The Most Unusual Move in Chess (or “How I won a beer in my lunch break”)

Posted by David Smerdon on Oct 24, 2013 in Chess, Non-chess

A couple of days ago I posted on my Facebook wall about a game from the fourth round of the strong Hoogeveen chess tournament in the Netherlands. Watching the games live from my office, I saw Dutch Grandmaster Erwin l’Ami play the incredible 36.Bh8-a1!! against Polish Grandmaster Michal Krasenkow. Why was this Facebook-worthy, I hear you ask? Well, think about this move: The white bishop was located in one corner (statistically the worst place for a bishop) and moves, without capturing anything, to the only other square that is equally bad: the other corner. In fact, I seemed to recall Christian Hesse writing in his fantastic book  The Joys Of Chess that a bishop move from one corner to the other, without capturing anything, is statistically the least likely move to appear on the chess board.

I vaguely remembered him coming up with this result from an exhaustive database search of existing games, and I posted this claim on Facebook. However, it was immediately challenged by IM Simon Ansell, who claimed that “Surely bxa8=B is somewhat less common!”. A quick flick through Hesse’s book failed to uncover the relevant section I apparently recalled, which got me thinking that Simon might well be right. But what really got me interested was when he challenged me that “If you can find a game where bxa8=B+ was played, or even make up a game where it’s plausible, I’ll buy you a drink at the next 4NCL.” Well, what should we say to that?




Unfortunately, ChessBase doesn’t have the capabilities to allow its users to search for criteria such as this. There is apparently a funky command-based computer program called Chess Query Language that allows for more sophisticated searches of chess positions…but also requires a more sophisticated operator. That wasn’t going to happen, at least not over my lunch break. So instead I decided to try and compose a chess study where 1.bxa8=B+ was the only solution. Why a chess study? Well, let’s dissect just why this move is so unlikely to occur. It’s not that it involves a promotion with a capture – unusual, sure, but not THAT unusual.

No, the real reason is the promotion to a bishop, with check. Promotions to a queen are of course the most common, as her majesty is the strongest available piece. Promotions to a knight aren’t altogether uncommon because the knight can move in different directions to the queen, so there are circumstances in which it’s preferable. But a queen can do everything a rook or a bishop can do, and more, so these “underpromotions” (promotions to anything other than a queen) are less common. Promotion to a rook can sometimes happens right at the end of the game in king-and-pawn endgames when getting a queen would give stalemate, but a rook allows Black’s king enough wiggle room to ensure White can avoid the drawing trap and claim victory.

But a bishop? Well, it’s also possible that it could be done to avoid stalemate, but it’s a lot less common. And in this case it’s an underpromotion with check, meaning that if we’d instead chosen a queen, it would still be check. That means it wouldn’t have been stalemate anyway! So this makes things really tricky. Why would White ever want to choose a bishop, a strictly less mobile piece, instead of a queen, given that it can’t be to avoid stalemate?

The answer came to me over lunch. White wouldn’t do it to avoid stalemate, but she might consider it to enable stalemate – in this case, to get herself stalemated. Imagine a situation in which promoting to a queen will lead to a loss, because Black’s army would still vastly outweigh White’s forces. Perhaps White could instead take a bishop, then subsequently imprison it (fortunately, the corner is the easiest spot to incarcerate a bishop), and force a surprise stalemate to save the day.

Once the idea was in place, the rest was just a matter of finalising the details. Because the first move is a check (a cardinal sin in chess problem composition, but in this case obviously part of the task!), the study will never get published or win any awards. But then again, how many problem composers win a beer for their efforts?

I hope you enjoy it. Simple and uncomplicated, but cute nonetheless. That’s why I’m calling it my Penny study.




“Penny”. White to move and draw.




Is Tony Abbott a Misogynist? Part II: Comments, Clarifications and Corrections

Posted by David Smerdon on Oct 3, 2013 in Economics, Gender, Non-chess, Politics

Well, my attempts to break down the Tony Abbott gender issue into simple, undisputable mathematics proved anything but uncontroversial. On my Facebook page, the comments came thick and fast, quickly turning my wall into rigorous debating forum.  The post received so much interest that for a couple of days in a row last week, it came up as one of the top Google hits of searches for “Tony Abbott gender bias one woman cabinet” (although, as Roger Emerson cheekily pointed out, it was also the top Google hit for “David Smerdon misogynist”).

There was quite a lot of support for my post, but of course, those aren’t the most interesting comments…everyone loves controversy! Criticisms largely came in three categories: emotive, philosophical and mathematical. A brief summary follows, after which I offer a small correction to the statistical analysis.


A small percentage of the comments fall into what can generously be termed “emotive” arguments – in other words, arguments based more on emotion than substance.

Some comments implied, directly or indirectly, that I was supporting or defending Tony Abbott’s sexism, with one commenter going so far as to dispute my own claims to promoting gender equality. Nothing could be further from the truth. I have for many years been active in my pursuit of gender equality, both in Australia and abroad, and I certainly would not call myself an Abbott supporter in any form. In fact, the main reason I imposed significance criteria ex-ante was to ensure that my own biases against Abbott didn’t massage the statistical results to suggest a gender bias that wasn’t there.

Furthermore, one of the driving factors for wanting to check the statistics is that I believe public criticisms in the media from feminists must not misrepresent the facts if their wielders truly want to further their cause. Gender equality is an emotion-charged topic and often provokes fiery reactions, but how can the voice of equality be trusted if it is found to have misrepresented, deceived or used false facts in the past? Proponents for change have to be especially careful in this regard, and I don’t think being factually careful is worthy of vilification from members of one’s own cause. As I said in response to one such comment, “Just call be Galileo.”

A further emotive criticism was that the analysis was irrelevant because it wouldn’t be understood by “about 99% of the population.” If this were true, I shudder to think about the future of science (as well as chess, making soufflés and speaking Swahili, come to mention it).


Elements of rational debate were employed by quite a few commentators seeking to invalidate the analysis. Two of my acquaintances pointed out that a prior belief that Tony Abbott is sexist would not be refuted by a statistical significance between 5% and 10%, and therefore his sexism could not be disproved. These and other comments led me to realise that the title of the article was a bit misleading. In the end, the analysis measures gender bias in the appointments; I make no comment on Abbott’s sexism per se, which is more of a personality assessment. However, the point about prior beliefs applies equally to gender bias in the Cabinet. If one believes beforehand that Abbott would choose a biased Cabinet, then the statistics do not disprove this belief, and thus it can be continued.

Quite a few others focussed on outside factors that could have confounded the analysis, such as ministerial and geographical quotas in the Liberal-National coalition – quotas I must admit I wasn’t aware of.  Coupled with heterogeneity (in other words, other differences) in pre-selection, electorates, merit and experience of the candidates, etc, it was claimed that the analysis was not valid and did not disprove the gender bias.

My response to both of these criticisms is the same. Confounding factors only serve to reinforce that one cannot claim a gender bias in the appointments from the facts. These arguments use what is known as “Burden of Proof Reversal”, a cardinal sin in rational debate, but unfortunately a commonly employed one in politics and the mainstream media. The approach usually claims that something is true simply by stating that is cannot be proved it is not true. Preaching that the earth is flat in an age without astrological tools is one example.

However, in science as well as law, the proof should be on the claimant. If a man is accused of murder, the onus is on the accusers (or their representatives) to supply the evidence to support the claim. Such ‘presumption of innocence’ should also apply to public vilification in the media. In this case, the claim is that Tony Abbott exhibited gender bias in the Cabinet appointments, and the evidence supplied is the ratio of women to men – nothing more (this was the case in, for example, media reports by the ABC, the Australian, the Huffington Post and Adelaide Now, among others). The fuzzier the evidence, then, the weaker the claim, and therefore more shame to these media outlets, in my opinion. My statistical analysis is meant as a rational attempt to clarify the factual ‘evidence’ supporting the claims, and my conclusion is that, even with confounding variables excluded, the numbers don’t stack up.


Finally we turn to the real embarrassment of this addendum to the original post: My mathematics was wrong! My thanks to Dave Mitchell and Melissa Hogan (two of my friends studying at the Australian National University and who I met from ju-jitsu, of all things) for pointing out the error. [EDIT: Since writing this, Barry Cox has also made the same mathematical point in the comments.] While the mistake does alter the analysis such that the chances of gender bias seem lower than they actually are, the bias is small enough that there still isn’t quite enough evidence to support the claim against Tony Abbott – although it’s now pretty close.

Before we get into the technical aspects, the problem can be summed up succinctly as follows: I chose an approximation to the true probability that wasn’t appropriate and systematically biased the analysis against there being a gender bias. Oops. The story of the error is a little bit amusing. I came up with the idea to do this analysis while sitting in my local café with nothing more than a pen, some napkins and my archaic mobile phone. When I started, I quickly realised that calculating the true probability, as you’ll see below, involves multiplying such huge numbers that I had no chance to work things out. Adopting a binomial approximation, on the other hand, meant that I only needed to calculate a couple of powers (e.g. 0.78118), which my phone-calculator was capable of handling. I never bothered to check things afterwards, much to my shame.

In fact, as both Dave and Mel commented, the binomial approximation can only be used in what is known as ‘sampling with replacement’. In other words, by using this approximation I was essentially posing the question, “If there is a 22% chance of choosing a women and I choose one person at random, and repeat this exercise 18 times, what are the chances of picking no more than one woman?”

Sounds reasonable – but it’s not quite correct. Melissa and her colleague backed up their criticism by running Monte Carlo computer simulations that showed the chances of randomly selecting not more than one woman in the Cabinet are roughly 5.5%. At first I have to confess I was suspicious of this claim, but I should have known better – Mel is one smart cookie J I ran my own simulations and got the same result (and about 6.3% with Bronwyn Bishop removed). Annoyed with myself, I did the proper calculations analytically doing the heavy calculations on a computer and, lo and behold, I got 5.49% and 6.29% respectively. D’oh.

This is still outside the stipulated 5% level, though it’s obviously much closer. Given the burden of proof on those claiming a bias, and given that three chief excluded variables – experience, a male-heavy Nationals party and the higher weighting of Julie Bishop’s portfolio – all systematically seem to move the analysis away from a significant gender bias, I think the main result still holds. Some commenters claimed, correctly, that a proper data set could be constructed to include most of these variables and thus get more accurate results. However, given I’m not paid for my writings and also the heat I’ve taken for the analysis to date, I’m probably not going to do it…but we’ll see.

Barry Cox also made the point that it could be argued Tony Abbott had little choice but to choose his chief Cabinet ministers, and in fact he could only exercise choice in the more minor positions. That rules out Julie Bishop, Warren Truss, Joe Hockey and whoever else one deems a ‘forced appointment’ from the analysis. Barry shows that the subsequent revised analysis would show above a 95% probability of gender bias unless one assumes Tony Abbott had a say in less than eleven Cabinet ministers (or, as I showed, in all 18 of them). This is a really interesting result in my opinion. However, my analysis has steered clear of political arguments for the most part, and so I have continued to assume that Tony Abbott chose his entire Cabinet, but this stream of analysis is definitely worthy of more attention.

Here is the correct graph of the probabilities for each possible number of female Cabinet members.


The correct distribution

For comparison, here is the graph I previously supplied.


The old, incorrect distribution, which places too much emphasis on the 'tails'


As you can see, they’re pretty similar, but if you look closely you’ll notice the correct graph is weighted higher in the middle section of the graph and weighted lower on the edges – so there is a marginally higher chance of more than women in the Cabinet.

What follows is the mathematical derivation of the correct probabilities. Feel free to skip it if it looks horrifying or hypnagogic.

(Note: In what follows, n\choose k is the symbol for the so-called binomial coefficient. It is sometimes written as nCk or as \frac{n!}{k!(n-k)!}, which can be written in full as \frac{n*(n-1)*(n-2)*\dots*2*1}{k*(k-1)*\dots*2*1*(n-k-1)*(n-k-2)*\dots*2*1}. Looks scary, but a lot of numbers cancel out from the top and the bottom. For example, 7\choose 3 can be calculated as \frac{7*6*5*4*3*2*1}{3*2*1*4*3*2*1}, which simplifies to \frac{7*6*5}{3*2}=35.)

Pr(No\quad more\quad than\quad 1\quad woman) =Pr(0\quad women)+Pr(1\quad women)


=\frac{(\text{\#ways 18 men can be chosen})+(\text{\# ways 17 men and 1 woman can be chosen)}}{{\text{Total  \#ways 18 Cabinet members can be chosen from 114 candidates}}}

Then, breaking it down:

Pr(0\quad women)=\frac{\binom {89} {18}}{\binom {114} {18}} \qquad =\frac{89*88*\dots*73*72}{114*113*\dots*98*97} \qquad \approx 0.0076


Pr(1\quad women)=\frac{\binom {89} {17} *\binom {25} 1}{\binom {114} {18}} =\frac{25*18*89*88*\dots*73}{114*113*\dots*98*97} \approx 0.0473


Pr(No\quad more\quad than\quad 1\quad woman) \approx 0.0076+0.0473\approx 0.0549


\approx 5.49\%.



Is Tony Abbott A Misogynist? A Statistical Analysis

Posted by David Smerdon on Sep 27, 2013 in Economics, Gender, Non-chess, Politics

[EDIT: Make sure you don't miss Part II: Comments, Clarifications and Corrections for an update on the analysis.]


Like many Australians, I was dismayed to read that the newly elected Prime Minister of Australia, Tony Abbott, had appointed an incredibly male-heavy Ministry to the Parliament of Australia. Most news reports in the mainstream media, both at home and abroad, slammed the announcement by levelling a fairly routine string of sexist labels at our new head of government, the most common being “Misogynist”. However, I was a little surprised by the lack of any quantitative evidence suggesting that the appointments were based on sexism over, say, statistical chance, so I decided to do a rudimentary check myself. Below you’ll find the results of a basic statistical analysis to answer the question:

Is there a gender bias in Tony Abbott’s new Cabinet?

I should point out that this is hardly the first time Tony Abbott has been called this in his life. Throughout his political career, Abbott has regularly been called insensitive to gender equality and the concerns of women, as well as possessing views on gender issues more likely found among Australian males half a century ago. However, to me, none of those reports have been especially convincing, either. As a feminist as well as someone who strongly opposes a lot of Abbott’s policies (particularly with regard to climate change and refugee policy), I was looking forward to the opportunity to finally analyse some ‘hard’ data in coming to a conclusion about our new chief. After reading the initial reports that the new Cabinet contained only one woman out of 19 spots, I felt pretty confident. In the words of Australian of the Year Ita Buttrose, “You can’t have that kind of parliament in 2013. It’s unacceptable.”  How could the data suggest anything other than that the man is a raving chauvinistic pig?

However, it turns out that things are not so simple. For starters, the Australian media has a reputation for being (a) incredibly biased, and (b) terrible at statistics. First, a lot of reports link to the following graph, taken from the Australian Labor Party website:

The most obvious question that comes to my mind is: Why aren’t the values given as percentages? Of course, this doesn’t matter if all the cabinets are the same size…but a quick check shows that this is indeed not the case. For example, India’s cabinet (made up of ‘Union Members’) has 33 spots. My second concern was about the choice of countries, which seemed incredibly arbitrary. The ALP chose to compare Australia to such countries as Rwanda, Liberia and Egypt, but excluded the United Kingdom (our closest parliamentary sibling), most of the G20 countries, and in fact ALL of Europe! Show this graph to anyone with even the vaguest of quantitative training and they’ll start screaming “Data mining! Data mining!” before you can blink.

Comparing ourselves to other countries is a bit fishy in any case. If every country always did this, no women would ever have been elected to high office in any country, ever. No, what I really want to know is whether the election of one single female (Julie Bishop) to Abbott’s new Cabinet could have come about by chance, or whether it suggests deliberate sexist. To ensure that my own biases don’t interfere with the analysis, I established a threshold before I got into the numbers. In any sort of quantitative research, the standard measure is to be at least 95% confident of something in order to draw a conclusion (formally, ‘reject a hypothesis’). I therefore decided that Tony Abbott could be considered guilty of gender bias in his appointments if it could be shown that we could be 95% sure the male/female ratio did not come about by chance. To be perfectly clear, I decided beforehand (ex ante) the analysis would conclude that Tony Abbott’s appointments:

  • were gender-biased if the chances of them being random were less than 5%; or
  • were random, and the media reports should be condemned for factual inaccuracy, if the chances of them being random were greater than 10%; or
  • could not convincingly be shown to be gender-biased if the chances were between 5% and 10%.

So let’s set up the analysis. Now, Abbott was of course elected Prime Minister before he chose his  own Cabinet, so we should exclude him from the list – the relevant statistic is then “One woman out of 18 spots”. Not all of the seats had been officially declared by the time the Cabinet was announced, but according to the Liberal Party website, Abbott had a total of 114 Members and Senators to choose from to fill these 17 spots. Of these candidates, 89 (78.1%) are male and 25 (21.9%) are female. (Note that this excludes the appointment of Bronwyn Bishop as the Speaker of the House of Representatives, so called “the most important position in Parliament” Australia’s premier newspaper The Australian. If she is excluded from the list, the percentage of female candidates falls slightly to 21.2%.)

Further, let’s assume that each female candidate is equally as qualified as each male candidate to serve in Cabinet. Now, this has been a contentious issue in the media, with a lot of the justifications given to the male-dominated appointments revolving around the issue of ‘merit’. Former Liberal Senator and Ambassador to Italy Amanda Vanstone is quoted as saying, “I’d rather have good government, than have more women in the cabinet for the sake of it.” However, let’s ignore merit arguments and focus on the numbers. From a statistical perspective, the question then becomes:

“Assuming all candidates are equally likely to be picked, what is the chance that Tony Abbott appointed no more than one woman (5.6%) to the Cabinet?”

First, note that if we take the ratio of females from the list of candidates and apply it directly to the 18 Cabinet positions, we would expect roughly four women to be appointed (0.219*18 = 3.95). However, we would expect exactly four women to be selected around 20% of the time. We can model the random likelihood of any number of women being selected by what is known as a ‘binomial distribution’. Basically, if Tony Abbott was to put all 114 candidates’ names into a hat and take out 18 at random, and repeat this 100 times, the graph below tells us how many times we would expect each possible gender division to occur.

Therefore, the chances of no more than one woman being appointed – that is, the probability of appointing zero or one woman – looks to be around 7%. Indeed, calculations bear this out (‘P’ stands for ‘Probability’ in what follows):

P(No more than one woman)

= P(0 women) + P(1 woman)

= (0.781)18 + 18*0.219*(0.781)17

= 0.012 + 0.059

= 0.07

= 7%

So the answer falls within 5% and 10%, leading us to conclude that the actual Cabinet appointments do not convincingly suggest gender bias.

Still, you might think that finding only a 7% chance that a Cabinet with one woman was randomly selected is still something to think about. This may be true, but taking into account a few other factors dilutes the strength of the result even further. Excluding the new Speaker of the House, Bronwyn Bishop, from the initial sample raises the probability of randomly selecting no more than one woman to 8%.

Furthermore, the one woman who did make it into Abbott’s Cabinet, Julie Bishop, has been appointed Deputy Leader of the Liberal Party as well as taking on the esteemed Minister for Foreign Affairs portfolio. Along with Warren Truss (Deputy Prime Minister) and Joe Hockey (Treasurer), she thus takes one of the three chief roles in Tony Abbott’s leadership team. One woman out of these three key positions is technically something of an overrepresentation, given the candidates available, and so our result weakens further if we weight the spots accordingly. For example, just for argument’s sake, assume that getting appointed to one of these roles is doubly as important as other positions in the Cabinet. That is, assume a woman earns one ‘point’ for each normal Cabinet position and two ‘points’ for one of these chief positions. Then the current Cabinet earns two points through its women (or woman, in this case). The chance of the Cabinet earning no more than two points with a random selection of the candidates is then a whopping 17%. Don’t be scared of the formulas…

P(No more than two points earned by women)

= P(0 points) + P(1 point) + P(2 points)

= (0.781)18 + 15*0.219*(0.791)17 + 15*7*(0.219)2*(0.781)15

= 0.01 + 0.05 + 0.11

= 0.17

= 17%

Even less convincingly, when I use this weighted approach in conjunction with excluding Bronwyn Bishop from the list of candidates, the chance that the current parliamentary Cabinet could occur randomly without gender bias rises to 18%. Statistically, such numbers mean we can basically rule out any sort of gender effect at all.

There are a couple of little caveats I’d like to point out before we jump to any conclusions. This very basic statistical analysis makes a lot of assumptions which may or may not be justified. For example, the men and women in our list of candidates may not be equally capable to serve in the Cabinet after all. For example, what if, all else being equal, older politicians are on average better suited to the Cabinet than younger politicians? This could be relevant because the male and female candidates’ average ages might be different. Judging from the photos on the Liberal Party website, it seems to me that the men are on average older than the women, but of course I should actually get the ages and then compute some sort of weighting scheme if I want to really work out the effect. My intuition tells me, however, that including this feature would produce less sexism in the results.

Secondly, my analysis assumes that Tony Abbott selected all Cabinet positions simultaneously. Of course, it’s more likely that he selected the most important positions first and then worked down the order. I’m not sure how this would change my results; intuitively it shouldn’t make much of a difference, except that Julie Bishop’s position again takes on a little more precedence.

Finally, I’ve assumed that Tony Abbott was essentially just given a list of elected candidates and told to choose a Cabinet. That is, I assume Tony Abbott had no say in selecting the Liberal Party nominees for the electoral seats, which may have led to the gender bias in the candidates in the first place. But that’s a topic for another project.

In the end, then (if you’ve managed to read this far), it does seem that the emotive journalistic style of the Australian media has again got something to answer for in its vilification of Tony Abbott on this issue. I’m not saying our new Prime Minister is taint-free on matters of gender policy – far from it, but my own opinions shouldn’t weigh into it. So here it is, finally: The bottom line, from a basic statistical analysis.

We cannot conclude there is any gender bias in Tony Abbott’s appointment of his Cabinet.






Confessions of an Economics Graduate

Posted by David Smerdon on Sep 21, 2013 in Economics, Non-chess

I’ve taken a month off from the blog and indeed anything requiring more than minimal mental effort in my post-thesis hangover. Here I’m referring to very much a non-alcoholic hangover. After the thesis defense on Friday August 30, I was in no mood for celebrating – I was in the mood for sleeping.

I slept all afternoon, all night, and all the next morning. The following day, I ate, watched brainless movies (did you know there is a fourth Pirates of the Caribbean?) and slept some more. The next day was the same…and the next…and the next. Almost a month on, my mind still doesn’t seem to have recovered from the trauma I put it through these last two years, and particularly the most recent 100 days.

Finishing the MPhil programme at the Tinbergen Institute was arguably the hardest thing I’ve ever accomplished. I would say that it has been as difficult, as involved and as emotionally draining as obtaining the Grandmaster title. Certainly there were low times over the past 24 months that rivaled the levels of despair I felt when I thought I’d never make GM and wanted to give up chess entirely. The stress of the programme has had a significant effect on my health and well-being, I would say, even once to the point of bringing me to tears.

If this seems like narcissistic hyperbole, it’s not. If anything, the MPhil has been incredibly humbling. It taught me that I’m not as smart as I thought I was, that I’ve cruised through my high school and undergraduate degrees in Australia with a false sense of status. I guess I shouldn’t have been so surprised; part of the reason I chose the exclusive Tinbergen Institute was because I wanted to rub shoulders with the best and the brightest, and I have gotten to do that. I’ve befriended some of the most intellectually gifted students I’ve ever met. I’ve spoken with the world’s brightest professors and been instructed by the most brilliant teachers – and occasionally met one with both traits. And I survived the programme – but not by my wits, it pains me to admit.

The front page of my final thesis

I worked over 60 hours a week for most of the two years – almost double that during my time working for the Treasury, and certainly at a more intense rate – and this figure climbed to around 80 hours a week for the last few months of my thesis. Monday to Sunday, 12 hours a day, I tirelessly slaved over my books to keep up with the level. I gave up weekends, chess tournaments, and virtually all extra curricular pursuits. To put things in perspective, after two years in Amsterdam, I barely speak any Dutch and don’t even have a favourite cafe. The very real fear of failure provoked me to change almost everything about my lifestyle to put absolute priority on numbers and figures. In the end I didn’t fail, even scraping in to the handful of students receiving cum laude, but it’s an open and very legitimate question as to whether I’d make the same decision to come here if I could teleport myself back to the start of 2011.

I don’t want to give the false impression that the Tinbergen Institute’s programme is in any way more difficult or taxing than, for example, those in Harvard or Berkeley, although they tell me TI is considered one of the very best graduate economics institutes in continental Europe. All I’ll say is that the two years were certainly the hardest academic challenge I’ve ever encountered, and have delivered me the same depressing reality I once had to come to terms with in my chess career: No matter how hard I work or how much luck I encounter, I’ll never be as good as the elite. Again, this seems ever so dramatic from a literary standpoint, and perhaps I’ll regret writing this post in such a fatigued, philosophical state – but I vowed to always write this blog honestly, and I’ve kept to that mentality so far. And perhaps I can fill one small niche in the field that needs filling. Perhaps I can use my experience to offer some advice to those of us who are ordinary citizens considering or starting out a MPhil (Economics) degree.

Lessons for Students Undertaking a Master of Philosophy (Economics) Degree

  1. Know what you’re getting into. It’s all very well and good to have the drive and the desire to take on the most difficult and purest postgraduate programme of the social sciences. But an admiral notion requires considered understanding to be worth anything. What’s the ultimate goal? What do you really want to do in the future, what’s driving you to pursue this course, and is it the best channel to get there? Don’t underestimate the work load, nor the risks of failure, in deciding whether the course is the best avenue to get where you want to go.
  2. Sacrifice the non-essentials. Unless you’re a genius, you’re going to have to make lifestyle sacrifices to cope with the workload. Work out what’s really important to you and what isn’t, and cut the chaff.
  3. Prioritise. In my programme, we usually had about 25-30 hours available to study for the final exams (usually worth 50-75%). Homework assignments, which individually were worth 4-10%, could easily require this long or more. At some point, it simply doesn’t make sense to labour on for perfection for hours to fight for that extra 10% of an assignment. If it’s worth less than one percent of the final grade but is going to take more than a couple of hours to finish, it’s just not value for time. When it comes to grades, choose your battles, and be prepared to give up a little ego to make your path to the finish line just that little bit easier.
  4. Accept that your extra attention is limited, and proportion it towards things that matter. It’s a nice notion at the beginning of each block to imagine you might complete all of the extra readings and non-compulsory exercises for each subject, but it rarely happens. After the core requirements are completed each week, your time is limited. If you’re going to pursue anything above the mandatory tasks for a subject, choose the courses that really interest you or might benefit your thesis or research in the future. That way you’ll score better and impress professors in those subjects that really matter to you, and keeping an eye on what you’re really interested in will help the big picture to stay in focus. Speaking of which…
  5. Keep the big picture in focus. It’s easy to get bogged down with surviving week by week, day by day, assignment by assignment. But at the end of 18 months you’ll be asked to write the lion’s share of your degree on a single topic, and you may well have forgotten why you started out the programme in the first place. Take the blinkers off every once in a while and remind yourself why you’re here. Read books related to your field – and here I’m talking about fun, interesting books and articles, preferably free of mathematics. Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow, Gladwell’s Outliers and Surowiecki’s The Wisdom of Crowds will keep the microeconomists and behavioural economists going. Don’t discount Levitt and Dubner’s Freakonomics if you’re interested in econometric or empirical research and want to make an impact on the real world. Development economists who’ve managed to keep their save-the-world ideology through all the rational-choice hatred of the programme should keep their fires burning with Duflo and Banerjee’s Poor Economics or Richard Dowden’s fantastically insightful read Africa. Articles and current affairs shouldn’t be ignored, either; get yourself a subscription to The Economist – and read it!
  6. Choose at least one creative and one athletic pursuit to keep yourself sane. I know I said ‘Sacrifice!’, but sanity is important, too. Note  here that I don’t recommend an intellectual pursuit. I certainly couldn’t keep chess going, but even trying to learn a language in my spare time proved too taxing. The brain is like any other muscle and needs time to rest and repair; keep it out of the game when it’s not needed. On the other hand, you’ll find late-night junk food and sitting at a desk for the majority of each day a real drain on the body. A healthy brain requires a healthy host, so choose some sort of sportive hobby. And if you want to keep a smidgen of your creative soul, find something not too labour- or time-intensive to act as an outlet. Guitar, painting,..even a blog :)
  7. Don’t forget about the real world. At times it can seem like the current assignment is really ALL that matters in the world. Sometimes this isn’t such a bad mentality in order to get things done – but use it as a tool, nothing more. Remind yourself that at the end of the day, scoring a 6 or a 9 on one homework assignment in one course is highly unlikely to affect the remainder of your life in any way, shape or form.
  8. Don’t forget about the people in the real world, either. I came to the programme as a single man, but others weren’t so lucky. Wait, what did I just say?! It’s only natural that such an intense programme will affect those around you, particularly significant others. I’ve witnessed enough of this first-hand from my colleagues that I can definitely recommend taking the time out to focus exclusively on your partner. Aside from it being a nice and proper thing to do, even the rational economist would concede that it saves time and stress in the long run, too. Help your partner to understand the pressures of your course, and that you’re not willingly ignoring them. On the other hand, promise them time each week that you will solely devote to them – and stick to it. When I say solely, I mean it – it’s no use being there if your head’s elsewhere in a mathematical model. It’s also better for your own health – there’s not much love in the economics programme, so enjoy it when you can.
  9. Give 100%, but no more. I worked myself to the limit quite a few times, and at least once went over it. I’m not afraid of hard work, but everyone has their own maximum, and it’s important to spot when it’s coming up. Take breaks. Go outside. STOP. Realise that the lower productivity after four hours of sleep usually outweighs the lost study time from sleeping seven hours. And working nine hours straight is never as constructive as two four-hour sessions with a healthy lunch break. Take the extra winks, enjoy an extra sandwich, force yourself to walk around the park. Know your limits, and don’t exceed them.
  10. Laugh. Laugh with your colleagues, and make them your friends. Make fun of your workload, if you want, but do it together. You’ll find that it reinforces your collective sense of solidarity. You’re all going through this trauma together, and it definitely helps to remember that from time to time. When someone suggests having a dinner break together, take it. It’s only 15 minutes of your time, but the social interaction is very healthy and exactly what you need, whether you realise it or not. At the end of a long day, if a colleague suggests going for a beer, go – and encourage the rest of the group to follow. Remind yourselves that things are easier together, that there’s a world outside the offices…and that world serves beer.



Say no to Zeitgebers

Posted by David Smerdon on Aug 16, 2013 in Economics, Non-chess

I’m writing this at 3am, not because I can’t sleep, but because I’ve just finished breakfast.

It’s crunch time for the thesis and, in order to maximise efficiency, I’ve adopted a new philosophy. It goes something like this:

  1. Work until you can’t work any more.
  2. Sleep until you can’t sleep any more.
  3. Repeat.


Brilliant, huh? Well, perhaps a little unorthodox, but desperate times call for desperate measures. As a couple of posts have highlighted (such as this one and this one – boy, I really need to start tagging my posts), I’m a regular insomniac. It’s incredibly annoying, and the most inconvenient feature is that it’s most likely to strike when you need it least. For example, I got a good one hour’s sleep before the final round in the Politiken Cup last month, due to nerves. And, after a long day of economic equations and formulas in the office, my brain refuses to switch off, occasionally leaving me with algebraic dreams if I can sleep at all. Yes, you heard it right. My mind does maths in my dreams.

Of course, productivity levels plummet under such conditions. Hours of dead time abound while I stare at the ceiling at night, wishing myself to sleep, and then of course the subsequent extreme fatigue during the daylight hours makes everything slower again. Sleeping pills don’t help. Alcohol doesn’t help. Yoga – well, yoga might help, but that would mean I’d have to do yoga.

My new approach, however, is remarkably successful. Productivity levels are high as I work myself to exhaustion, after which my mind and body gives way and I collapse into a deep, dreamless slumber, regardless of the hour. It’s great for my thesis, but absolute hell for my circadian rhythm. Research suggests that most humans have a natural body clock somewhere between 24 and 25 hours – I wouldn’t be surprised if mine’s in the upper extreme of that distribution.

The first night I put my philosophy into action, I fell asleep at 2am. The next night it was 4am, then: 5.30am, 6.30am, 8am, and yesterday (but what is yesterday?), 10am. I woke up in the evening, followed the chess world cup matches, cooked some food, had a nap (yes, my body wanted more!), and now I’m working in the office. At this rate, with a bit of luck, I’ll be back in a ‘normal’ cycle by the time Sabina comes back from Germany. But then what?

Given the success of the strategy to date, particularly in cutting back the insomnia, I’m beginning to wonder if I’ve had circadian rhythm sleep disorder all along.  According to Wikipedia, suffers:

“…are unable to sleep and wake at the times required for normal work, school, and social needs. They are generally able to get enough sleep if allowed to sleep and wake at the times dictated by their body clocks.”

So far, so good. Apparently one type is very clumsily named “Non-24-hour sleep-wake syndrome”. Fascinating, though probably irrelevant. But one thing I’ve noticed from this last week is how inconvenient it is to be a night owl. For example:

  • It’s really difficult to buy a morning coffee at 2am (unless you can settle for McDonald’s)
  • My housemates have to be quiet during the day in their own home
  • I have to be quiet during my waking hours in my own home
  • Vitamin D is in scarce supply
  • I have to race to the supermarket as soon as I wake up to get groceries before it closes
  • I’m never awake for organised touch football or cricket games
  • Going out for drinks = Having beer for breakfast
  • Public transport stops for huge chunks of my waking hours (but where would I go anyway?)


Apparently there are even more disadvantages for nightwalkers, as this amazing article on Sleep Discrimination details.

But of course, in thesis week most of these things don’t matter. The pros seem to outweigh the cons. In particular, additional and surprising advantages besides those already mentioned include:

  • Not getting bitten by nocturnal mosquitoes in my sleep
  • Finally getting to hear the good shifts of Triple J (an Australian radio station)
  • Talking to my Aussie friends in real time
  • Getting to talk to my elusive friend who’s a night-shift hospital worker
  • Sunrise inspiration (I solved a month long mathematical roadblock after watching the sun wake yesterday)


The last point shows that my body doesn’t seem to have a problem ignoring normal Zeitgebers. (Actually, I just wanted to use the word Zeitgeber. I even just like saying it. Zeitgeber, zeitgeber, zeitgeber. Gotta love the German language.) It means any external cue from the environment that helps us regulate our body clocks, the mos obvious being sunrise and sunset. These are apparently supposed to help us (and birds, mammals etc) reset our irregular body clocks back to a 24 hour cycle every day. Ha! I scoff at such conformism. Ha, I say again, ha!

I once filled out a personality questionnaire in which one of the questions was, “Are you a sunrise or sunset person?” Besides being a ridiculous question on which to base one’s personality, it’s not even clearly defined. Does it mean which is aesthetically preferred? Or which is more often viewed? The latter, of course, basically asks where one sits on the circadian rhythm chronometer (yes, that’s a thing). In order of early-morningness (not really a thing), you are one of:

  • a lark
  • a morning person
  • a hummingbird
  • an owl
  • a night person


A fowl list, if ever I saw one. Why does one have to it snugly into one of these artificial categories? Why must one be dubbed ‘nocturnal’ or ‘diurnal’ just because Latin-sounding words are cool? Boo that, I say! In these glorious times of modern freedom and individualism, I’ll sleep when I want, eat when I want and wake when I want. I’ll be both a sunrise and a sunset person – let’s see what their personality tests make of that!

Now, if only I could get a cup of coffee…

A strip from my favourite webcomic, www.xkcd.com

PS: xkcd also has a strip making fun of the 28 hour day, a sleeping philosophy as incommodious as mine. May offend some readers.


Politiken Cup: The Wrap

Posted by David Smerdon on Aug 8, 2013 in Chess

I’ve made it to the little German town of Ladenburg for my post-tournament recovery. And what a tournament it was, too – definitely one of the best I’ve been to, and recommended for those looking for a fun European summer comp. Unfortunately for me, I couldn’t keep up the pace after a blistering 6/7 start. I crashed at the end, losing two of my last three matches to ruin my chances of a big place, ending up 14th. And as foreseen, it was the dangerous youngsters who were my undoing: the Italian grandmaster Sabino Brunello outlasted me in a marathon, see-sawing battle in round 8, while my extremely talented Dutch friend Robin van Kampen destroyed me in the 10th and final round.

It’s always a downer to lose the final round of a big chess tournament, especially if one is within reach of the major prizes, but it’s even more the case when one doesn’t have the opportunity to play many events. Most of the other grandmasters were heading off to their next competition immediately, so any bitter taste from a last-round stumble is quickly washed away in the anticipation of future conquests. Not so for your author, however, who usually only gets the chance to play one or two major events a year. But, leaving my own disappointments aside, the fortnight of chess was really very enjoyable. The organization was faultless, and the exceptional venue and accommodations made it an extremely pleasurable stay for the chess tourists, plus-ones and professionals alike (I’m not sure which category I myself fall into…). I was even lucky enough to stay an extra day, meaning that GM Hrant Merkuryan (from Armenia) and I could sneak off on the ferry to Sweden for lunch. To an Australian’s ears, there can’t be anything stranger than that sort of sentence – “Yes, we just ducked off to Sweden for lunch” – but I guess that’s just another advantage of Europe in general.

I didn’t exactly leave the tournament empty handed, if I’m being honest. I picked up a couple of consolation packages in two of the side events that made up the festival. My first problem solving tournament was super fun, and definitely to be recommended to the loungechair chess addict. The tournament doubled as the Danish Problem Solving Championships, and we were required to solve 18 problems in two hours, with ties being sorted on the basis of who finished first. With this in mind, I was the first to hand in my sheets, no doubt some grandmasterly arrogance partially responsible for why I recklessly handed in ‘complete’ solutions after less than an hour. I got my just desserts, though, when it turned out I’d made a very silly mistake in one of the simpler puzzles, scoring 34/36 to finish in second. I have to say that it was a really fun event and it’s a shame (a) that they’re quite rare and (b) that I’d never bothered to go in one before.

I also played the epic blitz tournament in the evening after round 8. After a 5 hour loss to Sabino during the afternoon I wasn’t really in the mood for cognitive effort, but I’d been informed that the blitz was something of a social tradition and so decided to check it out. We were broken up into 8 groups of 10 players and played a full 9-game round robin, with the top two placegetters making it through to the qualification pool of 16. We were then broken into a further two groups of 8, played a full 7-game round robin, and the top two of each group made it into the final four for semi-final elimination. Lady Luck (Caissa?) seemed to be on my side this night. First, I scraped through to the qualification pool with a last round win in my group of 10. Then the Danish GM Alan ‘Good Bloke’ Rasmussen and I finished tied for 2nd in our qualification group and so had to play a very entertaining Armageddon blitz match to decide who would go through to the semis. (Armageddon blitz was created for situations where a draw simply wouldn’t do. Black gets four minutes to White’s five, in addition to the first-move disadvantage, but a draw sees Black qualify.) I was lucky enough to scrape a draw when both sets of pieces finally disintegrated with seconds left for both of us.

So I made it into the semi finals along with three friends: Grandmasters Sebastien Maze and Romain Eduard from France, and Hrant. I was paired against Hrant, the former European blitz champion and probably the strongest blitz player on the night. However, after playing pretty appallingly in all the qualification rounds, I got very lucky in both our games and managed to win through to the final. I felt pretty guilty as Hrant is much, much stronger than me and I was also looking forward to seeing him battle the French genius Romain in the final, and this feeling was compounded when Romain destroyed me in the final two matches, but that’s blitz for you. The whole thing finished up at 1.30am after 19 games, but again, it was super good fun and the atmosphere in the final was really nice, with many of the local and foreign participants staying to the end to watch, beers in hand.

But of course, the main tournament was where the serious attention was at. After Sabino beat me in round 8, he then took down top seed and tournament leader Ivan Cheparinov in round 9. Cheppa had played the toughest field and led from the front since the first round, only to come undone right at the end – that’s open chess for you. This left Sabino and the Indian boy-wonder Negi tied for first going into the last round, and playing each other to boot. Sabino made a somewhat cheeky draw offer on move one (!), but Negi declined and won a fine game to win outright and by a full point on 9/10. Cheppa took second, with the French duo picking up the other major places to cap off a fantastic financial haul when one considers their blitz, team-blitz and nightly casino performances.

Overall it was a great event that really reignited my chess appetite. I had a great time and played some quite decent chess, at least for the most part. Both my winning and ‘unbeaten’ streaks came to an end during the tournament, but all I felt was envy when the GMs spoke of the tournaments they were heading off to after Denmark. Most of the top guys will be playing in the World Cup starting in Norway next week. Oceania will be represented by IM Igor Bjelobrk, who’s up against the Russian powerhouse Alex Grischuk. At leat I’m not totally uninvolved – I’ll be doing some commentating!

Back to the real world now for me, unfortunately. My thesis can’t wait any longer, despite how much I’ve enjoyed this short chess-viking sabbatical. Here follows the last pictorial hurrah.

PS Thanks to Ola for the correction from the last post, where I mistakenly referred to Finland as Scandinavian. Regardless, the lunchtime sortie to Sweden added another country to the scratch-map, so only Norway eludes me – at least until the Olympiad next year…

The major prize winners in the main tournament assemble in some vague height order next to the infamous sponsor's banner


In the crucial top board clash in the final round between the two leaders, Sabino ponders his first move...


...before deciding on 1...e5 accompanied with a draw offer. Negi declines, which proves to be a very good decision.



Danish IM Jakob "I only own singlets" Vang Glud picked up his second GM norm with a draw in round 9


Italian GM Sabino Brunello ended my title chances in round 8, but was himself defeated in the final round by the winner


Two of the groups in the first stage of the blitz tournament. In the far right at the back you can spot French GM Sebastien Maze, who finished fourth in both the blitz and the main event


The French duo before their blitz semi-final (which was played after midnight, in case you noticed the bags under Sebastien's eyes)


Hrant and I before our first semi-final game. In the background you might be able to spot the sponsor's huge banner that hung around the playing hall and was apparently quite the foe to game concentration


Romain and I during the blitz final (photo courtesy of the Politiken Cup organisers)


"It won't fit in my suitcase!" Romain picks up his huge winner's cheque from the organisers and arbiters.


Hrant prepares to school me at nine-ball


The entrance to Christiania, a bizarre hippy community right in the centre of Copenhagen, with a fascinating history.


Part of the entrance to Christiania


The lively canal district Nyhavn was full of people enjoying summer in Copenhagen


Your author chilling out atop a castle tower in Helsingaborg, the Swedish sister town across the narrow strait. The playing hall is somewhere in the background land mass across the water.



Channeling the Smurf within

Posted by David Smerdon on Aug 2, 2013 in Chess

There was a time when I was young and cute. No, really. I had hair and everything. Back then, thanks to an article by International Arbiter Charles Zworestine, the chessworld gave me the nickname Smurf. Not just a derivation of my surname, it also reflected that I was one of the youngest chesssplayers in the adult levels, playing guys 30-40 years older.

It’s been a long time since I’ve been able to channel my smurfness. These days, I more often than not find myself facing some talented junior with oodles of opening theory, hours of hanging with Houdini, and the recklessness of an English bachelor party in Amsterdam. But the last two rounds reminded me of the ancient times when I was the whippersnapper. In round 6, had the honour of facing GM Jan Timman – yes, the living legend himself. Jan was ranked in the top three in the world back in the eighties and is probably the most famous Dutch player of all time (“Even above World Champion Euwe? Hmm.” Controversial.)

Naturally I was pretty nervous to face the man, which may have had something to do with a huge oversight on my part on move 19, missing a clear and easy win. What a shame! I have to say, Manuel’s advice to “mix it up, head for unorthodox positions” proved invaluable, and I quickly worked up a dangerous attack. After my blunder, the position gradually slipped away from me, but I managed a last-ditch rescue operation to save the draw, which was probably a fair result. The game’s below, without detailed annotations unfortunately because I’m supposed to be preparing for my next round…

Round 7 was against another guy in his sixties, but not just any senior: the reigning World Senior Champion, Jens Kristiansen. I decided to resurrect my Grunfeld for the first time in a decade, and got a very atypical position for me: passive defence and use of the two bishops. For the nonchessers, “the two bishops” refers to situations in which one side still has both bishops while the other has swapped one or both of theirs off (usually for knights). The idea is that the two lasers should be a long term advantage which, if nurtured correctly, should wreak havoc when the board opens up. The technique to utilise them, however, requires patience, subtlety, finesse…traits that, unfortunately, the gods thought better than to bless me with. However, this time around, somehow I managed to keep my trigger hand still and eventually convert the win. Ironically, the Timman game also saw me pressing with the two bishops – but given my double pawn sacrifice that preceded it, the order of the day was swift violence rather than positional maturity.

My run of old-timing legends (“Jens is a CURRENT legend, you know!” protested one local Dane) has come to an end, as I’m facing the very talented Italian grandmaster Sabino Brunello today. I managed to squeeze two goals past his keeping in football last night, which I’m taking as a good omen. A couple of pics follow; I’ll put a bit more effort into the reports once the tournament wraps up, including a summary of the problem solving competition.

Dutch chess legend Jan Timman

Top seed and tournament leader, Bulgarian GM Ivan Cheparinov

I eat breakfast outside every day. This is my view: grass, woods, sea,...and Sweden.

The scene before the start of the problem solving competition

An impressively high rated football game. From left: GM Sebastien Maze, GM Sabino Brunello, GM Ivan Cheparinov, GM Hrant Melkumyan, GM Robin van Kampen, GM Parimajan Negi






Posted by David Smerdon on Jul 29, 2013 in Chess

I’m writing this from Denmark. Yes, Denmark!! I finally made it to ‘real’ Scandinavia (sorry Finland, but any country where I have to use Euro rather than Kroners – despite the extra convenience – just doesn’t cut it). And perhaps even more surprisingly, I’m playing chess here.

“But what about the thesis?” I hear you ask. Or more likely, I just heard my conscience. Well, I’ve been pulling 12 hour days for the last fortnight trying to pump out a full draft for my supervisors, which has been wreaking havoc on my brain and body, so I was already looking to take a week off. Then, as fate (surely not karma) would have it, I got a last minute call from the organisers of the Politiken Cup in Denmark – they’d had an unexpected GM cancellation and were looking for a replacement. Of course, most grandmasters have their chess schedule worked out six months in advance – but I’m not ‘most grandmasters’, having not played a tournament since last August.

And I have to report that it was a good choice for such an ‘amateur grandmaster’. I’m in Helsingor, a gorgeous seaside town an hour north of Copenhagen, and the chess is set at the amazing Konventum, some sort of cross between a corporate retreat and a ‘goodness and well being’ centre. We’re surrounded by amazing woods, a medieval castle, fairytale-esque forests and the beach just a short stroll away. At the centre, we can play billards, wii, check out the sauna or play almost any sport under the sun – and yes, there is actually sun! In fact I snuck in some rare European sunbathing as I decided to do my opening preparation this morning out on the lawns, overlooking the golf course. Did I mention there is a golf course? Our own course!

Of course (ha!)  that doesn’t mean much to the other grandmasters. As Maxime Vachier-Lagrave (or ‘MVL’, as he prefers) recently quipped when interviewed, “Why should I care about the cities I play in? Wherever we play, chessplayers just go from the hotel to the tournament hall and back again.” Okay, I’m embellishing somewhat, but he said something like this. But of course, I don’t care that much about the results – I’m here to relax, and as such I’ll probably be the only grandmaster taking part in the other, less serious events in the festival. Besides blitz, there’s also a pairs blitz event and even a problem solving competition, in which I think I’m going to make my solving debut. And I’m sure I’ll be the only participant hitting the links in between rounds.

Despite my loud vows about my lighthearted approach to the tournament, so far it’s going pretty well. I’ve won my first three, which makes a nice change to the end of the Olympiad, my last tournament, where I lost the last three. Readers might remember that my collapse at the tail end of the tournament cost Australia what would have been its best evern Olympiad performance, which may explain why I’ve taken something of a Sabbatical from chess tournaments since then. It’s not the first time I’ve had a streak of losses – I would have gained the grandmaster title three years earlier than I did, back in 2006, if it wasn’t for a streak of four losses in a row when my live rating was 2496…

At least on the weight of current evidence, it seems I am a bit of a streaker. No, not THAT sort of streaker (the most famous recent example being this joker) – but I am very hot and cold in my performances on the board. My Dad always used to tell me that was my big weakness ; “You’ve got to stop the big swings”, he used to say, “None of these highs and lows – you’ve got to keep yourself level headed.”  A decade and a half on, I’ve still got the same record. Still, my hot streak in the British league has managed to kick on a little, and currently it seems I’ve won my last 9 games. That’s probably my best ever run, which is why I’m writing this now before I mess it up. Still, there’s a silver lining when I come crashing back down to earth, because I can stop my morning preparations entirely and work on my (lack of a) golf swing.

I’ll try and get some pics posted on the next update so you can get an idea of the tournament without having to rely on my verbose descriptions. There’s word that there might be a soccer game tonight, which I’ll also try and snap – because rumour has it that if they’re chosing teams on rating order, I may not even make the cut….

POSTSCRIPT: Indeed, my prophecy turned out to be self-fulfilling – literally. I thought the round started an hour later than it did (I was going off yesterday’s time) and came to the board half an hour late. After I made up time and actually got ahead on the clock at one stage, the game exploded into tactical fireworks and finished in a draw. Thus, no more streaking.


Cricket: Rewriting history

Posted by David Smerdon on Jul 28, 2013 in Non-chess

So, Australia’s losing the Ashes series. I’m shocked.

For the non-cricketlovers, the Ashes is an annual series of 5 cricket matches between England and Australia. Given our natural rivalry, it’s not surprising that this is the biggest sporting event of Australia’s calendar year. The history of the series goes back to 1877 (and to put that in context, Australia was only colonised in 1788). There’s a lot of pride at stake, a lot of history, and a lot of contemporary context, given recent pushes within Australia to become a Republic. And, unfortunately for us, in the last few years England has dominated.

And so it is that after two tests, Australia finds itself 2-0 behind. The newspapers are having a field day with the obscure statistic that only once before in all of Ashes history has a side come back from 2-0 behind to win 3-2, with a typical cynical sentence going, “…and that was back in 1936-7 when Don Bradman made scores of 270, 212 and 169 in each test.” Don Bradman’s name is uttered with deity-like reverence in Australia, being not only the world’s greatest ever cricketer but also probably the most famous Australian of all time (at least up until Kylie Minogue donned the gold shorts).

The journos just love quoting this statistic; in fact, I bet one of them got the stat from their analyst and it’s subsequently been copied-and-pasted all around the media park. It’s meant to represent that we have next to no chance of pulling through.

But if you’re going to quote obscure historical similarities, you may as well go the whole hog. Let’s analyse the 1936-7 series, tealeaf-style, and see if we can find any other peculiaralities to give us Aussies some hope.

Let’s start with just how badly we lost. Okay, in the second test Australia got hammered pretty badly, losing by 347 runs, scoring a piddly 128 in our first innings. But back in December 1936, Australia lost by an innings and 22 runs, having been slaughtered for just 80 in its first innings. 80!!

Comparing the first tests looks even better for the modern Australia side. While the team narrowly lost a few weeks ago by the tiny margin of 14 runs, the 1936 team lost by a whopping 322 runs, largely thanks to Australia scoring 58 in its second innings. Yes, that’s right. Five. Eight.

That’s probably the lowest score Australia ever scored. To put that in context, each side gets to use 11 batsman, and usually about three or four will score over 50 each. Here, the whole Australian team scored about that. Bradman, only ever thought of as a batting hero, got out first ball.

I can only guess what the Australian and – *gasp* – English journalists were saying back then after the first two tests. Surely the roasting would have been several degrees hotter than the one the Aussie team is getting now.

And yet…Something amazing happened. Sure, a lot of it had to do with Bradman, the captain and world’s best batsman. But we keep forgetting that the current Australian captain, Michael Clarke, is also currently the world’s best batsman. Sure, he’s misfired so far… but so did the Don 78 years ago. He’d made scores of 38, 0, 0 and 82 in the first four innings; by Comparison, Clarke’s made 0, 23 28 and 51. Sound familiar?

Okay, I’ll admit it’s a stretch, but one could argue that Australia’s in a better position now than they were way back when. And as the journos rightly mention, the rest of the series was all Ozzie – wins by 365, 148 and an innings and 200 runs. Beautiful stuff if you come from the sunburnt land.

…or am I dreaming too much?


The Lion King: The Circle of Rudd

Posted by David Smerdon on Jul 12, 2013 in Non-chess, Politics

Have you heard of The Lion King? Of course you have. Won two Oscars, took in almost half a billion US dollars at the box office, got turned into one of the most successful Broadway musicals of all time…sound familiar? Well, in case you still need a reminder, here’s a brief run-down of the plot:


The setting is the glorious Pride Lands of Africa. Simba is a young and ambitious lion cub who, following the unfortunate demise of his long-reigning predecessor, is the rightful heir to the throne. However, the second in line to the crown, his uncle Scar, has other plans. After sneakily gathering the support of the hyena clan with all sorts of promises of power (“A shining new era/ Is tiptoeing nearer”), Scar embarks on a daring coup, usurping Simba and banishing him from the kingdom.

While languishing in the backwaters of the wilderness, Simba befriends other outcasts, beings his new life and renounces any ambitions to the top spot. Meanwhile, Scar’s rulership has led to the once vibrant lands slipping into a desolate wasteland, with the forecasts looking equally dark and barren. Simba is persuaded by the other animals to return from exile and challenge the usurper in a desperate bid to save the kingdom. After a brief struggle, Simba defeats Scar and takes his rightful place as leader, thus completing the Circle of Life.


Now, ready for some magic? Let’s do a couple of small replacements, and BAM, you’ve got the synopsis of Australian politics over the past five years.


The setting is the glorious Parliament of Australia. Kevin is a young and ambitious minister who, following the unfortunate demise of his long-reigning predecessor, is the rightful heir to the throne. However, the second in line to the prime ministership, his deputy Julia, has other plans. After sneakily gathering the support of the labor clan with all sorts of promises of power (“Don’t be a fool/ Go with Jule”), Julia embarks on a daring coup, usurping Kevin and banishing him from the front bench.

While languishing in the backwaters of the political wilderness, Kevin befriends other outcasts, beings his new life and renounces any ambitions to the top spot. Meanwhile, Julia’s rulership has led to the once vibrant economy slipping into a desolate wasteland, with the forecasts looking equally dark and barren. Kevin is persuaded by the other ministers to return from exile and challenge the usurper in a desperate bid to save the election. After a brief struggle, Kevin defeats Julia and takes his rightful place as leader, thus completing the Circle of Kevin.


Of course, we’ve still got the election coming up in August, and I haven’t found a role yet for Tony Abbott. Was there a Lion King II??

(Now showing in a pub conversation near you.)

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