August 29, 2012

Playing for the Endgame: A response to Akash Jain’s “Zugzwang”

I was very interested to read Akash Jain’s piece on his choice of moves as a twelve year old between pursuing a professional chess career and continuing along a more regular educational path. It’s a pretty standard decision faced by a lot of talented chess kids around this age, including perhaps a couple of the readers, so let’s analyse the position a little deeper, shall we? Response by David Smerdon.

Playing for the Endgame: A response to Akash Jain’s “Zugzwang”
By David Smerdon

Greetings, readers! Having stumbled across this site, I’ve now been recruited as something of
a ‘Foreign Grandmaster Correspondent’ – your roving Australian writer, currently typing these words
from Amsterdam (more on that later…)

(By the way, I’m not really sure why the article was titled “Zugswang: Without a waiting move”.
From the sounds of things, it wasn’t that Akash had no options; rather, he had two promising
continuations, leading to radically different types of games – and it sounds like he would have been
successful at either. Perhaps “Playing the best move” would have been more appropriate!)

While the decision may sound similar from person to person, each individual’s position is different,
having its own subtleties, and there’s no perfect best move for everyone. World champion
candidate Gata Kamsky quit professional chess in 1996 to pursue a career as a brain surgeon, before
eventually graduating from a law school in New York. Eight years later, he decided that chess was in
fact the right move for him, and given he’s ranked 14th in the world, who can argue? On the other
side of the coin, Harvard Professor Ken Rogoff is perhaps most famous for his work as an economist
for the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and on the Board of Governors of the Fed in the United
States – but he’s also a grandmaster and used to be one of the strongest players in the US in the
1970’s. In fact, Rogoff initially dropped out of school when he was 16 to become a full-time chess
player, but, like Kamsky (only in the other direction!), changed his mind, focussing on economics a
few years later.

The ability to swap and switch between chess and a secular career after the initial decision is
impressive, but what really astounds me is when guys can juggle both at the same time. Take the
English grandmaster Luke McShane, sitting at 32nd in the world and with recent wins against Carlsen, Aronian and Kramnik under his belt. Surprisingly, he’s an amateur, playing chess ‘on the side’ while working full time as a trader for Goldman Sachs in London. On the other hand, at 2708, the Russian grandmaster Vladimir Malakhov used to have a claim on the title of ‘strongest amateur’ (before McShane came along) when he worked as a nuclear physicist, but has since decided to focus full-time on chess. If we go back even further into the history books, we might discover that Max Euwe was a professor of mathematics and never a professional chess player, perhaps showing that playing chess as an amateur can be successful, all the way to World Champion!

My own story is far less interesting, I’m afraid. I grew up competing in the international junior ranks
with players who’ve gone on to amazing things in the chess world, such as Levon Aronian, Dimitri
Jakovenko, Shakhriyar Mamedyarov, Baadur Jobava, Arkadij Naiditsch, Bu Xiangzhi, Ni Hua and,
closer to home, Pentala Harikrishna and Surya Shekhar Ganguly. I’m sure we can all agree that these
guys made the smart call in dedicating their lives to chess at an early age, and I have to confess that
when I read about their latest exploits on the world chess stage, I sometimes feel regret that I didn’t
do the same. But the regrets don’t last long.

David Smerdon (left) as a 'coffeehouse amateur', playing blitz in a chess cafe with English grandmaster Stuart Conquest.
When I was fourteen, I had gained the International Master title (albeit through a zonal tournament)
and finished fourth in the World Under 16 championships. At this time, a famous chess trainer
from Hungary came to Australia, looking for talent. At the end of his stay, he told me and the
twelve year old Zong-Yuan Zhao (now Australia’s top grandmaster) that we had the potential to go
professional. “But” he told us and our parents, “you’ll have to quit school immediately and move to
Budapest, where you’ll live with me and train full time, six days a week.”

Well, you can imagine the shock that Zong-Yuan and I felt at this news! After all, for an Australian,
Budapest is a long way from home. But it makes sense: Australia offers no support to its chess
players, and any chess career necessarily requires a move to the northern hemisphere. Additionally,
Australians are quite lucky in that the educational system and job market in Australia are first
rate, but a natural consequence is that the opportunity costs of pursuing chess full time are high.
Consider the countries of my peers mentioned above: Armenia, Russia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Latvia,
China and India. I believe that each of these countries supports chess on both government and
commercial levels, and for young aspiring chess players considering their options after school, the
potential rewards of a professional career can, at times, seem quite attractive.

And for Zong-Yuan and I? We both declined and went on to pursue more routine careers. Zong-
Yuan is finishing off his medical degree in Sydney and recently got married, though still finds the
time to play the odd tournament every now and then (including impressive wins against the likes of
Kortchnoi and Bologan!). Unfortunately, though, he’s unable to take his customary board one spot
in the upcoming chess Olympiad due to his study commitments – once the choice is made, one can’t
have his cake and eat it too (unless you’re Luke McShane, it seems).

I devoted myself to my studies, but I have to confess, despite resigning myself forevermore
to ‘mediocre grandmaster’ status, the intellectual skills and discipline I acquired from chess
have really helped me in my academic pursuits. I’ve found crossovers with chess in all of my
undergraduate degrees – commerce, psychology, mathematics and statistics – and I’m finding more
and more in my current work studying a PhD in economics in Amsterdam. Furthermore, having the
chess credentials on my application made a key difference in getting the scholarship to study over
here in the Netherlands – a benefit to which Akash also made reference.

But one of the main considerations in making my decision was lifestyle, as Akash mentions. The life
of a professional chess player sounds very sexy: travelling from country to country, playing chess
for a living, seeing the world, meeting new people…who wouldn’t want to do that? But eventually,
priorities change. I knew that I’m the sort of guy who wanted to settle down, get a house, a wife
and be an involved father to a whole cricket team of kids (but not too many little Shane Warnes,
let’s hope). And that’s nigh on impossible when you’ve got to skip off every other week to another
country to feed the tribe. (On the positive side, I’ve managed to take a fair bit of time out from my
studies and work to travel the world playing chess, visiting over forty countries, including three trips
to India. On the other hand, I’m currently single, so the cricket team seems a fair way off…)

For a lot of people, these sorts of family priorities aren’t there, and so the life of a chess player on
the circuit may sound feasible, and even appealing. And some people can juggle both, especially if
fortune and talent fall their way. I’m sure Carlsen’s not complaining, and Vishy must be happy with
his life choices. But it’s not for everyone, it’s not for Akash, and it’s not for me. But maybe… Is it for

David Smerdon

Note: You can refer the the article "Zugzwang" by Akash Jain here.