This is part two of a two-part series.
To qualify for the Grandmaster – the highest title awarded by the International Chess Federation (known by the French acronym FIDE) and bestowed for life unless a player is cheated – a player must first successfully meet three “norms”. That means three exceptional performances in FIDE-accredited tournaments with at least three grandmasters. A player must also exceed a numerical threshold: 2500 points on FIDE’s global player rating system.
The problem for David Smerdon was that few such tournaments were played in Australia, which forced him to look for them in Europe. In his early twenties, Smerdon financed his own chess odyssey across the continent between university studies, stayed in backpackers, practiced in cafes and ate poorly. He paid his own contributions to competitions.
And he got it. He reached the three norms in 2007. Normally, surpassing the 2500 threshold would of course result from this feat, but unusually Smerdon just remained shy. “I was about 2,495 years old,” he says. “I could have done it in one game. But then I just had this massive collapse in shape. After reaching the norm, I was mentally and physically exhausted, lost a number of rating points and moved further and further away from 2500. “
Smerdons form was such that playing more Chess became counterproductive. He had also used up his time, energy, and money. A career was tempting at home and he soon left Europe behind, as he could not realize his dream.
In February 2008, David Smerdon joined the Canberra Treasury as Low Policy Officer attached to the Market Integrity Department, a small team tasked with researching briefing papers on ultra-obscure financial instruments that were soon to become known worldwide: secured liabilities bonds, short sales, hedge funds.
As the global financial crisis unfolded, Smerdon suddenly had more responsibilities than would be usual for someone who had just entered the civil service through his graduate program. “I worked hard,” says Smerdon, “and I think I basically gave up on becoming GM.” By late 2008, it had been almost 18 months since he hit his third norm.
But in January 2009, Smerdon saw an opportunity. There was a FIDE accredited tournament in Queenstown, New Zealand, and he was on what he called a “chess vacation”. When he arrived he was “super relaxed and slept well”. He hardly prepared and played some of the best chess games of his life.
Smerdon won the tournament but was still short of 2,500. However, he was close enough – and strengthened enough – that he pulled up from the ACT to compete in Sydney later that year when an accredited weekend tournament was being held. He only needed seven points – and he got them. “In a way, it was anti-climactic,” says Smerdon.
I had long believed that when a chess player becomes a grandmaster, a ghostly choir sings Hallelujah! when the ghost of Bobby Fischer appears and plays the new master in a draw. But in Smerdon’s case, he just drove home alone in a crappy car while playing the radio loud enough not to fall asleep. He was 25 and only the fourth Australian to become grandmaster at the time – other Australians had won Oscars or were prime ministers (there are only 10 grandmasters today). But apart from exhaustion, he didn’t feel much. The summit was reached, but he couldn’t see anything but his bed. The next morning he set his alarm clock for work.
5th September 2016. Chess Olympiad in Baku. David Smerdon versus Magnus Carlsen.
Smerdon opens with pawns on e4. Carlsen replies with pawns on c5. Within an hour, Carlsen appears terrifying, imperiously at ease and has barely used his allotted exercise time. Smerdon is just trying to hold on.
Worried about losing, but even more anxious to avoid cowardice, Smerdon drops his conservatism and invokes a new strategy. The hope is to surprise your opponent, to shock him into a mistake. To this end, Smerdon’s moves are unclassical, inelegant, and unusually aggressive. “Ugly chess,” he calls it. Smerdon sacrifices pieces, marches insultingly with his pawns on Carlsen’s king. And it seems to be working. At least it takes Carlsen longer to think about his steps.
The game is drawn. After playing white, Smerdon made it clear in post-game interviews that “he shouldn’t pat himself on the back too hard”. But he was satisfied. His old coach would have been proud.
During his tenure at the Treasury Department, when classic assumptions about the rationality of markets were being eradicated, the department’s secretary, Ken Henry, gave an internal speech to staff expressing his belief in the importance of behavioral economics. The speech helped crystallize Smerdon’s interest in the field, and in 2017 he received his PhD in economics with a thesis entitled “Everybody’s Doing It: Essays on trust, social norms, and integration”. Today he is a lecturer in economics at the University of Queensland.
Smerdon still loves the game – he maintains a personal chess blog, researches tricky issues in the sport like cheating and gender inequality, and published a chess guide last year. Still, you don’t have the feeling that Smerdon would be existentially threatened if the game were ever taken away from him.
While Smerdon was passionate about his goal of becoming a grandmaster – never taking his talent lightly – he always had a social and internal life separate from chess. That seemed a bit unusual for elite players, and when I ask Smerdon if he’s extraordinary – not because he’s a grandmaster, but because he becomes one without being obsessively, completely devoted to the game – he and I pause knows he’s thinking about how to perform an affirmative answer without sounding obnoxiously cocky.
“I don’t want to sound like an asshole,” says Smerdon. And he doesn’t. David Smerdon is not Bobby Fischer. There is no greasy beard, shining eyes and dog-eared ears The art of war. There is no such thing as paranoia, intolerable self-esteem, or, I would bet, a great deal of lurid self-destructiveness. In fact, David Smerdon is shockingly balanced for the journalistic profiler. To make matters worse, he’s also lovable – patient, generous, thoughtful.
He’s also refreshing reflections on his career. He believes that everyone is born with some “skill set,” but that it usually takes disciplined effort to thrive. But Smerdon says luck also plays a big role. “I’m lucky enough to find the chessboard in the attic when I’m very young,” he says. “Most kids probably won’t study until they are 10, and by then it might be too late to develop your talent. And I’m lucky enough to get this inspiring coach at a local school, and lucky to have parents who encouraged me to come back to him after his class ran out. The element of happiness is great; It’s not just about talent and hard work. “
This is the second in a two-part series about 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 September 18, 2021 as “Beyond the norms”.
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