Interview with Australia's GM David Smerdon
by SCN Editors

The 26-year-old David Smerdon has a lot of good things going his way: he is Australia's No. 2 top Grandmaster (after he was No 1 for a period of time), holds a good job with the Federal Treasury, conducts post-graduate academic work, and still has plenty of time for Fi, his girlfriend. Recently, SCN had the opportunity to interview the talented young Australian. Here is the transcript with some truly insightful thoughts from multi-talented David.

SCN: When did you pick up chess and when did you begin to look at it more seriously as something that may become a big part of your earlier years - and life ultimately? How did that happen?

GM David Smerdon: I started playing chess when I was 5. I was quite a disobedient child, hyperactive and badly behaved for the most part. My parents recognized that, rather than a personality defect, this was probably due to surplus energy and boredom and so taught me chess. I became immediately hooked and the following year in my first tournament, aged six, I came second in my State for Under-9. However, it was only when I came close to a medal in the world under 10’s in Hungary that my parents started taking my chess seriously. School was always a higher priority in our family (as it is for most Australian chess players) and so far more of my time went into this, but despite this, I’ve always found chess more interesting and challenging.

Did it compete with other sports?

To some extent. Despite its small population, Australia dominates the world arena in a number of sports, and every child is encouraged to take part in many of these activities as we grow up. For instance, at school and college, I played tennis, cricket, soccer, rugby, Australian Rules football, table tennis, water polo, beach volleyball and squash! Tennis was what I was best at, and when I was eleven my parents asked me to choose between continuing tennis or chess lessons – I chose the latter without hesitation, but in hindsight, Aussie tennis players seem to make a bit more money than me! I still find time to play half a dozen different sports a week, though.

GM David Smerdon
Photo © GM David Smerdon's private archive

Was chess a strong competitor or a strong ally for academic studies while a student (prior to you reaching Melbourne University)?

I was pretty lucky in that my high school showed a great deal of flexibility with my chess. There’s no doubt that chess boosts intellectual and cognitive abilities, and I’m sure playing chess from an early age has aided my memory, calculation abilities and concentration. But these advantages are nullified if the school doesn’t give consideration for chess tournaments during the semester! Fortunately, even though I missed most of my exams in my final year of school due to the Olympiad and also World Junior Championships, my school allowed me to sit supplementary exams when I returned, and gave me all the support I needed. This led to me being able to continue a chess career and still maintain the grades I could have expected otherwise. So in that regard, I’d have to say chess was a very strong ally, and should be recommended to all students!

What were your chess performances by the time you signed up for courses at Melbourne?

I became an international master at 14, and was ranked second in Australia by the time I reached university. Unfortunately, I’ve been ranked second ever since!  In my last year of high school, I also become Australian Lightning and Australian Rapid Champion, but was still struggling for a big tournament win in the longer time controls.

What was your major at Melbourne and how much chess mattered in those critical formative years?

I took on quite an intensive undergraduate course, majoring in math and statistics, economics and psychology. This didn’t leave that much time for chess during the semesters, but I managed to convince most of my individual lecturers to let me skip classes and even exams to take part in big tournaments. It was not an uncommon occurrence during university for me to return from an Olympiad or World Junior Championship and sit a final exam that week, or even the next day...

Did you begin to notice the challenge of marrying the chase for a rewarding mainstream career and playing master/grandmaster chess at professional level even from the studying time at Melbourne?

Absolutely. I was encouraged by my professors to pursue my studies in earnest to maximize my potential. However, although I took mostly advanced classes, the idea of overloading my studies, taking summer internships, and so forth was totally unappealing in light of what this would mean for my chess career. Consequently, I’ve probably taken a slower route to my professional career than I could have, but it’s hard to have any regrets when I think about all the wonderful experiences chess has given me in return.

In your previews interviews you often mentioned the importance of travelling opportunities chess has offered you. Care to elaborate? Did it help your upbringing and world vision?

Australia, like Singapore, is a very multicultural and diverse country – perhaps that’s why I feel so at home when I visit Singapore! However, purely for geographical reasons, Australians are a little isolated, culturally speaking.  Most native-born Australians only speak English and don’t get the opportunity to experience other cultures firsthand while growing up – those countries we do visit are usually also English-speaking. Chess has managed to take me to almost thirty countries, including many places (such as Siberia!) that most of my peers will never have the chance to visit.  I’ve made friends from around the world and experienced countries going through all degrees of development. Probably most significantly for my upbringing, though, was living in Amsterdam by myself for 18 months as a semi-professional chess player, learning Dutch and fending for myself as I travelled around the continent playing tournaments. This experience definitely did a lot for my character, as well as my chess.

Tell us more about the successful journey to achieve the Grandmaster title.

Back in early 2006, I had a surprisingly good performance at the Australian Championships in my hometown of Brisbane, picking up the first grandmaster norm an Australian had earned in over a decade. This prompted me to take some time off after university and try to get the title in Europe, but this proved far more difficult than I thought!  It took another year before I picked up the second when I won the Bangkok Open in 2007 – by the way, this was one of my favourite tournaments, and I would recommend it to anyone, particularly Singaporeans! I missed out in several tournaments on getting the final norm, usually in the last round.  In fact I became almost famous for ‘choking’ as we call it here, or losing the critical rounds. I made the final norm in the Czech Republic, but then the rating requirement of 2500 ELO proved almost as elusive as the norms themselves.  My rating finally snuck over 2500 last year, and since then I’ve been able to relax a lot more and play my normal brand of chess. Of course, in between all of this, my good friend and Australian number one Zong-Yuan Zhao earned all three norms and the rating, overtaking me in the process!

Did you ever consider seriously turning into a professional player at the time when you're about to graduate from Melbourne University? Making a living out of chess - was that appealing?

I considered it while playing chess in Europe on my gap year after Melbourne University. There’s something very appealing about the chess community; it’s like one large family across the world, in which you meet every month in a new exotic location. It’s a glamorous life in some respects, playing top-level chess in plush resorts or swanky hotels, doing what you love for a living. At the end of the day, however, I gave it some serious thought and realized that considerations like starting a family and being able to spend time with them wouldn’t be compatible with the professional chess lifestyle (as hard as it was to imagine these things at the time!). Fortunately, I’m very lucky to be able to have other career paths open to me that do allow me to live in the one place and lead a balanced lifestyle, while still being able to enjoy chess on the side.

How did you end up working for Treasury and what do you do there? How's that sort of job schedule allowing you to stay on top in Australian chess (and regional for that matter)?

It was after having this realization while living in Amsterdam that I realized that, if I wasn’t going to be a professional chess player, I probably should start thinking about getting a real job! I’ve always been quite socially conscious and so, with my background in economics and related disciplines, the Federal Treasury was the perfect choice. Additionally, being in the public service allows me the freedom and flexibility to continue to play chess tournament that a career in, say, investment banking or corporate finance would not. Treasury has been amazingly supportive of my chess interests, and we’ve come to a very attractive understanding from my point of view: as long as I work hard and well on my issues (currently, global financial issues related to the G20 and the financial crisis), I can usually play two or three proper international tournaments a year, as well as plenty of weekend events. This has allowed me to stay in touch and maintain my ranking in Australia, but the lack of time and inclination to train frequently has seen me slip somewhat in the Asian region. It’d be nice to take a bit more of a break from the office and seek the assistance of some high quality coaches (such as your own Zhang Zhong!), but balancing chess and a career demands these sorts of compromises. Still, at the end of the day, I can still enjoy my love of chess without having to worry too much about making ends meet.

How do you train and stay in good shape chessly speaking when you have a demanding job?

I mainly stay up to date through online resources. Living in Canberra, there aren’t any opportunities for me to get serious coaching, so a lot of my chess is now self-taught. I use Chess Publishing to keep up with opening theory, Opening Master for up to date databases, and read the main global chess news sites daily for interest and to keep my appetite whet. I’ve also tried to structure my opening repertoire with slightly obtuse openings that aren’t subject to the rapid changes in modern theory that, say, the Najdorf and King’s Indian are. I also have started to download chess e-books so I can get in some ‘light’ reading when I have a spare moment away from the office! It’s difficult to find the time, of course, but fortunately none of this feels like a chore to a chess enthusiast (although wading through endgame books can get a little tedious at times!).

Any coaching/help from Australian-based people?

I’ve tried many coaches over the years, mostly coming from top Australian players. I probably have received the most help from Manuel Weeks, who coached me in world juniors since I was ten and, although he now lives in London, Manuel still helps me out occasionally. He also captained the Australian team in the recent Olympiad.

Besides playing, will you be writing chess books anytime soon? If so, what's your main interest in this field?

I’m also doing postgraduate study part-time, so I don’t have too much spare time these days. However, I’ve always enjoyed writing and regularly post chess and non-chess articles on my blog, and writing a chess book or two has always been an ambition. I’ve got a few ideas for some more philosophical chess works, but I’ll probably start with an openings book on the Portuguese Variation of the Scandinavian, as it’s one of my pet systems. Ultimately though, I’d like to write some books designed for part-time chess players such as myself, perhaps even looking at these issues of juggling secular work and responsibilities with a chess career.

GM David Smerdon with his girlfriend Fi
Photo © GM David Smerdon's private archive

I know from my colleague IM Goh Wei Ming's experience that sometimes building a family can complicate matters for an aspiring young player. Especially if the spouse is not chess connected. Any thoughts/experiences on that?

Goh and I actually had a chat about this very subject last month at the Malaysian Open, where both our respective partners came to visit us! I’m not married and can’t comment on the impact of building a family, but certainly being able to spend time with my children in the future played a big part in deciding not to continue with a professional chess career. However, I can comment from a relationship perspective, as my girlfriend is not a chess player. A relationship with an aspiring or serious chess player is quite different from, shall we say, "normal" relationships! I don’t think both partners need to be able to play chess, of course, but I think it’s very important for the non-chess partner to have some understanding of the chess world and the stresses and pressures that a player goes through during tournaments. It’s equally important for the chess player to understand that the chess world, with all its seriousness, tribulations and rollercoaster emotions, is quite foreign and largely incomprehensible to most people! In my case I’m exceptionally lucky, as my girlfriend is both supportive and incredibly patient. She even travelled with me last year to Khanty-Mansiysk for the World Cup – surviving a week of Siberian Winter at a chess event without many English-speakers was quite an achievement!

From the perspective of your job/expertise, do you think we'll see eventually real top sponsors pouring money into chess to a degree similar to other sports or the game is simply not "commercial" enough?

Yes, I think so. There is certainly the potential, at least. There’s probably some sociological factors at play to explain why we haven’t seen the level of sponsorship in chess as in other sports. For example, in the past, marketing in sports has been more popular in capitalist, developed countries where chess is traditionally not as popular. But the world’s changing: marketing is far more an international enterprise, the internet has globalised chess, and chess-strong countries such as India and China are developing into the major players on the world’s economic stage. The main obstacle standing in the way of commercializing chess, in my opinion, is its simplification and marketability to the average person. I think this is definitely possible, and in fact I have a few ideas as to how to make chess attractive enough for tournaments to be acceptable to television broadcasters and sponsors – whether it would actually work in practice is another matter. But poker found a way to bring the game’s complexities to the wider audience, and cricket’s Twenty20 founded a whole new brand of sponsor-friendly cricket that saw players’ salaries quadruple. There’s potential.

Based on your proximity to the Asian chess, what do you think would be the major differences in the competitive philosophy of the West (so to speak) and the Asian zones? What contributed to the rise of Chinese, Indian and Filipino (to some extent...) chess?

I can only really speak with authority on the differences in philosophies between Australia and other Asian countries. The biggest of these is definitely tradition: Australia is an outdoor-sports nation, familiar with the sun and the beach, but not so much the chess board. An academic last month actually referred to Australia as the “dumb blonde of the world”!  While I don’t agree with this, I can understand to some extent why our Government continues to pump money into our sporting associations, particularly development and support for those that feature in the Olympics – that’s what the Australian people want. Compare this to India, which sourced the game thousands of years ago – quite a different tradition.  Having said that, international chess has never been a big feature of Chinese culture, but the government there was determined to see China rise to the top of the world stage for the game, and this support has proved invaluable. With both of these countries and also other Asian nations, having a naturally-talented star who stakes a claim in the international sphere is also a big plus. Vishy Anand in India, Bu Xiangzhi and several women’s world champions in China, Wesley So in the Philippines, Le Quang Liem in Vietnam... these guys have brought pride to their people and popularity to the game in their countries. The star, combined with government support, is a winning combination for chess success in a nation. Sadly, at the moment at least, Australia has neither.

During the Olympiad, Australia met Singapore and the match ended in a 2-2 draw. Care to talk about the Singapore players/junior perhaps in comparison with similar talent from Australia?

The draw against Singapore was not what we expected, and I have to give full credit to the Singaporean players for their resolve and performance in this match. Australia was coming off two losses against heavily rated teams that kicked us out of the top playing hall, and we were eager to record two final-round match victories to try to reclaim our standing – but it was not to be! I have to say that I have been very impressed with the play of the Singaporeans I’ve met, and in this regard I think Zhang Zhong really leads by example. Daniel Fernandez is an incredibly talented junior and some of the games he played in tournaments in Australia last year were outstanding. Unfortunately Daniel’s game against me wasn’t his best, which coincided with not a great tournament for him. Probably the pressures of playing every game in an Olympiad in Russia at his age got to him on this occasion, but I think Daniel has a very promising future. I was also very impressed with Timothy Chan Wei Xuan, who showed incredible maturity and nerves to hold on to the win that ended up tying the match. And, although he wasn’t at this Olympiad, I have to say my friend Go Wei Ming is also a very talented player (and beat me at the last Olympiad!). He’s also a great analyst and opening theoretician, and has an enviable passion for the game. So, just from my own personal experiences, I have to say that Singaporean chess seems to be brimming with talent and potential for the future. Of course, Australia is also going through a bit of a boom when it comes to talent, especially in the junior ranks – interestingly and notably, most of these talented players come from Asian heritage! It’s not inconceivable that I may be the only blonde in the Olympiad team in a few years...

Thank you, David, for agreeing to this interview.

Thank you!

GM Smerdon was kind to send us one of his most interesting games annotated. Readers may follow the top Australian grandmaster's chess adventures by visiting his website:

[Published October 20, 2010]

© David Smerdon & S'pore Chess News. All Rights Reserved 2010

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