Armenia-Australia 3-1

Posted by David Smerdon on Aug 4, 2014 in Chess

“If you can draw with Aronian from the exchange down, you’ll definitely have no problems against Magnus!”

That was Aussie GM Ian Rogers’ comment after my game with Levon Aronian. Quite a few people have complimented me on my ‘inspired’ exchange sacrifice in the game, but unfortunately I have to confess that I’d seen the idea before. I had the white pieces but quickly found myself in an uncomfortable position against the Philador’s Defence. Luckily, I realised that a rather remarkable transposition was possible to an obscure line of the Blackmar-Diemer Gambit, which I had analysed for my upcoming book on the Portuguese variation of the Scandinavian Defence. If none of that makes sense, play these moves on the board:

1.e4 d6 2.d4 Nf6 3.Nc3 Nbd7 4.f4 e5 5.fxe5 dxe5

…and compare it to this:

1.e4 d5 2.d4 dxe4 3.Nc3 Nf6 4.f3 Nbd7!? 5.fxe4 e5!.

I couldn’t remember much about the line, which I’d analysed for the book about six months ago. I could, however, recall writing, “Black needs to be on the lookout for Rxd6 ideas. With best play, Black is close to winning, but the sacrifice can be quite dangerous against an unprepared opponent.” Then, during the game, I realised we’d stumbled upon the exact position, and so I went for it. Lev answered precisely and I was lost in a couple of spots, but in the end, I got lucky.

Higher quality chess was probably seen on the second and third boards, however. Max played an awesomely complicated King’s Indian against one of my heroes, Movsesian, with the craziness eventually fizzling out to a draw. Moulthun played a very mature game against Sargissian, but unfortunately went wrong in a complex middlegame and lost a tight endgame. Junta got tricked by my old nemesis, Akopian, and Australia eventually succumbed 3-1 to the former World Champions.

There’s not much else to report at this stage. There are the usual rumours and gossip, but rather than saucy tales, they largely revolve around the upcoming FIDE elections, a topic I’ll steer clear of for now. The elections do, however, mean that Kasparov is everywhere (both physically and on the multitudes of posters, billboards and t-shirts that adorn the city). It was a little intimidating at various points in my game with Lev to look up from my concentration and see, sequentially, Kasparov, Carlsen and Kramnik watching on, but that’s an Olympiad for you.

Incidentally, the Australian women’s team had an arguably even more impressive performance. They also lost 3-1, this time to the much-fancied Ukrainian women’s team, but the two draws were agreed in winning positions. 2-2 was the more correct result, which would have been one of Australia’s best-ever results in either section.

Tromsø as a city is quite nice – pleasant, friendly, hideously expensive. I’ve found the one hipster café in Tromsø, into which I sneak in the mornings to join the local students for a coffee with our macbooks. I almost look like I’m here on holiday.

Here are a couple of pics, courtesy of our men’s captain Manuel Weeks and and Leonid Sandler.

The Aussie team before the match with Armenia (and before the chief arbiter removed Max’s earplugs)

“What did I write in my book again?”

Round one against the US Virgin Islands

Round one against the US Virgin Islands


The Aussie team with one of our heroes, GM Victor Bologan from Moldova.


Australian Olympiad Photos #1

Posted by David Smerdon on Aug 1, 2014 in Chess, Non-chess

My camera and I have reached some sort of peacefire, which I’m immediately taking advantage of in order to upload a few quick snaps. Helsingør (Denmark) and Oslo to date. Enjoy!

Tournament winner, Chinese GM Bu Xiangzhi

The playing ‘pit’. In the foreground: top-seed, Ukrainian GM Moiseenko


Tournament winner, Chinese GM Bu Xiangzhi

Tournament winner, Chinese GM Bu Xiangzhi

Gawain and Tiger analysing their final-round game in the Danish sunshine

Gawain and Tiger analysing their final-round game in the Danish sunshine

Gawain also won the unofficial nightly pool tournaments.

Gawain also won the unofficial nightly pool tournaments.

2013-07-28 15.34.24

Junta and Anton with their norms; Moulthun (middle, refusing to look at the camera) with his prize money.

2013-07-30 13.31.41

Manuel and Anton join me for a selfie outside Oslo’s Tim Wendelboe cafe, apparently serving the world’s number one coffee

We'll make hipsters of them yet (captain Manuel and know-it-all Anton)

We’ll make hipsters of them yet (captain Manuel and know-it-all Anton)



Team Oz in Oslo

Posted by David Smerdon on Aug 1, 2014 in Chess

Goodbye Denmark, Hello Norway!

The Politiken Cup once again lived up to its billing as one of the most enjoyable tournaments on the European Summer calendar. This year was especially pleasant for the Aussies; as a team, we scored 4.5/5 in the final round to bump us up the order and flatter our final placings. I was the unfortunate “point-five”, drawing with US (and former Costa Rican) grandmaster Alejandro Ramirez to finish on 7.5/10. Moulthun and Anton both beat strong grandmasters with the black pieces to join me on 7.5, with Anton picking up his final IM norm in the process. The 13 year old wonderkid seemed nonplussed by this achievement, apparently more annoyed that I’d made a 2500 performance and he hadn’t (despite the 16 year age gap). He was heartened somewhat to discover he’d earned more prize money, though, thanks to winning his competitive under-2400 rating group!

Junta managed to swindle a win in what would prove to be one of the last games of the tournament. This was characteristic of his never-say-die attitude in the tournament, and although he messed up a potential (albeit long-shot) GM norm chance around the middle of the event, he still picked up valuable ELO points. Somewhat surprisingly, our captain, Manuel, was also in the norm-hunt mix after five rounds, thanks to a powerful victory over…Moulthun! Unfortunately, the Nordic Gods (or, more likely, an unfortunate dose of food poisoning) conspired against him and he was in survival mode for the last few rounds. Nevertheless, Manuel also joined the winners’ group for the last game.

Honorary Australian Gawain Jones really impressed, and thanks to a big win against Tiger in the last round, picked up second place and a hefty payday. More importantly, his rating has shot upwards to close in on 2680, dramatically increasing my chances of winning our personal bet that he’ll cross 2700 by the end of the year. The pocket change we got from winning the pair’s blitz event barely made a dent on his overall tournament income, but significantly boosted mine! I also managed to go one better than last year in winning the Danish Problem-Solving Championships (seriously good fun!), but got knocked out in the lucrative individual blitz event by none other than Junta!

Overall, it was a seriously cool fortnight of good weather, great food, excellent company and a wide variety of relaxing activities to maximise our team’s Olympiad preparations. Oh, and there was chess. Did I forget to mention chess? I’d almost forgotten.

My camera’s being a bit temperamental as I write this from one of Oslo’s many hipster-cafes, so I’ll try and upload the Danish photos once I get to Tromsø. In the meantime, if you’re one of this website’s chess-interested visitors, check out the chess Olympiad Fantasy Team competition. It’s free, but with real prizes, and adds a little bit of cheeky fun to watching the event. You’ve got to choose the best performers on each board for both the open and women’s events, as well as the overall team winners – but you can’t choose two members of the same country for the same event. I didn’t explain that very well, but you’ll get the idea – it’s easy. For the record, here are my predictions. Next stop: Tromsø!


“David Smerdon, your team, The smurfs, has been entered successfully into the Fantasy Chess Olympiad 2014.

Your team selection is confirmed as: 
Open 1: NOR – CARLSEN Magnus (2877)
Open 2: RUS – GRISCHUK Alexander (2795)
Open 3: UKR – IVANCHUK Vassily (2735)
Open 4: HUN – POLGAR Judit (2676)
Open 5: CUB – DOMINGUEZ PEREZ Leinier (2760)
Women 1: CHN – HOU Yifan (2629)
Women 2: IND – HARIKA Dronavalli (2513)
Women 3: HUN – HOANG Thanh Trang (2490)
Women 4: UKR – ZHUKOVA Natalia (2451)
Women 5: RUS – LAGNO Kateryna (2540)

Your end of competition predictions were:
Open section Gold: Russia
Open section Silver: China
Open section Bronze: Armenia
Women’s section Gold: China
Women’s section Silver: Russia
Women’s section Bronze: United States of America
Open section individual Gold: CARLSEN Magnus
Women’s section individual Gold: HOU Yifan

Your tie-breaker question answer was: 1301.”



Leaving the Politiks behind

Posted by David Smerdon on Jul 26, 2014 in Chess, Politics

It’s not like me to write about chess politics (i.e. my last post), but I’m sure I’ll have no choice at the Olympiad next week. Not to mention Australian politics; these days, it’s hard for me to read the politics section of The Australian without a shudder and a groan or two. So it’s nice to have a little respite before the FIDE elections begin. I’m in Helsingor, a cozy seaside town in Denmark, for the Politiken Cup. (And therein lies the headline pun. Okay, I was really reaching this time.)

Usually, being a part-time chess tourist, I like to play different tournaments in different places. So the Australian Olympiad team was a little surprised when I suggested they join me in Denmark for my second visit at this event, as a warm-up for Tromso. And a couple of my other friends have asked me what’s so great about the tournament. Well, without going into too many details or hyperbole, let me outline a typical day here in Helsingor.

8.00:    Wake up; the sun is shining and it’s already a charming 25 degrees. Sneak in a quick gym session (on site), then breakfast outside in the garden, overlooking the ocean.

9.30:   Chess preparation (naturally).

11.30:  Duck off through the woods to the beach for a dip in the (surprisingly warm) ocean.

12.30:  The lunch here – I’m not exaggerating – is by far the best food I’ve ever eaten at a chess tournament. The seafood, in particular, is astonishing.

13.00:  The round begins. One round a day is a must in a place like this!

17.30:  Soccer – again, on-site. Last night was “GMs versus the rest.” No prizes for guessing the result.

19.00:  Dinner is also outside; the sun stays up for a ridiculously long time in the Scandinavian summer.

20.30:  Normally, show-and-tell of our games in the bar; a few games of pool (free, and also on-site). Otherwise, a variety of social chess events are sometimes on offer, such as knockout blitz, pairs blitz or a problem-solving competition.

23.00:  Sleeping as the sun sets, as nature intended.

Tough life. The only downside is that I’m far too relaxed to play quality chess. I’ve had a rubbish tournament so far, but thanks to some very favourable pairings, I find myself in a position to challenge for the top spots. Still, I can’t see my luck holding up. I did have one nice finish to a game, however, which will be the only chess contribution from this post. Enjoy.




Cancel the Olympiad? No(r) way!

Posted by David Smerdon on Jul 18, 2014 in Chess, Politics

It’s hard to know what to make of the latest Olympiad drama. There are so many conflicting reports, rumours, innocent victims and different parties with skin in the game, that it reminds one of an election campaign. Oh hang on; there IS an election campaign. Go figure.

Back it up a little. For those of you without your finger on the pulse of chess gossip, here’s the state of play. The Olympiad in Tromsø, Norway starts in two weeks. Ten teams (including, most significantly, the Russian women’s team) missed the deadline for registration. The organisers have said they’re not accepting the late entry of these teams. FIDE says they MUST accept these teams, citing a statute that gives the FIDE President overriding powers. The organisers say that power doesn’t apply. Drama ensues.

That’s where we stand, at least from a fact perspective. The rumour mill is well and truly in production, as you might expect, with my favourites being that (1) Gary Kasparov’s team has orchestrated the organisers’ behaviour in order to embarrass FIDE before the upcoming FIDE election; (2) FIDE may cancel the whole Olympiad, and (3) FIDE, with the help of Vladimir Putin (!), is considering moving the whole Olympiad to Sochi, Russia, within the next two weeks.

There are a lot of parties at fault in all of this. The Russian chess federation should have registered its team on time, but delayed until after Kateryna Lahno, one of the strongest female players in the world, could officially change chess federations from the Ukraine to Russia. The addition to the Russian team was especially important, given the huge rifts within the team between two of its star players, the Kosintseva sisters, and the coach, Sergei Rublevsky, after the last Olympiad. It should be noted that the Russian team could have registered a team anyway and simply added an extra name later, for a nominal fee of 100 euros. But they didn’t, and here we are.

FIDE is hardly guilt-free in this, either. I doubt FIDE would have gotten involved at all if it wasn’t for the fact that it’s Russia who is affected. Meanwhile, the animosity between FIDE and the Norwegian organisers has been heated for some time, I suspect largely underpinned by the fact that Norway is a vocal supporter of the Kasparov campaign. The Tromsø organisers must also accept blame in all this; it’s clear that the budget for the Olympiad has been completely blown out of the water (although the organisers could not have known so many more teams would want to play than in previous years), and they have cited budgetary reasons for why they won’t allow exceptions to the late deadline rule. In fact, because of budgetary uncertainty, the Olympiad was only confirmed on June 5 – notably, after the deadline for registration. I have a lot of sympathy for the organisers: this will surely be one of the most expensive Olympiads ever, with the most teams, in a country where costs are high, and just after Norway has hosted a rather expensive World Championship match and a World Cup to boot. But a budget is a budget.

The innocent victims I mentioned are, of course, the players. And not just the Russians, either. Other teams affected include the Afghani women’s team, which has itself overcome its own internal problems in the past just to be able to play, and several African teams that have had to jump over many well-publicised visa hurdles to secure their place.  And, of course, if the whole Olympiad is moved or cancelled, literally thousands of chess players and fans will be affected.

I really have no idea what’s going on, and it’s even possible that the ‘facts’ I’ve re-quoted above have been massaged somehow by their sources. But what I can do is apply some basic game theory to the situation to make a prediction about what’s going to happen.  For example, it’s highly unlikely that the Olympiad will be cancelled or moved. There’s just no way that FIDE would accept the negative publicity in the run-up to what will be one of the closest-fought FIDE elections in recent history. Secondly, I find it very hard to believe that these teams will ultimately not be allowed to play, for similar reasons. If the Tromsø organisers just wanted to make a point, it’s been made: this story has been widely publicised in all major media outlets in the chess world. If it’s a budgetary issue, either the money will be found somehow, or the Norwegian organisers will cave in; after all, they would have had to have budgeted for these teams a couple of months ago, when they thought that these teams would register. The unfortunate reality is that perhaps without the Russian team being affected, the organisers might have gotten away with denying the other countries a place; as it stands, although ‘no exceptions should be made’, the might of Russia is a tough beast to fight against.

So, my prediction is that the Olympiad will go ahead, and the teams will play. The real question to me is, how are we going to get there? Who is going to cave first? And which side of the election is going to come out of this looking better than the other?

I, a lowly chess blogger, have no idea. But it’s all very exciting!


Getting cooked by Swedish chefs

Posted by David Smerdon on Jul 12, 2014 in Chess

Yeh I know, I need new material. But come on, I love this guy.

My tournament in Växjö (pronounced “Vair-kshh”, as I was quizzed on by the organisers in the opening ceremony) was not an overwhelming success. I finished middle of the field on an even 4.5/9. Certainly an improvement on my 0/2 start, but the second half of the tournament could be classified as a comedy of missed opportunities. Nevertheless, overall I’m not that unhappy to have sacrificed a handful of ELO points for my first Swedish chess experience. My three losses were at the hand of three of the youngest participants in the field: Mads Andersen (DEN), Aryan Tari (NOR) and Svane Rasmus (GER), three talented IMs who were super close to picking up GM norms in this event. Mads is a little older than the other two, but his play in particular really impressed me. He went on to win the tournament with 5.5 points, narrowly edging a big group on 5, and I expect we’ll hear a lot more about him (and the others) in the future. My best, or at least most entertaining, game of the event was against the top seed, GM Tiger Hillarp Persson. Tiger is one of the most unusual grandmasters I’ve met. I first ran into him at breakfast in the hotel on the opening day; I, an economist by trade, had brought a chess book to breakfast to read and relax over my meal, while the professional had brought a heavyweight macroeconomics book! I guess the grass is always greener somewhere else. Not only does Tiger share my interest in economics and particularly inequality, but he is, as he puts it, “very much a political animal”, expressing considered (and strong!) views about many topical social issues on which your average grandmaster would usually steer clear. The 43 year old is also an unusual chess professional for having started extremely late, around 25 years of age (a fact that many find especially shocking at first, seeing as he looks about 30).

Tiger (right) in a post-mortem with Victor Nithander (source: Lars OA Hedlund)

Tiger (right) in a post-mortem with Victor Nithander (source: Lars OA Hedlund)

Given that we were two of the three old GM punching-bags in the event, one might be forgiven for predicting an energy-saving draw in our individual encounter. And I must confess, going into the game, I would have been very happy just to take a reasonably non-confrontational half-point. However, it quickly became clear that the tournament favourite was out for blood and fireworks (not necessarily in that order), which he himself hinted at over breakfast by declaring, “Let’s have some fun!” Tiger unleashed an inspired and dangerous attack after the opening, which I only managed to diffuse by way of a rare middle game promotion on b1. This was enough to hold the balance, depute Tiger achieving his own new queen. However, the game had a few more twists in store, and by the time I achieved a second (!) promotion on b1, I had accidentally fallen into a winning endgame. Here are my notes on the game that I recently sent off to New In Chess for the next yearbook.

It turns out Tiger has his own blog and he annotated the game over there as well , so for some higher-quality chess commentary, check it out. All in all, not a horrible Olympiad-prep tournament, and an enjoyable start to the Scandinavian Summer. Next stop: Denmark!

My conquerors in the first two rounds.

My conquerors in the first two rounds.

In the midst of the playing hall: screens for the spectators. Why don't all tournaments have this?

In the midst of the playing hall: screens for the spectators. Why don’t all tournaments have this?

Early leader and new father, Axel Smith, before our game.

Early leader and new father, Axel Smith, before our game.


The chief organiser, Håkan Jalling, and his wife.

The chief organiser, Håkan Jalling, and his wife.


Full tilt

Posted by David Smerdon on Jun 27, 2014 in Chess

0-0-0. Queenside castling – again!

I’m in Växjö, a sleepy little Swedish town. Well, it seems sleepy, although I’m told it’s a lively student joint outside of the summer. Just my luck: you can have the sun, or fun, but not both.

I’m here for a cozy little grandmaster-norm round robin. Again, I’m the ideal attendee: a weak, amateur, foreign GM just ripe for the beating. And the beating, unfortunately, has commenced. Besides the obligatory three GMs, the tournament’s other seven participants are all young, talented IMs from Scandinavia and Germany. I was hoping enough time had passed since my horror loss in the last round of the Batavia tournament, but apparently I could have done with a few more months. My first game was a real shocker: with White, in a nondescript exchange French, I was lost after 15 minutes. A loss with White in the first round is of course the worst possible start, but after messing up a very promising position in my second game, I suddenly found myself alone on the bottom of the table with 0/2. Thus, I had managed to lose my last three games – 0-0-0.

This was the third time this has ever happened to me, and I can’t begin to describe how horrible it feels. It’s applied somewhat when you’re alone in a foreign country and know that the two-round-a-day slugfest will continue, whether you want it to or not. Unlike most grandmasters, who can maintain their professionalism and composure game by game, I’ve always been a momentum player, prone to epic rolling highs and inescapable lows. Liable, in poker terms, to tilting. That definitely was the case in the third round: I had the shakes for almost the entire four hours, absolutely convinced that every move I made was a blunder, despite my most thorough attempts at calculations. I wanted to be anywhere else but playing chess.

Fortunately, my opponent also got nervous, and in a double-edged time scramble I came out on top. Well, ‘fortunate’ feels a little generous: Quinten, a talented Dutchman, most probably won’t have a shot at the norm now, but the GM title can’t be far off for him. I’d say the same for my first two opponents, too – good thing I’m keeping up my end of the bargain by shedding points.

I’m definitely not out of the woods yet: tomorrow morning I’ve got black against the top seed, GM Tiger Hillarp Persson. But the bleeding has stopped, for now.

The tournament, I have to say, is really great. If I was a Scandinavian junior on the hunt for a norm, this would be the perfect opportunity. There are two IM-norm round-robins going on alongside the main event, and everyone is eager and playing aggressive, fighting chess. The venue is also really cool: it’s held right next to the town’s beautiful concert hall, in a building from the early 18th century that used to be the city baths. The players are very well taken care of, and there’s a nice display and commentary room for the spectators. It doesn’t change the fact that I wish I was on a beach somewhere and definitely not playing chess, but it’s great for the rest of the players, and makes a tilt just a little bit easier.


The back entrance to the playing hall

The back entrance to the playing hall


No concerts during the tournament, unfortunately

No concerts during the tournament, unfortunately


The city is littered with modern artwork and statues wherever you look. These ladies greet us at the hotel entrance.

The city is littered with modern artwork and statues wherever you look. These ladies greet us at the hotel entrance.


Australia: The (Un)lucky country

Posted by David Smerdon on Jun 6, 2014 in Non-chess, Politics

Ah, Australia. The sunburnt land. The land down under. The lucky country.

Well, usually.

Don’t worry; I promise this post isn’t about the latest Federal budget, though many of you are aware how much I have to say about that. Cutting $8 billion for foreign aid to the world’s poorest? Sure, why not; they can’t vote anyway, right? Sorry; I promised not to.

No, this is about a topic that many Europeans would consider to be far more important than anything else: the upcoming football World Cup. By ‘football’, I of course mean soccer. That round-balled game whereby players stare at each other for 45 minutes, score a goal, celebrate like they’ve won the shirtless lottery, and then stare at each other for another 45 minutes. Nah, I’m joking (well, partially). During my time in Europe, I’ve come to appreciate the game a lot more – the skill, the nuance, the culture, and even the sheer scale of the soccer world in business terms. (Incidentally, the total salaries of the English Premier League last season topped $3 billion. If the annual salary of the average player was reduced by a third from $2.7 million to $1.8 million – still not a bad payday for kicking a ball – the savings would completely cover the $2 billion in foreign aid projects cut from next year. But, you know, I promised…)

Anyway, back to the World Cup. It’s a huge extravaganza, uniting the world for a month in a sea of nationalism and euphoria. And amazingly, Australia made it in as one of the 32 countries to compete for the cup. Given that we are currently ranked 62nd in the world on the FIFA Rankings, some might call this a lucky break – and they’d be right, as, to a certain extent, Australia’s qualification path is a little easier than some of the higher-ranked countries. But hey, once you’re in, you’re in, and then it’s anyone’s game. Well, at least the draw is done pseudo-randomly, such that there’s always the chance you get paired in a relatively favourable group, increasing your chances of making it past the group stage.

Unfortunately, in Australia’s case, that hasn’t happened. In fact, according to a recent New York Times article, Australia has received the unluckiest draw of any competing nation. I had already publicly declared (much to my Aussie friends’ shock) that Australia was in my opinion favourite to finish last, even before the groups were announced. But now I’m convinced; if we score even a single draw, I’ll be impressed.


Unfortunately, no, it's not in alphabetical order, but rather in increasing order of luck.

Unfortunately, no, it’s not in alphabetical order, but rather in increasing order of luck. (Source: New York Times)

Australia’s opponents in Group B are: Spain, the Netherlands, and Chile. Yep.

Spain is the world’s best team and the reigning World and European Champions. That’s already an unlucky draw, but to be honest, we would have struggled against any of the other “Pot One” teams that we could have drawn, such as Germany, Argentina, Brazil or even Belgium. Bad luck, but not the end of the world.

No, the real pain comes in the form of the other two teams. To qualify for the group stage, we need to be in the top two finishes of our group, which basically means finishing higher than the teams other than Spain. In this case, we’ve drawn the Netherlands, the finalists in the last World Cup and one of the historically great football teams. A recent form slump has seen their ranking fall to a paltry 14th, meaning that they were candidates for our “Pot Four” team. We could have instead faced Bosnia-Herzegovina, or Croatia, or even Greece. Not a great result.

But the real pain comes in the form of our ‘weaker’ group member, Chile. Chile has had an incredible run of late, and is now ranked even higher than the Netherlands at 13th in the world. Moreover, it’s well known that South American teams tend to do much better in their own continent. They’re understandably the favourite to take the second spot in the group ahead of the Netherlands. In football parlance, we’re in the Group of Death.

Sounds bad, but wait, there’s more. One of our national legends of the game, Josh Kennedy, is out through injury. One of our new young stars, Tom Rogic, has also just been ruled out because of injury.  Our old captain has just retired, but I’m sure our new guy, Mile Jedinak, will be up to the challenge. That is, if he recovers from his recent ankle injury in time.

Am I too pessimistic? Perhaps. On the other hand, several betting sites have Australia has favourite to finish last (you can get 4 to 1 odds in some places). Call me unpatriotic if you will, but I’m already thinking ahead to my ‘second’ team to support in the Cup. I’ve decided that if I’m going to double-dip, I should at least choose a team with which I have some innate connection, so England it is. I’m not sure it’s going to bring much more joy, though, particularly given I live in the Netherlands with flatmates who support Spain and Germany.

English football fans also have a history of disappointment

Still, on the plus side, Australia’s chances in the partially knock-out draw have to be higher than Australia’s chances of winning the upcoming World Chess Olympiad. At least, according to chess commentators Lawrence Trent and Jan Gustafsson in a recent broadcast, Australia finishing first would be nothing short of a ‘miracle’. Two years ago we could have had our best-ever finish, sneaking into the top ten, had I not stuffed up the final round. This year, we’re also fielding a team with only one Grandmaster, but things are a little different. The team has gone for youth, a good long-term strategy, and I’ll be easily the oldest (and the tallest) member of our team. The squad will hopefully bring a hunger and energy to the campaign that I’m looking forward to cultivating. If nothing else, perhaps we have a good chance in the informal soccer matches on the rest day. If we’re lucky.



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 .


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