Up all night to get lucky

Posted by David Smerdon on Mar 27, 2014 in Chess

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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




Forgetting Bobby

Posted by David Smerdon on Mar 5, 2014 in Chess

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spot the odd one out.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Baby, Take a Bow

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

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

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

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

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


Start Spreading the flus

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

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

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

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

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

Not really bike weather

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

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

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

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

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


Long Live King Magnus

Posted by David Smerdon on Nov 22, 2013 in Chess

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Why Two Draws Equal A Win For Carlsen

Posted by David Smerdon on Nov 11, 2013 in Chess

The first two games of the World Championship in Chennai ended in short, sweat-free draws. Not the most dynamic start to a match, to be sure, but also not completely unusual at this stage, as the players try to test the other to see on what sort of footing the match will land.

However, several commentators – some of them grandmasters – have called these two results a psychological victory for Anand. Their reasoning consists of two arguments:

(a) Carlsen is younger and so has better stamina than Anand, so reducing a 12-game match to essentially a 10-game match with two easy draws is better for Anand;

(b) Anand now has more information about Carlsen’s openings, which his incredible team, combined with his own match experience, can use to out-prepare Magnus in the remaining games.

While there is undoubtedly some truth in these statements, I have a couple of problems with this assessment. Firstly, Carlsen may be half Anand’s age, but chess stamina is slightly different to the traditional sense of the term. Anand’s experience in championships means he knows how to take care of himself in big matches – how to relax, how to recharge. He doesn’t have the same level of nervous energy as the challenger. He’s also in his home city in India, and as I well know, playing chess in India can be perilous for a westerner. Besides, with six rest days to come over the remaining 10 games, I’m not sure how big a deal stamina is at this stage.

More importantly than this, however, is a realisation of each player’s relative strengths. Unquestionably, Magnus is stronger at playing a ‘normal’ position that neither player has seen or prepared before, while Anand is better at match preparation and using a team of seconds and computers. That means that Carlsen is comparably most at risk in the early games of the match.

Camp Anand has been preparing solidly for half a year to unleash crushing novelties and powerful improvements that any moral would struggle to match over-the-board. These ideas, prepared over several months, are far more dangerous for Carlsen than anything Anand’s team will prepare over the next few days – there’s just no way that intra-match preparation can be as thorough as that which has come before. I said it before the match and I’ll say it again: If Carlsen can weather the storm of opening preparation in the first couple of games, he’ll be in good stead to take out the match in the second half.  In that sense, the Caro-Kann was an excellent choice; it’s highly unlikely that Anand’s team had prepared for it. Priority number one, if I was in Carlsen’s shoes, was to dodge Anand’s preparation in the early rounds, and so far he’s done that pretty well.

The next four games are critical. Carlsen may seek to modify his opening choices slightly, particularly within the Caro Kann with Black, just to avoid Anand’s team’s preparation. However, he shouldn’t deviate so much that he finds himself landed back in Anand’s pre-match preparation, which could be a minefield to navigate under normal time controls. However, if the Norwegian can successfully negate the Indian’s theoretical arsenal by round 6, he’ll be a big favourite to win the match. Until then, every pair of draws is one more, albeit small, step up the ladder to Carlsen’s last big title.


See Bruges and Die

Posted by David Smerdon on Nov 10, 2013 in Chess

Last weekend I was the very fortunate winner of Chess.com’s Death Match 19, which was quite an experience. As ominous and morbid as it sounds, a Death Match is just three hours of really, really fast chess games between two grandmasters, without a break, for the entertainment of the Chess.com commentators and pundits. Of course, there’s some compensation: the winning grandmaster gets to take home the lion’s share of $1,000. Trust it to the Americans to sensationalise chess in this way, but truth be told, it’s working: the Death Matches are incredibly entertaining to watch, and having taken part in one now as a competitor, I’m now a converted fan of the format.

As some of you might know, my task for the November 9 match was complicated somewhat by the fact that I had accidentally double-booked myself – my girlfriend and I had scheduled that weekend in the romantic Belgium town of Bruges for our one-year anniversary. Yeh, ‘oops’. Fortunately, my girlfriend lives up to few of her German stereotypes and is as far off the scale of ‘understanding’ as you can get, and so I had the green light to bunker down for three hours on the Saturday night against the talented English Grandmaster Simon Williams.

By the way, did you know that the brilliant black comedy “In Bruges” is called “See Bruges and Die” in the German translation? Somehow, the German title seemed more appropriate for what I had to face. The format of the Death Match is a three hour, no-break slugfest, roughly made up of: one-third 5-minute games, one-third 3-minute games and one-third 1-minute (the so-called ‘bullet’) games. In the latter format, players virtually have less than a second on average to think before making a move. By the end of the three hours, having finished with 15 of these bullet games in a row without a break, my hands were literally shaking and my heart was racing with a heavy overdose of adrenaline. Yes, from chess!!

Anyway, in the end I was successful, but only scraping home by the skin of my teeth. I was losing through almost all of the three hours and was down 30-29 with a few minutes left, but managed to win the last three games to sneak home 32-30. (The official write-up of the match is here, and if you are feeling really adventurous (or really bored), you can actually watch the full three hours, complete with grandmaster commentary and pre- and post-match video interviews, here.)

For those of you who don’t know, Simon is one of the most dangerous tactical players England has ever produced. He has this uncanny ability to whip up incredibly venomous attacks out of thin air, and he has a swag of 2700+ grandmasters scalps to prove it (I, on the other hand, have none). You can see one of his big wins on the official pre-game promo here (yes, they decided to call the match the ‘Battle of the Ashes’. Well, at least Australia finally won something against England). Simon’s also a fantastic author – check out his website www.gingergm.com for links to his excellent DVDs and books. Despite all of this, he’s also decidedly modest – a rare trait on the grandmaster circuit, I can tell you.

So I knew I was going to be up against it, which is why I devised a cunning plan to maximise my chances in the match. Most likely, without my strategy I wouldn’t have won, as Simon is generally just a stronger blitz player than me. I formulated my three-pronged plan on the long train ride from Amsterdam to Bruges as follows:

Dave’s Plan To Beat Simon

1. Take the initiative in the opening – whatever it takes, put him on the defensive.

2. If that doesn’t work, head for an endgame, even if it’s clearly better for him. The chances of saving the endgame are higher than holding off his tactics.

3. If that doesn’t work and he does get an attack, COMPLICATE things as much as possible to force him to use up precious time.

Okay, it may seem simplistic and naive, but I really stuck to this plan, and I really think it worked. Of course, the approach was most likely to be successful in the faster time controls where Simon wouldn’t have as much time to convert the endgames/work out the complications, and so I focussed my preparation on the 1-minute bullet games. I got to practise about 70 bullet games on the chess.com servers in the week leading up to November 9, giving me ample opportunity to hone my swindling and trap-setting skills. I decided that sacrificing a pawn in the opening was worth it, even if it was unsound, if it gave me a temporary initiative that was likely to force him to use up roughly 10-20% of his allocated thinking time. I angled for the endgame whenever I could. And when things really went pear-shaped, I mixed things up with the most ridiculous moves I could think of to shock him into time trouble. A cunning plan!



Here’s an example of a successful Strategy 1:

Here’s Strategy 2 in action: heading for the endgame. Actually, this was the last game in the match and a win for Simon would have forced a tie-break. Once I got to the endgame, though, things went reasonably smoothly.

And finally, here’s an example of Strategy 3: Shock value!

It’s a bit mean to just feature my wins, of course. Simon won some incredible attacking games (there are some examples on the official Chess.com post-match report) and generally outplayed me over the three hours. In fact, from the first game he was leading the match, and even had a 30-29 lead with about 5 minutes to play. Fortunately, I got a lucky run right at the end and won the last three to finish with my nose in front when the timer ran out. Simon definitely had the advantage in the vast majority of games, but I didn’t earn a reputation as a ‘swindler’ for nothing (I used to give my captain, Manuel Weeks, all sorts of headaches with the rubbish positions I’d fall into before trying to slime my way out). Really, I got a ridiculous number of lucky breaks. The following game was probably the luckiest; as you play through it, bear in mind that had Simon won one more game, such as this one, the scores would have finished level after 3 hours and we would have gone to tie-breaks.

Super, super lucky. Anyway, having finished the match, it was of course necessary to try and make ammends with my better half. Actually, she snuck in to check out the final few games and was surprisingly excited that I won. She even found us a restaurant in Bruges playing blues/jazz and with a late-night kitchen serving – would you believe it, in Bruges? – kangaroo steak. Not a bad way to celebrate! I have to say I was suspicious of the Death Match format at first – it sounded like a sacrilegious American attempt to sensationalise chess, to be honest – but now I’m a bit of a convert. The (thousand+!) spectators and commentators really got into the match, and the pre- and post-match player interviews give a nice sense of interactivity between the spectators and players. Having said that, I don’t think my nerves could handle another Death Match any time soon. Plus, I’ve already seen Bruges now.





Before 30

Posted by David Smerdon on Oct 30, 2013 in Chess, Non-chess

When I was back in high school, I set myself a list of goals to achieve before I turned 30. Okay, many people make these lists (as our Facebook news feed so often annoyingly reminds us), and it’s not like I ever actively pursued my list. Still, having recently turned 29, I couldn’t help but do a little sneaky stocktake to try and work out how 15 year old David would have felt about the current state-of-play. Would he be satisfied? Impressed? Disappointed? Certainly he would have wished I’d kept more hair, but what about the rest?

The answers , if there are any, are probably more a matter for private introspection. But there’s no doubt that turning 29 seems to have kicked me into gear as I rush to get a couple of these (very subjective) boxes ticked. For example, last week I took the entrance exam for Dutch classes here in Amsterdam.

Yep, that’s right: after two years of living in the Netherlands, I still don’t speak the language – which is very embarrassing, but surprisingly common in this city. Dutch has got to be one of the world’s most useless languages to learn, given that the vast majority of the 20 million people speaking it are completely fluent in English. Still, by all reasonable measures of fluency, I can still only claim to speak one language, in staunch defiance of my  ‘Before-30’ goal of polylingualism. Hence, with less than 12 months to the self-imposed (and objectively irrelevant) deadline, I’m signed up for a ‘Nedlerlandse Taalcursus’. Giddy up, jongens.

But another of the stipulated things-to-do before the so-called ‘peal’ anniversary of my birthing into this world is to have written a book. And this one I really thought I would have knocked off by now. Given the amount of prattle and blather I can produce on this blog, you’d have thought this would be an easy task to achieve, but sadly not. Well, I can proudly report that I’m (sort of) on schedule to produce a laborious tome before the big three-oh.

Back in 2007, it was proposed to me that I should write a book on the Portuguese Gambit, an extremely unorthodox and rare chess opening that, as it happened, I was best placed to write about. It turned out that despite my meagre rating, I was the strongest player in the world regularly employing the gambit. Actually, this was not so much serendipity as the fact that the vast majority of strong chess players consider the opening complete garbage. Still, this presented me with a rare opportunity to carve out my niche, and so I began discussions with some chess publishers.

The editors of most chess publishing firms are themselves grandmasters, and unfortunately (but perhaps not too surprisingly) most of them expressed grave concerns with the soundness of the system. That’s putting it mildly, mind you. In any case, various external situational complications (don’t you love euphemisms?) led to me being unable to take on a new literary project anyway, and the idea faded away into the Canberran setting sun.

Yes, I know that's two 'Challenge accepted' references in two posts. I will eventually expand my repertoire, I swear.

Fast forward to May 2013. The final match of the Four Nations Chess League is taking place in England. My club, Guildford 2, is paired against the division leaders Wood Green 2, and we need an upset victory to avoid relegation to the lower division in the next season. I’m paired with the black pieces against Grandmaster John Emms, also an esteemed author of many books that includes The Scandinavian, the definitive work on the opening that encompasses the Portuguese Gambit. Naturally (in order for this story to be worth recounting), I whip out my favourite eccentric gambit and, as Caissa would have it, win a swashbuckling victory that propels our team to an improbable victory and thus safety from relegation.

Emms contacts me a few days later, and whaddayaknow, he’s not just a well-published author but also one of the editors of Everyman Chess, one of the world’s biggest chess publishing houses. A few emails back-and-forward, some jovial negotiations, and *bam*, I’ve signed a book contract. Assuming I can keep to the stipulated schedule, I should be delivering my manuscript just shy of my 30th birthday; how convenient…

Six years haven’t really changed anything about the Portuguese Gambit from a theoretical perspective. It’s still considered dodgy and unsound, and unsurprisingly I’m still the highest-rated player to regularly keep it as part of my repertoire. But the good news is that I’ve been given the green light to write the book in as long-winded, lyrical and turgid a fashion as I want (which, as readers may have noticed, can be very long-winded, lyrical and turgid indeed). I plan for the book to be a complete repertoire guide against 1.e4 for wild tacticians, lovers of chess unorthodoxy or crazy coffeehouse hacks. It will be practical and honest, with an up-front disclaimer that the opening is fundamentally unsound (though I’m yet to discover a refutation). Unfortunately, given the fact that strong players usually steer clear of my ‘junky’ openings, the book will have to reply mainly on my own games for illustration purposes – including, naturally, the win against Emms. Let’s see if that makes it through the editorial procedures…

As part of my preparation for the writing process, I’ve been employing my proposed repertoire at every opportunity in over-the-board and internet games of late. Fortunately, 1.e4 is so common that this means I’m getting a lot of practice (and material?) for the book. For example, a fortnight ago I faced a variation against the Portuguese I’d never seen, and which hasn’t been published anywhere before. Naturally, it’ll make its debut in the book. I was playing in the 4NCL Rapid Championships in Daventry, England, and was sitting on 5 out of 6 going into the last round. The very talented Alan Merry was the surprising leader on 5.5/6 and we were paired against each other, I (fortuitously?) with the black pieces. Here’s how it played out.

(If you’re interested, a report on the 4NCL Rapidplay weekend is here.)

Well, at least it’s book-worthy. I’m still a long way off finishing the thing, or learning Dutch for that matter, but at least the wheels are in motion for a couple of Before-30 ticks.

I’m giving up on doing a handstand, though. That thing’s impossible.



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\%.


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