I’ve taken a month off from the blog and indeed anything requiring more than minimal mental effort in my post-thesis hangover. Here I’m referring to very much a non-alcoholic hangover. After the thesis defense on Friday August 30, I was in no mood for celebrating – I was in the mood for sleeping.
I slept all afternoon, all night, and all the next morning. The following day, I ate, watched brainless movies (did you know there is a fourthPirates of the Caribbean?) and slept some more. The next day was the same…and the next…and the next. Almost a month on, my mind still doesn’t seem to have recovered from the trauma I put it through these last two years, and particularly the most recent 100 days.
Finishing the MPhil programme at the Tinbergen Institute was arguably the hardest thing I’ve ever accomplished. I would say that it has been as difficult, as involved and as emotionally draining as obtaining the Grandmaster title. Certainly there were low times over the past 24 months that rivaled the levels of despair I felt when I thought I’d never make GM and wanted to give up chess entirely. The stress of the programme has had a significant effect on my health and well-being, I would say, even once to the point of bringing me to tears.
If this seems like narcissistic hyperbole, it’s not. If anything, the MPhil has been incredibly humbling. It taught me that I’m not as smart as I thought I was, that I’ve cruised through my high school and undergraduate degrees in Australia with a false sense of status. I guess I shouldn’t have been so surprised; part of the reason I chose the exclusive Tinbergen Institute was because I wanted to rub shoulders with the best and the brightest, and I have gotten to do that. I’ve befriended some of the most intellectually gifted students I’ve ever met. I’ve spoken with the world’s brightest professors and been instructed by the most brilliant teachers – and occasionally met one with both traits. And I survived the programme – but not by my wits, it pains me to admit.
The front page of my final thesis
I worked over 60 hours a week for most of the two years – almost double that during my time working for the Treasury, and certainly at a more intense rate – and this figure climbed to around 80 hours a week for the last few months of my thesis. Monday to Sunday, 12 hours a day, I tirelessly slaved over my books to keep up with the level. I gave up weekends, chess tournaments, and virtually all extra curricular pursuits. To put things in perspective, after two years in Amsterdam, I barely speak any Dutch and don’t even have a favourite cafe. The very real fear of failure provoked me to change almost everything about my lifestyle to put absolute priority on numbers and figures. In the end I didn’t fail, even scraping in to the handful of students receiving cum laude, but it’s an open and very legitimate question as to whether I’d make the same decision to come here if I could teleport myself back to the start of 2011.
I don’t want to give the false impression that the Tinbergen Institute’s programme is in any way more difficult or taxing than, for example, those in Harvard or Berkeley, although they tell me TI is considered one of the very best graduate economics institutes in continental Europe. All I’ll say is that the two years were certainly the hardest academic challenge I’ve ever encountered, and have delivered me the same depressing reality I once had to come to terms with in my chess career: No matter how hard I work or how much luck I encounter, I’ll never be as good as the elite. Again, this seems ever so dramatic from a literary standpoint, and perhaps I’ll regret writing this post in such a fatigued, philosophical state – but I vowed to always write this blog honestly, and I’ve kept to that mentality so far. And perhaps I can fill one small niche in the field that needs filling. Perhaps I can use my experience to offer some advice to those of us who are ordinary citizens considering or starting out a MPhil (Economics) degree.
Lessons for Students Undertaking a Master of Philosophy (Economics) Degree
Know what you’re getting into. It’s all very well and good to have the drive and the desire to take on the most difficult and purest postgraduate programme of the social sciences. But an admiral notion requires considered understanding to be worth anything. What’s the ultimate goal? What do you really want to do in the future, what’s driving you to pursue this course, and is it the best channel to get there? Don’t underestimate the work load, nor the risks of failure, in deciding whether the course is the best avenue to get where you want to go.
Sacrifice the non-essentials. Unless you’re a genius, you’re going to have to make lifestyle sacrifices to cope with the workload. Work out what’s really important to you and what isn’t, and cut the chaff.
Prioritise. In my programme, we usually had about 25-30 hours available to study for the final exams (usually worth 50-75%). Homework assignments, which individually were worth 4-10%, could easily require this long or more. At some point, it simply doesn’t make sense to labour on for perfection for hours to fight for that extra 10% of an assignment. If it’s worth less than one percent of the final grade but is going to take more than a couple of hours to finish, it’s just not value for time. When it comes to grades, choose your battles, and be prepared to give up a little ego to make your path to the finish line just that little bit easier.
Accept that your extra attention is limited, and proportion it towards things that matter. It’s a nice notion at the beginning of each block to imagine you might complete all of the extra readings and non-compulsory exercises for each subject, but it rarely happens. After the core requirements are completed each week, your time is limited. If you’re going to pursue anything above the mandatory tasks for a subject, choose the courses that really interest you or might benefit your thesis or research in the future. That way you’ll score better and impress professors in those subjects that really matter to you, and keeping an eye on what you’re really interested in will help the big picture to stay in focus. Speaking of which…
Keep the big picture in focus. It’s easy to get bogged down with surviving week by week, day by day, assignment by assignment. But at the end of 18 months you’ll be asked to write the lion’s share of your degree on a single topic, and you may well have forgotten why you started out the programme in the first place. Take the blinkers off every once in a while and remind yourself why you’re here. Read books related to your field – and here I’m talking about fun, interesting books and articles, preferably free of mathematics. Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow, Gladwell’s Outliers and Surowiecki’s The Wisdom of Crowds will keep the microeconomists and behavioural economists going. Don’t discount Levitt and Dubner’s Freakonomics if you’re interested in econometric or empirical research and want to make an impact on the real world. Development economists who’ve managed to keep their save-the-world ideology through all the rational-choice hatred of the programme should keep their fires burning with Duflo and Banerjee’s Poor Economics or Richard Dowden’s fantastically insightful read Africa. Articles and current affairs shouldn’t be ignored, either; get yourself a subscription to The Economist – and read it!
Choose at least one creative and one athletic pursuit to keep yourself sane. I know I said ‘Sacrifice!’, but sanity is important, too. Note here that I don’t recommend an intellectual pursuit. I certainly couldn’t keep chess going, but even trying to learn a language in my spare time proved too taxing. The brain is like any other muscle and needs time to rest and repair; keep it out of the game when it’s not needed. On the other hand, you’ll find late-night junk food and sitting at a desk for the majority of each day a real drain on the body. A healthy brain requires a healthy host, so choose some sort of sportive hobby. And if you want to keep a smidgen of your creative soul, find something not too labour- or time-intensive to act as an outlet. Guitar, painting,..even a blog
Don’t forget about the real world. At times it can seem like the current assignment is really ALL that matters in the world. Sometimes this isn’t such a bad mentality in order to get things done – but use it as a tool, nothing more. Remind yourself that at the end of the day, scoring a 6 or a 9 on one homework assignment in one course is highly unlikely to affect the remainder of your life in any way, shape or form.
Don’t forget about the people in the real world, either. I came to the programme as a single man, but others weren’t so lucky. Wait, what did I just say?! It’s only natural that such an intense programme will affect those around you, particularly significant others. I’ve witnessed enough of this first-hand from my colleagues that I can definitely recommend taking the time out to focus exclusively on your partner. Aside from it being a nice and proper thing to do, even the rational economist would concede that it saves time and stress in the long run, too. Help your partner to understand the pressures of your course, and that you’re not willingly ignoring them. On the other hand, promise them time each week that you will solely devote to them – and stick to it. When I say solely, I mean it – it’s no use being there if your head’s elsewhere in a mathematical model. It’s also better for your own health – there’s not much love in the economics programme, so enjoy it when you can.
Give 100%, but no more. I worked myself to the limit quite a few times, and at least once went over it. I’m not afraid of hard work, but everyone has their own maximum, and it’s important to spot when it’s coming up. Take breaks. Go outside. STOP. Realise that the lower productivity after four hours of sleep usually outweighs the lost study time from sleeping seven hours. And working nine hours straight is never as constructive as two four-hour sessions with a healthy lunch break. Take the extra winks, enjoy an extra sandwich, force yourself to walk around the park. Know your limits, and don’t exceed them.
Laugh. Laugh with your colleagues, and make them your friends. Make fun of your workload, if you want, but do it together. You’ll find that it reinforces your collective sense of solidarity. You’re all going through this trauma together, and it definitely helps to remember that from time to time. When someone suggests having a dinner break together, take it. It’s only 15 minutes of your time, but the social interaction is very healthy and exactly what you need, whether you realise it or not. At the end of a long day, if a colleague suggests going for a beer, go – and encourage the rest of the group to follow. Remind yourselves that things are easier together, that there’s a world outside the offices…and that world serves beer.
I’m writing this at 3am, not because I can’t sleep, but because I’ve just finished breakfast.
It’s crunch time for the thesis and, in order to maximise efficiency, I’ve adopted a new philosophy. It goes something like this:
Work until you can’t work any more.
Sleep until you can’t sleep any more.
Brilliant, huh? Well, perhaps a little unorthodox, but desperate times call for desperate measures. As a couple of posts have highlighted (such as this one and this one – boy, I really need to start tagging my posts), I’m a regular insomniac. It’s incredibly annoying, and the most inconvenient feature is that it’s most likely to strike when you need it least. For example, I got a good one hour’s sleep before the final round in the Politiken Cup last month, due to nerves. And, after a long day of economic equations and formulas in the office, my brain refuses to switch off, occasionally leaving me with algebraic dreams if I can sleep at all. Yes, you heard it right. My mind does maths in my dreams.
Of course, productivity levels plummet under such conditions. Hours of dead time abound while I stare at the ceiling at night, wishing myself to sleep, and then of course the subsequent extreme fatigue during the daylight hours makes everything slower again. Sleeping pills don’t help. Alcohol doesn’t help. Yoga – well, yoga might help, but that would mean I’d have to do yoga.
My new approach, however, is remarkably successful. Productivity levels are high as I work myself to exhaustion, after which my mind and body gives way and I collapse into a deep, dreamless slumber, regardless of the hour. It’s great for my thesis, but absolute hell for my circadian rhythm. Research suggests that most humans have a natural body clock somewhere between 24 and 25 hours – I wouldn’t be surprised if mine’s in the upper extreme of that distribution.
The first night I put my philosophy into action, I fell asleep at 2am. The next night it was 4am, then: 5.30am, 6.30am, 8am, and yesterday (but what is yesterday?), 10am. I woke up in the evening, followed the chess world cup matches, cooked some food, had a nap (yes, my body wanted more!), and now I’m working in the office. At this rate, with a bit of luck, I’ll be back in a ‘normal’ cycle by the time Sabina comes back from Germany. But then what?
Given the success of the strategy to date, particularly in cutting back the insomnia, I’m beginning to wonder if I’ve had circadian rhythm sleep disorder all along. According to Wikipedia, suffers:
“…are unable to sleep and wake at the times required for normal work, school, and social needs. They are generally able to get enough sleep if allowed to sleep and wake at the times dictated by their body clocks.”
So far, so good. Apparently one type is very clumsily named “Non-24-hour sleep-wake syndrome”. Fascinating, though probably irrelevant. But one thing I’ve noticed from this last week is how inconvenient it is to be a night owl. For example:
It’s really difficult to buy a morning coffee at 2am (unless you can settle for McDonald’s)
My housemates have to be quiet during the day in their own home
I have to be quiet during my waking hours in my own home
Vitamin D is in scarce supply
I have to race to the supermarket as soon as I wake up to get groceries before it closes
I’m never awake for organised touch football or cricket games
Going out for drinks = Having beer for breakfast
Public transport stops for huge chunks of my waking hours (but where would I go anyway?)
Apparently there are even more disadvantages for nightwalkers, as this amazing article on Sleep Discriminationdetails.
But of course, in thesis week most of these things don’t matter. The pros seem to outweigh the cons. In particular, additional and surprising advantages besides those already mentioned include:
Not getting bitten by nocturnal mosquitoes in my sleep
Finally getting to hear the good shifts of Triple J (an Australian radio station)
Talking to my Aussie friends in real time
Getting to talk to my elusive friend who’s a night-shift hospital worker
Sunrise inspiration (I solved a month long mathematical roadblock after watching the sun wake yesterday)
The last point shows that my body doesn’t seem to have a problem ignoring normal Zeitgebers. (Actually, I just wanted to use the word Zeitgeber. I even just like saying it. Zeitgeber, zeitgeber, zeitgeber. Gotta love the German language.) It means any external cue from the environment that helps us regulate our body clocks, the mos obvious being sunrise and sunset. These are apparently supposed to help us (and birds, mammals etc) reset our irregular body clocks back to a 24 hour cycle every day. Ha! I scoff at such conformism. Ha, I say again, ha!
I once filled out a personality questionnaire in which one of the questions was, “Are you a sunrise or sunset person?” Besides being a ridiculous question on which to base one’s personality, it’s not even clearly defined. Does it mean which is aesthetically preferred? Or which is more often viewed? The latter, of course, basically asks where one sits on the circadian rhythm chronometer (yes, that’s a thing). In order of early-morningness (not really a thing), you are one of:
a morning person
a night person
A fowl list, if ever I saw one. Why does one have to it snugly into one of these artificial categories? Why must one be dubbed ‘nocturnal’ or ‘diurnal’ just because Latin-sounding words are cool? Boo that, I say! In these glorious times of modern freedom and individualism, I’ll sleep when I want, eat when I want and wake when I want. I’ll be both a sunrise and a sunset person – let’s see what their personality tests make of that!
I’ve made it to the little German town of Ladenburg for my post-tournament recovery. And what a tournament it was, too – definitely one of the best I’ve been to, and recommended for those looking for a fun European summer comp. Unfortunately for me, I couldn’t keep up the pace after a blistering 6/7 start. I crashed at the end, losing two of my last three matches to ruin my chances of a big place, ending up 14th. And as foreseen, it was the dangerous youngsters who were my undoing: the Italian grandmaster Sabino Brunello outlasted me in a marathon, see-sawing battle in round 8, while my extremely talented Dutch friend Robin van Kampen destroyed me in the 10th and final round.
It’s always a downer to lose the final round of a big chess tournament, especially if one is within reach of the major prizes, but it’s even more the case when one doesn’t have the opportunity to play many events. Most of the other grandmasters were heading off to their next competition immediately, so any bitter taste from a last-round stumble is quickly washed away in the anticipation of future conquests. Not so for your author, however, who usually only gets the chance to play one or two major events a year. But, leaving my own disappointments aside, the fortnight of chess was really very enjoyable. The organization was faultless, and the exceptional venue and accommodations made it an extremely pleasurable stay for the chess tourists, plus-ones and professionals alike (I’m not sure which category I myself fall into…). I was even lucky enough to stay an extra day, meaning that GM Hrant Merkuryan (from Armenia) and I could sneak off on the ferry to Sweden for lunch. To an Australian’s ears, there can’t be anything stranger than that sort of sentence – “Yes, we just ducked off to Sweden for lunch” – but I guess that’s just another advantage of Europe in general.
I didn’t exactly leave the tournament empty handed, if I’m being honest. I picked up a couple of consolation packages in two of the side events that made up the festival. My first problem solving tournament was super fun, and definitely to be recommended to the loungechair chess addict. The tournament doubled as the Danish Problem Solving Championships, and we were required to solve 18 problems in two hours, with ties being sorted on the basis of who finished first. With this in mind, I was the first to hand in my sheets, no doubt some grandmasterly arrogance partially responsible for why I recklessly handed in ‘complete’ solutions after less than an hour. I got my just desserts, though, when it turned out I’d made a very silly mistake in one of the simpler puzzles, scoring 34/36 to finish in second. I have to say that it was a really fun event and it’s a shame (a) that they’re quite rare and (b) that I’d never bothered to go in one before.
I also played the epic blitz tournament in the evening after round 8. After a 5 hour loss to Sabino during the afternoon I wasn’t really in the mood for cognitive effort, but I’d been informed that the blitz was something of a social tradition and so decided to check it out. We were broken up into 8 groups of 10 players and played a full 9-game round robin, with the top two placegetters making it through to the qualification pool of 16. We were then broken into a further two groups of 8, played a full 7-game round robin, and the top two of each group made it into the final four for semi-final elimination. Lady Luck (Caissa?) seemed to be on my side this night. First, I scraped through to the qualification pool with a last round win in my group of 10. Then the Danish GM Alan ‘Good Bloke’ Rasmussen and I finished tied for 2nd in our qualification group and so had to play a very entertaining Armageddon blitz match to decide who would go through to the semis. (Armageddon blitz was created for situations where a draw simply wouldn’t do. Black gets four minutes to White’s five, in addition to the first-move disadvantage, but a draw sees Black qualify.) I was lucky enough to scrape a draw when both sets of pieces finally disintegrated with seconds left for both of us.
So I made it into the semi finals along with three friends: Grandmasters Sebastien Maze and Romain Eduard from France, and Hrant. I was paired against Hrant, the former European blitz champion and probably the strongest blitz player on the night. However, after playing pretty appallingly in all the qualification rounds, I got very lucky in both our games and managed to win through to the final. I felt pretty guilty as Hrant is much, much stronger than me and I was also looking forward to seeing him battle the French genius Romain in the final, and this feeling was compounded when Romain destroyed me in the final two matches, but that’s blitz for you. The whole thing finished up at 1.30am after 19 games, but again, it was super good fun and the atmosphere in the final was really nice, with many of the local and foreign participants staying to the end to watch, beers in hand.
But of course, the main tournament was where the serious attention was at. After Sabino beat me in round 8, he then took down top seed and tournament leader Ivan Cheparinov in round 9. Cheppa had played the toughest field and led from the front since the first round, only to come undone right at the end – that’s open chess for you. This left Sabino and the Indian boy-wonder Negi tied for first going into the last round, and playing each other to boot. Sabino made a somewhat cheeky draw offer on move one (!), but Negi declined and won a fine game to win outright and by a full point on 9/10. Cheppa took second, with the French duo picking up the other major places to cap off a fantastic financial haul when one considers their blitz, team-blitz and nightly casino performances.
Overall it was a great event that really reignited my chess appetite. I had a great time and played some quite decent chess, at least for the most part. Both my winning and ‘unbeaten’ streaks came to an end during the tournament, but all I felt was envy when the GMs spoke of the tournaments they were heading off to after Denmark. Most of the top guys will be playing in the World Cup starting in Norway next week. Oceania will be represented by IM Igor Bjelobrk, who’s up against the Russian powerhouse Alex Grischuk. At leat I’m not totally uninvolved – I’ll be doing some commentating!
Back to the real world now for me, unfortunately. My thesis can’t wait any longer, despite how much I’ve enjoyed this short chess-viking sabbatical. Here follows the last pictorial hurrah.
PS Thanks to Ola for the correction from the last post, where I mistakenly referred to Finland as Scandinavian. Regardless, the lunchtime sortie to Sweden added another country to the scratch-map, so only Norway eludes me – at least until the Olympiad next year…
The major prize winners in the main tournament assemble in some vague height order next to the infamous sponsor's banner
In the crucial top board clash in the final round between the two leaders, Sabino ponders his first move...
...before deciding on 1...e5 accompanied with a draw offer. Negi declines, which proves to be a very good decision.
Danish IM Jakob "I only own singlets" Vang Glud picked up his second GM norm with a draw in round 9
Italian GM Sabino Brunello ended my title chances in round 8, but was himself defeated in the final round by the winner
Two of the groups in the first stage of the blitz tournament. In the far right at the back you can spot French GM Sebastien Maze, who finished fourth in both the blitz and the main event
The French duo before their blitz semi-final (which was played after midnight, in case you noticed the bags under Sebastien's eyes)
Hrant and I before our first semi-final game. In the background you might be able to spot the sponsor's huge banner that hung around the playing hall and was apparently quite the foe to game concentration
Romain and I during the blitz final (photo courtesy of the Politiken Cup organisers)
"It won't fit in my suitcase!" Romain picks up his huge winner's cheque from the organisers and arbiters.
Hrant prepares to school me at nine-ball
The entrance to Christiania, a bizarre hippy community right in the centre of Copenhagen, with a fascinating history.
Part of the entrance to Christiania
The lively canal district Nyhavn was full of people enjoying summer in Copenhagen
Your author chilling out atop a castle tower in Helsingaborg, the Swedish sister town across the narrow strait. The playing hall is somewhere in the background land mass across the water.
There was a time when I was young and cute. No, really. I had hair and everything. Back then, thanks to an article by International Arbiter Charles Zworestine, the chessworld gave me the nickname Smurf. Not just a derivation of my surname, it also reflected that I was one of the youngest chesssplayers in the adult levels, playing guys 30-40 years older.
It’s been a long time since I’ve been able to channel my smurfness. These days, I more often than not find myself facing some talented junior with oodles of opening theory, hours of hanging with Houdini, and the recklessness of an English bachelor party in Amsterdam. But the last two rounds reminded me of the ancient times when I was the whippersnapper. In round 6, had the honour of facing GM Jan Timman – yes, the living legend himself. Jan was ranked in the top three in the world back in the eighties and is probably the most famous Dutch player of all time (“Even above World Champion Euwe? Hmm.” Controversial.)
Naturally I was pretty nervous to face the man, which may have had something to do with a huge oversight on my part on move 19, missing a clear and easy win. What a shame! I have to say, Manuel’s advice to “mix it up, head for unorthodox positions” proved invaluable, and I quickly worked up a dangerous attack. After my blunder, the position gradually slipped away from me, but I managed a last-ditch rescue operation to save the draw, which was probably a fair result. The game’s below, without detailed annotations unfortunately because I’m supposed to be preparing for my next round…
Round 7 was against another guy in his sixties, but not just any senior: the reigning World Senior Champion, Jens Kristiansen. I decided to resurrect my Grunfeld for the first time in a decade, and got a very atypical position for me: passive defence and use of the two bishops. For the nonchessers, “the two bishops” refers to situations in which one side still has both bishops while the other has swapped one or both of theirs off (usually for knights). The idea is that the two lasers should be a long term advantage which, if nurtured correctly, should wreak havoc when the board opens up. The technique to utilise them, however, requires patience, subtlety, finesse…traits that, unfortunately, the gods thought better than to bless me with. However, this time around, somehow I managed to keep my trigger hand still and eventually convert the win. Ironically, the Timman game also saw me pressing with the two bishops – but given my double pawn sacrifice that preceded it, the order of the day was swift violence rather than positional maturity.
My run of old-timing legends (“Jens is a CURRENT legend, you know!” protested one local Dane) has come to an end, as I’m facing the very talented Italian grandmaster Sabino Brunello today. I managed to squeeze two goals past his keeping in football last night, which I’m taking as a good omen. A couple of pics follow; I’ll put a bit more effort into the reports once the tournament wraps up, including a summary of the problem solving competition.
Dutch chess legend Jan Timman
Top seed and tournament leader, Bulgarian GM Ivan Cheparinov
I eat breakfast outside every day. This is my view: grass, woods, sea,...and Sweden.
The scene before the start of the problem solving competition
An impressively high rated football game. From left: GM Sebastien Maze, GM Sabino Brunello, GM Ivan Cheparinov, GM Hrant Melkumyan, GM Robin van Kampen, GM Parimajan Negi
I’m writing this from Denmark. Yes, Denmark!! I finally made it to ‘real’ Scandinavia (sorry Finland, but any country where I have to use Euro rather than Kroners – despite the extra convenience – just doesn’t cut it). And perhaps even more surprisingly, I’m playing chess here.
“But what about the thesis?” I hear you ask. Or more likely, I just heard my conscience. Well, I’ve been pulling 12 hour days for the last fortnight trying to pump out a full draft for my supervisors, which has been wreaking havoc on my brain and body, so I was already looking to take a week off. Then, as fate (surely not karma) would have it, I got a last minute call from the organisers of the Politiken Cup in Denmark – they’d had an unexpected GM cancellation and were looking for a replacement. Of course, most grandmasters have their chess schedule worked out six months in advance – but I’m not ‘most grandmasters’, having not played a tournament since last August.
And I have to report that it was a good choice for such an ‘amateur grandmaster’. I’m in Helsingor, a gorgeous seaside town an hour north of Copenhagen, and the chess is set at the amazing Konventum, some sort of cross between a corporate retreat and a ‘goodness and well being’ centre. We’re surrounded by amazing woods, a medieval castle, fairytale-esque forests and the beach just a short stroll away. At the centre, we can play billards, wii, check out the sauna or play almost any sport under the sun – and yes, there is actually sun! In fact I snuck in some rare European sunbathing as I decided to do my opening preparation this morning out on the lawns, overlooking the golf course. Did I mention there is a golf course? Our own course!
Of course (ha!) that doesn’t mean much to the other grandmasters. As Maxime Vachier-Lagrave (or ‘MVL’, as he prefers) recently quipped when interviewed, “Why should I care about the cities I play in? Wherever we play, chessplayers just go from the hotel to the tournament hall and back again.” Okay, I’m embellishing somewhat, but he said something like this. But of course, I don’t care that much about the results – I’m here to relax, and as such I’ll probably be the only grandmaster taking part in the other, less serious events in the festival. Besides blitz, there’s also a pairs blitz event and even a problem solving competition, in which I think I’m going to make my solving debut. And I’m sure I’ll be the only participant hitting the links in between rounds.
Despite my loud vows about my lighthearted approach to the tournament, so far it’s going pretty well. I’ve won my first three, which makes a nice change to the end of the Olympiad, my last tournament, where I lost the last three. Readers might remember that my collapse at the tail end of the tournament cost Australia what would have been its best evern Olympiad performance, which may explain why I’ve taken something of a Sabbatical from chess tournaments since then. It’s not the first time I’ve had a streak of losses – I would have gained the grandmaster title three years earlier than I did, back in 2006, if it wasn’t for a streak of four losses in a row when my live rating was 2496…
At least on the weight of current evidence, it seems I am a bit of a streaker. No, not THAT sort of streaker (the most famous recent example being this joker) – but I am very hot and cold in my performances on the board. My Dad always used to tell me that was my big weakness ; “You’ve got to stop the big swings”, he used to say, “None of these highs and lows – you’ve got to keep yourself level headed.” A decade and a half on, I’ve still got the same record. Still, my hot streak in the British league has managed to kick on a little, and currently it seems I’ve won my last 9 games. That’s probably my best ever run, which is why I’m writing this now before I mess it up. Still, there’s a silver lining when I come crashing back down to earth, because I can stop my morning preparations entirely and work on my (lack of a) golf swing.
I’ll try and get some pics posted on the next update so you can get an idea of the tournament without having to rely on my verbose descriptions. There’s word that there might be a soccer game tonight, which I’ll also try and snap – because rumour has it that if they’re chosing teams on rating order, I may not even make the cut….
POSTSCRIPT: Indeed, my prophecy turned out to be self-fulfilling – literally. I thought the round started an hour later than it did (I was going off yesterday’s time) and came to the board half an hour late. After I made up time and actually got ahead on the clock at one stage, the game exploded into tactical fireworks and finished in a draw. Thus, no more streaking.
Posted by David Smerdon on Jul 28, 2013 in Non-chess
So, Australia’s losing the Ashes series. I’m shocked.
For the non-cricketlovers, the Ashes is an annual series of 5 cricket matches between England and Australia. Given our natural rivalry, it’s not surprising that this is the biggest sporting event of Australia’s calendar year. The history of the series goes back to 1877 (and to put that in context, Australia was only colonised in 1788). There’s a lot of pride at stake, a lot of history, and a lot of contemporary context, given recent pushes within Australia to become a Republic. And, unfortunately for us, in the last few years England has dominated.
And so it is that after two tests, Australia finds itself 2-0 behind. The newspapers are having a field day with the obscure statistic that only once before in all of Ashes history has a side come back from 2-0 behind to win 3-2, with a typical cynical sentence going, “…and that was back in 1936-7 when Don Bradman made scores of 270, 212 and 169 in each test.” Don Bradman’s name is uttered with deity-like reverence in Australia, being not only the world’s greatest ever cricketer but also probably the most famous Australian of all time (at least up until Kylie Minogue donned the gold shorts).
The journos just love quoting this statistic; in fact, I bet one of them got the stat from their analyst and it’s subsequently been copied-and-pasted all around the media park. It’s meant to represent that we have next to no chance of pulling through.
But if you’re going to quote obscure historical similarities, you may as well go the whole hog. Let’s analyse the 1936-7 series, tealeaf-style, and see if we can find any other peculiaralities to give us Aussies some hope.
Let’s start with just how badly we lost. Okay, in the second test Australia got hammered pretty badly, losing by 347 runs, scoring a piddly 128 in our first innings. But back in December 1936, Australia lost by an innings and 22 runs, having been slaughtered for just 80 in its first innings. 80!!
Comparing the first tests looks even better for the modern Australia side. While the team narrowly lost a few weeks ago by the tiny margin of 14 runs, the 1936 team lost by a whopping 322 runs, largely thanks to Australia scoring 58 in its second innings. Yes, that’s right. Five. Eight.
That’s probably the lowest score Australia ever scored. To put that in context, each side gets to use 11 batsman, and usually about three or four will score over 50 each. Here, the whole Australian team scored about that. Bradman, only ever thought of as a batting hero, got out first ball.
I can only guess what the Australian and – *gasp* – English journalists were saying back then after the first two tests. Surely the roasting would have been several degrees hotter than the one the Aussie team is getting now.
And yet…Something amazing happened. Sure, a lot of it had to do with Bradman, the captain and world’s best batsman. But we keep forgetting that the current Australian captain, Michael Clarke, is also currently the world’s best batsman. Sure, he’s misfired so far… but so did the Don 78 years ago. He’d made scores of 38, 0, 0 and 82 in the first four innings; by Comparison, Clarke’s made 0, 23 28 and 51. Sound familiar?
Okay, I’ll admit it’s a stretch, but one could argue that Australia’s in a better position now than they were way back when. And as the journos rightly mention, the rest of the series was all Ozzie – wins by 365, 148 and an innings and 200 runs. Beautiful stuff if you come from the sunburnt land.
Have you heard of The Lion King? Of course you have. Won two Oscars, took in almost half a billion US dollars at the box office, got turned into one of the most successful Broadway musicals of all time…sound familiar? Well, in case you still need a reminder, here’s a brief run-down of the plot:
The setting is the glorious Pride Lands of Africa. Simba is a young and ambitious lion cub who, following the unfortunate demise of his long-reigning predecessor, is the rightful heir to the throne. However, the second in line to the crown, his uncle Scar, has other plans. After sneakily gathering the support of the hyena clan with all sorts of promises of power (“A shining new era/ Is tiptoeing nearer”), Scar embarks on a daring coup, usurping Simba and banishing him from the kingdom.
While languishing in the backwaters of the wilderness, Simba befriends other outcasts, beings his new life and renounces any ambitions to the top spot. Meanwhile, Scar’s rulership has led to the once vibrant lands slipping into a desolate wasteland, with the forecasts looking equally dark and barren. Simba is persuaded by the other animals to return from exile and challenge the usurper in a desperate bid to save the kingdom. After a brief struggle, Simba defeats Scar and takes his rightful place as leader, thus completing the Circle of Life.
Now, ready for some magic? Let’s do a couple of small replacements, and BAM, you’ve got the synopsis of Australian politics over the past five years.
The setting is the glorious Parliament of Australia. Kevin is a young and ambitious minister who, following the unfortunate demise of his long-reigning predecessor, is the rightful heir to the throne. However, the second in line to the prime ministership, his deputy Julia, has other plans. After sneakily gathering the support of the labor clan with all sorts of promises of power (“Don’t be a fool/ Go with Jule”), Julia embarks on a daring coup, usurping Kevin and banishing him from the front bench.
While languishing in the backwaters of the political wilderness, Kevin befriends other outcasts, beings his new life and renounces any ambitions to the top spot. Meanwhile, Julia’s rulership has led to the once vibrant economy slipping into a desolate wasteland, with the forecasts looking equally dark and barren. Kevin is persuaded by the other ministers to return from exile and challenge the usurper in a desperate bid to save the election. After a brief struggle, Kevin defeats Julia and takes his rightful place as leader, thus completing the Circle of Kevin.
Of course, we’ve still got the election coming up in August, and I haven’t found a role yet for Tony Abbott. Was there a Lion King II??
I’ve been slack with the blog, and have begun to receive pointed reminders from some of you. Fair call, although at least I have something of an excuse. Despite a sworn vow to never again return to the sub continent, I’ve been in Bangalore and its surrounds for the past month on a glorious summer vacation.
To be fair, the vow was made out of bitterness and pain all the way back in 2007, after my third visit to India for chess. I was playing in the Commonwealth Chess Championships in New Delhi and for the first time suffered a serious case of “Delhi Belly”. During the course of a week, my body lost 10 kilograms (and the snide pundits among you would be quick to point out that I didn’t have that much to begin with). The gruelling schedule of two five-hour games a day didn’t exactly aid the recovery, but in case you’re feeling sorry for me, spare a thought for my poor roommate, Gareth Oliver, given that I monopolised the bathroom for every waking minute we spent in the hotel.
I think my anti-India vow was probably uttered while being literally carried to the board for one of the final games, but I’m glad I didn’t stick to it. My other two trips, way back in 2002 and 2004, were absolutely amazing, and the most recent venture has reinforced my belief that India is truly a magical country. Still, it’ll take a fair bit of convincing to get me back to New Delhi again…
The reason for the trip to Bangalore was a wedding: one of my good friends from my Melbourne college days was to marry his Indian fiancee, and he’d made it very clear that skipping the event wasn’t an option. He currently works in Iraq for the UN, and given his military background, I felt it was a pretty good idea to oblige. To try and rid myself of the memories of half a decade ago, I arrived a few days before the rest of the wedding party to do a bit of exploring.
But it wasn’t as lonely as you might imagine. Before I left, I googled ‘Bangalore Chess’ and sent an email to the Bangalore Chess Academy to see whether there were any club nights or social events while I was there. I got a strange reply from a guy called Vedant: “There’s not really much of a club scene in Bangalore, but I’d love to play a few games against a grandmaster.” Oh brother, I thought, playing some games against one local bunny wasn’t exactly what I had in mind. I accepted the offer out of politeness, and good that I did. Vedant is an amazing guy who’s set up his own chess school in his house, run by himself and his wife, trains his very talented children, and is trying to expand the Bangalore chess scene with some junior tournaments. Oh, and on top of that, he’s the strongest player in Bangalore and has played against (and beaten) most of India’s grandmasters. He even took me down in one of our blitz games when my arrogant queen sacrifice backfired. In addition to our love of dubious sacrifices, we found another mutual idiosyncrasy: an addiction to mangoes. The bond was immediately forged.
After blitz, he invited me back to his house where by chance there was something of a family reunion going on, so I was introduced to children, brothers, sisters, their spouses, parents, grandparents and, it seemed, the whole tree. I accepted his seven year old daughter Yukti’s challenge to a game, and she’s really not bad. At some point, though, I had mate in three and decided to ‘graciously’ offer my host’s progeny a draw. “No”, she quickly replied. With the whole clan watching, I offered again, “Are you sure? Because, you know, your king’s not looking so good. Are you sure you don’t want a draw?”
“Nope” immediately came back the reply. “Play!” An impressive attitude, which reminded me of another young and reckless Brisbane kid many decades ago…
My last chess game in Bangalore. No draws allowed!
Vedant's sister is an artist, and she graciously gifted me one of her designs (as well as some local mango).
Meeting the (extended!) family
Hopefully in the future, I'll be able to caption this as "Meeting Bangalore's first grandmaster"
One difference I noticed about Bangalore compared to the other Indian cities I’ve visited is how differently foreigners are treated. For some reason, in Bangalore I and my fellow travellers were considered a novelty item wherever we went. I can’t even count the number of times people asked to take their picture with me – do I look like some Indian Premier League cricket star I’ve never heard of, or something? The only other time I’d encountered this sort of treatment was in Peru, but at least there was the reason that I was the only gringo in the town. The most comical request in Bangalore came when I was wandering alone in the Botanical Gardens and two guys approached me. When I asked why they wanted me in the photo, their response was priceless: “Because you’re foreign, and you’re looking so gorgeous.” I’ve been called many things before, but this was a first…
Of course, when Sabina arrived, the requests only increased. Together with my college friends Will and Dan, we went out to dinner at a rather fancy local restaurant. Upon being seated, our overly enthusiastic waiter began the conversation to Sabina with the priceless, “Madam, you look just like Barbie!” She whispered in my ear, “Should I take that as a compliment?”, to which I nodded while us boys desperately trying to suppress our laughter. We failed.
One final interesting tidbit came when I was walking down the central shopping street in the heart of Bangalore. And I mean the main street in the city, with all the fancy brands and men walking in suits, that sort of thing. A guy on the street corner with somewhat bloodshot eyes pulled out a nifty little wooden pocket chess set and tried to make a sale. “How peculiar,” I thought, “that I’d get offered a chess set here!” After I politely declined, he immediately came closer and whispered, “Want to buy some weed?” I recalled in shock at the sudden realisation:
…the chess-salesman in Bangalore are also the drug dealers!!
Okay, it was just one guy. And none of the other dealers I encountered for the rest of the trip had chess sets. Yes, that’s right, I got approached almost a dozen times on my stay. Whoever this IPL cricketer is, I’m starting to suspect he’s got a little problem…
The wedding itself was an amazing affair, as anyone who’s ever been to an Indian wedding can attest. The festivities lasted almost a week, but you’ve had to read too much of this diary-entry already and I won’t bore you any more with text; instead, here’s a couple of snaps to give you the flavour. And, for no particular reason, I’ve added my game against Vedant’s daughter. An Indian star of the future!
The happy couple, Tim and Mal, having just been pronounced man and wife after an elaborate and lengthy ceremony under the tent.
Dan, Tim ("What did you guys do to me at the bachelor's party?!") and I at the Mehendi celebrations the day before the wedding.
Trying on Indian men's formal wear, the Sherwami. In the end I just went for a suit, to Sabina's disappointment.
...but at least the tie matched the sari!
The girls all got Henna put on their hands as part of the Mehendi tradition
Sabina and Mal's cousins before the raucous Bollywood-style dancing commenced.
In India, of course, cows have complete right of way on the roads...
...and on the cricket field.
Dan and I fooling around at the reception dress-up photo stand, complete with working autorickshaw.
The plethora of fresh coconuts and mangoes made me a very happy traveller.
This house had no shortage of fresh coconuts, thanks to a bit of creative eco-friendly architecture.
A colourful incense and oil shop in the Mysore markets. I engaged in some aggressive bargaining with all of my acquired worldly wisdom, and was extremely pleased with myself...until I returned home and told my Indian housemate the prices I'd paid. I've never seen him laugh so hard.
At the end of last year, a horrific tale emerged of a gang-rape case in New Delhi. This event, which received widespread attention in the international press, has sparked something of a reform against female abuse in India. These final two pics show some of the street art I saw, capturing the spirit of the movement in the country.
The recent FIDE Grand Prix event in Thessaloniki provided me with hours of entertainment over the past week. I took to it like test match cricket: I had the games up on screen in the background while I worked on my thesis in the office. I was thrilled to see Lenier Dominguez (my nemesis from the 2009 World Cup) power through the imposing field to record probably his biggest tournament victory, propelling him to 11th in the live world rankings.
While all the attention in the final rounds was on the tournament leaders, there were plenty of really interesting games throughout the field, with two in particular offering some beautiful variations to the armchair analyst. I’ve copied my analysis below (also giving me a chance to give this new webpage chessgame viewer a try. What do you think?)
In the battle between two former FIDE World Champions in round 8, Ukrainian Ruslan Ponomariov couldn’t hold a difficult rook-versus-bishop-and-knight endgame against Rustam Kazimdzhanov. However, from the safety of my office chair and with the aid of my computer engine, I spotted two tough drawing chances for Ponomariov just before the second time control. Here’s the position before Black played 54….Kh5, leaving Ponomariov (white) to find his 55th move:
The other game I want to share with you is the multi-queen epic Topalov-Caruana. After the young Italian secured a second black queen, Topalov quickly capitulated, but he could have made things a lot more difficult for his opponent. Let’s check it out with Topalov (white) to play his 55th move:
I’ve neglected the website for a while now, and for that I apologise. I’m in thesis mode these days and I’ve barely had time to make my bed, much less keep up my writing. (Just kidding; I never make my bed.)
A lot of people have been asking me recently what exactly I’m researching for my thesis. A quick pop-quiz of my social network revealed quite a spread of subject matter that my friends for some reason assumed I was studying. Most have gotten the ‘economics’ part right (well done), but I’ve heard specific thesis topics ranging from feminism to climate change, from helping the poor to ‘some psychology thing’, and from human experiments to my favourite (from a grandmaster who shall remain nameless): “Feeding the capitalist machine”.
I guess the only message that can be taken from this is that I probably talk too much. Fair point. In any case, for the record, my thesis is on the persistence of social norms, and particularly bad social norms or taboos. The basic question is: why do some customs and norms stubbornly persist for generations, despite being practically useless or, occasionally, even bad for society?
That probably needs some more explanation, which I’ll get to in a later post, complete with some juicy examples. For now, though, I’m only outlining it as part of my apology for being slack with the blog. While I’m making excuses, it turns out I’ve been recruited by ChessPublishing to write their anti-Sicilians column. (For the non-chess readers, this is a set of opening variations in chess. Just in case you think I’ve got anything against Italians.)
I figured I’m not going to have time for much chess in the coming thesismania, so at least this forces me to put aside a couple of days a month to studying something a little more fun than equations. You can check out the blurb to my first column here. I’ve also been swamped with chess commentary on ChessFM in my spare time, given the tsunami of top level chess events we’ve had recently. For some reason, chess commentary has really started taking off (I can hear the laughter from you non-chessites, but I’m ignoring you). In fact, these days it’s almost mandatory at the big tournaments to have video and on-location commentators, so ChessFM probably has to catch up and send people to the events to match the coverage we’re getting. (Yes, I’m writing this partly to advance my own frequent flyer points. Shh.)
One thing I’ve noticed from all the coverage is the cultural style differences among the US, continental European and British coverage of events. The commentators for the US championship – Jen Shahade, Yasser Seirawan and Maurice Ashley – were really great, but the whole production was styled like they were commenting on a baseball game. There was action, drama, crosses to special reporters, hyperbole, alliteration, exclamations and exaggerations. I felt like I was part of a Vegas showcase rather than a chess event. Is this bad? Probably not, especially given the US audience. They sensationalised the event, and by jove, they did it well.
On the other hand, the commentary from the Norway and Paris/Moscow events was far more subdued. The commentators – spearheaded by the charming yet monotonic Dirk Jan ten Geuzendam – spoke in dulcet, sometimes somnolent tones, with large pauses and conservative evaluations. I felt like I was at an economics lecture: the quality of the analysis was superb and I certainly learned more about the deeper points of the games, but the lessons were often more catatonic than constructive.
The commentary from the London Candidates tournament, however, has to be my favourite. We usually got to see my mates Laurence Trent and Nigel Short giving blunt and candid opinions about the games and the players, with gorgeously witty intermezzos when the action on the board was quiet. Their dry, abstract British humour, distinguished enthusiasm and erudite knowledge of chess history and strategy perfectly blended the best of both commentary worlds. It’s somewhat humbling to write such a flattering description seeing as I was a rival commentator during the event, but their coverage really was awesome.
I have to say, chess commentary is an amazing job. Now that I’ve finally accepted that my chess-watching procrastination is inevitable, I may as well make some pocket money while I’m wasting valuable thesis hours staring at the games. Combined with writing chess articles on ChessPub, I’ve probably found the two best side-jobs I could have while pretending to be an economist (excluding, of course, my number one dream job: song writer for Flight of the Conchords).
In fact, if this thesis thing doesn’t work out…
More posts to come soon. There’ll even be some without chess in them.