What it’s like to be Australia’s best chess player

What it’s like to be Australia’s best chess player

Anton Smirnov became Australia’s youngest ever grandmaster at just 16 years of age; his story speaks to many of the difficulties faced by Australian chess players (Image source: Lennart Ootes).

By Thomas Kelsall | @Thomas_Kelsall

In 2014, five Australian chess players travelled to Tromsø, Norway, to represent Australia at the 41st Chess Olympiad. By the end of the tournament, the performance of one 13-year-old boy was on everyone’s lips.

Anton Smirnov, now Australia’s highest-rated chess player and ranked 251st in the world, had gone undefeated in nine games with six wins and three draws. In the process, he became the youngest ever Australian to earn the title of international master – the second-highest title in chess. A kid from Canberra, who looked a lot younger than his age, had matched it with some of the world’s best. Australia finished 31st in the tournament, 29 places higher than where they were originally seeded.

Held bi-annually since 1927, the Olympiad is chess’s equivalent to the Olympics. Thousands of competitors converge on one host city for two weeks of competition, complete with elaborate opening and closing ceremonies, medal presentations and large event venues. With only five players allowed to represent each country, competition for places is fierce. Anton was the last player selected on the 2014 team and was by far the youngest player to ever represent Australia at an Olympiad. One player who missed out on selection filed an appeal over the decision.

Anton, now 19 and speaking from his small student room at an ANU residential college, recalls his reaction to the shock inclusion. “I was quite surprised; I didn’t really have any thoughts about being selected, so when I was told that I was part of the team, I was quite shocked,” he said. “But that was a good decision I think the selectors made,” he added wryly.

Fellow Australian teammate and grandmaster David Smerdon was unofficially tasked with taking care of young Anton in Norway. A veteran of the chess circuit, Smerdon had represented Australia at every Olympiad since 2004 and was playing ‘top board’ in Tromsø – the position designated for the team’s strongest player. Smerdon quickly recognised Anton’s talent, proclaiming on a live Olympiad commentary that he believed the 13-year-old could be the next Magnus Carlsen: the current chess world champion and world number one.

Smerdon says Anton’s raw talent was apparent in their training games together. “I think we finished about even in the training games,” he said. “But when I would win, it would be because of something that I’ve picked up through experience … and when he would win, it was because we both reached an even position and he was just stronger – it was clear to me in terms of raw strength he was already better than me.”

Anton Smirnov and David Smerdon at the 2014 Chess Olympiad in Tromsø (Image source: PowerPlayChess).

While keeping up with Anton on the chessboard was one thing, keeping up with him off it was another. Stories from the Australian camp include an ill-fated attempt by Anton to run down a Norwegian mountain (“I was being a bit reckless,” he recalled); as well as a team movie night relegated to a screening of Puss in Boots.

“He was very shy in the early days, as you can imagine with someone so young being put on the centre stage at the Olympiad – it was a big deal,” Smerdon said. “But then when he sat down at the board, that was something that he was used to, and he just played so well.”

“As the tournament wore on, he came a bit more out of his shell, and [he had] a pretty good sense of humour. He was always competitive, always wanted to play more chess or play another game.”

While Anton may be competitive at the chessboard, he maintains a soft-spoken and circumspect approach in his public appearances. Reflecting on his time at the Olympiad, he said, “It felt nice being part of a team, it felt nice being part of something greater than yourself; I found I was quite proud representing Australia.” At a joint press conference in 2014, the famous Hungarian-American grandmaster Susan Polgar said Anton was “already a diplomat”. Raised bilingual by his Russian parents, Anton uses Russian both at home and when he connects with chess coaches in Russia. His Dad, Vladimir Smirnov, also an international master, introduced Anton to the game of chess at age four. Naturally, by age five, Anton had already won the Australian Under-8 Championships and was the world’s number one player for his age.

After the 2014 Olympiad, Anton’s stock continued to rise. In 2016, he headed into his second Olympiad in Baku, Azerbaijan, as a marked man with the chess world now well-aware of his talents. Against stronger opposition, Anton again went undefeated with an impressive eight wins and three draws. A year later, he would become the youngest grandmaster in Australian history at 16-years-old, earning chess’s highest possible title five years quicker than any other Australian.

Anton’s signature performance came at the 2017 Chess World Cup when he drew twice with Russian grandmaster and former world championship contender Sergey Karjakin. At the time, Karjakin was ranked 11th in the world and rated nearly 280 points higher than his Australian opponent.

“I was trying to just hold as long as possible against Sergey,” Anton said. “He’s obviously a much stronger chess player than me so I kind of was hoping that he would underestimate me, which kind of happened in our game. To be honest, I wasn’t really expecting much against him; I was just hoping that I’d play well, and it turned out that I was able to draw the first two games.”

Anton now sits comfortably atop Australia’s chess rankings: 58 rating points clear of second place. Considering his accomplishments, it may come as a surprise that he is indifferent to pursuing a chess career long-term.

“I’d say for me personally, it’s better to pursue an academic job than becoming a chess professional,” he said. “If you just study chess, you can only become a chess professional, whereas I’ve still got my options open.” He is currently studying statistics, economics and finance at ANU.

Weighing up a career in chess with other professional pursuits can be a difficult decision. While the world’s top 20 players can typically earn more than $250,000 a year, the spoils of the chess industry are mostly concentrated at the top. For the lower tier of grandmasters outside the top 100, pursuing chess full-time can be a gamble.

It is a dilemma that Anton’s former teammate David Smerdon—now an Economics lecturer and doctor at the University of Queensland—is very familiar with. “I thought about becoming professional and I weighed up my options, and it was sort of clear that it didn’t make much sense to take that risk,” he said.

“You look at all the guys who are in the top ten, they all went full time at Anton’s age, and that means studying chess every day, that means playing a dozen big tournaments a year which will be in different countries. Chess really becomes your world when you’re trying to crack the elite, so it doesn’t leave much time to focus on other things.”

A difficult balancing act between school and chess has underpinned all of Anton’s achievements. In year 9, he took a term off school to play a series of tournaments overseas; but in year 12, he put his chess commitments on hold because his school required him to be present for his final year. This is a significant difference between Anton and his chess peers overseas, many of whom are home-schooled or have minimal school requirements, allowing them to focus entirely on chess. When asked whether this difference was a disadvantage to his chess progression, Anton said, “You could interpret it that way, but I think that it’s good to be well-rounded.”

Anton Smirnov playing against 14-year-old Indian grandmaster Rameshbabu Praggnanandhaa at the London Chess Classic in 2019 (Image source: Lennart Ootes).

Different schooling experiences aside, being based in Australia poses its own challenges. The fact Anton’s breakout performance occurred in Tromsø—one of the world’s northernmost cities more than 15,000 kilometres away from Sydney—is indicative of a problem that has bedevilled Australian chess players for decades. Ian Rogers, who became Australia’s first-ever grandmaster in 1985, spent much of his chess career hopping around Europe on a low budget playing between 150 and 250 tournament games a year.

“You simply have to travel,” Rogers said. “Unless you play overseas, you don’t even have a chance; you don’t have enough opportunities.”

In the prime of his career, Rogers was ranked 50th in the world. His peak FIDE rating of 2618 is still an Australian record. Anton, who is currently rated 2597, says one of his next goals is to reach a rating of 2650. FIDE ratings are calculated through a series of complex mathematical equations that add or subtract to a player’s rating based on results and strength of opponent. The top ten players in the world have FIDE ratings in the 2750 – 2850 range.

“Anton has gone very, very close to breaking my published rating record, but let’s see what happens at the end of this year,” Rogers said. “To be a really strong player, you do need to spend a lot of time studying, and I don’t know whether he’s going to get the time if he’s at university at the moment. He might make the time, but it’s going to be tough.”

The other challenge of pursuing a career in chess is the immense physical and mental demands of the game. Playing in a major tournament can be equivalent to taking an eight-hour exam every day. Each game requires players to calculate several moves ahead in an infinite array of complicated positions with the knowledge that their every move could be the blunder that costs them the game. “I remember throwing away basically $5000, half a year’s income, on one move in a tournament in Italy,” Rogers said. “That really gets you.”

Rogers was forced to make a shock retirement from chess in 2007 after receiving medical advice that the stresses of top-level competition were potentially life-threatening.

While Rogers does not expect Anton to face the same “play to eat” pressures he did, the 19-year-old grandmaster is not immune to the intense rigours of chess. Anton recalls a gruelling seven-hour tournament game he played earlier this year against Uzbekistani grandmaster Nodirbek Abdusattorov. “I was completely dead; I kind of collapsed and then I just blundered really badly,” Anton said. “I had a better position, and then I just couldn’t think properly, so I made a very big blunder and lost the game.”

“I exercise regularly to relieve the stress, but sometimes it’s quite difficult if you’ve played a long game and you don’t have enough time to recover for the subsequent games; so I try to sleep as much as possible and just try to relax if I’ve had a bad game.”

With the current global pandemic bringing the chess world to a near-total stand-still, Anton’s opportunities to play competitive chess this year have dwindled. His outlook remains typically considerate and well-measured. “When I went to school or when I’m in university, you kind of only think about the thing that’s right in front of you,” he said. “So even though chess is maybe in the back of my mind, I’m just focused only on the stuff that I need to do in the short term.”

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