Sport

The chance discovery of his father’s chess set had David Smerdon winning games before he could read and becoming an international master by age 14. Next he would go head to head with the world’s greatest players. By Martin McKenzie-Murray.

‘I was sweating’: David Smerdon on playing Magnus Carlsen

David Smerdon gets ready for a game while working as a volunteer teacher in Peru in 2011.
Credit: Supplied

David Smerdon didn’t know until the night before. That’s how late the next day’s fixtures were made for the Chess Olympiad. The Australian grandmaster was out smoking shisha with locals in Baku, the Azerbaijan capital, when he received the text message: Australia were drawn with Norway. Jesus Christ, Smerdon thought. I’m playing Magnus.

Magnus Carlsen might be the game’s greatest player to date. Better than Fischer, Kasparov, Karpov. It’s at least arguable. A grandmaster at 13, Carlsen became his country’s best player at 15, and the world’s best at 19. He has history’s highest rating, its longest unbeaten streak, and is second only to Garry Kasparov for the most time spent as the world’s No. 1 player (he’s still only 30, and many believe he’ll break this record in time, though Carlsen has suggested his age now coincides with the typical summit of chess performance).

The Norwegian’s party trick is playing 10 winning games simultaneously – while blindfolded. With back turned, and mask drawn, Carlsen will be told his opponent’s move in the game’s algebraic shorthand, and then offer his own. He must imaginatively visualise – and remember – the board placements for 10 simultaneous games. And he does, triumphantly.

And the following day, David Smerdon would play him. The news was electrifying. Then 32, Smerdon suddenly felt a passion for the game he hadn’t felt in years, maybe a decade. His relationship with chess had become… not contemptuous. Or even indifferent. He still loved the game, but he’d grown… tired. Chess didn’t have the same galvanising centrality in his life that it used to.

But now he felt a delicious excitement, enhanced by knowing this would probably be his only opportunity to play the Great Magnus – privately, Smerdon had decided this would be his last Olympiad. It was 2016, and this was Smerdon’s seventh event. Young by most other standards, he was the oldest on the Australian team, and he thought it was time to relinquish his place for younger players. Smerdon also knew life would soon change: a career in academia beckoned, he would be married next year, and children were likely in the not-so-distant future.

Most players would have rushed to their hotel room to study – in fact, they would have already been there. Instead, Smerdon excused himself from his company and strolled the city’s seafront boulevard. That he didn’t immediately rush to prepare for the biggest game of his life wasn’t proof of arrogance – Smerdon was overwhelmed and fearful. No, he just knew this was a singular moment and he wanted to spend some time quietly absorbing it. Plus, he knew the futility of studying for Magnus – it was hard to prepare against a man capable of playing anything.

 

When you play Magnus Carlsen, things outside the board are different. There are cameras, journalists, spectators – and a frisson in the air, generated by the crowd’s awareness of their proximity to genius. “I was overwhelmed,” Smerdon says. “I’ve never been in a situation with so many cameras and film crews around the board.”

Smerdon was gifted an advantage immediately: he drew white, and played first. He began conservatively, not daring to risk much aggression or creativity against his great opponent. But things quickly got away from him. “We both started with two hours each for the first 40 moves,” Smerdon says. “Magnus had used about 10 or 15 minutes. I’d used almost an hour-and-a-half. Things were going terribly for me and I was sweating. And I thought: ‘I’ve got to change this.’ And that’s when it sort of hit me: I should stop trying to just hold on. I should go back to what I’m good at, which is psychological chess.”

Smerdon would never be here again – at an Olympiad, or playing Magnus – and he wanted to look back on this match with pride, regardless of its outcome. So it was time to abandon his strategy. It was time to gamble.

 

David Smerdon was just four-and-a-half when he discovered his father’s chess set. It had never been opened. Neither father or son knew how to play, and only one of them could read, so David’s father pored over the yellowed instruction book, set up the pieces, and instructed his son on the moves. Within a few weeks David was beating his father.

Smerdon asked his parents for another chess set. He would set the two boards up in separate rooms of their Brisbane home and play simultaneous games against himself. His parents quickly realised their son had a gift, but beyond their love and encouragement, it was not one they could refine. So, after some wrangling, they placed David in an after-hours chess class offered by a nearby school. Before he could read, he had a chess coach: the talented, passionate Czech immigrant, Paul Chalupa.

“The first time I rocked up to his class, I was super nervous and shy,” Smerdon remembers. “He called me up to the front of the class and introduced me, and then he gave me these sheets of paper, and he said, ‘Here’s today’s lesson, read it out to the class.’ And I couldn’t read and I totally froze. And he got kind of angry and was yelling, so I just ran out of the classroom and got back in the car with Mum and drove off. I’d just turned five, or maybe wasn’t yet five. And I told my mum that I didn’t want to go back anymore. But my parents said that I should try it one more time, so I went back the next week and this guy became my coach for the next five years. He recognised my talent and stuck with me.”

Chalupa was a romantic. He detested overly calculated chess, what Smerdon calls the “Russian school” of playing: regardless of the opponent, you make the maximally efficient move every time. For Chalupa, chess was an artful battle between two humans – an ideal player would not merely rely upon cold memorisation or rote learning but would understand his opponent and treat the board as a place to express beauty and courage. “He thought that chess players could be buccaneers,” Smerdon says. “It was incredibly exciting.”

A year before, in 1988, American journalist Fred Waitzkin published a memoir about his chess prodigy son, Joshua, titled Searching for Bobby Fischer. Smerdon’s father bought the book and found plenty of parallels. When a Hollywood adaptation was released in 1993, father and son went to see the movie together.

Searching for Bobby Fischer is, in part, a father’s search for an answer to the questions: What is childhood? And how much of it should parents sacrifice unilaterally for the advancement of their child’s gift? It’s touching that Waitzkin asked these questions – there’s no ugly and domineering hand of the triumphalist parent here – but the questions are also a symptom of privilege: in countries where the prestige of chess is much greater and general job prospects much poorer, withdrawing a gifted child from school and enforcing their commitment to the game might seem easier, or even necessary. When Hungarian coach Laszlo Hazai – who had tutored the legendary Polgar sisters – came to Australia in 1999, he “found” just two young players worthy of his attention: one was David Smerdon, who was then 15. (The other was Zhao Zong-Yuan, then 13, who would also become a grandmaster.) “He suggested to my parents that I leave school immediately and head to Europe to focus full-time on chess,” Smerdon says. “We thought he was crazy.”

“For some, chess is stronger than the sense of childhood,” Garry Kasparov told Waitzkin in a subsequent book, Mortal Games. But this wasn’t true of Smerdon, who was encouraged to maintain other interests. And that it wasn’t true might be reflected in his strolling of the boulevard the night before his biggest game. Most touring chess players keep to their hotel rooms, training hermetically, the world a sequence of small rooms, computer screens and chess boards. “I was interested in other people and cultures,” Smerdon says of his travels. “I always wanted to meet locals in the cities I travelled to.”

David Smerdon took just a few weeks to beat his father, and just a few years to eclipse the abilities of his first coach. By 14, he was an international master – the rank below grandmaster. It was perhaps more impressive that Smerdon’s achievements were made in Australia, a “backwater” for chess until the internet flattened the world a little for the emerging player. But if Smerdon’s path to becoming grandmaster seemed smooth or fated, it wasn’t. And there was a long period when Smerdon didn’t think it would happen at all. 

This is the first in a two-part series on chess player David Smerdon. Part two covers David Smerdon’s rise to grandmaster.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 11, 2021 as "All the right moves".

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Martin McKenzie-Murray is The Saturday Paper’s sports editor.