Sport

After failing to achieve his dream of becoming a chess grandmaster in Europe, David Smerdon returned home to Australia to pursue a career. But when the opportunity presented itself once more, he grabbed it with both hands. By Martin McKenzie-Murray.

David Smerdon’s rise to grandmaster

Chess grandmaster turned university lecturer David Smerdon.
Credit: Supplied

This is part two of a two-part series.

To qualify for grandmaster – the highest title conferred by the International Chess Federation (known by its French acronym FIDE) and bestowed for life unless a player is found cheating – a player must first successfully achieve three “norms”. That is, three exceptional performances in FIDE-accredited tournaments involving at least three grandmasters. A player must also cross a numerical threshold: 2500 points in FIDE’s global rating system for players.

The problem for David Smerdon was that few such tournaments were ever held in Australia, which compelled him to seek them out in Europe. In his early 20s, in between university study, Smerdon would fund his own chess odyssey across the continent, staying in backpackers, practising in cafes and eating poorly. He paid his own entries to competitions.

And he got them. He achieved the three norms in 2007. Typically, crossing the 2500 threshold would naturally follow from this achievement, but unusually Smerdon remained just shy. “I was about 2495,” he says. “In one game, I could have gotten there. But then I just had this massive form slump. I was exhausted mentally and physically after getting the norms and I lost a whole bunch of rating points and was getting further and further away from 2500.”

Smerdon’s form was such that playing more chess was getting counterproductive. He’d also exhausted his time, energy and money. A career beckoned back home and he soon left Europe behind, having failed to achieve his dream.

 

In February 2008, David Smerdon joined the Department of Treasury in Canberra as a lowly policy officer assigned to the market integrity unit, a small team charged with researching briefing papers on what were ultra-obscure financial instruments but would soon become globally notorious: collateralised debt obligations, short selling, hedge funds.

As the global financial crisis developed, Smerdon suddenly had more responsibility than would be usual for someone who’d just entered the public service through its graduate program. “I was working hard,” Smerdon says, “and I think I had basically given up on becoming a GM.” By the end of 2008, almost 18 months had passed since he achieved his third norm.

But in January 2009, Smerdon saw an opportunity. There was a FIDE-accredited tournament in Queenstown, New Zealand, and he took what he called a “chess holiday”. When he arrived, he was “super relaxed and sleeping well”. He did little preparation and played some of the best chess of his life.

Smerdon won the tournament but was still short of 2500. However he was close enough – and sufficiently buoyed – that, later that year in Sydney, when an accredited weekend tournament was held, he drove up from the ACT to compete. He needed just seven points – and he got them. “In a way, it seemed anticlimactic,” Smerdon says.

I had long believed that when a chess player is made grandmaster, a spectral choir sings Hallelujah! as the ghost of Bobby Fischer appears and plays the new master to a draw. But in Smerdon’s case, he just drove home alone in a shitty car while playing the radio loud enough to keep himself from falling asleep. He was 25, and at the time only the fourth Australian to become grandmaster – more Australians had won Oscars or been prime minister (today, there are just 10 grandmasters). But besides exhaustion, he didn’t feel much. The summit had been reached but he couldn’t see anything other than his bed. He set his alarm for work the next morning.

 

September 5, 2016. Baku Chess Olympiad. David Smerdon v Magnus Carlsen.

Smerdon opens with pawn to e4. Carlsen responds with pawn to c5. Within an hour, Carlsen seems alarmingly, imperiously comfortable and has barely used his allotted move time. Smerdon is just trying to hold on.

Anxious about losing, but more anxious to avoid cowardice, Smerdon drops his conservatism and conjures a new strategy. The hope is to surprise his opponent, to shock him into an error. To this end, Smerdon’s moves are unclassical, inelegant, unusually aggressive. “Ugly chess,” he calls it. Smerdon sacrifices pieces, insultingly marches his pawns upon Carlsen’s king. And it seems to work. Carlsen, at least, is taking longer to consider his moves.

The game is drawn. Having played white, Smerdon makes clear in post-game interviews that “he shouldn’t pat himself too hard on the back”. But he was pleased. His old coach would have been proud.

 

In his time at Treasury, as classical assumptions about the rationality of markets were being shredded, the department’s secretary, Ken Henry, gave an internal speech to staff in which he expressed a belief in the importance of behavioural economics. The speech helped crystallise Smerdon’s interest in the field and in 2017 he was awarded his PhD in economics for a thesis titled: “Everybody’s Doing It: Essays on trust, social norms, and integration”. Today, he’s a lecturer in economics at the University of Queensland.

Smerdon still loves the game – he maintains a personal chess blog, researches knotty problems in the sport, such as cheating and gender inequity, and last year published a chess guide. Despite this, you don’t get the feeling that Smerdon would be existentially threatened if the game were ever taken from him.

While Smerdon passionately pursued his goal of becoming a grandmaster – and was never recklessly uncaring with his talent – he always had a social and inner life separate to chess. This seemed a little unusual for elite players, and when I ask Smerdon if he’s exceptional – not for being a grandmaster but for becoming one while never being wholly, obsessively, sacrificially committed to the game – he pauses and I know he’s considering how to provide an affirmative response without sounding repellently conceited.

“I don’t want to sound like a dick,” Smerdon says. And he doesn’t. David Smerdon is not Bobby Fischer. There’s no greasy beard, glowing eyes and dog-eared copy of The Art of War. There’s no paranoia, intolerable self-regard or, I’d wager, great capacity for lurid self-destruction. In fact, for the journalistic profiler, David Smerdon is distressingly balanced. To make things worse, he’s also lovely – patient, generous, thoughtful.

He’s also refreshingly reflective about his career. He believes each person is born with some “distribution of ability” but that it usually requires disciplined commitment to flourish. But Smerdon says luck plays a large role, too. “There’s the luck of me finding the chess board in the attic when I’m really young,” he says. “Most kids probably won’t learn before they’re 10, and by then it might be too late to develop your talent. And there’s the luck of getting this inspirational coach at a local school, and the luck of me having parents that encouraged me to go back to him after running out of his class. The luck element is big; it’s not all about talent and hard work.”

This is the second in a two-part series on chess player David Smerdon. Part one covered the beginnings of David Smerdon.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 18, 2021 as "Beyond the norms".

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