. The tricks and traps so typical in the style of bullet specialists are still there, but he’s supplemented these skills by developing a much better strategic and positional understanding – far surpassing my own. He has developed a patience and far-sightedness that is reduntant in speed chess, but critical for top-level long games, and his opening repertoire has also begun to ripen. The street fighter has become a heavyweight.

‘Heavyweight’ may seem something of a misnomer for the shy, slightly-built 23 year old. A painfully nice guy off the board, his on-board disposition often gives the impression that he’s about to fall asleep at any moment. But like the snake that fakes lethargy before it strikes, his mind is whirring at a hundred miles an hour during a game, calculating insane tactics in the blink of an eye.

The last round of the Sydney Open, then, was a little bit of a let-down for Molton fans expecting lava on the board. But, needing only a half point to clinch first place and the norm, Moulthun played it safe against his higher-rated GM opponent. Hard to argue with that. I’ve copied the game below, mainly for historical rather than entertainment value.



He’s also very funny.

A Molton Bolt

A Molton Bolt



Kasparov in Australia

Posted by David Smerdon on Apr 22, 2014 in Chess, Non-chess, Politics

Check out Garry K’s eloquent interview on one of Australia’s major news channels. The interviewer, like most Australians, is predictably fairly ignorant about the chess world, but the questions are above average, and the answers are insightful.




How to use ChessBase on a Mac

Posted by David Smerdon on Apr 18, 2014 in Chess, Non-chess

(This is a short story/guide on the best way to install ChessBase on a Mac, including Macs without a DVD drive.)


Recently, I decided to embrace my inner hipster and get a Mac. (If you don’t know what a hipster is, this handy flowchart from the youreahipster tumblr might help:

You know you’re a hipster when….

If you don’t know what a hipster is, but you’ve seen American Psycho, check out:

If you don’t know what a Mac is, then the rest of this post isn’t going to be much fun for you.)

My new MacBook is smart, sleek and sexy. I’ve named her Adelaide. 12 years ago, after “a series of unfortunate events”, I started naming my computers after Australian cities. That’s another story, but I accept your judgement in advance.

However, there was just one tiny problem with my new toy, and it’s exactly the same reason as to why you won’t see any macs floating around at top-level chess tournaments, and the same reason why not one of my GM friends takes a mac to tournaments:

Macs don’t run ChessBase.

Well, technically that’s not true. A Mac is hardware, but the operating software that comes with a Mac – in my case, the imaginatively named “OS X Mavericks” – can’t handle ChessBase. Or, more accurately, ChessBase doesn’t produce an OS X compatible version.

(Notice that in what follows, I will continue to use impressive-sounding computergeek terminology in order to appear like I know what I’m talking about. Of course, in reality, I really don’t know very much about computers – besides which cities make appropriate names…)

You might well ask why ChessBase doesn’t make a Mac-friendly version. It’s a good question. Actually, ChessBase did make a Mac OS version a while ago, but apparently it didn’t sell very well, so they canned it. Part of the reason could be that Macs weren’t as popular a decade ago as they are now in our hipster-flourishing era. Or part of the reason could be, as was recounted to me, that the Mac Chessbase software was “perhaps the worst-ever commercial Mac software ever created.” In any case, it doesn’t exist for sale anymore, and ChessBase staff told me last year that they have no plans to introduce a Mac-friendly version any time in the near future.

Well, that’s an issue. There are other ChessBase alternatives that work on Macs, such as Shane’s Chess Information Database (SCID) and Mac Chess Explorer. For the casual player, these are quite sufficient. For a tournament player who is constantly using chess programs for on-the-go preparation, opening analysis and integrating other ChessBase products, this isn’t really an option. This is a real shame, because ChessBase as a program is objectively really terrible: it’s buggy, barely developed between versions, and gives the user neither decent control nor innovation. However, there’s simply no alternative out there for the serious player.

My next attempt to install ChessBase was to investigate running a virtual copy of Windows. This is basically the equivalent of running Windows from within Mac OS X. The main programs you can get are Parallels, VMware and VirtualBox (the last one is free). There are two main disadvantages of this method. The first is the cost: You’ll need to spend 50 euros or so on the virtual-machine software (unless you get VirtualBox), as well as buy yourself a copy of Windows to install. Well, so be it.

The second disadvantage, however, is the loss of processing power. Particularly if you’re going to do some heavy engine work, your computer isn’t going to be very happy with running two operating systems as well as blasting Houdini on full speed. Think of it like wearing a dinner jacket over the top of an old coat: Sure, it still looks pretty much the same, but things are going to get hot and tiresome if you do too much work. For the serious analyst, this is super annoying.

My next attempt was to check out Wine, which is a “compatability layer”. To be honest, I don’t know what that means. From what I can tell, however, it tries to take all the little itty-bitty Windows code in a program and translate it into something Mac-friendly. The result is that MOST features of MOST Windows programs will work on OS- mostly. Think of it like disguising your old coat to look like a dinner jacket: it’ll get you in to most things, and you won’t be hampered much, but there are going to be one or two functions you’d like that’ll reject you.

It’s free software that relies heavily on its user community, so as you can imagine, the most popular programs are the ones which get most of the work. ChessBase, unfortunately, isn’t one of them. Apparently, at least according to their program directory, older versions of ChessBase (such as CB9) worked “reasonably well”, so I thought I’d take my chances with my ChessBase 12, the latest version. I have to say, it’s not very easy to get the thing to run. It was originally designed for Linux people, who I associate with being far more computer-savvy than myself. After bumbling around for a couple of hours, I eventually got to the final stage of “running” my ChessBase through Wine on my Mac. Unfortunately, it was a no-go. To be fair, the Wine site says that this is a risk for untested programs, and it also might just be that I’m not sophisticated enough to get it to work. But if you too think of yourself as a point-and-click sort of user, take my advice: this isn’t the way to go.

(Intermission: If you think it’s hard being a hipster, you wouldn’t believe the stuff Australians have to deal with…)

Finally, I was down to my last attempt: Boot Camp. This is Apple’s integrated software to run a full version of the Windows operating system on your machine. Basically, when you turn on the Mac, you get to choose whether to run OS X or Windows, so there’s no loss of CPU power in ChessBase (you do have to allocate some of your harddrive space to a second operating system, of course). The problem for me was that my MacBook doesn’t have an optical (DVD) drive, so I couldn’t install a Windows disk, even if I had one (which I don’t).

Fortunately, a while ago Microsoft commissioned a company called Digital River to provide .iso downloads for all their Windows 7 versions. You can find the downloads here (and yes, this is totally free and legal). Basically, Microsoft wants you to be able to download and install Windows “for free”, because Windows only works for 30 days without an activation key – which you have to buy from Microsoft, of course.

Once you have the Windows 7 .iso file, the Boot Camp instructions are incredibly simple to use; you can google them for yourself, if you have any troubles, and there are plenty of websites offering advice. Next, boot your computer holding down the ‘Option’ key and choose to boot to Windows. Then, install ChessBase. Obviously, make sure you have a downloadable version if you don’t have a DVD drive. If you’re using an .iso file, you’ll have to install VirtualClone (free!) to mount it: http://static.slysoft.com/SetupVirtualCloneDrive.exe

One final problem: If you don’t already own Windows 7 (and thus an activation key) you might be wondering what to do to keep your Windows copy going after the 30-day trial. Believe it or not, it’s actually really difficult to legally buy a licence from the Microsoft website. Your best bet is actually to go to any computer store and buy a brand new copy of your Windows 7 version (make sure you get the same one; don’t buy Windows 7 Home if you downloaded and installed Windows 7 Professional!). You won’t need the disk, of course, but just the code on the back. Then you can manually activate it like this: http://www.wikihow.com/Activate-Windows-7

Note that Microsoft DOES NOT sell individual activation codes. If you google around, you’ll find plenty of sites willing to sell them to you; these are most likely illegal (although, apparently, most likely safe as well). There are also different sneaky ways of disabling Microsoft’s ability to check after 30 days whether you’ve got a legal copy or not, including how-to videos on YouTube by 12 year old kids (seriously, kids, what are you doing?!). It doesn’t matter about the method; after 30 days, if you’re running Windows and you haven’t bought an official copy, technically you’re doing something illegal.I wash my hands of thee.

Anyway, finally, you’ll end up with a full-power version of ChessBase on your Mac, and of course, now you have the ability to install any other Windows-only programs you might have as well. You can be both a chessplay AND a hipster! Hurray!

(You made it this far? Well done. Here’s your reward:  The Bondi Hipsters. Steer clear if you’re easily offended.)


Up all night to get lucky

Posted by David Smerdon on Mar 27, 2014 in Chess

While on holidays in Australia in January, I got invited to play a small round-robin tournament in Amsterdam. I get these invitations every now and then, but it’s worth mentioning that such invitations are usually not as flattering as they first appear. These events are usually have the goal of providing an opportunity for the local talents to earn a grandmaster norm, the requirements for which involve having a field with at least three existing grandmasters and at least three nationalities represented.

As an Australian, part-time grandmaster with a ‘regular’ job, I’m thus the perfect target candidate to get beaten up by the talented norm-hunters. Normally this isn’t such an appealing prospect, but unfortunately I was in serious danger of missing the 30-game minimum threshold to apply for the Australian olympiad team. That fact, combined with the invitation coming from my jovial Dutch friend Merijn van Delft, encouraged me to accept. And so, immediately after the 24 hour flight back to Amsterdam, I found myself in a very pleasant bar in the centre of Amsterdam, caffeined to the eyeballs, sitting opposite the latest Dutch junior star, the European under-14 Champion Jorden van Foreest.

Did you notice I said ‘bar’? Yes, the tournament was actually held in a bar, and not just any bar. Cafe Batavia is a fantastic drinking establishment, right off the central station of Amsterdam. It’s got a very nice vibe to it (“gezellig”, the Dutch would say),with a cool, chess-loving owner, and on any normal day you’re likely to find a couple of the local patrons making use of the chess sets on offer. During this particular fortnight, in addition to this, the elegant, quiet back room was decked out for the tournament, nicely juxtaposed with the lively main bar next door.

Anyway, in the end I managed to win the tournament, despite losing the last round against the tournament cellar-dweller and my peer, Steven Geirnaert. (Actually, this brings Steven’s life score against me to 2/3, with us having played before in India when we were 17, and in Spain when we were 11!)

As fun and enjoyable as the tournament was, it was also the first time I’d tried to combine work and chess on such an intense level. Having just taken a month off work, there was no way I was going to be able to swing another fortnight away from the office. After each afternoon game, I would have to go to the office to work late into the evenings. Then I’d get some more work done in the mornings, do a bit of prep over lunch, play my game – and wash, rinse, repeat. The tournament had one rest day, but in order to catch up, I spent 12 hours in the office, so it was probably the least relaxing day for me of the fortnight.


In hindsight, it was a pretty rough decision. My games were riddled with oversights, and in the last game Steven smashed me so badly that I’m sure I would have struggled to manage a single point if the tournament had’ve been further extended. Of course, coming first was ostensibly a powerful result, but if you look below the surface, I was really incredibly lucky to get most of my points. Against the Netherlands female number one, Zhaoqin Peng, I managed to swindle a draw from two pawns down. In the game with the top seed, GM Sipke Ernst, my opponent missed a clear win in the diagram with the sneaky 23.Qxc4! Qxg6 24.Qc5, forking my two rooks. And against Merijn, I was clearly worse after 10 moves and had to grovel my way to another half a point.


Lady Luck also manifested herself in more subtle ways. In round 5 I was paired against Twan Burg, my main rival and the eventual second-place getter. Usually, with the white pieces I would be planning to play for a slight advantage out of the opening, and slowly and carefully try to nurse it to a full point.

Unfortunately, I also had a meeting at the office five hours after the round started, so a long game was really not on the cards for me. This made my opening preparation a lot easier, as I chose a line that I could play very quickly and that would most likely lead to a quick draw – unless my opponent fell for one of the traps, in which case a quick win would result. As Caissa would have it, the latter happened, and I could put one hand on the trophy.

In general, I can take away three key lessons from the event. Firstly, despite the result, I’m really not as tactically sharp as I used to be. I don’t know whether it’s rust, or age, or both, but the blunders are becoming more frequent, and so probably I need to adapt my style to try to cover up this new weakness. Secondly (and perhaps obviously), a full time simultaneous work/chess schedule is ridiculously stupid. I was completely spent by the end of the event, by which time I was enjoying neither the games nor my research. The lesson is trivial after the fact, and certainly my conscience had a good time telling me “I told you so” after the last round.

And finally: the chess culture in Amsterdam is really incredible. I’ve frequented two well-known chess cafes in Amsterdam, but I didn’t even know this one existed. All of the participants were jovial and friendly before, during and after the games, irrespective of the results. As much as I was already homesick on my return, there’s just nothing like this sort of chess atmposphere back in Oz. Seriously, you’ve got to try it. Imagine a warm, crowded bar, packed with chess-loving locals and tourists kibitzing with each other over the fast-paced blitz battles taking place at the tables. Then, listen to Daft Punk.




Forgetting Bobby

Posted by David Smerdon on Mar 5, 2014 in Chess

The March 2014 FIDE rating list has Magnus Carlsen at a new record rating of 2881. A phenomenal milestone for our new World Champion, though one should not forget that the world’s number two also achieved a personal best this period. Levon Aronian is now rated 2830, which, despite being over 50 points behind the astonishing Norwegian, gives him an impressive buffer of over 40 points to the rest of the world’s elite.

It reminds one of the beginnings of the Federer-Nadal rivalry after the turn of the century. The dominance for over half a decade by those two tennis greats over the rest of the world’s best has of course become legendary. For over 430 weeks, the world number one spot was held by either Federer and Nadal, before Novak Djokovic finally broke the dynasty on July 4, 2011. Of course, I’m perhaps not making a fair comparison to modern chess, as I’m sure some of the top ten might argue. Hikaru Nakamura, the United States’ top player, for example, is currently sitting in seventh spot at 2772, and arguably in the best form of his life. And he recently, infamously, claimed to be the prime contender to dethrone Magnus as World Champion.

Now, I should say that I like Hikaru. Nobody would ever accuse him of humility, to be sure, but he shoots from the hip, and it’s refreshing to hear blunt, honest opinions without the annoying obfuscation that occasionally rears itself in interviews of of other elite players. A couple of days ago, Hikaru participated in a Reddit.com “AMA” (“Ask Me Anything”), essentially an open, online forum where he answered questions from anyone. That’s something I can respect, and I wish other grandmasters would do more of: raising the profile of chess, giving an insight into the thoughts and workings of the stars, and breaking down the fourth wall between the elite and the public. (The full thread can be found here.)

But of course, the risks that go along with public openness is exposure to criticism – say, for example, by a grandmaster blogger. My gripe is not to do with Hikaru’s unbridled optimism about beating Magnus; such (over)confidence is actually very heathy for a chess player’s performance. (Incidentally, there has been plenty of research done in behavioural economics and finance about the benefits of overconfidence in occupations where risk aversion can be a hurdle.) Moreover, he might just prove me wrong – certainly, it would be a foolish man to bet against his reaching 2800 on the live ratings at some point this year.

No, the one comment that annoyed me on the Reddit forum was in response to a question about Fischer. The question was:

How do you think Fischer would do against top players like yourself, Carlsen, or Kasparov?

This is a pretty common “pub topic” among chess players: comparing the greats across eras. It’s a tough question to answer, and everyone is entitled to their opinion. But Hikaru’s answer made me grind my teeth:

“Fischer would almost certainly lose to all of us, but this is due to the fact that the game has so fundamentally changed. If Fischer had a few years to use computers, I think he would probably be on the same level.”

Robert J Fischer, considered by many to be the greatest player ever to take the board. Bobby Fischer, who won the World Championship against all the odds, forfeiting one game and giving tie-odds. Who demolished two of the world’s greatest players, Taimanov and Larsen, in the Candidates by the unbelievable scores of 6-0, 6-0. Who won 20 consecutive games against the world’s elite, including a former World Champion (these days, winning three in a row is considered a streak.)

Now, let’s return to the tennis example. How would Jimmy Connors (who was the world tennis number one around the same time as Fischer) fair against Nadal and Federer, if they played at the same time? How would Bjorn Borg or John McEnroe? Lendl, Becker, or Sampras?

It’s almost impossible to make this comparison, even though the game of tennis has undergone far more “fundamental change” over its modern lifespan than chess. Of course, I’m assuming that the old greats would be allowed to use a modern racquet in our hypothetical contests, but even without access to today’s fitness regimes, vitamin supplements and so forth, it’s hard to claim that the legends of tennis from decades past, at their peak, couldn’t match it with today’s top guys.

One might be tempted to use chess ratings as an objective measure of strength across periods, but unfortunately ELO inflation rules that out, in exactly the same way that comparing the “world’s richest people” doesn’t make sense without adjusting what a dollar means today to what it meant in former times. 2700chess.com‘s list of the world’s highest ever live chess ratings has only two of the 13 players not currently active – Kasparov and Fischer. All but four of the ratings were achieved in the last three years, and only one was not recorded this century: Fischer, way back in 1972.

Spot the odd one out.

There have of course been many attempts made to compare the best chess players of all time. The subjective ones don’t really add much weight to my criticisms, although I should add that almost all of them list Fischer in the top three. For example, Keene and Divinsky’s book Warriors of the Mind puts Fischer third behind Kasparov and Karpov, but the book, like most of Keene’s work, is of dubious integrity.Jeff Sonas, on the other hand, does an impressive statistical job on Chessmetrics, whose list goes Fischer-Kasparov-Botvinnik. Of the current players, only Anand and Kramnik make the top ten, although this was done in 2005 before Carlsen (or, to be fair, Nakamura) had matured.

Perhaps the most credible measure, at least from academic standpoints, is the recent approach of comparing a player’s chess moves to the choices of top computer programs. This technique has only been possible in recent years, now that computer engines have so completely superceded human ability. It’s not hard to believe that more of this sort of research will be done in the future. And it’s also not surprising that, to date, Fischer has been either first or second in all independent studies of this kind.

So what does Hikaru mean by “the game has fundamentally changed”? Unlike tennis, there have been no changes to the equipment we use to play a match. Neither have there been any groundbreaking physical training advancements. Considering his following comment, I can only assume the American number one is referring to the use of computers, and the development of theory, to aid a grandmaster’s preparation – and this is undoubtedly true. But how much of a role does that really play? Carlsen himself has shown that victory can be achieved without ever striving for an advantage in the opening.

Moreover, if one really wants, one can construct an opening repertoire based around variations that are light on theoretical developments and unlikely to be refuted by home-cooked computer analysis. They may not be the most ambitious lines, but grandmasters such as Alberto David, Luke Mcshane and even Carlsen are happy to just get playable positions out of the opening, and let their true playing strength decide the result.

If Fischer was transported from his peak to today’s chess scene, would he do the same? To be honest, probably not. But I’d wager it’d take no more than a couple of days, rather than a couple of years, for him to get up to date with modern opening theory around his repertoire. And, after that, I doubt anyone of the modern elite other than Carlsen would be able to match it with him.

Consider the relative dominance of the world number ones throughout history. Carlsen is 50 points clear of Aronian at present, which seems a huge margin – and it is. When Fischer achieved his top rating in July 1972, he was 125 points above the number two, who was the incumbent World Champion, Boris Spassky. One hundred and twenty-five points. Then he won the World Championship, despite forfeiting the second game. And then he quit.

When it comes to comparing champions throughout history, everyone can make a claim, and everyone can have an opinion. I have mine. Our transported Bobby has his own ego issues to deal with, and might well have a go at a highly theoretical Sicilian Najdorf or King’s Indian instead of playing it safe; this would pave the way for Hikaru to grab a draw or two, or maybe even a win, in a six-game match. I’d wager 4.5-1.5 to the eight-time US Champion. (That’s Fischer, in case you were wondering.)

And after a day of theoretical catch-up? 6-0. Game, set and match.


Baby, Take a Bow

Posted by David Smerdon on Feb 13, 2014 in Chess, Non-chess

I’m backpacking around Australia at the moment, ‘tourist-style’, but even these small coastal towns are reporting the death of the original Hollywood child star, Shirley Temple, at the ripe old age of 85. In case you need a reminder (or the title of this post confuses you), here’s a little trip down memory lane at one of her highlights, at the tender age of four. Yes, 4. F-o-u-r.

Despite her ridiculous childhood talent, I don’t think her movies are what Ms Temple would most like to be remembered for. If anything, perhaps it would be argued that her prodigious talents as a young thespian distracted from her incredible legacy as a humanitarian and a leader. She served as a US Ambassador and worked for the United Nations in her later years. She was also well known for her humorous witticisms and biting comebacks, though my favourite quote of hers is somewhat more sober: “Good luck needs no explanation.”

In any case, her ability to deal with her immense childhood fame and channel her talents into making a positive contribution is…well, you get the point. She was no Bieber, that’s for sure. The world could use a few more stars with her disposition.

In highly unrelated news, here is my recent attempt at an on-screen performance. I popped into the Melbourne Chess Club on my travels and gave a lecture on the only thing I felt grandmasterly-qualified to speak about: Waffling. Just kidding; it was on the Portuguese Gambit, but I do tell a lot of stories. At least it will soon eclipse my only other YouTube feature: an obscure parody of Flight of the Conchord’s “Business Time”.


Start Spreading the flus

Posted by David Smerdon on Jan 8, 2014 in Non-chess

Yes, I know, I know, I’ve been slack. Thanks for the messages reminding me to write (Sarah’s was my favourite: “Something that’s not too chessy please”). I managed to ignore such promptings until some began to worry about my safety – because, naturally, only my kidnapping could explain such a large hiatus from the writing. Unfortunately, the reason isn’t anywhere near as exciting. I’ve been ‘focussing on other priorities’, which is of course office jargon for excusing laziness and poor time management skills. Lo siento.

The little Spanish throw-away isn’t to make me seem cultured (nor even linguistically talented – my Spanish has dwindled to virtual non-existence since the Peruvian adventure), but because I’m writing this while listening to retro Spanish music and eating a brunch of Huevos Rancheros with pico de gallo. I am, of course, in New York, where as far as I can tell, Spanish may as well be an official language. Suddenly the phenomenon of most of my US friends busting out their annoyingly fluent Espanyol seems explicable.

It’s not my first trip to New York – I was here briefly when I was 16 for the World Schools Championships, in which I got squeezed by Kasparov and met Sting and the Police (embarrassingly, I didn’t know who they were at the time). But I was too young to appreciate the city, which so far has managed to live up to almost every stereotype I’d managed to form from cheesy TV series and popular cliches. Almost. The skyscraper city, the hustle and bustle, the city that never sleeps, the place aliens would settle if they ever came earthwards – all the sayings seem true.

I guess we’re kind of lucky (I’m here with some fellow Amsterdam phd students) in that our apartment is right in the heart of Manhattan, pretty much halfway between Central Park and downtown. Things here really seem to go all night – I can barely notice any lapse in the nose outside between the end of the nightlife and the early birds starting each new day. We’re opposite a concert hall and next to a bollards centre that stays open til 3am, but after a few days here I’ve realised that that’s a relatively early closing time. Around the corner is a cinema, a24-hour Ukrainian restaurant, two Starbucks (of course), a church, a psychic (!), a tattoo parlour, and the list goes on. Within 300 metres from my bed I’ve so far discovered four cafes with high-qualified baristas serving coffee so ridiculously good it blows any brew I’ve tried in two years in the Netherlands out of the mug. Now I’m no coffee snob, but after a week here, I can’t promise I won’t turn into one…

Not really bike weather

The coffee has been a lifesaver. New York and in fact most of the east coast of the US has been hit by a brutal cold snap. My flight almost didn’t land due to a vicious blizzard with heavy snow, strong winds and temperatures plummeting to -20 and below. That’s Celsius, before you ask. Since then, things haven’t really improved; last night’s slightly tipsy walk home from the conference drinks was in -10 degrees chills, but the real-feel stole another 6 or 7 from that. The wind is a real killer. You know how people say things like “it’s like your face is being cut with shards of icy glass”? Well…fortunately that’s never happened to me, so I can’t really compare. (In fact I’d wager it’s never happened to the people saying that either.) But it’s pretty frigging Siberian-cold. Not only that, but New York is currently going through an influenza outbreak, so NBC and FOX News keeps telling me. I’ve just started recovering from the Amsterdam head cold that brought in the new year with me, and the question I had was whether it was the same strain or a different bug. If it was the latter, I’m not sure I could cope with cross-continental bugs in this sort of weather. So far, so good, however. At least the extreme cold helps freeze a runny nose. I’m sure you wanted to know that, right?

On my first day, while hunting for cockle-warming caffeine, I stumbled into what can only be described as the Ground Zero of the hipster movement. For those of you who aren’t aware, hipsters don’t really have anything to do with hippies, and certainly not the good old hippies of the ’70s. Hipsters typically own an iPhone, iPad, iPod and some sexy Apple laptop that similarly screams iPaidTooMuch. The guys spout copious unkept facial hair, the kind that might suggest some essence of manliness if it wasn’t betrayed by the shiny, meticulously maintained haircut on top. The philosophy staunchly maintains “I was doing it before it was cool”; the credit card balance suggests otherwise. As far as I can tell, an alternative, more fitting motto could read “I regularly overpay to deliberately ensure my status of high maintenance and douchiness.” This cafe had all that and more. The music (which was cooler than the weather) was blasted from a ridiculously expensive record player, which was a nice decorative touch, except that the already overworked waitress had to rush and change the side every 20 minutes. Fortunately, I’d once again forgotten my razor and had a beard that camouflaged me nicely within the male cohort. However, my backpacker’s beard didn’t quite give me the “I’ve never really grown facial hair before” look that seemed mandatory, and my holey shirt didn’t quite cut the retro mustard required to complete the outfit. The conversations (at typically New York subtle volume) were hilarious, and easily worth the price of my expensive Cappa-mocca-frappe-something coffee. You know that amazing tone of voice of which some girls are capable, which sounds like a strained, secretive whisper even if it’s actually at the volume of a quiet yell? Kind of like the speaker is performing on stage, pretending to tell a secret. Well, I don’t know whether the girls at the table next to me knew or cared that most of the neighbourhood was a captivated audience to their conversation (I suspect neither), but it sure sounds like Julia has some explaining to do to her boyfriend after last weekend.

One of New York's famous "skinny buildings", where two avenues meet

I’ve almost managed a whole post without chess (you’re welcome, Sarah), and to make sure of it I’ll leave the first part of the report here. Actually, I’m off to play a tournament tonight at the Marshall Chess Club, perhaps the most famous chess club in the entire world -and, completely coincidentally, only a few blocks from my apartment. Though a strange sequence of events I’vebeen roped into a short rapid event tonight, thanks largely to the one noticeable violation of New York stereotypes I’ve encountered here. People in New York are – how do I put this – ridiculous nice. Well, okay, I have a small sample to base my claims on, but every interaction I’ve had with a stranger since stepping off the plane has been charming, congenial and helpful. Not a simple piece of rudeness or annoyance. I’m sure I must have jinxed myself by saying this, so stay tuned for (a more chess-centric) part two.

4pm, and -4 degrees. All signs point to a fourth cup ‘o Joe, huh?


Long Live King Magnus

Posted by David Smerdon on Nov 22, 2013 in Chess

As I write this, Vishy is going through the motions of defending a worse endgame in what will almost certainly be the final game in the World Chess Championship. Magnus Carlsen, days shy of his 23rd birthday, will become the second-youngest World Chess Champion of all time, and the first from Western Europe in almost 80 years.

There are going to be a lot of reports floating around after the match in which this event will be called a “changing of the guard”, a “new era”, a “new chapter” (perhaps the ‘Magnus Chapter?) in chess history. It will be compared to the time when Gary Kasparov became World Champion by beating the incumbent, Anatoly Karpov. The more adventurous and diverse of the journalists might even make a comparison to 19-year-old Roger Federer’s famous victory over the reigning tennis world number one, Pete Sampras, in Wimbledon 2001, which is widely heralded as the handover from Sampras’ dominance of the sport to Federer’s.

Of course, winning what Magnus himself calls his “last big title” is a momentous occasion for the Norwegian superstar. However, I can’t abide the claim that it really is a turning point in chess history. A couple of facts set this case apart from other notable sporting histories (such as, for the cricket fans, Australia’s famous against-the-odds Ashes victory in 1989).

Firstly, it is important to note that being World Chess Champion and being the world’s top rated player are two different things in chess (as opposed, for example, to tennis). Carlsen has been ranked as the world’s best player for 29 rating periods by now, and his dominance of the game since taking this ranking back in 2010 is essentially without question. Anand, on the other hand, currently sits at number 8, almost a hundred rating points below Carlsen. If it were up to me, I would describe “The Carlsen Era” as beginning somewhere around three years ago. The more conservative pundits might instead claim that last December saw the start of the Magnus chapter, when Carlsen first broke Gary Kasparov’s record for the highest-ever chess ELO rating. In either case, it is clear that Magnus’ dominance of the game, as it shall be recorded in the annals of history, began long before this match even commenced.

But my bigger gripe with the handover assertion is that it implies that Anand is starting to slide from the top. For starters, I and many other commentators would opine that Anand has not been at the top of his game for a little while; in fact, I would probably say that his peak was his World Championship defence against Veselin Topalov in 2010 (coincidentally, the same year that Magnus took the number one position on the rating list). But secondly, Anand has performed pretty much on par for his rating in this match. The result of the match is almost what you would expect for two players with these ELOs, and Anand has certainly confirmed that he deserves his place in the top ten. Furthermore, I still believe he is in the top three match-players in the world.

In fact, in my opinion, Anand’s strength is actually higher than his eighth position on the current list. It’s not unusual for players who know that they will be competing for the World Championship to drop some rating points in the period immediately preceeding the match. The reason is that candidates don’t want to give away their preparation and so often play openings that aren’t their first choices. And, of course, their psychological focus is on the big event, rather than other elite tournaments where titles are not at stake. In my opinion, Anand is likely to gain rating points in upcoming events, starting with the London Chess Classic in December. With the pressure of a looming world championship match removed, I’m looking foward to seeing Anand back to his attacking best, perhaps playing with a bit more confidence and natural pizzazz for which he is best known.

Of course, there’s a risk that this doesn’t happen – that the result of this match contains some psychological scars that will tarnish Anand’s future tournament performances – but I doubt it. Anand loves chess, and his legacy is hardly going to be tarnished by losing a match to the undisputed top player in the world. Similarly, while Anand might choose to follow in Kasparov’s footsteps and opt for an early retirement, I can’t see that happening. Look at Karpov, Kortschnoi, Portisch, Timman – legends of the game in their own right, and giants of another era, but still active on the chess circuit. Chess is more than a way to make a living; for those of us who have played it as long as we can remember, it’s ingrained as part of our life, an addiction that is impossible to completely give up. One only has to watch the way Anand and Carlsen have genially – and enthusiastically – analysed the games with one another after every round to see the great joy both players have for the sport, as well as their mutual respect for each other. I’m looking forward to watching many exciting games by Vishy in years to come, starting in a few weeks against the world’s elite in London.

Meanwhile, while today is more the continuation of Carlsen domination than the start of a new period, it is in some sense historic to once again, finally, have the same person holding the title of World Chess Champion as well as the number one ranking. It’s good for the game, as is Magnus, and the sport can only flourish under this new change, despite it being in name only. Just as Anand’s success at the top inspired a huge boost for chess in the Indian sub-continent, so too has Carlsen begun to spark a new wave of chess enthusiasm in western Europe and across the globe. Of all the interested parties, chess is the biggest winner from this match, which is something we can all appreciate.

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