The tyranny of distance: the life of a young Australian chess player

by Cathy Chua

Earlier this year one of the encounters technology has made available for mind games took place – the 2019 Junior Speed Chess Championship. The technology is impressive, with the board, and video commentary by two masters, along with video of the players.

Smirnov, the Australian number one player was outranked by his US counterpart and lost, despite picking up a handy win in the first game. I wondered if it was the usual story of Australia suffering from its location in the world. For Smirnov it was an early morning start, something which chess players normally do anything to avoid. The timing was definitely against him.

If you are Australian, then the expression ‘the tyranny of distance’ has a meaning that has never gone away. The Internet and other technological advances have made the world smaller, but the gains for Australia have always been offset by the fixed disadvantages, which for the foreseeable future will not change.

Perhaps there is a future in which mind sports like chess are strictly fought over virtual boards. But for now the ones that count involve travelling to a point where competitors congregate and push wood, as the expression has it. Casting my memory back to days when I made these trips in the 1970s and 1980s, improvements are apparent for Australians.

The trips are shorter and cheaper. I pay about the same dollar face price for a ticket to Europe now as I did in 1985. Both my chess Olympiads of ’76 and ’78 involved tortured routes over many hours. Now one can get ‘good’ prices on trips that are ‘only’ 24-30 hours.

But there is that ‘good’ and there is that ‘only’. If we make Magnus Carlsen, current world champion and world number one, the benchmark for prodigies, then the point is clearer. Carlsen lives in Norway. That means he has had a wealth of strong tournaments available to him in Europe at budget airline prices and only a short trip away. That means not only is he paying a fraction of the price Australians do for tickets, but he has far less recovery time for the travel aspect.

Compare Australia’s number one player Anton Smirnov, who was the highest ranked in the world in his very young age group early in his career. Whereas Magnus, has been playing players rated over 2600 since 2003 when he was thirteen, and had by then already taken a year off just to play chess, Smirnov’s chances have been few. Luckily in 2014 he was speculatively picked for the Oympiad team. The shot here is of him describing his almost 100% score. The selectors were vindicated.

chess Smirnov and Smerdon 2.png

At random, I have just checked a trip to Paris March 11-19, 2020. With Norwegian Airlines, the total return price is USD 164, the flight is direct and takes 2 hours 20 minutes. One could reasonably arrive the day before the tournament. The same trip from Australia takes at best around 25 hours. Singapore Airlines, for example, shows 5 March to 19 March at USD 1057.  To this we add the extra nights accommodation needed to recover from the long haul voyage. In other words, it’s incredibly expensive both financially and timewise to do this from Australia compared with from Norway.

Not all the top tournaments are in Europe. Occasionally one is held in the US and that is equal flight distance from Oslo and Sydney. But most of them are European, and even when, for example, the Olympiad was held in Istanbul, the flight time from Oslo is a fifth of that from Sydney.

And despite these almost crippling disadvantages for Australian players, the organisation of the 2014 Olympiad, which provided financial assistance to many teams from around the world, including New Zealand, gave nothing to Australia. Two years later, in 2016, Smirnov was again undefeated at the Olympiad.

chess Smirnov 2016 won't be a good player.jpg

This shot shows him explaining to Susan Polgar:

‘I don’t plan to become a professional chess player, because I think I do not have the potential to become a really strong one. So, I would like to have a regular professional career outside of chess.’

I suspect Polgar thought he was comically modest, and indeed, he performed so well that he gained a rare double Grand Master norm. One cannot say he hasn’t made the most of his chances. Another norm at a minor GM tournament in Europe and he had made the GM title his. In 2017 in the first round of the World Cup, he met ex-World Championship challenger and super Grand Master Karjakin. It was the first time he had encountered a player of that strength and although he lost, he began with two draws.

At the London Classic Open held recently, two prodigies were seeded 3rd and 4th. In fact, since Smirnov is now 18, let’s call  him an ex-prodigy. India’s GM Praggnanandhaa is 14 years old and in chess as in all sports, four years is a long time. The world watched  a tense and uncomfortable time for Pragg a couple of years ago when he was racing to become the youngest GM ever, an honour held by Karjakin, mentioned above. The pressure mounted as the deadline loomed. Later, after he had missed the deadline and could relax, he became the fourth youngest GM ever.

chess Smirnov and Pragg in London 2019
Smirnov talking to Pragg and his trainer in London 2019.

Smirnov was seeded immediately below him and, with all due respect to the brilliant young Indian, one would have to say that Smirnov had the harder path to the GM title.  From an early age, in chess-crazy India, Pragg was able to secure some corporate sponsorship and also freedom from having to attend school except for examinations.

Smirnov, in contrast, has gone to school in relatively normal fashion and his opportunities for strong tournaments have therefore been extremely limited. Chess is a hugely popular sport at junior level in Australia, but it has no funding, and with Australia being anti-culture in general, chess simply doesn’t have the high profile it has in India and, of course, Europe.

Anton’s father explained that ‘One of the reasons why Anton ended up going to a public school was relatively flexible attendance. For example, in year 9 he missed a whole term because we together went to Europe. The result was he scored 2 GM norms in his second Olympiad in 2016. But in the last two years of school, he pretty much attended every single day.’

He went on to tell the story of what happened after his son played as part of the World team in the Match of the Millenials in the US in 2016…..

‘In July 2017, Anton (and many other top juniors including Pragg) played in the match of the Millennials where the world team dominated the American team. After the match when he was sitting in the airport in Chicago, he was chatting to me by skype (and complaining). Hi dad, why is that so unfair? I have to go home and prepare for an extension math exam that is in a couple of days, while everybody else has another tournament starting literally tomorrow.:)’

This, then, is why Smirnov and Pragg are now on equal footing. Anton, the very moment school has finished for ever for him, has rushed to Europe to play and play and play. The hope for those in his camp and his fans at home is that he isn’t overdoing it before his first big serious tournament ever, the Tata. Meanwhile, Pragg is spending time at European tournaments too. When they played in the London Classic, they had a respectful draw and went on to share first place. The aim for both was to break the 2600 rating point barrier. In fact, Pragg succeeded by winning his last round in London. That gave him a performance rating of 2699 for the tournament and a rating increase of 15, taking him from 2586 to 2601. It must have been a great relief to him:

“I was stuck in 2586 [Elo rating] for two years. I am happy I did it here. I didn’t think too much about it,”  Sportstar 

Smirnov also gained points – 14.5 of them – with a performance rating just below Pragg’s. But he was slightly lower rated to begin with, leaving his rating at the start of Rome 2585.

Smirnov has set himself an intense and ambitious schedule. He went straight from London to Rome to play an Open where he was also one of the top seeds. He finished second on countback and added a few more points to his rating. After the Christmas break he plays one more warm up for the main event – he has been invited to the prestigious Challengers section of the Tata Steel 2020. With nine players ranked above him and only four below, it’s the first time he’s played in a field of this quality.

At the beginning of this year, Pragg played the same event and it was not easy going for him. Like Smirnov he was seeded towards the bottom of the field – with eight above him and five below, so almost identical to Smirnov’s situation – but he struggled, in the end finishing 11th and losing a few rating points. It will be interesting to see if Smirnov is able to manage a more auspicious performance.

In an interview at age 13, Anton said  ‘It’s not that impressive winning a tournament where everyone else is below you…If you win a tournament, probably it’s not such a good tournament for you to play in.’ The Tata Steel next month will be his first chance as a mature player to put those words to the test.

Acknowledgements: thanks to Vladimir Smirnov for answering questions about his son Anton.