Short’s article was not as controversial as it has been made out to be
Short based his claims on two recent academic contributions – one statistical comment and one study on FIDE data – that suggested that gender gaps cannot be explained away by participation rates
There are several technical issues with these papers that cast doubt on their conclusions, particularly for the majority of the population
Overall, the scientific evidence does not suggest a biological basis for the gender gap for the vast majority of the population
There is some evidence of a gap at the very highest professional levels; an open question is whether this is due to maternal reasons
I have gotten a lot of feedback on my recent post about GM Nigel Short’s NiC article about gender differences in chess. My previous post was meant to be informal and light on technical analysis, so as to put the gender debate more in the light of what is and isn’t important for us as a community to talk about. Still, the feedback I have received has indicated that there is at least some demand for an explanation of my views from a more scientific perspective. Also, given the amount of unsubstantiated rubbish reported in the media about Short’s article, there’s probably good cause for an objective academic review of his claims as well. What follows will be a little more technical than my regular posts, so for an easier read on the issue, refer back to my original response.
But let’s take a step back for a minute. In my opinion, the main powder keg for the surfeit of angry reactions that this story has incited is the lack of a well-defined question. What’s really the issue being discussed here? Here are some of the different angles that various media reports have claimed is Short’s main point:
Women are worse at chess than men
Women’s brains are naturally less suited to chess
Women shouldn’t play chess
Women aren’t smart enough for chess
…and some other things about driving.
Reading these reports, it became very clear to me that almost none of the journalists actually read Short’s article (you can see it in full here, if you like). Some journalists even went so far as to ascribe blatantly sexist but entirely fabricated quotes to Short in their reports – the most cardinal sin of Journalism 101.
In fact, Short says nothing about intelligence in his article, nor makes any normative claims saying that women shouldn’t play chess. In fact, his final sentence begins, “It would be wonderful to see more girls playing chess, and at a high level.” The two claims that do come out are as:
There is a gender gap in chess
This gap cannot be explained by participation rates
To back his claims, Short quotes a recent academic study by Robert Howard, an Australian psychologist and leading expert on chess research. (Actually, Short quotes Howard’s synopsis in a ChessBase article, which has several important differences to the original published study – see below.) Up until Howard’s study, the gender debate had pretty much been put to bed in the academic community thanks to the widely accepted ‘participation hypothesis’: that the gap in performance disappears once one accounts for the fact that far less females play tournament chess than men. The definitive article is Bilalic et al., 2009, which found that 96 per cent of observed performance differences between men and women at the top levels of chess can be explained by participation rates.
Short is highly critical of the participation hypothesis, elegantly lambasting the authors:
“Only a bunch of academics could come up with such a preposterous conclusion which flies in the face of observation, common sense and an enormous amount of empirical evidence too.”
While the vast majority of academic literature, and hence ‘observation’ and ‘empirical evidence’ on the topic, supports the participation hypothesis, there are two studies since 2009 that back up Short’s rebuttal: Howard’s 2014 work, and an academic comment by Michael Knapp that criticised the statistical reliability of Bilalic et al.’s study. Yes, only a bunch of academics! Semantics aside, though, it’s time to directly address these articles.
The Knapp comment, despite Short’s claims, can hardly be said to be backed by ‘common sense’. Instead of assuming that the population of chess players follows a normal distribution (as is the case for IQ, height and many other natural phenomenon), Knapp adopts a ranking-preference approach that employs a negative hypergeometric distribution.
This doesn’t sound very logical to me. Knapp’s motivation is that the original Bilalic et al. model has a lot of problems forecasting ratings at the tails of the distribution; that is, the model’s accuracy at predicting the strength of the very best players is dubious. This is true, but the same can be said for almost any population where a normal distribution is assumed; IQ tests, for example, are notoriously unreliable for extremely smart (or vice-versa) people.
Moreover, it seems to me that a ranking mechanism, as Knapp suggests, faces similar problems at the tails. Ordinal ranking mechanisms don’t distinguish strength differences between ranking positions, so essentially a lot of information that we have via ELO ratings is being ignored. For example, the difference in strength between Carlsen (ELO 2870 as of April 24) and Caruana (2800) is assumed to be the same as between Caruana and the current world number 3, Nakamura (2799). I can’t say for sure that one approach is necessarily better than the other at the extremes – my knowledge of the negative hypergeometric distribution is a little shaky – but for investigating performance gaps for the average population, I don’t find Knapp’s rebuttal very convincing.
It’s a similar story with the Howard study, which I found very interesting. The study itself makes only modest claims: At the very top levels, the difference in performance cannot be fully explained by the participation hypothesis. Short seems to exaggerate this result:
“Howard debunks [the participation hypothesis] by showing that in countries like Georgia, where female participation is substantially higher than average, the gender gap actually increases – which is, of course, the exact opposite of what one would expect were the participatory hypothesis true.”
I don’t know what Short is referring to here, because there is nothing in the Howard article that suggests this. Figure 1 of the study shows that the gender gap is, and has always been, lower in Georgia than in the rest of the world for the subsamples tested (top 10 and top 50). Short may be referring to Figure 2, which, to be fair, probably shouldn’t have been included in the final paper. It looks at the gender gap as the number of games increases, but on the previous page of the article, Howard himself acknowledges that accounting for number of games played supports the participation hypothesis at all levels except the very extreme (Chabris and Glickman, 2006). If anything, this figure seems to suggest that the often-quoted statistic of a gender gap of 250 ELO points is vastly inflated. (There is also a third figure in the paper, showing that the career progression of Judit Polgar was similar to that of Gary Kasparov. I have no idea what this is meant to demonstrate.)
There are a couple of issues with the Howard study. The first is that it uses only FIDE ratings data, which does not account for drop-out rates and is statistically biased towards the top of the distribution. The serious problems of using only FIDE data to make inferences about the population are highlighted in an excellent (but rather dry) paper by Vaci, Gula and Bilalic in 2014. In short, the bottom line is that analysis based on FIDE data messes up performance differences with the question “Which gender is more likely to drop out of a chess career?”, which introduces a whole new set of explanations.
The second issue I have is that Howard restricts his sample to players who have played at least 650 FIDE-rated games. That is a heck of a lot of games! Howard has good reasons for doing this from a statistical perspective (see above), but it casts some doubt on the representativeness of the sample. Once we move into this range, we are beginning to talk about gender differences between people who play chess as their profession, rather than just general ability differences among the broader population.
Judit Polgar, the most successful (and famous) female chess player in history, suffered uncharacteristic rating slumps in the period immediately following the birth of each of her children. Professional chess in the open category is a full-time commitment, requiring a rigorous and demanding training regime. Peak performance is usually registered in the age range of 30-40. Should we be terribly surprised that there is a small but persistent gender gap among this extreme subset of chess professionals? I wouldn’t expect anything less.
The final issue I have with the Howard study is in regard to the Georgian data. Howard’s claim is that the very high percentage of female players (around 30 per cent) gives us a good opportunity to test his theory. Unfortunately, as he himself mentions, the sample here is extremely small. There are only 12 Georgian women that met the criteria of 650+ games during the period, and so the power of the comparisons is very weak. (Note that the majority of these women are/were also professionals, and thus subject to the maternal pressures mentioned above.)
However, the data is useful to answer a different question: Given that the chess culture in Georgia has historically been much more supportive of female players than other countries, how does the gender gap compare to the rest of the world? One would assume that if there is a large social component to the gender performance gap, then the most successful country for producing professional female chess players should have less of a gap than the average. Figure 1 of Howard’s paper shows that this is indeed the case. This supports a nurture argument to the gender gap, but again, the sample size is too small for anything definitive to be concluded.
In saying all of the above, let me finish by stating that I quite like the approach taken by Howard and Knapp in their analyses. I think that it is all too easy for people to approach gender issues from a resolute emotive or philosophical base, rather than being open to new scientific arguments. The participation hypothesis has certainly not been debunked, but neither can one say for certainty that neurological differences don’t play a role, particularly at the highest level. It seems to me on the basis of the current evidence that if we took a newborn boy and girl and asked the question, “Which is most likely to become world chess champion?”, the boy’s chances are slightly higher. But we are talking about minute differences to incredibly minute probabilities to being with. As to the much more significant question of which would be more likely to beat the other in the future, cultural effects excluded, nothing to date has managed to convince me that there should be a difference at all.
Much to my amazement, chess has hit the front pages of the mainstream media for the third time in a fortnight. This time, however, it’s more a case of old wine in a new bottle. The always controversial English GM Nigel Short has come under the spotlight for claiming that male and female brains are differently hardwired when it comes to chess. Never mind that the article for New in Chess magazine was published three weeks ago; today was the day, for whatever reason, that the story went viral.
As you might expect, the English tabloids had a field day, covering angles from claims that Nigel said that women shouldn’t play chess at all, to claims that women have lower IQs than men, as well as branching out to the issue of general sexism in chess. While Nigel’s article didn’t hint at any of these claims, there are admittedly several strong players who believe the first two of these points, while the third – a male-dominated chess culture – is undoubtedly true.
I don’t want to get into these issues too much. I’m an academic, and for anyone familiar with scientific publications on gender in chess, the issue has really been done to death: After accounting for sample size – the fact that far fewer women play tournament chess than men – there is no significant evidence whatsoever that men are better than women. This has been shown in countless academic studies (although not a single one was quoted in any of the media reports today). I don’t claim that there aren’t relevant gender differences to professional chess – for one, men have been found to be on average more competitive than women – but this specific question, at least, has been answered some time ago.
If one really wanted to definitively test nature effects, the ideal hypothetical experiment would go something like this:
Get some twins – one male, one female – and whisk them off to a desert island
Raise them in identical conditions with no exposure whatsoever to gender influences
Teach them both chess in identical training environments
Test their chess strength
Repeat steps 1-4 with a thousand other sets of boy-girl twins
Not such a convenient experiment to run. But for many people, this is not the real question anyway. For most parents, what they really want to know is whether the answer to “Should I teach my daughter chess?” differs from “Should I teach my son chess?” Many parents are likely worried that the environment for success in chess is more difficult for girls than for boys – and to some extent, this is true. On the one hand, there are fantastic opportunities for female players in today’s chess society, with many more lucrative female-only competitions than there used to be. On the other hand, there remains a lot of sexism within the world of chess, as there seems to be in many gender-homogenous communities.
I’m not a parent, and I’m not qualified to give any advice on this. All I can say is that my future children will be given the chance to take up chess as soon as they are able, regardless of whether I sire little Smurfs or Smurfettes.
One final remark on the issue, specifically related to the common human fallacy of underestimating ‘non representative samples’. It sounds like a lot of techno mumbo-jumbo, but bear with me. I heard a comment with regard to today’s gender issue that “Of course men have higher IQs than women. If you saw a man and wife walking down the street and someone offered you a 50-50 bet for $100 over which one had a higher IQ, would you bet for the man or the woman?”
Interesting bet, but it’s crucial to realise that this is not the same question as if we had randomly chosen a man and a woman from the broader population, say the national census. We’ve been given extra information that restricts our sample: the man and woman in question are a couple. Why does this matter? Well, social scientists have well established that women traditionally value intelligence highly in a mate (either directly, or because they value wealth, which is strongly correlated with IQ). That’s not to say that men don’t like intelligent women; on average, however, men place higher priority on…other factors. So our man and woman are not representative of the broader population.
Of course, it would be possible to work this out if one really wanted, just as it would be possible to study whether male ballet dancers have lower IQs than female ballet dancers, or whether a gay hairdresser is better at parking cars than a straight hairdresser. But honestly, at some point the question we really need to ask is: who cares?
For the past week, the chess world has been abuzz with reports of GM Wesley So’s involuntary forfeit at the recent US Chess Championships. For the non-chess readers of my blog, the short version of the story basically goes like this: So, the number 8 player in the world, was essentially disqualified during his game against GM Varuzhan Akobian for a technical breach of the rules. The unusual infringement was for the use of notes during play; Wesley often writes motivational advice to himself (“Check your moves twice”, “Don’t get low on time”, etc). However, ANY use of notes during a game is considered illegal under the FIDE international chess rules, and he had been warned many times over the past few years (and twice before in the same tournament) not to do so. After Akobian (who Wesley later referred to as a “former friend”) brought the matter to the arbiter’s attention, Wesley was forfeited, meaning an automatic loss.
To be honest, I was quite surprised that this story became such a big deal. For one thing, unintentional technical forfeits aren’t that uncommon in chess, though note-taking is one of the more unusual reasons (one’s mobile phone ringing or coming late to the game are the most common). Furthermore, in the same week there was a significant incident in the strong Dubai Open in which a grandmaster was actually kicked out of the tournament for using a mobile phone in the toilets to cheat during the games. This is a far more noteworthy event in my opinion, and is likely to have widespread repercussions for the chess world. But I digress. Comments about the So forfeit flooded my Facebook feed for days, with the remarkable feature that the incident completely polarised the chess community, including my grandmaster colleagues. Some threads would be filled with the opinions of some of the world’s strongest players that So was a victim of a petulant complaint by his conniving opponent and a gross overreaction by a draconian chess arbiter. Others would unanimously support the view that So was a narcissistic rule-breaker whose disregard for the laws of chess could no longer be tolerated. There seemed to be none of my chess friends with any opinion in the middle.
I’m not going to take a stance here, but I will recount my own story of the time I was caught ‘note-taking’. Many years ago, I was playing against the Australian club player Jason Hu. With a rating of 2100 or so, Jason is not a bad player, but I would normally be expected to win roughly nine games out of ten and was clearly better in this particular encounter, so much so that I was often wandering around the hall watching the other games during our match. This is pretty common among chess players when one’s opponent is to move, but it is quite unprofessional when it is your own move and your time is ticking. In fact, as a reminder to myself, I used to note down on my scoresheet the amount of time I had ‘wasted’ by walking around while my clock was going. For example, say I made a move when my clock had an hour left, and went for a walk. If I came back to the board and it was my move with my clock reading 58 minutes, I would note down a “2” to remind myself that I had wasted two minutes of my own thinking time. If I noticed too many of these numbers, it was a signal that I needed to really start concentrating on the game and on remaining in my seat.
This practice had never proved contentious before, but in this particular game, Jason went up to the arbiter and made a complaint. We had one of Australia’s most prestigious arbiters, Charles Zworestine – incidentally, a very good friend of mine – officiating. Charles did the right thing, and told me that I was technically breaking the rules, and that he had no choice but to tell me to stop. I – younger, rasher and more arrogant back in those days – was furious. In my mind, it was ridiculous that I should be practically accused of cheating for making notes about move times, especially as recording the clock times after each move is in itself legal. I was mad that the arbiter, a friend, would implement such a stance, and I was even madder at my opponent – a professional poker player – who, I was sure, had deliberately made the complaint to put me off. I played my next few moves quickly, slamming down the pieces at each turn. A dozen moves later, I blundered and soon lost, recording perhaps my worst defeat ever in terms of rating in Australia.
There was one significant consequence of this incident, at least for me. Although I still record my ‘wasted time’ on my scoresheet, and have never had any other complaints made about it, I did take a good, hard look at my reaction after the loss to Jason. In chess, players can find a plethora of ways to distract you before or during a game – some intentional, but oftentimes not. I don’t know what Jason intended by the complaint, but does it really matter? And certainly Charles could hardly be berated for following the rules, given that this is the job of the arbiter. As a player, it really doesn’t pay to take offence, both from a professional and a personal standpoint. What does it say about my mental toughness that being told not to write a number could cause me to completely lose the threads of a chess game? After this tournament, my new motto became “Don’t sweat the small stuff”, as my old trainer Manuel used to say. I’ve tried to adopt that attitude to my play ever since – sometimes unsuccessfully, but overall my results have certainly improved as a result.
I don’t recount this story with any particular moral in mind, so don’t read it as such. It’s just a story. So what?
POSTSCRIPT: Since the forfeit, Wesley So won his next three games against three strong grandmasters, including against former World Championship Candidate Gata Kamsky and yesterday against current top-ten player Anish Giri. He is currently slightly better in his game against former World Champion Vladimir Kramnik as I write this.
A while ago, I wrote a post about tie-breaks in chess. It was inspired by a research proposal I submitted on social network formation as applied to round-robin chess, which basically consisted of a lot of mathematics.
One point to come out of it was that no matter which tie-break system one chooses in chess, there are always going to be situations in which the resulting rankings would be considered unfair by any human definition. There are many notable examples, with the 2011 Commonwealth Championships being a personal case. The huge open tournament had over 700 players, and because the final places were decided by Buchholz (‘sum of opponents’ scores’, the standard method) tie-break, the medals for gold, silver and bronze were ultimately came down to the results of a couple of games played between rank amateurs hundreds of boards from the top. Well, with one exception: my swindle in the final round not only contributed to Gawain Jones edging Nigel Short on tie-breaks for the gold medal, but also handed me the bronze (on account of one of my earlier opponents winning his final game on board 250 or so).
I had always just assumed that this was an organic problem to chess that wouldn’t occur in other professional sports. And generally this is indeed the case; many sports have structures where either there is a natural mechanism to break ties (e.g. goals for/against) that doesn’t rely on the results of lesser teams, or else ties are simply impossible (e.g. tennis, or knock-out tournaments). However, there was an interesting exception recently in the world of rugby. In the esteemed Six-Nations Cup in Europe, half the teams ended up in a tie for first place. Ireland, England and Wales all finished with four wins each in the knockout competition. The tie-break was decided on points difference, which was also incredibly close, with Ireland eventually declared the winner.
The final day’s competition was incredibly exciting, with the three superior teams each winning their games. Bizarrely, the final round’s matches were played sequentially rather than simultaneously (as is the case in chess, football’s Champion’s League, etc), which, while somewhat unfair, added to the excitement of the day. First up, Wales, the worst placed of the three contenders in terms of points difference, thumped Italy 61-20. This temporarily put them in first place, but then Ireland comprehensively beat Scotland 40-10 to reclaim the lead. Finally, England beat France in an incredibly high-scoring encounter (55-35), falling just shy of the 26-point margin it needed to claim first. With a superior For/Against score by just six points over England, an incredibly slim margin for rugby, Ireland was declared the winner. So far so good; a fair decision, if a close one, one might say. But this is not the whole story.
In the final moments of the Ireland-Scotland match, there was an apparently innocuous incident. The Scottish team, having had a dreadful Cup campaign, had resigned themselves to defeat. Suddenly, a break was on, and the Scotsman Stuart Hogg seemed certain to score a late consolation try. However, either through laziness or the sheer dejection of defeat, Hogg committed a tiny, uncharacteristic knock-on (a sort of foul). The referee, who also could have been forgiven for overlooking a seemingly meaningless and minute indiscretion at this stage of the dead rubber, referred the incident to the video referee. The try was disallowed, with no fuss made by either party; after all, the margin of victory was still thirty points.
A try in rugby is worth five points. It is coupled with a conversion attempt, usually successful in the modern game, which is worth a further two points. Overall, this anonymous moment, attributable to the morose inertia of a player from the team that finished dead last in the competition, boosted Ireland’s final tie-break score by (most likely) seven points. Two hours later, Ireland lifted the cup on the basis of a superior points difference of six points.
Of course, I can’t really directly compare this incident to chess, and certainly not to what happened to Gawain, Nigel and me in Johannesburg. But the principle of a lower, outside party playing a very relevant role in the top standings is quirkily similar. It’s perhaps too much to say that Stuart Hogg decided the Six Nations Cup with his final-moment ‘fingerfehler’…but it makes a much better story.
Posted by David Smerdon on Mar 2, 2015 in Non-chess
Many people are surprised to hear that I come from a family of extremely talented artists. They are usually even more surprised to discover that I cannot draw so much as a realistic stick figure. I think I made flip-book once that made some sense, if you squinted hard enough.
My Dad was an acclaimed architect in Queensland, and now teaches architecture at a university. My Mum specialises in watercolours and oils. But my sister is fast becoming the star of the family. Recently, the ABC did a quick mini-documentary on Anne, where she talks about art, creativity and congenital heart disease. Check it out.
Posted by David Smerdon on Feb 4, 2015 in Non-chess
One of my New Year’s resolutions (actually, if I’m being honest, a regular, unsatisfied customer on the list) is to do yoga. But this time, I’ve tried to make the resolution a bit more specific and quantifiable: I have to complete 8 weeks of consecutive once-a-week classes of ashtanga yoga. The rules are that only unavoidable excuses can permit missing a class, and will in any case result in two more weeks of classes being added to the sequence.
Stupid? Possibly. Attainable? Certainly; readers will know how (obsessively) seriously I take my NY resolutions. I’m off to a good start, and last night was my third class. It’s quite clear that I am the worst in the class, both in terms of technique, flexibility and, apparently, breathing. (Never before now did I know I was so terrible at breathing – I would have thought this would be something I’d mastered after 30 years and approximately 355,765,000* single practices to date. But alas.)
Nonetheless, I’m sticking with it. It’s quite a workout, despite being a slow-paced 75 minutes of posture-holding. I’m enjoying the stretches and I’m sure my complaining body will thank me one day.
But there’s one part of yoga that I just can’t get. Try as I might to open my mind, some of the more allegorical aspects are just too far advanced for my caged economist’s brain. In fact, many of the common phrases of vinyasa yoga seem to supersede the figurative and almost border on the metaphysical. I’m still flummoxed by several of the instructions our charismatic yoga instructor commanded me to perform – and unfortunately, Google Translate is yet to include “Yogi” in its list of languages to help me out. Things already got off to a strange start when the instructor announced that we really shouldn’t have been practising yoga last night because it was a full moon, “…so, you know, just keep that in mind.” But then the emblematic orders began, and I was not only lost without shoes but also without a yogi dictionary. Any advice or suggested renderings for these pearls of flexible directives from last night’s class would be most welcome.
“Look to the tip of your nose [so far so good, but…] and then shift your gaze to your third eye in between your eyebrows.” – (…am sure I did this one wrong, as I looked like I was about to be carried away by men in white coats)
“Create space within yourself” – (…conjures up several unfortunate images, most appropriately from my ill-fated 2007 trip to yoga’s birthplace in New Delhi)
“Allow yourself to be” - (…because without this permission, presumably, I would not have been. Really wished Descartes was in the class beside me for this one.)
“Make your breath like the sound of the ocean” - (…in principle, this one was less ambiguous. But I guess the sounds of Surfers Paradise beach on a Saturday night were probably not what they were after.)
“Make your muscles strong, but soft” – (…like a hard-boiled egg.)
“Breathe through your spine” – (…it’s been a while since high-school biology, but I’m pretty sure that’s not how it works.)
“Be at this point, at this time” - (…according to Einstein, I fulfilled this one by definition.
It begs the question (doesn’t it always): what would Gandhi think? Fortunately, the internet provides the answer.
Looking forward to the next class – another week, another point of the space-time continuum.
*I got this estimate from CalculatorPro’s ‘Beats and Breaths’ calculator. the Indian medical side MedIndia.net estimated 223,715,000 – that is, 37% (or a whopping 132 MILLION) fewer breaths in my life. However, it came with the bizarre disclaimer that its estimates “are not 100% accurate”. Mind-blowing.
Posted by David Smerdon on Jan 26, 2015 in Non-chess
Australia Day has taken on an extra special meaning ever since I moved to Europe. The fine Australian tradition of the 26th of January is just one more element of home that I miss, and so every year our household tries to bring a little bit of the holiday to Amsterdam.
Our past Australia Day parties have been quite a success, despite the freezing (and occasionally snowy) conditions. Our multinational guests have really gone all out, with some fabulous Australiana costumes, delicious efforts at Aussie baked goods (pavalovas, lamingtons and an exceptional kangaroo-shaped pie come to mind). The ‘Aussie Trivia’ competition is always a bit of a hit, while the participation in backyard cricket games (ankle-deep in snow and surrounded by parked cars) have been admirable, if understandably somewhat brief and marred by confusion. Needless to say, these occasions have gone a long way to easing a homesick Aussie’s winter blues, even without another creature from Down Under in sight.
There’s one special Australia Day tradition, however, in which I can directly get involved, even from my distant Dutch departure. Every year, the Australian radio station Triple J organises the world’s largest online music poll, collecting over a million votes for the top songs released in the past calendar year. The ‘hottest 100’ are then played on the (non-commercial) station on Australia Day from around midday. (Conveniently, this gives me a chance to download the list in time for the Amsterdam Australia Day party. Well, there have to be some perks, right?)
I have a confession to make: I’m a bit of a new-music junkie. This might come as something of a surprise for an economist/chessplayer, but there it is. Each year, I put in my votes and, in the past couple of years, I’ve badly masqueraded as a music critic with a sneaky little post about my votes. 2014 was a strange year for my music tastes; the list is a mixed bag of styles and genres, with my standard indie rock stirred in with some dance tracks, a touch of boppy instrumental, smooth grooves and even a throwback to eighties funk. I present: my eclectic top-ten for 2014.
(10) Duke Dumont – I Got U
An atypical entry from the overdone ‘Eurosummer dance’ genre, but I just couldn’t help myself. There’s something about the cowbell-like resonance of the drums that conjures up beach images, even without seeing the quirky music video. The lyrics are rudimentary and repetitive like so much doof-doof Eurotrash pumped out in the midyear, and deliberate misspellings of song titles (or, even worse, artists’ own names…) seriously annoy me. And yet, the song’s simplicity is somewhat compensated by the feel-good vibes. Plus, for nostalgia’s sake, this song guaranteed its inclusion by virtually playing on repeat throughout the Portuguese radio stations during our trip there in October.
(9) OK Go – I Won’t Let You Down
I’ll be honest up-front: this some is good, but not great. However, the one thing that kicks this song by the immensely talented OK Go is the video clip. For the unaware, this band is known the world over for its absolutely incredible music videos, beginning with the infamous one-take treadmill clip for “Here it goes again”:
Since then, their music video ideas have continued to up the stakes, continuing to impress and surprise me with their clips that are invariably shot in just one take. Check out the unbelievable video to their latest song, with its beautifully quirky Japanese themes, athletic camera work and sophisticated use of speed-up techniques. But be warned: Once you start watching one OK Go clip on YouTube, you’ll invariably be sucked into a vicious vortex of vids that’ll chew up an hour or more…
(8) Meghan Trainor – All About That Bass
Oh boy. I don’t know what this says about my music tastes, but “All About That Bass” is so ‘pop’ that it wasn’t even listed as a voting option for the Triple J countdown. It is true that this super-catchy tune has saturated the charts this year, and I’ll be the first to admit I’ve jumped on the bandwagon. The lyrics preach a positive body image message, but the song stands alone as an upbeat, skip-in-the-streets tune with an unavoidably catchy chorus. And, naturally, the bass line is a smooth walk behind the scenes. It’s pop, it’s uncharacteristic for me, and it’s completely anti-Triple J, but I’m hooked regardless.
(7) Bag Raiders – Nairobi
The first of a series of beat-driven chillout music, motivated by a strong instrumental focus and heavy on the percussion. The hit Bag Raiders track “Shooting Stars” made a seriously good impression on me; make sure you check out this incredibly entertaining dance rendition on Australia’s Got Talent by notoriously cool Byron bay local Tommy Franklin.
This year’s track Nairobi is a decent rival to that first smash, with a thick jungle beat and a serious focus on percussion. I’d wager it makes great safari-driving music, in case that’s for some reason what you’re after.
(6) Ten Walls – Walking With Elephants
A purely instrumental track with a phenomenal visual effect. Yes, visual. Listening to the first minute – a pseudo-‘Bittersweet Symphony’-like intro – one might be lulled into boredom, if not slumber. But this is purely the stage-setting for the elephants. Yes, I said elephants. After sixty-five seconds of calm, wind-whistling-through-the-reeves nature music, the percussion arrives, and boy, does it arrive. Try to listen to this and NOT think of elephants – I dare you. Better yet, close your eyes and imagine that you’re one of the majestic, lumbering beasts yourself. You won’t regret it.
(5) Chvrches – Get Away
Chvrches (pronounced “Churches”) was a big success in the 2014 Hottest 100, snaring three spots. As is so often the case after a huge debut album, this group has struggled somewhat to live up to the high water mark of their first efforts. However, their single “Get Away” is a notable exception. The song echoes the familiar feel of Chvrches’ earlier hits, leaning heavily on strong, emotive female vocals and a smooth melody. It’s in some ways a throwback to the good stuff of the last countdown, as well as steering me back to a more familiar chilled indie-rock genre for my list.
(4) Montaigne – I’m A Fantastic Wreck
Montaigne, for me, was one of the great finds of the 2014 talent pool. The Aussie artist was the winner of the Triple J 2013 ‘Unearthed’ competition, an annual search to uncover hidden Australian music talent. This year, Montaigne (Jessica Cerro) released her first album, a rich array of soulful yet upbeat ballads that go a long way to raising the lyrical sophistication average of the list to date. It was a tough choice to pick from this one, “I am not an end” and a brilliant cover of “Chandelier” live on Triple J’s ‘Like A Version’. In the end, the chirpily ironic lyrics of this song – combined with an outstandingly weird video clip – won me over.
(3) Mark Ronson (feat. Bruno Mars) – Uptown Funk
One thing that can be said for Mark Ronson: his collaborations are never boring. The present is no exception. There is only one word that could appropriately describe this song, and you’ll have to listen to the tune to fully appreciate this: Funky. It’s eighties style, narcissistic extravagance at its best. It’s brightly coloured leather, oozingly shiny hair it’s a tantalising bridge build-up to a crescendo of a chorus that channels Michael Jackson meets James Brown. It’s, simply, cool.
(2) Sia – Chandelier
Sia is without a doubt one of the greatest singer-songwriters to come out of Australia this century. Not only is Sia an outstanding performing artist in her own right, but she also writes incredible songs for many of today’s most popular artists, including several for Rhianna.
That being said, she seems to have saved her best for herself, releasing this absolute beauty that is surely a top contender for the number one spot. The story goes that the lyrics to Chandelier – a vivid description of a woman’s struggle with depression, told in the first person – was written by Sia about her own struggles with the effects of fame and the music industry. Whatever the motivation, the truth is that the result of this project is a stirring ballad with loud vocals and a catchy, skin-prickling melody. The resulting emotional effect is so powerful that it that leaves the listener angry, sad and energised, all at once. It was certainly a strong candidate for my top vote, but in the end was narrowly beaten out by a song that could not present a stronger contrasting effect.
(1) The Avener – Fade Out Line
And my number one song for the year is…unexpected. What to say about this soul-smoothing song? It’s not the tune to get the party started, nor to conjure up images of European beaches or African wildebeests. On the contrary, think a café in the sun, a country drive with the top down or dark glasses and outlandish hair styles. The downtown bass line spells cool even before the smooth, deep female vocals come in. The lyrics are poetic and intriguing, though barely whispered through the music, while the bridge raises the tempo by just the right amount to keep the temperature at ‘pleasantly mellow’. I was utterly captivated by this song on my first listen – a rarity for me – so imagine my surprise to find out that the über-hipster film clip heavily features chess. The vid is subtle and arty enough not to detract from the gloriously groovy beat, but the chess theme is, perhaps serendipitously so, a cute complement.
With such a deadly combination, there could hardly be any competition this year for the top spot in my list. However, being aware of the rather heavy focus I’ve placed on music videos in this year’s review, I would like to point out that Fade Out Lines still wins the crown as a stand-alone song, hands down. It’s definitely my favourite song to enjoy for the year, and the act of letting this baby roll on repeat is a real experience. You will need: shades, skinny jeans and a second-hand sofa. Turn down the lights, and turn up the tune. Enjoy.
After a long hiatus, the blog is back. I decided to trial a Christmas/New Year period offline, coinciding with a much-needed trip back to Australia. I was fortunate to be invited to play in the Australian Open chess championships in Sydney, which provided the perfect escape from my annual European Winter chills.
The tournament, my first in Australia since I left in 2011, was what might be called a mixed success. I’ll hold off from a full report for now, consistent with a new philosophy of keeping the ‘chessier’ posts separate from my other rantings. In the coming weeks, in keeping with the tradition of davidsmerdon.com, I’ll also write my two regular January posts: my 2015 New Year’s Resolutions, and my top ten songs for 2014 as submitted to Triple J’s Hottest 100 poll.
For now, as I write this from a plane flying back from Brisbane to Singapore, I’ll leave you with three quick and amusing anecdotes from this trip, highlighting what it’s like now that I visit Australia as a ‘tourist’ rather than ‘coming back home’:
In Agnes Waters, Tristan Stevens and I wandered into a quaint little ‘hippie clothing’ store:
OWNER: Where are you boys from?
ME: One of us is from Gladstone and the other is from the Netherlands.
OWNER: [Cue dry Queensland drawl] Ah yeh?
ME: Yep. He’s from Gladstone and I live in Amsterdam.
OWNER: Yeh nah, I thought you had a foreign accent.
As my boarding pass was being scanned at Brisbane Airport before boarding the flight:
ATTENDANT: Have a pleasant flight, Mr Smerdon…Smerdon? Are you the chess-playing Smerdon?
ME: Uh, yes. That’s me.
ATTENDANT: No way! I saw you at tournaments when I was in school. Have a pleasant flight…
(If you find that snobbish and self-aggrandising, read on…)
Before the first round of the Australian Open in Sydney, while browsing the starting list of participants. Two spectators are doing the same.
SPECTATOR 1: Hey, are you playing in the tournament?
SPECTATOR 1: Do you know who the players are? We’re trying to spot one of the top guys.
ME: Um, sure, yeh.
SPECTATOR 2: We wanna see this top Aussie guy; his name’s Smer…Smer…
ME: [Sheepish grin] Ha, yeh, actually…
SPECTATOR 1: …Smirnov. Anton Smirnov. Do you know him?
ME: [The grin fades] …Oh. Right, yeh. He’s over there. [Walk away in anonymous shame]
It’s this time of the year in Amsterdam – when the temperature hovers around zero during both day and night, when the wind slices your face as you cycle through the horizontal, unforgiving rain – that I start my annual pine for Australia. Fortunately, I’ve only got two weeks to wait until I head back for the Australian Open, but I have to say I’d really prefer to be in Melbourne today.
This is not only because it’s my favourite city in the world, and not only because this is my favourite time of the year to be there – and, even, not only because Melbourne has recently been voted the world’s most liveable city for the fourth time. No, this time it’s because I’m very interested in checking out the Australian Masters GM Norm tournament, which begins tomorrow.
Grandmaster norm opportunities are few and far between for Australians. We only have three active grandmasters in the country (two, if you consider me an expatriate), but a huge range of talent at the International Master level. So what gives? Well, there are simply very few tournaments in Australia that fulfil the requirements for a Grandmaster norm, and those that do are realistically implausible on account of being large open events. Generally, Aussies have no choice but to try their luck overseas, typically in Europe, and that isn’t cheap. I basically lived on a shoestring while norm-hunting in Europe in 2007; believe me, a regular diet of canned tuna and rice gets a bit tiresome after a while.
That’s why I’m very happy to see that a targeted GM norm event is happening in Melbourne. The ten-player round-robin format is ideal for norm-hunters, and the three invited, foreign GMs are also the ‘right’ sort for such events: not unbeatable for IMs, but having high enough ratings to keep the required norm scores reasonable. Of course, ‘theoretically beatable’ is quite another matter to beating a GM in practice…
My three compatriots from the Olympiad are at the top of the race of the norm-chasers. Max’s rating has exploded so far that he’s actually the third seed, ahead of Kazakhstan GM Rustam Khusnutdinov. Joining them are IM Bobby Cheng, Kiwi FM Luke Li and the not-for-long-untitled Karl Zelesco. In short, it’s a very impressive talent pool, and I don’t envy the poor grandmasters’ task of preserving ELO on their trip down under. The candidates all need 6.5 points from the nine games, with the exception of ‘poor’ Max – his high rating means he’ll need an extra half point to grab a norm. On the plus side for him, he’s the only player who will manage to avoid playing against the dreaded Max, I suppose.
It’s hard to guess how likely a norm is to emerge – there’s a poll at Australia’s ‘Chess Chat’ forum, but it only answers who is most likely to win the event, which is not so informative. Max is surely favourite to be the best-placed Aussie, but the requirement for him to score seven points means that probably one of the others is slightly more likely to score a norm. This morning it occurred to me that five candidates could theoretically score GM norms, while my far-cleverer-than-I girlfriend pointed out that even six norms are possible, if we exclude Max. I think most of the Australian chess community would be happy even with one, but we’ll see.
The tournament’s being run by Aussie IM Leonid Sandler, who has managed to pull off what so many organisers have tried before. He’s also running an IM-norm event alongside the champagne tournament; all games are apparently going to be streamed on the Box Hill chess club website. That means anyone can watch it from anywhere in the world, be it Auckland, Angola or chilly Amsterdam. Convenient, but I’d still rather be watching with a flat white in my hand from a cafe in Melbourne. Soon.
Posted by David Smerdon on Dec 12, 2014 in Non-chess
Here’s a quick little puzzle that’s kinda cool:
Imagine that someone (or, probably many people) managed to tie a rope around the entire world, lying it on the ground across the equator. You could say that the rope literally hugs the whole earth, kind of like the seam of a cricket ball. The question is: How much extra rope would you need to raise the whole thing a metre off the ground around the entire globe?
What’s your first instinct? If you like, write down your guess in the comments. To hide the answer from you, you’ll have to scroll down. But to make sure you’re not disappointed, here’s a cool little clip of an intersection in a street in Germany, where pedestrians can play ‘Pong’ with the pedestrians on the other side while they wait for the lights.
Okay. The answer is: 6.3 metres of extra rope. The question is mathematically straightforward – the extension of the radius (1 metre) has to be multiplied by two times pi – but far more interesting is how our first instincts are (usually) so far off. What was your first guess? Mine was one kilometre. Whoops.